A painting of Joko Widodo by Myuran Sukumaran
It was a surprising response that would turn out to be quite instructive.
It was October 2014, and I’d arrived in Jakarta to work as an English teacher just as Indonesia’s new President, Joko Widodo was about to take office.
Jokowi was the first person from outside Indonesia’s ruling elite to be elected president, and his inauguration coincided with my first day in the job. Sensing the history of the moment, I asked some of my Indonesian colleagues what they thought of their new leader: not much, was their somewhat deflating response.
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They all preferred Jokowi’s vanquished opponent, ex-general and and son-in-law of the late president Suharto, Prabowo Subianto. When I asked why they preferred a man suspected of war crimes in East Timor over the charismatic Jokowi, the reply was unanimous: Prabowo was strong; Jokowi was weak.
The new President was clearly sensitive to such attacks on his machismo and went go to great lengths to prove them wrong. He started killing people.
Jokowi shocked many observers when, barely weeks into his term, he lifted the moratorium on capital punishment that existed under his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and approved the executions of a group of mostly foreign drug traffickers.
Jokowi’s sudden enthusiasm for capital punishment set Indonesia on course for yet another diplomatic stoush with Australia, as Bali Nine drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were among the next group of prisoners due to face the firing squad. Languishing on death row since their convictions nearly a decade earlier, Chan and Sukumaran had been protected by SBY’s moratorium and numerous appeals, but with all legal avenues exhausted, their time appeared to have come.
As with the first group, nearly all those set to face the firing squad were drug traffickers and nearly all of them foreign, yet is was the Australians who garnered most of the headlines. The robust response of the then-Abbott government, coupled with the lingering animus of the asylum seeker issue and a general air of suspicion, meant Chan and Sukumaran’s final days played out against a soundtrack of megaphone diplomacy.
This tension even reached our language centre, where the official opening in late March attracted a suspiciously large contingent of local media. As it turned out, they weren’t much interested in the English school, which was an Australian and Indonesia joint venture. Instead they peppered the poor Austrade official representing the Australian government with questions about Tony Abbott’s suggestion that Indonesia pay back foreign aid should the executions go ahead.
To me this was bewildering. Surely the controversy was the complete ineffectiveness of the war on drugs and capital punishment as a deterrent, not Tony Abbott’s latest bout of foot in mouth.
Seeking to understand why, I spoke to my colleague Arosyid, an English lecturer who studied in Australia. As I reeled off the list of concerns I had about the case, he nodded patiently and seemed on the verge of agreeing with me, before trotting out the standard Indonesian defence for executing drug traffickers: they supply drugs and drugs kill many people, therefore drug traffickers are mass murderers who deserve to die. End of story.
The same line was repeated by my next door neighbour as we watched the TV coverage on the night of the executions. I was tempted to point out that the cigarettes he was smoking indoors, which are ubiquitous in Indonesia, kill vastly more people than all illicit drugs combined, but I didn’t want to start an argument. I needed him to translate the TV coverage into English for me so I could report on it for Crikey.
It was about 9pm local time when Indonesian Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo announced there would be no last-minute reprieves and no going back. It was on.
From that point on, channels like Metro, TV One and Kompass went to rolling coverage that, at first, resembled a major sporting event, but then reminded me of the recent leadership spills in Australia. The main difference being that words like “killing” and “death” were not being used as metaphors.
While most tried to keep an air of respectability around what amounted to live coverage of people being shot, some of the more tabloid channels couldn’t help themselves. Returning from an ad break, one channel played a montage of Chan and Sukumaran with a giant crosshairs trained upon them before ending with the word “DOR!” splashed across the screen. Turning to my neighbour for a translation, he simply pointed his fingers like a gun and said “bang”.
The executions were due at midnight, Jakartan time, and though I don’t remember any official announcement, the extended footage of family members crying and embracing outside the prison suggested the deed had been done. Amid this depressing atmosphere, good news suddenly filtered through. Jakarta is often referred to as the Twitter capital of the world, with more users than any other city. It seemed those huge numbers had helped save one of the prisoners, Phillipine maid Mary Jane Veloso, from the firing squad. New evidence had recently cast doubt on her conviction and a huge online campaign featuring heart-rending images of her two young sons had forced a dramatic reprieve.
A year on, and there have been no more executions in Indonesia, though recent reports suggest that a resumption is imminent and that Mary Jane Veloso will be among the first to go. One can only hope that once again she will get a reprieve and this time it will be permanent.