On 18 June, Indonesian maid Ruyati binti Sapubi was executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia after she was convicted of murdering her employer who, according to Ruyati, had kept her in the country against her will. The action sparked an immediate and sharp wave of public sympathy in Indonesia. Within days, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a moratorium on Indonesian citizens heading to the Gulf kingdom for work, starting on August 1.
While the issue has profound implications for the relationship between those two countries, it also has an indirect impact on Australia-Indonesia relations.
Here's why. The recurring narrative in the relationship between the pair has been that Indonesia carries out (or threatens to carry out) an action that sparks outrage in Australia, Indonesia then hints at Australia's patronising attitude, and the relationship between the two becomes more fractured (a Lowy Institute poll released this week found just 5 percent of Australians trust Indonesia 'a great deal' to act responsibly in the world; a reciprocal poll is taking place later this year).
The Saudi execution provides a rare instance where Indonesia finds itself on the other side of this narrative. In this instance, Indonesia is the party aggrieved at the actions of another country, actions many of its citizens find distasteful and barbaric. Indonesia is the party imposing restrictions on a bilateral relationship. And Indonesia is the one that risks being perceived as arrogant and aloof for seeking to hold another nation to a higher standard than it chooses for itself.
This dynamic has played itself out on several issues, the two most recent examples being the treatment of cattle, which prompted Australia to impose a temporary live export ban, and the condemnation to death of two members of the Bali Nine group of drug traffickers.
Such a situation can't help but influence the thinking of senior Indonesians involved in dealings with Australia. For the sake of consistency, it gives Indonesia little excuse for ire at Australia's decision to ban its cattle exports, given Jakarta took a similar approach to workers in Saudi Arabia. This isn't to equate human life to that of cattle, but to equate the anger felt in 'victim' countries and the reactions of their governments. If a moratorium on sending workers to Saudi Arabia is an appropriate reaction to mistreatment, then it's hard to argue a similar moratorium on live exports is unfair.
It also forces Indonesia into a period of introspection over the death penalty, although the depth of introspection depends on how one interprets Indonesia's outrage, since there are several strands of discontent. First, the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh wasn't informed that the execution would soon be carried out, denying it the chance to take action. Second, Ruyati killed her employer in response to alleged abuse, reinforcing a fear many Indonesians have of working in the Middle East.
Third, execution by beheading is perceived as particularly barbaric, though Indonesia's preference for firing squads is hardly any better. And fourth, the death penalty itself seems callous, especially when applied to an elderly maid whose story the Indonesian public has come to know and sympathise with.
Any change on Indonesia's position on the death penalty is likely to be a long way away, but it's much harder for the country's people and leadership to mount a full-throated defence of the execution of, say, drug traffickers when it has demonstrated its own distaste for the execution of Ruyati.
But any change to the president's attitude to clemency for foreigners, such as Bali Nine members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, seems unlikely. Within days of the Ruyati execution, Yudhoyono candidly admitted he receives many appeals for clemency for foreign prisoners and grants 'almost' none.
Still, the events in Saudi Arabia will give Indonesia a view from the moral high ground. The consequences may be significant.
(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)