Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in pre-trial detention

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran now seem near-certain to die before an Indonesian firing squad sometime this year. Both have had their last appeals for clemency rejected by a new president, Jokowi, who may well be more hardline than his predecessor, precisely because he isn’t corrupt and wants to see the law applied consistently. It is going to be a shocking event if it happens, but whether Australia will much care remains to be seen.

From the start, their case was a hard one to garner public sympathy. They weren’t small-time drug traffickers caught in Indonesia’s harsh and hypocritical rules. They weren’t even junkies taking in a small amount for on-sale. They were attempting to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin, and their product would almost certainly have caused deaths among those who fall into addiction — a group that disproportionately numbers the beaten-down, abused, and exploited.

So one suspects that many people took one glance at the story a decade ago — yes, it’s been a decade — saw the amount of smack they’d been trying to bring in, and with relief, steered their compassion elsewhere. One fewer hapless group of people to have to feel sorry for. And just in case there was going to be any lingering attachment, Indonesia has ensured that Australia will switch off by executing two Asians (Sukumaran is of Tamil origin). You wouldn’t want to say anything that would damage the cause of the remaining seven, but the question of who got defined as ringleaders and who as patsies in the Bali Nine case seems to have to do with a lot more than the operation of the crime itself.

The killing of Chan and Sukumaran achieves two things. It taps into a residual Australian belief — Anglo in origin, but now held, I would suspect, by a lot of Mediterranean-heritage Australians — that Asians aren’t really Australians. Yeah, they’re here in student apartments, or this or that burb, and there’s all the new, funny foods in the convenience stores and bubble tea, but not really, not really. There’s still an idea lurking of Asians as a faceless mass, and if one lot is killed by another lot, what’s the harm? And it blunts any accusations that the laws are aimed solely at gormless whites. Look at how even-handed we are in dealing out death.

These executions have nothing to do with genuine propriety or beating back a scourge of trafficking. The Indonesian government has clearly traded such people back to other countries that have been willing to pay ransoms. They’ve also made payments to other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to retrieve Indonesian citizens sentenced to death there. These transactions occur within the domain, or pretext, of sharia law, which recognises restorative justice, i.e. money. But Indonesia is not a sharia law system. And Indonesia’s law is capricious. Heroin traffickers have been traded back, but this month Indonesia executed a Brazilian smuggling cocaine. You’re unlikely to die from that, unless you fall off your yacht while taking it.

This raises two very difficult questions. Should some form of payment be considered to save the lives of the Chan and Sukumaran, even supposing that were possible? Disguised as some form of procedural payment involved in transferring them back to Australia for long prison sentences? It’s a disgusting thing to contemplate, but if it were possible, then there is a very strong argument in favour of it.

The second question is whether Australia should be more vocal about Indonesian hypocrisy in this matter and its willingness to take blood money for crimes that it claims are so abhorrent as to deserve the ultimate penalty. Perhaps that is impossible when the future lives and sentences of the other seven hang in the balance, though it’s never really knowable how much the government is doing behind the scenes on behalf of its most wretched citizens. This government has made clear the provisional nature of its loyalty to citizens in trouble abroad — the ultimate victory of its empty free-market liberalism over its residual conservatism.

The desperate situation of these people, which we are now only focusing on, shows that it’s not enough to start a campaign when the blindfolds are being prepared. Someone, a major party MP for example, needs to take on such causes almost exclusively and bang the drum for years. More could have been done for these people, appalling as some have been revealed to be, both before and after their arrest.

And less could have been done by the AFP, which tipped off the Indonesian police, even though it would have been a matter of great simplicity to pick up all the smugglers at Australian airports on their return. What sort of police force trades away a good get, a newsworthy arrest on home territory? One that wants to bank a few favours, most particularly in the matter of terror organisations.

Did the AFP trade away the lives of the Bali Nine, on the basis of a series of hypothetical other threats? Were they persuaded to, by authority above them? And was it found easy to trade them away, because they were a gang of Asians and bogans, where an operation of slick elite whites would have received different treatment?

Such people are easy to cut loose. But if nationalism has any value, it is this: that for those abandoned by everyone, we will make some sort of stand for them, by virtue of nothing other than that we share a land, a set of habits, a few collective memories. That needn’t be a prerequisite for solidarity, but it sure as hell should be an occasion for it.

Peter Fray

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