Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Inside Indonesia’s death penalty debate

Published: Nov 09, 2015

Leading Indonesian commentators explain why the death penalty issue continues to have public and political support

Zacharias Szumer

During the media storm surrounding the executions of two members of the ‘Bali Nine’ group of Australian convicted drug traffickers in April 2015, the focus of most reporting in the western media was on international relations, human rights and the to-and-froing at the top levels of political leadership. In contrast, there has been little investigation of or reflection on this issue from the perspective of how it is understood and debated within Indonesian society itself. In order to get a deeper understanding of how the death penalty is viewed inside Indonesia, Zacharias Szumer interviewed four Indonesian commentators who have each previously spoken publicly about this issue.  The interviews were conducted by email.

Zacharias Szumer: There is yet to be any systematic and independent survey that could objectively show the percentage of Indonesians who support the death penalty, but President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi’s) political decisions seem to suggest it enjoys wide support amongst the Indonesian public.  Why does the death penalty for drug dealers enjoy such wide support in Indonesia? What is the history and basis of this support?

Andina Dwifatma: Indeed there is yet to be such survey, but some major media have conducted opinion polls about the Bali Nine case. [One] conducted by Kompas, the newspaper with the largest circulation, [found] that 86 per cent of the people surveyed agreed that Sukumaran and Chan deserved the death penalty. Further, 57.8 per cent did not mind cutting the bilateral relationship with Australia to do so. So it is safe to say that the death penalty does enjoy wide support in Indonesia. I would argue that there are two major causative factors: firstly, Indonesia's law enforcement is weak. Before Jokowi, SBY freed many convicted drug dealers like Schapelle Leigh Corby, Michael Loic Blanc, and Meirika Franola, and it created a kind of public distrust of the government;  because the government seemed not take the drug issue seriously. Chan and Sukumaran received death penalty sentences long before Jokowi, so when the executions finally happened, they were appreciated. Secondly, Chan and Sukumaran were foreigners. The fact that they were strangers and were trafficking something destructive, caused a relatively stronger resistance.

Tobias Basuki: If I am not mistaken, Tempo, and one other survey agency had this question posed (Tempo readers, and one national survey). Possibly between 60 to 70 something per cent supported the death penalty, probably even higher. Which I think makes sense. I would say, without any caveat added, over 70 per cent of Indonesians support the death penalty for drug dealers ([with] no discrimination between small-time peddlers etc). It is hard to say why there is this widespread support. But for one, the canvas of Indonesian society in general is not abolitionist. Thus, the death penalty is still within the legal system and also within society’s accepted norm for extraordinary crimes. Here is where it gets tricky. Drug offences and their associated problems, are considered as some of the most heinous crimes with undesirable consequences for Indonesians. Why this is so, is hard to say, although the problem is arguably not as widespread as the government claims, but many see it as a problem. There is also a religious element in it. For the two main religions, Islam and Christianity, drugs in their various forms are very much vilified in their religious teachings, sometimes even more so than corruption. Mosques and churches possibly have more sermons condemning drugs than corruption.

Yohanes Sulaiman: I believe that the death penalty is popular here firstly because people believe that it is the ultimate punishment for those who deserve it, and secondly, there is very little discussion about people wrongly sentenced and put to death. Unlike in Australia, US, or Europe for example, where the media seems to dissect every single case of people wrongly sentenced to death, people here believe that if you are put to death, in general it is clearly because you deserve it. For example, the Bali Nine were really guilty of smuggling drugs. Yes, there is much discussion about an unfair justice system that favours the rich, but interestingly that actually leads people to demand the death penalty for those rich and famous people who are clearly guilty of corruption, for example.

ZS: Some analysis during the media storm surrounding the executions suggested that Indonesia’s history as a colonised country makes the Indonesian public particularly hostile to foreign governments seen to be intervening in domestic affairs.  Do you think this is a major factor? If so, could you explain a little bit about this post-colonial feeling in Indonesia and how it shapes political attitudes?

