About this blog: for Myu & Michael

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were the ringleaders of a group, dubbed the “Bali 9”, who were caught taking drugs from Indonesia to Australia in 2005. They were executed by firing squad a decade later at 12:30am on 29 April 2015.

Like many Australians I was profoundly affected by them and their story. I was inspired by their bravery, dignity and strength as they faced the unthinkable. I was impressed with their rehabilitation and transformation as individuals. I commended their work in Kerobokan prison. I was touched by their thoughtfulness and consideration of others. I was livid at the injustice of a corrupt system and aribrary application of the death penalty. I was appalled at the senseless killing of two completely changed men and heartbroken about the loss. And like many Australians I stood with them until their final moments and wept gut-wrenching sobs when they were shot.

In the early days of the Bali 9’s incarceration I was working on Schapelle Corby’s campaign. Schapelle was the young beauty student caught attempting to bring 4.2kgs of marijuana into Bali in her boogie board bag and sentenced to 20 years. In the course of that I did a great deal of research on the Indonesian justice system, particularly drugs cases – typical background work. What I came across utterly horrified me. The inconsistency of the penalties could barely be replicated by throwing darts at a board blindfolded. The cases where some level of reasonable investigation and trial standard was adhered to were few and far between; there was no point even considering the concept of a fair trial. Evidence of interference, outside influence and money changing hands was rife.

Schapelle’s experience, too, had provided insight into the way of things in Indonesia. The arbitrariness of the system was clear from the negotiation process around the charges and her receiving 20 years, extremely harsh when compared to similar cases. It was also telling that their judiciary did not simply ignore the surrounding hullabaloo, as they would have if they were independent and ethical. Moreover, their management was contrary to any concept of a close relationship with Australia. They clearly had little love for us, and were easily antagonised by our negativity towards them. In fact, I would go so far as to say they demonstrated a deep-seated resentment towards Australia. In addition, President Yudhoyono (SBY) often stated there would be no mercy or clemency for drug traffickers.

Australia’s management of the Bali 9 affair was also on display. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) had surveilled and pieced together the operation, and volunteered this information to the Indonesian National Police (INP), knowing that the Australians could end up with the death penalty. This was legitimate under existing Australian laws and AFP guildelines (still is). However, the AFP had other options available to them and it showed a callous disregard for the fate of those individuals. That Australia did not have in place legislation that ruled out assistance when the death penalty was a possibility was also telling of their attitude – we won’t do it, but we don’t really care if others do.

In fact, the very reason the AFP was providing information to the INP in such circumstances could be traced back to the Bali bombings in 2002. Because so many Australians were killed or injured in that terrorist attack, Australia naturally wanted to participate in the investigation. However, as a signatory to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia was firmly anti death penalty and had interpreted this responsibilities to extend to a refusal to engage in any situations where the death penalty was a possibility, as was the case for terrorism in Indonesia. So the Australian government reinterpeted that position to mean Australia could participate up until the point charges were actually laid. This paved the way for the future volunteering of information about the Bali 9, legally and practically. It also meant Australia was being dangerously hypocritical. We could not accept death for the Bali bombers and then expect leniency for our own citizens.

So I despaired for the Bali 9, but particularly for Myuran and Andrew who, having been singled out as the ringleaders, were in the most vulnerable position. They were at the whims of the Indonesians, and had already been abandoned by their own government. As the years progressed, their appeals were rejected, their death penalty affirmed. I felt powerless and saw campaigning as pointless.

Many years later, the climate shifted. A change in Australian government, a more positive relationship with Indonesia, and SBY granted Schapelle a 5 year reduction on her sentence. I was happy for her and hopeful, for the first time, for Myuran and Andrew, who by that stage had exhausted their appeals and only had Presidential clemency standing between them and the firing squad. But then, Australia breached Indonesian domestic waters on several occasions when “protecting our borders” and offended and insulted Indonesia when dealing with the issues related to live cattle exports, and then Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed we had been spying on SBY’s wife. SBY was hardly going to be in the mood for any charitability towards Australia, and he predictably left office with the clemency applications ignored.

A new President is always undpredictable and Joko Widodo (Jokowi) proved to be just that. Despite being elected on an anti-corruption and humanitarian platform, almost immediately upon taking office in late 2014 he stated there would be no clemency for drug traffickers and proceeded to reject their applications en-masse. As Jokowi proved to be a disappointment domestically, struggled to implement his reforms, and appeated nothing more than puppet of his party’s patron, former President Megawati Soekarnaputri, he clung to his hard line on drug traffickers and made the executions an issue of nationalism to prop up his domestic support base and distract from other failures. Last minute appeals, a massive publicity campaign and high level Australian and international diplomatic representations made no difference.

The campaigning done in the final few months that united hundreds of thousands of Australians in a plea for mercy and that saw many sit vigil right up until the moment of execution may not have saved Myuran and Andrew, but it certainly made them and their families feel less alone in their darkest moments and thrust the injustice and issues surrounding the death penalty into the spotlight. It may even have contributed to the campaign to save a woman intended for execution that same night, Mary Jane Veloso, who was granted a last minute reprieve, literally as she was walking to the execution site. So it was far from the pointlessness I gave in to all those years ago. I have the greatest admiration for those who worked on legal battles and campaigns because they fought where I gave up.

