Opinion

He made his mistakes, he told me. Simple. He blamed no one else for his crimes. Against unimaginable odds, Myu had become a good man. By Ben Quilty.

Ben Quilty
Racism, the death penalty and Myuran Sukumaran

How many times will I have to watch as a privileged, white politician pronounces, “We are not a racist country”?

I’m keenly aware that we are a remarkably tolerant and multicultural society. But we have a deep scar of racism that runs thick through our suburbs. And we all know it. Ask an Indigenous person how their day goes. Think of their ancestors being driven off their own land. Think of the hundreds of recorded Indigenous massacre sites across this country, how only a shameful handful are publicly acknowledged.

Think of the thousands of Chinese who trekked through dry forests to cross the Great Dividing Range for gold. Think of how Chinese cemeteries in the gold rush areas of our eastern states are often not publicly signposted, left inconspicuous so that the constant looting and graffiti eases. Think of the teams of Afghan men who led some of the most important inland explorations and who are still grossly underacknowledged in the history of this country. These men were shunned despite their work, forced to the edges of settlements to live in “Ghan towns”. Their bodies were unwelcome in the main sections of cemeteries.

These examples are historical, but the racism that drives them is not. Every single group has faced racial harassment, decade after decade, refugee after refugee, day after day.

At my primary school a little girl, two years older than I was, gave me my first vivid insight into the racism that every person of colour faces in my country. Ask them. They will all tell you the same story. She wore pigtails. Her Italian mum plaited them with the same gorgeous intimacy that my wife, Kylie, tends to my own little girl’s long hair. But when my eight-year-old arrives at school she is never spat on, she is never surrounded by older boys and girls throwing food at her, taunting her, tripping her, calling her “wog”, “greaser”, “maggot”. Boys have never pulled my daughter’s pigtails in violent and sadistic banter. I was too small to help the little girl at my primary school, but it tore at my conscience then and it still upsets me today – the fact I could conceive no way of stopping the assault on her.

Then at high school, the Chinese boy in my class – I can’t remember that boy having a conversation with another child that did not involve him being racially taunted. I searched online for him this year. The relentless racial abuse that he faced has haunted me for years. He had an inner strength. He never showed the slightest flaw in his demeanour, a crack through which an ocean of sadness must have been ready to burst every single monotonous day. I’ve had no luck finding him and wonder if his parents had abandoned their dreams of a better life and returned to the safety of China.

Raji Sukumaran abandoned her own troubled homeland when her eldest son was a year old. She fled war with her ill husband, from Sri Lanka to London, following a trail of Sri Lankans, all seeking a safer future. London in the ’80s was brutal for the Sukumaran family and within two years Raji was planning to resettle again in Australia. In the last year of her eldest son’s life, I asked him if he’d faced racism as a kid at school in the western suburbs of Sydney. He laughed. Not one day had passed where Myuran Sukumaran did not face racial abuse and physical violence. That realisation was the closest I came to getting a clear insight into the path that led that little boy to his profoundly selfish crime and the final, breathtaking punishment. Never did Myu allow me to talk publicly about his childhood and the barrage of racial abuse that he had become accustomed to as a little boy. Like so many of my friends who’ve faced similar racism as children, they wear it in silence. It’s a part of their history they reconciled themselves to about a decade before they were old enough to vote. As a child, some primordial urge to be happy must allow little people to walk on, head down, through the assault. But the possibility of broken parts of a psyche after such a brutal childhood are, personally, impossible for me to reconcile. And now that my dear friend Myu is dead – executed by the Indonesian state, along with Andrew Chan and six others – it is important for me to air that. He quietly impressed upon me that the decisions he made were his own. He owned them and wanted no excuses offered for his making them. When I began to tweet #boycottbali he phoned me, irritated and anxious, and again asked for me to back off. It was not the Balinese who had made his mistakes. He made his mistakes, he told me. Simple. He blamed no one else for his crimes. Against unimaginable odds, Myu had become a good man.

