Monday, November 7, 2011

Australia’s double standards complicates Bali boy’s drug case

Australians have shown outrage and concern over the recent arrest of a 14-year old Sydney boy in Bali on alleged possession of drugs. His trial began on Tuesday.

Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, moved quickly saying the safe return of this boy to Australia was his “number one priority” and that high-level negotiations with Indonesian officials were underway. Rudd reflected the general community sentiment within Australia, that this child should not be locked-up in a foreign jail under any circumstances.

But as Australia works feverishly through the diplomatic channels, it is clear that Australia’s efforts to secure a quick and successful outcome has been made all the more complex thanks to its own poor policies and ill-conceived laws concerning the incarceration of children, and the recent personal intervention in this case by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Flashback February 2010: The Australian government, facing a huge public outcry over the number of asylum seekers making the treacherous journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island, needs to demonstrate they are being “tough on people smugglers”.

Legislation to jail people smugglers under mandatory sentencing of five years was introduced through parliament with widespread community support for this “tough stance”. And the government knew they were on a winner politically.

A few months later it was realized that Indonesian children, as young as 13 years, were working on these boats as deckhands and tragically the new “tough” law was resulting in these kids being jailed in Australian adult prisons for up to five years.

Despite the inhumane treatment of these children the Australian Government’s reaction reflected the ongoing community sentiment: If you do the crime, you do the time, and even if you are 14 years of age, if you break our laws and get caught, you go to jail.
No consideration was given to these children being from impoverished villages and were working on boats that were, in the end, bringing mostly refugees to Australia from Indonesia, where this practice was then legal.

The ongoing hard line by Australia was made easier by almost total silence from the Indonesian authorities.

This inaction against the treatment of Indonesian children in Australia was seen by Australian authorities as Indonesia’s indifference to the plight of these children.

Partly, Australia was right as poor kids from the eastern parts of Indonesia are not given much attention here in Jakarta. But the other reason is that Indonesia would not act as Australia would, by demanding the release of their children immediately.

That is seen as being “rude”; particularly as Asian countries are very respectful of the rights of host countries to apply their laws to nationals and foreigners alike.

This did not mean however, that Indonesia was happy with Australia locking-up Indonesian children in their maximum security adult prisons. Quite to the contrary.

So Australia had cast the web, built on the principle that it is appropriate to jail foreign children if they have broken our laws; even for minor offences.

Then on Oct. 4, 2011 along came a boy from near Sydney who was approached by touts on the streets of Kuta, offering a small quantity of marijuana.

Suddenly, in an unseen “sting” the boy was taken into custody in Bali by Indonesian police allegedly for being in possession of drugs.

Australia was about to be caught in its own legal web.

The response was immediate. Outrage was expressed by the Australian government and the public alike. “Megaphone” diplomacy was back as Australia sought the release of this “nice boy” (which I am sure he is) into his parents’ custody and calls for action against Indonesia for holding a child.

Yet, in the meantime, Australia is still holding up to 50 young Indonesian children in adult prisons in Australia for doing nothing more than work on fishing boats.

The hypocrisy and double standards is stunning, and once again Australia has trapped itself into looking like the arrogant “deputy sheriff” of Asia.

So why does Australia apply this appalling double-standard when dealing with young children from Indonesia?

Sadly, it can be seen in the comments from our foreign minister about the Aussie boy in Bali.

“He is a nice boy and he plays football and is from a good suburb in Sydney.”

And of course, he is Australian. And he is white.

Children who are brown, and who come from impoverished villages in a Muslim country like Indonesia are different, aren’t they?

And does it really matter if their parents are also “worried sick” about their kids jailed in Australia? And does it matter that these parents can’t even talk and contact their children? Not really.

In the meantime the Indonesian authorities sit back and quietly turn Australia’s own standards back on us whilst we try and work their way out of the web that we created.

There is no doubt that the boy from Australia would still have been arrested even had Australia not applied the current “silly” law to jail Indonesian kids, but these ill-considered policies by Australia have made it just that little bit harder to argue, the valid position, that this boy should be sent back to Australia as a priority.

Most Australians, and Indonesian, would say: The Aussie boy should be reunited with his family back home now.

And so should the 50 Indonesian children sleeping in adult jails in Australia.

By Ross B. Taylor
The writer is chairman of the Western Australia-based Indonesia Institute Inc., and a former WA government regional director to Indonesia.

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