Saving Chan And Sukumaran: A Life Taken Is Taken From The Mother


It is 10 years and two months since the final moments of Nguyen Tuong Van’s 25 years of life. Early that morning, mothers all around Australia were handing their children over to trusted teachers, kindergarten and crèche carers. His mother, Kim Nguyen, was forced by the Singapore High Commissioner to hand her son over to a hangman.

Some time in the coming weeks the families of the Bali Nine ringleaders Myuran Sukumaran, 33, and Andrew Chan, 31, will be forced by the Indonesian government to hand over their sons to a firing squad.

A year after Nguyen Tuong Van hung, his mother Kim Nguyen stood outside the State Library with her son’s supporters and sobbed. Her suffering had not subsided in a year. I doubt it has eased in 10. It may never.

The Singapore High Commissioner’s principle justification for condemning Kim Nguyen to a lifetime of anguish was the same given by the newly elected Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, who has evoked a ‘drug emergency’. Unless these young men are executed, thousands of other families will be shattered by their children’s drug addiction and overdoses. Families, it is argued, who never got to hug their sons and daughters goodbye.

Ultimately, Kim Nguyen’s life was also sacrificed to support an abstract and unproven idea that her son’s death would prevent others’ sons and daughters from dying. Yet the organiser of Nyugen’s heroin trafficking remained an active figure in a local crime syndicate.

However, by taking their sons’ lives from them, it is the blameless mothers ultimately held accountable for the machinations of international drug syndicates, those embroiled in the trafficking of arms, women and children. These mothers are sentenced, for the term of their natural lives to ineradicable torment.

Throughout their childhoods these mothers cut their son’s lunches, made sure they were warm enough, that their shoes still fitted, their teeth were brushed, their hair was cut, their clothes were washed, sorted, folded and put away. No doubt they sometimes had to delouse them, clean up their vomit, teach their to blow their noses, and lift the seat. Perhaps they also gritted their teeth when they snatched, or ignored their fifth request to make their beds.

Raji Sukumaran, Helen Chan and Kim Nguyen engaged in the cyclic minutiae of maternity, the invisible and relentless labour and relating behind doors, that quietly keeps schools, workplaces, our daily workaday, ticking over.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran pictured at their sentencing in Indonesia.

On the execution of these men the ineradicable fact that their mothers made them is repudiated and disavowed. Their birthing, breastfeeding, carrying in arms, potty training, their guidance over their first wonky steps… all that work, that love, all the moral authority that should accrue to any dedicated mother is trampled and trashed.

For these reasons, and the universal experience of maternal care, Australia’s media focus has highlighted the miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the drug offenders’ families. It is their helpless subjection to their sons’ imposed fate that most provokes an outcry. Who can forget the picture of Kim Nguyen in 2005, broken, too frail to support herself, her hair whitening, her terror palpable and overwhelming.

But if her suffering galvanised Australians’ opposition to the death penalty then, it also brought to our notice the knife-edge of oblivion we feel each time our kids fail to text where they are, or they vanish behind us at the airport, or a tyre squeals or an ambulance howls past when they’re due back from the park.

What we’re doing with all that buckling and locking, fencing and padding is fighting the odds. You never forget that moment you let go of their bicycle seat as, finally balanced, they pedal into a yawning breach. As you whoop and cheer aloud inside you’re yelping inarticulately, don’t go… not too far, don’t fall… not too hard.

Having set them on their feet, fended off as best you can life’s slings and arrows – be they freak accidents, culpable recklessness, drug addiction, climate change or terrorism – at some point we all hand our kids over to arbitrary and bewildering edicts and institutions, that men who’ve usually had no hand in caring for children, decree. And of course they should be subject to rational and proportionate law. But death, no-one has the moral authority to take a life.

It is an acute irony that Nyugen, Sukumaran and Chan became subject to laws that mothers have had little involvement in formulating. The particular needs and claims of mothers are rarely represented in public life. Despite vast differences in mothers’ circumstances we all experience time impoverishment. It obstructs our community, economic, and political participation. We do the hard yards, the midnight pacing, etc, then hand our children-citizens over to toxic corporate diktat and alien government statute.

I wonder if Peter Costello ever reflected on why mothers were offended when he called upon Australian women to have ‘one for the country’. Our sons and daughters are not fodder for a thriving economy that marginalises and disavows maternal labour. They are not fodder for armies that have been deployed in the illegal invasion of lands where other mothers then try desperately to protect and provide for their children. Our kids are not parts of ‘economic units’. In the end families are relationships created, nurtured and maintained largely by the physical and intellectual work of mothers.

Rather than actively cross over from the domestic realm and take their place as a public mother advocates, as Rose Batty has done, Kim Nguyen, Raji Sukumaran and Helen Chan have been dragged unwillingly into the public spectacle of tragedy. I doubt they care much now whether their sons have been misrepresented as heroes or martyrs, as some have argued, or whether the impact and meaning of their crimes has been subsumed beneath the horror of their execution. A lifetime of care – lives that these women created and have a right to – are being stolen from them.

Our children are all subject to laws either proportionate or unjust. But when it comes to our children’s lives, the inalienable right of mothers should be enshrined and protected in international law.

We must now recognize and demand these rights for Raji Sukumaran and Helen Chan, and the other mothers of the Bali nine. Nyugen’s anniversary and the spectacle of his mother’s inconsolable grief must appear before these innocent families as the specter of lost life – their children’s and their own. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.