The immediacy of events in Ukraine, including the recent the pro-Ukranian demonstrations in Kiev and pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Donetsk, have blinkered much understanding of the unfolding crisis to Moscow’s south. The triumphalism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Western observers blind to an underlying architecture predicated on Russia’s deeply felt need to never again be subject to a catastrophe like the "Great Patriotic War".
Between 1941 and 1945, over 26 million people, more than one in eight, died within Soviet borders. As with the Jewish Holocaust, this lesson has not been forgotten.
The Soviet Union and the post-Soviet core Russian state wanted to retain a buffer between the state and potential aggressors, as well as to neutralise potential enemies along its borders. This fits hand in glove with President Vladimir Putin’s plan for a Eurasian Union, in much the same way that the European Union was intended to neutralise long-term enmity between European states.
There is little doubt that the Russian media’s hyperbole over Ukraine’s neo-Nazis is vastly overblown, not least given the presence of neo-Nazis in Russia. Putin is himself sympathetic to "White Russian" philosopher Ivan Ilych. But that there remain members of Ukraine’s government with at least a neo-Nazi past remains genuinely troubling, both for Russia as well as a more moderate West.
In particular, the All Ukrainian Union "Svoboda" party, which has five members in cabinet, was created in the early post-Soviet era as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, intentionally mirroring the German Nazi National-Socialist Party name. Its defining characteristics were ethnic exclusivity, anti-Semitism, pronounced neo-Nazi rhetoric and, until 2003, the stylised neo-Nazi "wolf-hook" (wolfsangel) logo ...
However, by 2005, Svoboda had begun to purge its more extreme elements, broke with other European neo-Nazi groups and attempted to take on a more moderate hue. It has since clashed with other neo-Nazi groups, including the radical Right Sector at Euromaidan during the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.
Along with moderation came political success, with Svoboda’s vote increasing from a negligible proportion to around 10.4% in the 2012 elections. Some Ukranian neo-Nazi groups also had members elected as independents, although failed to gain inclusion in the new government.
That Ukrainian Nazis were key allies of German Nazis in World War II is not lost on Russian politicians. This then feeds into Russian concerns over what one former British diplomat posted to Moscow has referred to as its own "arc of instability", which ranges from Belarus bordering Poland to the west, Moldova and Ukraine to the south-east and the troubled Caucasus region of Abkhazia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan and the rest to the south and south-west.
Without its outer layer of the old Soviet bloc states to the west, unable to fully control otherwise independent former Soviet states and with ethnically distinct regions variously attempting to separate, Russia, in its darker moments, is afraid. This fear provokes a bombastic assertion, as if to ward off past nightmares.
In its more rational moments, Russia seeks future security through the Eurasia Union trading zone. But it remains brittle when challenged -- hence Russia’s intervention in the now less pliable Ukraine.
There is little economic value in creating Crimea as an internal part of the Russian state, and even its strategic value is less than it once was; Russia has other Black Sea bases. But this effective annexation is an assertion of regional dominance, which has been to date successful.
Assuming a continued lack of Ukranian compliance, Russia’s next step is likely to be "assisting" ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine also break away. The West will continue to protest, without a united voice.
But Russia’s "facts on the ground" are just that, and no one is going to war over Ukraine, probably including Ukrainians themselves.
That Russia and Ukraine have come to the brink of war in just a few short days is obvious enough. What is less obvious is not the quickly evolving events that might unfold over the next days and weeks but Russia’s end game.
As with its negotiations over the Syrian civil war last September, Russia is playing an adept game of strategic chess. While Russia has its game planned well in advance, the West is only just coming to terms with the next move.
Underlying Russia’s positioning on Ukraine, and key to its ability to fob off Western protestations, is its longer-term plan to establish a Eurasian Union to rival that of the European Union. As a significant regional economy, Ukraine is critical to the success of Russia’s bid to counter the EU, which is why Russia is insistent it remains within its strategic sphere.
Russia also stations its strategically important Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, which under a deal signed by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych it leases until 2042.
In one sense, Russia’s Eurasian Union is a reinvention of the economic relations within the former Soviet Union. In another sense, however, it is an economic reinvention of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Either way, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to restore Russia to an international greatness corresponding to that prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Russia has already sent 6000 troops without insignia to Crimea in southern Ukraine, ostensibly as "local patriots". These are to protect its naval base at Sevastopol and in support of ethnic Russians unhappy with the recent ousting of Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian. The Ukrainian government has said such moves could lead to war between the two countries.
