Social media affecting Australia-Indonesia relations

The actions taken by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Indonesian president Joko Widodo with regards to the executions of the 'Bali Nine' have arguably been influenced by the global online attention the situation has attracted.

Vigil held for Bali Nine executions. Photo by AFP.
Vigil held for Bali Nine executions. Photo by AFP.

Prime Minister Tony Abbot has withdrawn the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, following the executions of 'Bali Nine' drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Some have questioned his decision to do so, considering Australia made no such move against Singapore when convicted Australian drug smuggler Van Tuong Nguyen was executed there in 2005. This follows behaviour that Indonesia, and some external observers, have labeled as "threatening" on the part of Abbott in reminding Indonesia of the aid given following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

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The ongoing #BaliBoycott movement would also indicate that Australia knows full well how much economic power it potentially holds over the poorer nation. Last year more than 1 million Australians visited Indonesia, many of them headed for Bali.

Overall, in 2013 tourism accounted for $27 billion, or 3.1 per cent of Indonesia's GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo, for his part, would not be able to back down now without severe loss of face and a possible blow to his already rocky popularity ratings. The president has already taken steps to minimise Australia's actions following the executions.

In a statement made in March, Bali Governer Made Mangku Pastika framed the situation as one that relates to Indonesia's "sovereignty and dignity".

Hikmahanto Juwana, a professor of international law at the University of Indonesia, for one has publicly stated that the Indonesian government must ignore international outcry to prove that no one can interfere with Indonesian sovereignty.

But matters cannot be viewed in isolation of a third player, the global audience, pointed out Christine Jones, CEO and market leader for Burson-Marsteller Australia. "Unlike today’s execution in Indonesia, the Singapore execution of 2005 was not played out before the international media, nor was it drawn out with a highly publicized legal and military campaign," she told PRWeek.

Jones shared her private opinion that the Australian government had made the right decision when it recalled its ambassador to Indonesia. "Appropriately, this action has been taken after lengthy consultation and has multi-partisan support from the political parties in Australia. This response is consistent with the actions of other countries whose citizens were executed earlier this year. It is therefore not a short-term, politically motivated reaction."

Furthermore, Australia has elected to withdraw its ambassador, not foreign aid, which would hurt the people of Indonesia who rely on Australia's assistance. "This action sends the right signal of disapproval but with lesser long-term consequences that may be harder to recover from," she said.

PRWeek approached several other agencies, but all declined to comment.

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