Public opinion pulling the trigger in Bali

CHEERS MATE Schapelle Corby and her brother the day of her release on parole in February 2014.
CHEERS MATE Schapelle Corby and her brother the day of her release on parole in February 2014.

A Writer on Aussies in Asia.

SINCE convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby’s parole from Bali’s Kerobokan Prison in Indonesia a year ago, speculation about the legal ramifications of her public behaviour has resulted in a long silence from the Corby family.

In contrast, a visibly desperate public relations campaign, underpinned by political and diplomatic representation, is hoping to sell a story of the reformation of the Bali Nine’s Australian ‘ringleaders’ Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, on death row in Corby’s former place of incarceration for their role in drug trafficking.

The collective public opinion of two sovereign nations are in play, and the outcomes of this legal and culture war are set to be devastating.

On the day of her release, the beers Corby and her brother thrust at the camera were seen as a symbol of Western excess. Not so in Corby’s native Queensland, where a beer in the hand is considered a human right in many quarters.

GANJA QUEEN Schapelle Corby.
‘GANJA QUEEN’ Schapelle Corby.

Victim. Villain. Money-hungry. Misunderstood. Everyone has a slant on the woman the Indonesian media dubbed ‘The Ganja Queen’. But how do Australians really see Bali, the tropical Indonesian island often dubbed ‘Perth’s Northernmost Suburb’?

Like Aussie jokes about the ‘Bangkok Hilton’, this one is only half funny. A large number of Australians would probably let themselves off the hook for thinking Bali is an unofficial Australian state.

It was there the terrorism of the Bali Bombings cut an unwelcome gash through the Australian psyche.

“Public opinion – Indonesia’s, primarily – is the strongest judge.”

We have deep connections to the Asian nations to our north. Some have become symbols of national pride or shame which can be referenced using only one word: Kokoda, Balibo, Changi.

Over time, a sense of ownership and entitlement has crept into our dealings with these sovereign nations, particularly Indonesia.

Nothing seems off-limits in this neighbourly relationship, from live export of Australian livestock to asylum seekers.

But when convicted drug smugglers like Corby, the Bali Nine, and Barlow and Chambers before them get caught up in Asian justice systems, many Australians take the tide of opposing public opinion in Asia personally.

These cases highlight that while foreigners are welcome to party in places like Kuta, and relax in regions such as Ubud, they are also expected to conduct themselves according to the laws and sentiments common within the world’s largest Muslim population.

Corby escaped life imprisonment and the death penalty, but her release into the Bali community is an ongoing test for her, and all Australians.

Chan and Sukumaran have lived with death penalties since 2006, and, if accounts are to be taken at face value, they have made a valiant go of their death row lifestyle, insofar as it’s possible to show their advocates and the authorities that they have been reformed while on the inside.

And it’s that difficult-to-impart message which may or may not save them from the firing squad, or see Corby return to Australia after a further two years’ parole.

Public opinion – Indonesia’s, primarily – is the strongest judge, prison guard and executioner for all of them.

The outcomes of both cases will challenge notions that Australians have about Indonesians, threatening the idea of a tourist-friendly population intent on pleasing us with the reality of a people who have opinions, thought and beliefs of their own, in addition to a thriving tourism industry.

In a sense, Corby is now having the Bali holiday which was so suddenly curbed in 2004, although it’s undoubtedly less of a beer-soaked boogie-board ride and more a mindful retreat from Australian public social mores.

If Indonesia permits her to come home, she might teach Aussies a thing or two about the real Bali.

Whether they survive or not, Chan and Sukumaran will do the same.

But none of them will ever escape public opinion.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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