Andina Dwifatma: Yes, I do think that this post-colonial thing plays a major role. The experience as a colonised country gives us an inferiority complex. In the field of media studies, for example, some researchers argue that this post-colonial syndrome explains why Indonesians are so prone to advertisements of whitening products, hair dye, and coloured contact lenses, because looking like a ‘bule’ (ed. white-skinned foreigner) is cool. But when it comes to political attitudes, this has led to a desire for sovereignty. One of the ways [this is expressed] is through law-enforcement, something that has long been missed. Moreover, the Indonesia–Australia relationship is not exceptionally friendly. There are issues about how Australia turned back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia (which was considered an affront to our sovereignty), the loss of East Timor in 1999 which could not be separated from the role that Australia played, and how Corby was released during the SBY era. So for the majority of the public (as shown in an opinion poll I referred to earlier) Chan and Sukumaran’s case was some kind of ‘opportunity’ to declare that as a nation we are sovereign.

Tobias Basuki: Yes, I would agree to some extent with your assessment. But I would say there is also a contemporary sense of nationalism, of saying ‘screw the West’ if you try to interfere. Australia being considered part of the West, and in particular the various tensions and frictions we had with Australia definitely added to this backlash. Strong and aggressive statements by PM Abbott certainly did not help. I have stated before that these statements Abbott made (like the one about the Tsunami Aid) practically nailed the coffin of Sukumaran and Chan. Instead of lobbying through backchannels and a soft diplomacy, the Australian government made the mistake (maybe intentionally) of triggering a backlash of nationalistic sentiment from Indonesia. This made it impossible for Jokowi to backtrack even if he wanted to. The cost of backtracking has become much more expensive politically than if he were to go ahead with the executions.

Shiskha Prabawaningtyas: I think this post-colonial sentiment does not occur only in Indonesia, but in most post-colonial countries. Even, in the Southeast Asia region, under ASEAN, the principle of non-intervention is officially adopted as the core value of its establishment. I personally disagree with the phrase of ‘hostile to foreign governments’, since it is this hostility [also] toward domestic supporters [of clemency]. The sentiment against ‘something foreign’ proves to be a powerful weapon for any politician or government to mobilise domestic support for a certain issue. It is an easy strategy to draw a clear borderline between ‘us’ and the other, ‘the enemy’. I don’t see it as ‘major factor’, yet it is a part of the characteristic of post-colonial state politics that needs to be managed. I remember in 1957, when Indonesia faced a crisis in domestic political consolidation, the cabinet frequently received a motion of no-confidence from the parliament. However, when the Djuanda cabinet declared the extension of Indonesian territorial sovereignty to 12 nautical miles, the government received strong public support, including from the parliament. At that time, the government also nationalised all Dutch enterprises and demanded all Dutch citizens go back to the Netherlands. The international community at that time surely saw Indonesia as very hostile to foreign interests, but it received wide domestic support.

ZS: The legal system of most countries usually balances competing objectives: deterrence, punishment, a sense of justice for victims, rehabilitation. Do you feel that the balance of these objectives is similar in the Indonesian legal system as it is in other countries? If not, what are the differences?

Tobias Basuki: In short, that is where all my criticism against my own government is. In so many ways it is all jumbled up in Indonesia. It is not a deterrence, I believe, and the drug problem is based on shoddy statistics. And compared with other heinous crimes these drug dealers executed in the second batch were definitely ‘less deserving’ compared to others who butchered people, but only got six months jail. It is a mess of a legal system. Here is an article I wrote for the Jakarta Post in February 2015.

Shiskha Prabawaningtyas: I think it is like a ‘common secret’, rahasia umum, that Indonesian rule of law is extremely problematic. I am not a legal expert, yet I assume that as Indonesian current law is still adopting the colonial Dutch law, especially in criminal law, you might easily locate the problem at the edifice of Indonesian rule of law. The law was established in the context of a colonial rule ‘against’ the indigenous opposition. So, the assumption of most criminal laws is clearly not to restore ‘social justice and order’. You can read Daniel Lev’s articles about the problems within Indonesian legal system for more information. The way the law has been articulated and implemented tends to be a rigid interpretation of articles and in favour of the strongest (people with high social and economic status), rather than an institution that restores ‘justice’ and applies a mechanism of jurisprudence. A famous anecdote to express the application of the law in Indonesia might be ‘tajam di bawah, numpul di atas’ (sharp against the poor, dull against the rich). For example, I am strongly against the punishment of drug abuse and use by simply sending them to jail and putting them in the same place with other criminal offenders, such as murderers. There is no such clear mechanism of multilayered problem-solving for the drugs issue.

