Kremlinology in Indonesia: Is Jokowi channeling Stalin, or Gorbachev, or both?

1) The consensus about the four-aircraft fighter escort accompanying the death flight to Cilacap is that its only likely security purpose was the protect the transport plane from Australian attempts to intercept and divert it. After all, every time some authoritarian country in Southeast Asia proposes executing an Australian convict, zealots in Australia propose sending in the special forces to execute a jailbreak. The problem with this consensus is that it ignores the practical impossibility of anyone in the Australian military considering such a plot to liberate an adjudicated convict from an officially friendly country. That kind of talk is nothing but blather from the fringes.

A much likelier scenario for interference was piracy by the flight crew. The ATR 72-600 can easily fly from Denpasar to Christmas Island or East Timor on a full tank. The flight to Cilacap was probably flown on a partial tank, since the straight-line distance was less than half of the plane’s range, but fuel reserves would have to be minimized to keep a competent pilot from successfully diverting the extra 230 or so miles to Christmas Island. A competent pilot can optimize the cruise speed and altitude if necessary to extend the range, especially with the moderate payload that the death flight appeared to be carrying (empty seats, presumably not much baggage).

The precedent for such an act of piracy can be found in the lengthy list of defections by military aviators. All a defection would have required would have been either a flight crew with a conscience or one that had been bought off. There’s no way that Australia or East Timor would have extradited Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran back to Indonesia in these circumstances. There’s been too strong a call for clemency in Australia, and East Timor is still nursing old grievances against Indonesia from its war of independence, many of them having to do with human rights violations by the Indonesian military. Had the pilots done that, they would almost certainly have gotten asylum from whichever country they reached.

The death flight pilots could have pulled their fighter escorts into a game of brinksmanship. If a fighter had in fact shot the ATR down for any reason, it would have been front-page news around the world for days. The Indonesian government would have immediately fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Other countries that normally can’t be bothered to care about the plight of Indonesia’s death row inmates would have been seriously alarmed. To be really cynical, such a catastrophe would have been a welcome public relations relief for Malaysia Airlines, finally diverting attention from its custom of getting its 777s into trouble.

Alternatively, if the Brimob and Gegana personnel on the transport flight had stormed the cockpit or summarily executed Chan and Sukumaran or started a standoff with Australian or East Timorese authorities upon landing, there still would have been a huge international furor. Even if they had reacted violently in flight under unclear circumstances, it would have looked really suspicious for them to fail to deliver their prisoners to Nusakambangan alive and bodily intact. They were under too much international attention to get away with failing to deliver their prisoners safe and sound.

The same mentality on the part of the Indonesian government probably explains the huge police presence around Kerobokan Prison during the transfer. Chan and Sukumaran have strong support at Kerobokan from fellow inmates and guards alike. They probably have friends there who would literally have taken a bullet to save them from transfer to Nusakambangan. The decision to effect the transfer before five in the morning wasn’t made just in consideration of traffic and media attention. Had Brimob tried to take Chan and Sukumaran away in the daytime, with most prisoners awake and most cellblocks open to the yards, they probably would have provoked a full-blown prison riot, and the guards probably would have been on the side of the prisoners this time. It took several hundred police and soldiers to put down the 2012 riot at Kerobokan. Many dozens were arrayed in and around the sallyport during the transfer, nominally for crowd control. But there’s another way to look at it. If a single Brimob squad had come to take Chan and Sukumaran away in a prison van, Kerobokan’s administration could have turned them away. The force that the police had arrayed just in and around the sallyport was enough, if need be, to storm the prison and chase down the guards at an hour when the cellblocks were on nightly curfew.

The Stalinist precedent for this hours-long show of force was Order Number 227. This was Stalin’s “not one step back” order, under which NKVD snipers were stationed behind the Red Army infantry on the front lines to shoot all cowards on sight. Nobody on the Allied side has ever accused Stalin of being ineffectual or incompetent in issuing this order, but it did have some moral shortcomings.

2) Jokowi seems to be thinking better of his nationalistic belligerence around the Nusakambangan prisoner transfer. In addition to the receding horizon for the current round of executions and the about-face on allowing the judicial process to be exhausted, he has said on the record that he’d be comfortable with the abolition of the death penalty at some time in the future because “if that’s what the people really want, why not?”

Jokowi is giving himself a huge amount of wiggle room. He is openly choosing not to lead on principle, but to pander to popular sentiment, and popular sentiment in Indonesia is divided on the upcoming executions. At least one recent poll, by the Jakarta Post, shows a majority in favor of clemency for Chan and Sukumaran. Meanwhile, more and more allegations of corruption and incompetence in the handling of appeals by various condemned inmates in the current cohort are coming to light. The president is getting into a position to argue, with at least a modicum of plausibility, that he has called off the executions because the judiciary and the judicial council have concerns about the process being broken, he wants to respect the independence of the national judiciary, etc.

Jokowi seems to be moving the goalposts around so that he can present himself as hapless but honorable. And that’s really the best outcome for everyone involved in this horrific mess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s