Myuran and Andrew’s final act was to lead the other six men executed that night to refuse blindfolds, stare their executioners in the eye and sing until the bullets ended their chorus. I struggle to recall anything similar, much less such a powerful moment. It was symbolic of the men they had become – brave, strong, dignified and determined to support others – and their resolve not to let their crime and executions define them. Indonesia may have executed them, but they did not achieve anything, let alone win.

Though they were mentioned in nearly the same breath for 10 years, and forever inextricably linked by their crime and punishment, Myuran and Andrew were not the same person. While Andrew’s transformation came about through finding god and giving his life over to performing god’s work as a pastor, Myuran’s was just about, as one person close to him said, “humanity”. He did not need the belief in an afterlife to be a good person in this one, he faced the darkness without the comfort of a higher being (he only looked into god in the last three days), and he didn’t need anything outside himself to stop his past mistake from defining him or the burden of the death sentence hanging over him preventing him from going forward. The person Myuran became was truly a representation of humanity.

As an atheist, I relate to this better. But more than that, I recognise how difficult it would have been and have the greatest respect and admiration for his transformation, the person he became, and his courage at the end, something I can only hope I have when I eventually face death.

Unlike Myuran (and Andrew), Michael Schumacher needs little, if any, introduction. One of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time, his career spanned 20+ years and ended with a record-breaking 7 World Drivers Championships and 91 race victories. He was a superstar of the sport, recalled for his brilliant driving, controversial on-track actions and the dedication and determination that contributed to Ferrari’s spectacular (or boring, depending on your point of view) dominance for several years.

On 29 December 2013, about a year after he retired, Michael was skiing with his son when he tripped on a rock and fell on his his head. This resulted in a severe brain injury that has left Michael drastically impaired. He is now at home in Switzerland where a wing has been specially built for his medical care and recovery. Reports as at April 2015 were that there had been little improvement and he was in a minimally conscious state, unable to talk or walk or interact with the world (whatever the exact truth, it isn’t good).

Because he was retired for good at the time and was an inherently private person, Michael’s accident has had no impact on the show that is Formula 1. It has, of course, impacted those who knew him, and particularly those who were close to him. Sebastian Vettel gave an interview after his first win with Ferrari saying how much he missed being able to talk to Michael about different things. However, it still feels as though he, and a part of the sport, is missing. Because he was a superstar, during his retirement prior to his accident, Michael was talked about a lot. Now, there is a general reluctance to discuss him. And, love him or hate him, there is a poignancy to Seb’s driving for Ferrari because he idolised Michael as a child and it was his dream to emulate him. It is noticeable that Michael is not around to witness that eventuality.

Throughout the years Myuran and Andrew were on death row, and particulary in the final months, I often reflected on what could have been done differently. I have pondered whether had the current furore over the AFP’s actions been a possibility a decade ago, the AFP would have hesitated before providing information to the Indonesians. I have considered that our government may have shown greater respect to the Indonesians, particuarly in the latter part of SBY’s presidency, if Myuran and Andrew’s plight been at the forefront of our concerns. Perhaps had we maintained a consistent stance on the death penalty with the Bali Bombers we would have had far greater credibility when advocating against the death penalty and in seeking the support of the Indonesian population.

I have wondered if there may have been less Indonesian outrage calling for the death penalty had the original portraits of the two men been more accurate. Myuran appears to have been a very decent young man who cared about others as much before his incarceration as during it and who simply made a mistake, misguided in a pursuit for a quick buck. What if that had been the picture painted of him, as opposed to the one of an aggressive and calculating “enforcer”? I have also questioned just how much the misinformation on drug use and turning the issue into one of nationalism in Indonesia limited support over there. And on a broader level, there is a debate to be had about the futility of the “war on drugs”. Myuran and Andrew, though guilty of their crime, can be added to a long list that quantifies the abject failure of the policy.

This is, of course, all about the narrative. Had it been different, so too perhaps the outcome would have been.

In complete contrast, Michael’s narrative is probably one of the richest and most accurate world-wide. His controversies have been dissected as much as his racing prowess. The person he was on-track and off-track have both recieved significant attention. The legacy of his time in the sport is hotly debated, and seems, after all this time, to be reaching some sort of balance. Michael was never defined by one element of his life, let alone one action.

What both Myuran and Andrew’s and Michael’s circumstances have in common is hope. Right up until the last moment, supporters were united in hope that Myuran and Andrew would get a reprieve, and it was this hope that spurred on the campaigning. With Michael, the hope is that he will recover, however unlikely that might appear at this point in time.

I was a fan of “Schumi” and his performances brought me an extraordinary amount of enjoyment and joy. What stands out in my memories the most, though, is his “never say die” attitude. No matter how lost a race seemed, Michael could never be counted out. He aimed for the highest of heights and often got there. Hope became synonymous with belief. So if it was foolish and mistaken to give up (albeit temporarily) on Myuran and Andrew’s situation, it would be downright stupid and insulting to not believe in the full recovery of Michael.

So I dedicate this blog to Myuran for his inspirational humanity and courage and the lesson he taught about self empowerment and to Michael as a show of my belief in his recovery. In their honour, I will strive to contribute to a richer and less one-sided narrative on issues, and remember that where there is life, there is hope.