The Corby Case and Australia-Indonesia relations

The Schapelle Corby case continues to dominate headlines. Once again, the obsessive focus on this one case appears to be excessive and completely disproportionate. Scott Burchill, lecturer in international relations at Deakin University, has a few words to add:

“Jolted by public outrage at Indonesian state terrorism in East Timor following the September 1999 independence ballot, the Howard Government reluctantly intervened to liberate the territory, aware of the consequent damage to the bilateral relationship but unwilling to defy community sentiment ventilated in response to shocking TV images.

For a while relations deteriorated. The exploitation of events for domestic electoral advantage (Tampa and the ‘boat people’), bravado (failing to correct a journalist’s “deputy sheriff” phrase) and clumsy diplomacy (the policy of pre-emption), coupled with an incompetent and disinterested Indonesian president ensured that suspicion and paranoia would prevent a normalisation of government to government links.

In Australia this state of affairs was deeply troubling to those in and outside government who place a premium on stability and good relations with Jakarta at all costs. The Indonesian military (TNI) has always been seen by the Jakarta Lobby as the best guarantor of social and political control of the Indonesian population. The Lobby has therefore sought to present the best possible image of the Indonesian military to the Australian public, playing down both its domestic repression and regular massacres during its brutal 24 year occupation of neighbouring East Timor. Australia’s de jure recognition of Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor in 1985, the Timor Gap Treaty in 1989, and the 1995 agreement on security signed by the Keating Government and the Suharto regime, were the high watermarks of the Lobby’s influence.

The challenge of rehabilitating the reputation of a military force guilty of crimes against humanity – particularly during a so called ‘war against terror’ – has not been easy for those who want to restore formal ties between TNI (including the notoriously brutal Kopassus) and the ADF. The gap between popular perceptions of the Indonesian Government and its military, and the view of the policy elite, has long been a yawning chasm. Until recently the Lobby has been furious with the Howard Government for its neglect of the bilateral relationship with Jakarta.

However, in the last three years the tide has turned again. Opportunity (co-operation between the AFP and Indonesian police investigating the Bali bombings), happenstance (replacement of Megawati with the more technocratic SBY), expressions of goodwill (Tsunami aid) and sacrifice (deaths of ADF humanitarian personnel on Nias) have repaired much of the damage caused in 1999 and following months.

The Indonesian President has visited Australia and agreed to sponsor Australia’s participation at a regional summit to be held in Malaysia later in the year. And in regular ritualised pledges, the Howard Government has expressed greater support for Indonesia’s territorial integrity than is evident amongst those who actually live in the Republic’s Western (Aceh) and Eastern (West Papua) provinces.

Like its reluctant intervention in East Timor six years ago, the Howard Government’s response to the Corby case is driven by popular pressure. On the one hand the Government instructs the population that intervention in the judicial affairs of another country is inappropriate while on the other it goes to extraordinary lengths to do precisely that.

A letter to the court about an investigation into QANTAS baggage handlers, the facilitation of a remand prisoner as a witness for the defence, suggestions of a one-off prisoner exchange agreement with Jakarta, the visit of the Australian Justice Minister to lobby against the death penalty, and the offer of QCs for the appeal process are extraordinary interventions by themselves. In contrast to the Government’s responses to more than 40 similar drugs trials across Southeast Asia involving Australians, they are even more remarkable.

The Government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono must be as bemused by Canberra’s attention to this case as many Australians are. Contrasting attitudes to sentences for the Bali bombers Amrozi, Muhklas and Imam Samudra, as well as the case of radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, must look hypocritical at best and at worst – racist.

And how must the people of East Timor feel? An Australian gets 20 years for importing marijuana while those who orchestrated and committed mass murder in East Timor – including Wiranto, Zacky Anwar, Hendropriyono, Sjafrie Sjamsuddin and Mahidin Simbolon – are either not even prosecuted or receive no punishment for their crimes because as defence minister Juwono Sudarsono conceded, “we can’t go up into the high ranks as they were just carrying out state policy.”

Foreign Minister Downer promised that these “rogue elements,” as he described them in 1999, would be prosecuted by an independent UN tribunal if they didn’t receive justice from the Indonesian legal system we are now told to respect for its independence. Judgement about the Corby case and the state of the Indonesian judicial system should therefore be reserved until those who have been waiting many years for justice see that the leopard has changed its spots.”

All I would add to Burchill’s incisive commentary is this: believing in Corby’s innocence is one thing (though the evidence presented in the Indonesian court by the defense was far from conclusive) but what is this kind of behaviour really going to achieve? Are people seriously suggesting that Corby should simply be released because we “think” she’s innocent? That they’re shouldn’t be an appeal? That she should be treated differently to every other drug case in Indonesia, or Asia or even the world? Dangerous precedents are on the cards. Let calmer heads prevail.