Do you think the death penalty is likely to be abolished any time soon? If so, what would the political path towards abolition look like?

Andina Dwifatma: Again, as a legal question, I do not have the necessary knowledge to talk about that. But in my personal opinion, the death penalty will not be abolished any time soon. Lately, law makers have been working on the penal code draft and there are no talks (so far) to change the death penalty as a maximum penalty for criminals.

Tobias Basuki: There is a slight chance, as our constitution arguably states the ‘right to life’. Vice- President Jusuf Kalla has mentioned that the pending executions might be stopped if we abolish the death penalty from our legal system. This has also been part of a discussion in Parliament. So there are glimmers of chances. But unfortunately it is not a sexy issue that will gain political capital for any party or politician. Thus I do not see this happening any time in the near future.

Shiskha Prabawaningtyas: I am strongly against the death penalty. I do wish for the abolition of the death penalty, not only in Indonesia, but across the world. But, as you know, many countries still perform it, such as the US, Singapore  and Malaysia. If you ask in Indonesia, realistically speaking, the path is still long and hard. If you follow the current Indonesian media exposure on the death of the little girl, Angeline, in Bali over the last month, unfortunately, you can see many supporters of the death penalty for the alleged perpetrator in social media. I am quite pessimistic the advocacy to abolish death penalty will gain wide public support in Indonesia.

Yohanes Sulaiman: Nope. Aside from human rights people in Jakarta, very few people care. This is not a major issue that would rile people up because they don't see this as very important.


Interviewer profiles

Andina Dwifatma is a lecturer in the School of Communication, Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia. Her research and pedagogical interests include journalism studies, media studies, and digital activism. More specifically, her work examines how grassroots audiences participate in the process of democracy through a variety of media, including (and especially) new media. She also co-founded a long form journalism website, PanaJournal.com. The website, where she is currently the editor, collects non-fiction features from storytellers all around Indonesia, as well as some foreign contributors. As a journalist, she once won the highly prestigious national award on journalism, Anugrah Adiwarta 2011. She has also written fictional books. Her debut novel, Semusim, and Semusim Lagi (A Season, and Another Once Again) won the Novel Writing Competition 2012 held by the Jakarta Arts Council.

Shiskha Prabawaningtyas has been a Lecturer in International Relations at Paramadina University, Jakarta, since 2008 after earning her Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy at the Faculty of Social Behavioural Science, Leiden University, The Netherlands in 2007. In 2012, she began doctoral studies at the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Her research focuses on the problems of maritime boundaries and trans-border fishing in the Arafura and Timor Maritime Zone.

Tobias Basuki is a researcher with the department of Politics and International Relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. Prior to joining CSIS, he was director of studies at Leimena Institute and was full-time lecturer at Pelita Harapan University, 2007–2009. Basuki earned his master’s degree in Political Science from Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, USA in 2007 and his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Goshen College, Indiana. In completion of his master’s degree he wrote two papers: ‘Chinese Indonesian’s Quest for Identity (Comparative Politics)’ and ‘Facing the ‘Rising Dragon’: Secondary States’ Response to China’s Rising Power (International Relations)’. Besides research and writing at CSIS, he is teaching International Relations and Political Science courses part-time at Pelita Harapan University (UPH). He is member of the Religious Freedom Consortium with the Freedom House, Beckett Fund for Religious Diversity, and the Media Diversity Institute.

Yohanes Sulaiman has been teaching at the Indonesian Defense University School of Total War Strategy since 2009. He is also a consultant for Indonesian Coordinating Ministry for Politics, Law, and Security and Indonesian Navy.

Zacharias Szumer (zachariasszmr121@gmail.com) is a writer originally from Australia who has been living in Indonesia for the last year. He also translates Indonesian writings and comics at the blog https://recastkeys.wordpress.com/.


Inside Indonesia 122: Oct-Dec 2015

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