A war between Russia and Ukraine would be bloody and vastly destructive; if Ukraine struck quickly it could achieve an initial strategic advantage. Similarly, if Russia invades it will be a long, bloody and costly conflict. Neither country wants to go down the path of direct conflict.
If Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s assertions, expected at least to be for a pro-Russia economic policy as agreed to by Yanukovych, Russia will assist ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s south and east to declare themselves independent from Ukraine. Ukraine could respond militarily to such separatism but would, by definition, then be involved in a war within its borders; Russia would have punished Ukraine without having become directly involved.
The solution to this situation would be a divided Ukraine suing for peace, the conditions of which would be greater autonomy for ethnic Russian regions and the economic obeisance of Ukraine to Russia’s Eurasian Union.
The United States and the EU are deeply concerned at current events and have made angry noises. Ukraine has requested NATO’s intervention. But while the EU would like Ukraine to become economically closer, the EU and the US do not critically need Ukraine, and NATO will, consequently, not go to war over it.
It is highly likely that, should events continue to unfold as they seem, the EU and the US will push for economic sanctions against Russia, but this then starts to play to Russia’s longer game. Russia supplies about a third of all of the EU’s oil and almost 40% of its gas. The balance of trade between Russia and the EU goes approximately 3:2 in Russia’s favour. In short, Russia needs the EU oil and gas market, but the EU needs Russia’s oil and gas even more. Trade may reduce, but Russia will survive.
More to the point, with Russia moving to consolidate its Eurasian Union as a balance to the EU, keeping Ukarine within its orbit and reducing reliance on the EU is part of Putin’s longer game. That this might well result in a new iteration of the Cold War would simply be testament to Putin’s vision of Russia’s return to international greatness.
Turmoil in Ukraine may continue and events, unfolding quickly, are not entirely predictable. But if Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting in a supremely confident manner over this conflict, as has been noted by some observers, it is because Russians play chess very well.
The ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych has ended an era of heavy-handed political rule in Ukraine, but it has ushered in a period of considerable instability. It would be distinctly optimistic to believe that the ending of Yanukovych’s rule will lead to a Ukrainian liberal democracy.
Among the mobs that occupied Independence Square and eventually turned the political tide against Yanukovych were liberals, libertarians and those who were just dismayed with the poverty and inequalities that have characterised Ukraine since the dismantling of the USSR more than two decades ago. But that mob also included neo-Nazis, chauvinist nationalists and others whose political credo does not include pluralism or tolerance.
The interim government is being run from the Parliament, in which a majority of members voted Yanukovych from power. That there remains doubt as to whether they had the constitutional power to do so is now beside the point, as the deposed president has fled, presumably to safety in the ethnic Russian-dominated south of the country, of which he is a native.
Historically divided between numerous competing ethnic groups, Ukraine again appears to be splitting along ethnic lines, with ethnic Russians in the south and east favouring Yanukovych and ethnic Ukrainians in the north and west favouring a range of parties and minor leaders. Wealth and industrialisation tend to be concentrated in the Russian-speaking areas.
Russia will want to ensure that ethnic Russians remain protected. If the Russian-dominated areas launch their own counter-coup against the Parliament, or attempt to split from the rest of the country, Russia can be expected to at least provide logistical support, an economic blockade and perhaps, as a final resort, military intervention.
Assuming Ukraine can remain geographically united, at least for the time being, the next question will be the formation of a new government, with a new president perhaps being appointed by the parliament. There has been sufficient unity in parliament to oust Yanukovych, but once the unity of the struggle and the euphoria of the victory recedes, parliament is likely to become more factionaised.
Somewhat like the "Arab Spring", hopes for a stable post-Yanukovych liberal democracy would appear to be at odds with political reality. With numerous self-serving factional leaders positioning themselves for power, a composite parliamentary government is unlikely to be stable. This is especially so is there is a push for right-wing extremists to seize power.
One of the difficulties of an unconstitutional change of political leadership, too, is the established precedent of changing government through mob rule. No matter who consolidates in power now, objectors can simply go to the streets and occupy government buildings.
