Life on death row for Bali Nine inmates
I’d seen Myuran Sukumaran before. His hulking frame in pressed white shirts: nonplussed, sullen, leaving court appearances, dwarfing swarms of Indonesian cameramen. I’d seen Andrew Chan, too, trudging through Kerobokan prison, shoulders rounded, tattooed, almost cocky – every part the clichéd Western Sydney drug thug. I’d seen what everyone else had seen.
When I met Myuran in person this month, it was in a brightly painted room with banks of windows and trilling ceiling fans and large, simplistic portraits on the walls, as you might find in a market down the road in Kuta. It looked like any high school art room. A dozen plain-clothed inmates sat on low chairs, their heads bowed to the sketchbooks on their laps. It was a casual encounter without any of the nostalgia or gloom I’d been preparing myself for. A week earlier, Myu had learned he would be executed. He did not know when, but at some near time, in the middle of the night, he would be taken from his cell, blindfolded, and shot.
Andrew was still awaiting official word as to his fate, though the confusion of official statements and rumour suggested that his plea for presidential clemency – like Myuran’s – would be rejected soon.
Stepping over a concrete barrier that stopped water from the often-flooded jail courtyard engulfing the art room, Myu walked us into another room, dimly lit and ringed with computers. Three inmates worked away on graphics software beneath a dozen or more canvases with thickly lathered portraits of plum and pink. They were all obviously made by the same artist. My first thought was my cousin, the painter Ben Quilty, who had been mentoring Myu and who had brought me to the prison. But I quickly realised they were Myuran’s. Most were heavy, sombre reflections of the artist himself, portrayed in a manner not dissimilar to what I had seen on the nightly news: morose, within himself. But there was a sadness in the paintings that humanised him for me, and I began to perceive sensitivity and anguish and stoicism in what I had previously mistaken as indifference.
Standing there, any suspicion I might have had that Myu’s endeavour to bring education to Kerobokan was a cynical bid for leniency was squashed.
After a quick tour of the facilities that he’d worked at acquiring, maintaining and administering for the benefit of the other inmates, Myuran and Ben rejoined what had grown to a class of 20-odd students in the art room. For three hours, Myuran translated the tuition Ben gave the inmates on anatomical drawing, while working through the exercises himself. The class included a prison officer – the second in charge at Kerobokan – who had come in on his day off to attend the class.
The officer’s attendance was as remarkable as it was ordinary. In the classroom, he was just another student. He and Myuran paired off at one point to do three- and then five-minute sketches of one another. It was a simple but intimate exercise and, performed with such mutual beneficence, indicative of the respect Myuran had garnered after nearly 10 years inside.
Myu’s booming physical presence belies his gentle demeanour. He is thoughtful and softly spoken and Ben had to admonish him for his self-deprecation more than once. With all he’d brought to the prison – the art room and his drawing classes, the computer room, a workshop for designing and printing T-shirts and making surfboards, a vegetable garden and English lessons – there was a reverence in the way the guards and inmates carried themselves around him. He’d become a leader, but he accepted it humbly.
Late in the morning, while the other inmates continued with their drawings, Ben jumped to his feet when Andrew Chan appeared at the art room door. He wore a South Sydney Rabbitohs training shirt that he’d been given by a visitor, despite being a diehard Penrith Panthers supporter, yellow sports shorts and a pair of well-worn running shoes with a dial gizmo in the place of shoelaces. He carried a small black bumbag and a perpetual, amused smile. When Ben and Myuran encouraged him to stay and join in, he laughed them off like a shy man on the edge of a dance floor and joked about the stick figures he drew.
Despite Myuran and Andrew’s good cheer during our visit, the news of Myuran’s failed bid for clemency had clearly affected the mood inside Kerobokan. Myu was noticing that his Australian friends – the other members of the Bali Nine – were avoiding him, as were some of the guards with whom he’d become close. No one was sure how to approach him since they’d heard the news. He didn’t know how he was meant to respond either.
When the class broke for lunch and one of the five daily rollcalls, Andrew joined us and conversation turned easily to their cases. The two spoke pragmatically about what lay ahead. They’d had long enough to become, if not comfortable with their predicament, at least capable of managing the idea of it.
Andrew’s manner was one of endearing naivety. He seemed just as keen on discussing the Rabbitohs as the plea to Indonesia’s new president to spare his life. Despite not having seen anything in writing, he’d heard that it had been rejected anyway. Soon after, it was.
There was comfort for Andrew and Myuran in the way they saw themselves as one in front of the law. Myu didn’t seem concerned that his plea for clemency had been rejected while his mate still waited for confirmation. There was a sense of solidarity in being resigned to the same fate, regardless of the fate itself.
Ben and Myuran returned to an empty art room this time. Earlier in the day, Myuran had whispered guiltily to Ben that he hoped they could work one on one later. They did so in stifling heat, nonstop for the next four hours. First, Myuran watched over Ben’s shoulder as he painted Kerobokan’s chief warden, who had also come in on his day off to see the two at work. They then swapped roles – Ben scrutinising each of his student’s brushstrokes, before and after he made them. He challenged combinations of colours mixed for solitary marks and admired successful impressions on the canvas.
Working with such intensity, it was easy to forget Myuran’s predicament. It was obvious that the day immersed in painting had taken his mind off what had consumed it for the week prior, in which time – for the first time since he’d met Ben – he hadn’t picked up a brush. Instead he had cried a lot. That was as new to Myuran as not painting was.
I imagined Myu not long after we’d left the prison, being locked in his cell – painting’s curative mantra finished for the day. Ben did, too. As he spoke with a reporter in his hotel lobby, a cloud of despair overcame him, before it morphed into anger. The lack of compassion he’d seen since taking up Myuran’s cause had shocked him, the racism that his new friends had endured growing up in Western Sydney. He sobbed and wiped tears away unapologetically. “It’s just fucked. I hate our country sometimes”.
Myuran is the first person to admit that what he did was greedy, selfish and could have potentially brought harm to people he would never have had to face. Many will argue that it’s easy to admit one’s wrongs once caught, that he knew the risk he was taking smuggling drugs. They will prefer to judge him as the boy he was when he made his mistakes rather than the man he is now. Not many will explicitly say he deserves to stand, his hands bound and his face hooded, in a field, a dozen police officers aiming their rifles at him and firing bullets into his chest. But they will say he got what he deserved.
For me, it is impossible to say that Myuran deserves this. I was the first to admit I was surprised at what I saw in Myu, in his painting and in what he brings to the lives of his fellow inmates. To take to a finite period of young life with such a sense of vocation and generosity is hard to conceive of and deeply inspiring.
While in his presence it’s easy enough to forget what brought him to where he is. What’s more difficult to reconcile is that his judgement is anachronistic. Politics aside, in the context of who both Myuran and Andrew have become, their deaths would be a great waste. They are not asking to be freed. They are asking to be given life in prison.
Even to the government whose laws they broke and to the ones they sought to take advantage of, both Andrew and Myuran are far more useful alive than dead. They’ve both reformed beyond what they may have ever become had they not made their mistakes and had the chance to right them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "Life on death row". Subscribe here.