When faced with the online cruelty of herds of faceless Australian trolls writing about Myu’s fate it was impossible for me not to assume that there was a racial bent to their hatred. At first they seemed so grossly misdirected, until I took into account that thick, ever-present scab of racism. Myu was a brilliantly reformed prisoner. He was honest and loyal, intellectually rigorous, humble and calm. The guards new it; his lawyers knew it; everyone who met Myu knew it.

Many questioned why I stood up for him. I was one of many, although through necessity I became one of the public faces of a community who had relentlessly fought for Myu and Andrew for almost 10 years, including lawyers, teachers, artists, philosophers, journalists and politicians. Why would we stand up for men who had broken the law in another country? How could we be so arrogant to tell them, the Indonesians, what to do and how to act? Their questions were frighteningly aggressive and at the time I was completely bewildered by them. But at what level should people stand up against injustice? There are governments right now that stone women to death for cheating on their husbands. There are still systems that employ children as slaves and sanction the beating of women for wearing the wrong clothes. Across the ocean from Denpasar, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has killed almost 6000 people this year alone – untried, untested victims of his “war on drugs”. Around the planet there are people who are punished for their gender, their sexuality, their age and their nationality. I did wonder if the trolls’ toxic spittle would have smashed across my computer screen if Myu had been a young white man of Irish descent, like me. 

I am part of a community who is quite ready to stand up for our beliefs. We are ready to calmly call on other countries to seek compassion, strive for forgiveness and fight for human rights. We should call out bullying and racism in our schools and we should also use our most diplomatic voices to call out injustices in every community, on every continent. My beliefs lie in atheism. The beliefs that bound us in our fight for Myu and Andrew are not solely Christian values. They are fundamental to Buddhist and Islamic beliefs, Hindu, Sikh and Judaist. We weren’t declaring war on Indonesia for our beliefs, but we were standing up, using our voices, clearly and calmly – and if that “affects our relationship” with Indonesia, then so be it. As the world, from my studio, appears to be sliding sideways right now, loud clear voices are a fundamental part of the way out of this bloody mess. Voices are never violent and never threatening if those voices are calling for compassion.

On January 13, 2017, Myu’s exhibition Another Day in Paradise opens at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney. The arts centre is a short drive from Myu’s primary school and from the high school he attended with Andrew Chan. In prison, Myu was by far the most dedicated student I’ve taught. He was reformed before I met him. Like many of my old mates, Myu was trying to find his place in the world, only he was searching for his calling from inside Kerobokan prison, Denpasar. Many nasty things have been written in the Australian press about that place over the past decade. A lot of it can be put down to our voracious need for sensationalism, but it’s also about our unerring belief that as white people we are better than Sri Lankans, Indonesians, and most definitely better than Balinese prison guards. The truth is that Myu was dedicated to that place. He created a sanctuary inside it, for himself and for many other prisoners. Kerobokan prison worked for Myu, and it worked for Andrew. They became good men, dignified and brave. This exhibition finally allows Myu to come home. His legacy will stand up proudly and against the most astonishing odds, against his childhood and his grossly misspent youth, and show the world that reformation is a completely and profoundly realistic outcome.

Next year it will be 50 years since Australia has committed execution. Ronald Ryan was hanged in Pentridge prison on February 3, 1967. Back then opponents of the abolition screamed that without the vicious deterrent of gallows our society would slide backwards into violent anarchy. In 2016, Iran, America, China, Indonesia and North Korea all carried out executions. I’d suggest that we, 50 years later, are more peaceful than all of them. 2017 is a year for all Australians to stand up against brutality, against violence, against racism and against the death penalty. It is for the most compassionate Australians to sway popular opinion in our region. It is an obligation and it is a responsibility. Internationally, in 2017, we will have the moral high ground, the soapbox, and it should be used. Execution is not a deterrent to young wayward men. No punishment is. But reform is real. Myuran Sukumaran proved it. The exhibition of his brilliant paintings is testament to Myu’s world and to the power of a voice that he worked so hard to create.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Another day in paradise". Subscribe here.

Ben Quilty
is an Archibald Prize-winning artist and co-curator of Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise.

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