Australia incited the ire of the Indonesian people this week after Prime Minister Tony Abbott referenced Australia’s aid for the 2004 tsunami, in an attempt to influence Jakarta’s decision to execute two Australian drug smugglers. Indonesia is an important market for Australia, and deteriorating relations are fueling fears of economic uncertainty.
One of the top trending stories in Indonesia is combining international relations, social protest and viral memes in order to lambast the Australian government. #coinforAbbott has taken Indonesia by storm after Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s latest plea to Jakarta to commute the executions of two Australians convicted of drug trafficking.
During his speech Abbott ham-fistedly sought to remind Indonesians of the A$1 billion ($780 million) donated by Canberra to the 2004 tsunami relief effort, sparking outrage in the country with many condemning the Prime Minister for seeking to leverage previous charitable acts to pressure Jakarta to change its policies. The #coinforAbbott campaign seeks to engage Indonesia’s 250 million people to donate pocket change to “pay back” the A$1 billion given in 2004. Australia’s public image has suffered badly, with protesters exclaiming that “Australians needs a Prime Minister, not a Shylock (a reference to the heartless moneylender in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) and drug dealer’s cousin.”
Indonesia has some of the harshest drug penalties in the world, and the new President – Joko Widodo – has taken a hard-line stance on corruption and organized crime. Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chen were convicted in 2005 as part of the so called Bali Nine, a group found guilty of attempting to smuggle $3 million worth of heroin. Sukumaran and Chen were identified as the ring leaders and sentenced to death in 2006. Since then they have been in legal limbo as Australia and Indonesia have engaged in talks.
Prior to the election of Widodo, Indonesia had abstained from executions for five years, raising Canberra’s hopes for leniency towards Sukumaran and Chen.
In 2014 the Widodo regime chose to resume already slated executions, severely worrying Australia, given that Jakarta has already (via firing squad) executed other foreigners convicted of drug trafficking. France has voiced concern over its citizens held in Indonesia, and both the Netherlands and Brazil have recalled their ambassadors following the execution of fellow countrymen. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently refused to accept the credentials of the Indonesian ambassador. Deteriorating relations have also led Indonesia to re-evaluate plans to purchase fighter aircraft and rocket launchers from Brazil.
The plight of Sukumaran and Chen has galvanized large sections of the Australian populace. While Australians recognize the need for the two men to be punished, the country’s opposition is due to its strong anti-death penalty views, evidenced in a petition orchestrated by Mercy Campaign gaining over 150,000 signatures. Moreover, alongside the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and all Australian governor-generals have also publicly called for Indonesia to commute the sentences to life in prison.
In response the Indonesian courts have rejected calls from the prisoners themselves and from overseas, stating that “clemency is the prerogative of the President […] the state administrative court has no right to rule on the challenge.”
The Bali Nine have become a poster child for Indonesian efforts to rid itself of (foreign) drug traffickers. The firm ruling by Jakarta is a signal of its seriousness, as well as an opportunity to exert its sovereignty. Anti-colonial rhetoric has played a part in opposition to Australia in recent days, with Abbott’s comments seen as portraying Indonesia as beholden to Canberra’s largesse. President Widodo is popular at home and Abbott’s comments provide a perfect opportunity to tie anti-drug efforts to buoyed nationalist sentiment. Consequently clemency from President Widodo appears even more unlikely in the wake of Abbott’s reference to the 2004 tsunami.
Indeed the #coinforAbbott campaign originated in Aceh, the very region at the epicenter of the tsunami which killed over 100,000 people in the area alone. One of the founders of #coinforabbott, a Mr. Rianm criticized Abbott’s statement as being highly unproductive and counter to Australian interests in the region. (Rian considers Abbott statements in bad taste given the benefits Australia enjoys.) There are “many areas of co-operation between the Australian government and the Indonesian government. It is the Australian government who benefits from the co-operation […] so, don’t you ever mention something as tiny as $1 billion in relief for us.”
Australia cooperates with Indonesia on counter-terrorism, defense, and border security issues as well as legal framework development. Indonesia is also a major economic partner for Australia.
The Australian government has warned of political fallout if the executions are carried out, with Foreign Minister Bishop mentioning that such an eventuality could lead to Australian tourists boycotting Indonesia. Bali is a popular holiday destination for Australians and would suffer greatly, since it has had to contend with the 2002 Bali bombings as well as another attack in 2005 coupled with rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami. Alongside tourism, bilateral trade stood at $10.64 billion in 2014, with Indonesia a major export market for Australian cattle and beef, as well as grains, crude petroleum, aluminum and cotton.
Deteriorating relations are beginning to generate uncertainty, especially in the beef industry and live cattle trade. The Australian live cattle export industry was shut down in 2011 following animal cruelty charges against Indonesian abattoirs processing Australian cattle. The Australian cattle industry is slowly recovering with producers still relying on the large Indonesian market, yet for Q12015 Jakarta has only issued 100,000 import permits, a third less than the same time last year.
This reduction has coincided with Indonesia restricting imports of boxed beef to primary cuts and manufacturing beef. At the end of January the Indonesian trade minister instructed Indonesian beef producers to lower their prices. These measures are part of President Widodo’s ongoing efforts to increase Indonesian self-sufficiency; yet it is clear that restricting Australian beef imports also works as punishment for Canberra’s interference in the Bali Nine trials.
Australia’s insistence in pressuring Indonesia on the Bali Nine issue has resulted in strong push-back from Jakarta. Tony Abbott came to power with a pro-business mandate promising pragmatic solutions to boost the economy. Abbott also holds strong personal convictions on moral issues such as the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. He must now walk a fine line if he wishes to retain the moral high ground and not simultaneously alienate a major trading partner.
As of this week that line became a lot thinner.