Indonesia executed eight people accused of drug trafficking, including two Australians, as part of President Joko Widodo’s “war on drugs”. Australian officials had made personal appeals for clemency from Indonesia’s government, but it all came to naught yesterday, when a firing squad carried out the state’s sentence and shot the convicts dead.
The official response from Australia was carefully measured outrage. The Financial Times has more:
“We respect Indonesia’s sovereignty but we do deplore what’s been done and this cannot be simply business as usual,” said Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, on Wednesday. “These executions are both cruel and unnecessary.”
Australia has deep commercial and political ties with Indonesia, and Mr Abbott had pledged upon taking office to deepen ties with the country. Brazil has a $5bn trade surplus with Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and is also at risk of losing a major military export deal to Indonesia over the executions dispute.
Mr Abbott said all ministerial contacts with Indonesia would cease and the country’s ambassador recalled. But he cautioned against imposing a trade or tourism boycott on Jakarta, despite calls by campaigners on social media for an economic as well as diplomatic response.
The saga illustrates some of the problems in Australia’s relationship with its giant and increasingly powerful neighbor.
In Indonesia, colonialism remains a very live issue, and Australia’s support for East Timor’s independence has been a sore spot. Some also fear that the restive, mineral-rich Indonesian half of New Guinea might also some day come into play, and that Australia might find it convenient to meddle. And Indonesia, a mostly Muslim country with increasingly conservative social mores, shares the abhorrence of many of its neighbors for drug trafficking, and is deeply committed to tough drug laws.
Australia knows that it needs good relations with its neighbor—for one thing, to help control what could otherwise be a tsunami of illegal immigration by desperate boat people—and Australian politicians of both of the major parties work hard to keep the relationship strong. But Australian public opinion sometimes chafes at what this means.
Far from fading away, these problems are likely in some ways to grow more serious. Indonesian Islam has traditionally taken a relaxed view on many social issues; that is beginning to change as more conservative strains of Islam gain ground. And the Indonesians, with the world’s fourth largest population and a rapidly growing economy, aren’t always averse to throwing their weight around on the diplomatic scene.
This isn’t a crisis now, but the underlying tension between these two neighbors and important U.S. allies is one of the factors that one needs to keep in mind to make sense of the political landscape of 21st-century Asia.