Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, June 2, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

Again, relations between Indonesia and its southern neighbor, Australia, have been tested, this time by the case of Schapelle Leigh Corby. This young former beautician was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Denpasar District Court for smuggling 4.1 kilograms of marijuana into Bali.

The Australian public are outraged. Tim Lindsay, a professor of Asian law at the University of Melbourne, argues that the unprecedented frenzy of interest in Corby's fate doesn't mean that it has some legal logic to it. Many also have begun to worry that the level of hysteria on the part of the Australian public has reached a worrying level of xenophobia (The Australian, May 30, 2005).

Aside from the rights and wrongs of the case, there are some points worth considering.

First, it should be noted that excessive public and political pressure can be perceived as a "new-colonial agenda" by some sections in Indonesian society. The ultra-nationalists and religious zealots, for example, may be gratuitously provoked by this excessive Australian reaction to shoot their political bullets. A political spat between both Australian and Indonesian "xenophobists" is undesirable for all of us.
However, the Indonesian media have also played a role in unfairly pre-judging Corby, as some of them portrayed her as a "marijuana queen" before the verdict was handed down, which might be considered a breach of journalistic ethics in influencing the legal proceedings. This, too, might have ignited local sentiment against Corby.

Second, the "intervention" can also disturb Indonesia's struggle for the separation of powers. Australia has long been a supporter of Indonesian legal reform, a perfect position that could fundamentally help heighten security and economic cooperation between the two countries, and greatly benefit Australia as well. It is therefore crucial that Indonesia's hard-won legal reform keeps progressing despite this case.

Third, one should try to observe the case through the lens of sensitivity. I recall in the aftermath of the Bali blast. After the broke down of the house of a suspected "terrorist" Muslim family in Sydney by the Australian authority, Indonesia witnessed a string of noisy daily demonstrations protesting against the alleged inhumane treatment the Indonesian family endured.

At that time, some Indonesian politicians both ultra-nationalists and religious fundamentalists enthusiastically joined the chorus of protests, apparently not necessarily to support the case, but to boost their political eminence and apply pressure on the government.

This should give us some understanding of how the Australian public would react if it were put in a "similar" situation. The palpable difference is: The highly emotive Australian public protest -- despite the expected rise in anti-Indonesia sentiment -- would unlikely be followed by a string of bomb attacks, unlike the cases in Indonesia, a place where violence and hostility have almost become the norm.

Fourth, such emotive feeling and political tension escalating from the case are an inevitable consequence of the two countries living so "closely" as neighbors. If we could become involved in a political row with Malaysia, a country with which Indonesia shares so much culturally and ethnically, what more Australia, which is so foreign both culturally and politically for most of us.

The case should therefore become an impetus for the two countries to continue to explore ways to foster understanding. I recall during my stay in Australia one professor at the University of New South Wales complained that the number of Australian students studying the Indonesian program had dropped significantly after the East Timor case and the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

Another professor warns that the danger of this is that more and more Australians would never fully grasp their northern neighbor's character and the complexity of its society.
However, as the Chinese saying goes, "One hand cannot clap alone", the Indonesian side should also follow suit by opening more Australian studies programs in Indonesian universities. This all can be done with the support from government-to-government or university-to-university cooperation in exchanging the materials or lecturers needed. Indonesia has always been so inward looking, so it is timely for us now to strike a balance between an inward and outward looking attitude.

Lastly, the case proves that the close proximity between the two countries is not only geographical, but psychological as well, and there are still fissures of understanding that have not been filled.

So, is it possible for the people of the two countries to compassionately embrace each other? One may be skeptical, but the fact that some sections within the countries are attempting to put the case into the proper perspective shows that a sensible proportion of trust remains intact. Some Australian media have urged the public to respect Indonesia's legal integrity, as have the two governments.

It is therefore timely for the people of both countries, in the spirit of neighborhood, to use this latest case wisely not only for self-reflection, but also as a window of opportunity to reach into each other's deeper consciousness.

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