Dear Australian Media, Please Stop Punishing Bali!

It is hard to ignore the uproar surrounding the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two Australians who were convicted for smuggling 8kgs of heroin off the island of Bali as a member of the Bali Nine team. Initially swept under the rug of the Schapelle Corby saga, their story came into the media’s spotlight after multiple pleas to overturn the death penalty and clemency from the Indonesian President proved to be futile. The Indonesian government’s firm stance and ambiguity regarding the date of the execution has created another turmoil in their bilateral relationship with Australia.

The Schapelle Corby saga completely baffled me. What started as a clear case of a woman illegally smuggling 4.2kgs of cannabis in her boogie board bag was taken by the media, twisted into a story of a woman victimised by the Indonesian government. Book deals, Current Affairs interview, magazine articles – to say it was blown out of proportion is an understatement. It sparked debates and many began to believe that she was clearly being framed.

From my extensive research on watching episodes of National Geographic’s Banged Up Abroad, being locked up in a third world country’s prison is definitely not an ideal way to spend your holidays. As adventurous as my travelling has been, I am more than happy to sit out on this “adventure”. As a conscientious traveller, I firmly believe in respecting the local rules and culture. When a person sets foot on another country, you are presented with a choice – either immerse yourself in the culture and open yourself to accept them, or reject their rules, put on your blinkers and pretend that you are more superior than them. Sadly, there are many who choose the latter particularly when it comes to travelling in Asia.

As you land in Indonesia, it is rather hard to dismiss the numerous signs plastered around the airports warning against importing drugs into the country. In fact, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade explicitly mentions the severe penalties – ‘including the death penalty’ – for crimes involving drug trafficking. It is Indonesian law. Similar laws exist in Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. Ignorance is a rather weak excuse to hide behind.

“We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Indonesia, including Bali, at this time due to the high threat of terrorist attack. You should also be aware of the severe penalties for narcotics offences, including the death penalty; some specific health risks; and risks associated with natural disasters.”

– Travel warning issued by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (as of 10th March 2015).

I understand the debate surrounding the death penalty.Undoubtedly, the death penalty is cruel, inhumane, and degrading. Capital punishment in Indonesia is carried out by a firing squad. Often the prisoners have little to no idea of when their execution date will arrive. They are placed on death row for many years, with pleas for clemency from the President being their ticket out of the hell-hole known as Bali’s Kerobokan Prison. In light of this, I cannot begin to imagine what the families of the offenders must be going through. It is heart-wrenching and reprehensible.

“A prisoner in Indonesia typically only learns of their impending execution 72 hours in advance, according to a report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights committee.”


However, instead of focusing on the cruelty of the death penalty, it seems that the Australian media chooses to rip apart the rather flawed Indonesian legal system and instil fear in the minds of the masses about travelling to Bali. This is where I draw the line. When the Australian media reported on the Schapelle Corby or Bali Nine story, the reports failed to acknowledge the Indonesian law’s explicit warning against drug offenders. It failed to report that the same law exists in other South East Asian countries. Rather, it chooses to paint a picture of Indonesia as this unjust, barbaric country where Australians must think twice before setting foot on. Whenever a sensitive issue comes up involving Indonesia, “Boycott Bali!” is quick to be heard as a retaliation or a sign of protest against Indonesia. Channel 7 even came up with a whole TV series on why travelling to Bali is absolutely dangerous – All the more adding fuel to people’s fears!

“The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has suggested that Australians, the most numerous visitors to Bali, might boycott the island in protest if the two are executed.”


Australia’s moral outrage is highly selective. When Australian citizen Van Tuong Nguyen faced a similar plight for trafficking 396.2g of heroin into Singapore, the amount of media outcry did not hold a candle to the current backlash against Bali. The Australian government and media did not advocate fellow Australians to boycott visiting Singapore. Despite pleas for clemency from the Australian government, Van Tuong Nguyen was still executed. To put into perspective – Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine were convicted of smuggling drugs more than 10 times in weight than Van Tuong Nguyen carried into Singapore!

According to the Indonesian National Narcotics Board, Indonesia is a major transit point for drugs moving to and from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, China and West Africa, as well as a destination for some of that cargo. If anyone carried the same amount of drugs into Australia, they would be punished according to Australian law and I doubt that other countries would be able to overturn that. Like any other country, it is Indonesia’s sovereign right to exercise their laws to protect their citizens. When an individual knowingly decides, using his or her own free will, to smuggle drugs into a country that clearly imposes harsh penalties against such offence, then the onus lies on that individual to accept the consequences of his or her actions.

Over the past few weeks, my news feed has been flooded with – candlelight vigils for the two offenders, Richard Branson’s letter to the Indonesian President, and reports regarding Indonesia’s policy of saving their own citizens facing death penalty abroad. Is this media attention exacerbated by the fact that it is happening on Indonesian soil? Why isn’t the Australian media focusing on their citizens being sentenced to death in countries other than Indonesia?

“PHAM TRUNG DUNG, 37, was sentenced to death in 2014 in Vietnam after being caught carrying more than 4kg of heroin boarding a flight to Australia from Ho Chi Minh City in 2013.

HENRY CHHIN, was 35 when sentenced to death in 2005 after being caught attempting to send methamphetamine from China to Australia by post. The sentence was suspended for two years. His fate is unknown.”


As we approach the second decade of the 21st century, we must recognise Indonesia’s rising power in the South East Asian region. Perhaps it is time for Australians to recognise that Bali is not a glorified playground for high school graduates, stag weekends or even drug smugglers. Perhaps Australia should view its neighbour as a strategic ally rather than a stomping ground for its citizens. Perhaps it is time to hold a standard of accountability to Australian citizens to view other’s laws as highly as their own. Hopefully Australia can recognise the mistakes they are making before it is too late.


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