If a new government, facing such occupation, fires on the mobs, it will be as delegitimised as Yanokovych. Yet if a new government does not exercise authority it will lose control of state institutions and collapse. Ukraine is thus now entering uncharted political waters.
Watching closely is its large and long dominant neighbour, Russia. Ukraine has been within the Russian political orbit for two-and-a-half centuries. The ouster of Yanukovych has altered Ukraine’s political orientation, but it has not altered its geographic proximity.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop "insists" that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is "very positive". But Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is equally insistent that there is a serious problem with the relationship. If there is regular dialogue between Australia and Indonesia, as Bishop claims, it would seem it is being conducted at cross purposes.
Bishop says the two countries talk officially almost every day, but that does not seem to have thawed relations. They were talking when the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, was again called in for a "please explain" over Australia’s asylum seeker "life boat" policy.
But what Bishop is not saying is that these conversations amount to a one-way rebuke. The most recent of these negative statements is that Natalegawa will raise the "escalated" issue of Australia returning asylum seekers to Indonesia in Australian-supplied life boats with United States Secretary of State John Kerry.
The US is a partner in the Bali Process, established in 2002 as a regional response to people smuggling. The Bali Process includes as members those countries that are the principle source of Australia’s asylum seekers, as well as those countries they are transiting through.
However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he is relaxed about this, no doubt because the US is unlikely to want to become embroiled in a regional spat between allies. But it does, again, indicate the depth of Indonesia’s concern over asylum seekers traveling from international waters back to Indonesia on Australian government-supplied boats.
There is no doubt that the Indonesian response to returning asylum seekers to Indonesia is, to some degree, playing to a domestic audience ahead of forthcoming elections. As with all countries, Indonesian foreign policy primarily projects domestic priorities. This does not, however, diminish the extent to which government mishandling of domestic concerns may wreck foreign relations.
Perhaps more so than most other countries, given its fractured geography, Indonesia has always been deeply sensitive about foreign powers impinging on its territorial sovereignty. Coming on the back of inadequately dealing with phone-tapping revelations -- exacerbated by fresh reports that Australia’s phone tapping was much more extensive than first reported -- and then Australian naval vessels entering Indonesian territory, putting asylum seekers on Australian government boats and sending them back to Indonesia now has Indonesia searching for possible responses short of expelling Australian embassy staff.
What Indonesia wants -- and what the Bali Process was established to deliver -- is a regionally co-ordinated approach to the asylum seeker issue. In short, Indonesia wants Australia to work collaboratively to stem the tide of asylum seekers, for those who do reach the region to be quickly and appropriately processed, and for Australia to accept greater regional responsibility.
That Indonesia wants to keep the Bali Process on track is part of the "very positive" conversation with Australia -- and it is falling on deaf ears. Ahead of a change of government in Indonesia and thus charting less certain diplomatic territory, Australia is likely to remain similarly blind to the damage this issue is causing to the long-term bilateral relationship.
Short of a bureaucratic snafu, which is always possible, Australian convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby will be released on parole from Indonesia’s Kerobokan prison within days. She's breaking new ground.
Parole is relatively uncommon in Indonesia, primarily because parolees have to be accepted back into the community in which they intend to reside. Many communities have been unwilling to accept convicted criminals, but Corby’s sister Mercedes and Balinese brother-in-law, Wayan Widyartha, appear to have secured support from their local community in central Kuta.
Indonesian Justice Minister Amir Syamsuddin has said Corby will not receive any special consideration for or against as he considers some 1700 applications for parole over the next few days. She will, he says, be treated as would any other prisoner.
Corby has refused to acknowledge guilt over smuggling marijuana into Indonesia, which has been a significant factor in ensuring that she did not have her prison sentence fully commuted. However, this should not be a factor in whether or not she is paroled.
This is a positive sign for Corby, as there have been cases in the past where judicial decisions have been influenced by political considerations. Clearly, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono does not consider Corby’s potential parole as a political issue, although he is attempting to put forward a candidate in this year’s presidential election in July, and despite the damaged state of Australia-Indonesia relations.
It shows, too, that the Indonesian judicial process is, or appears to be, operating in a straight and transparent manner, at least at the top. This has sometimes not been the case in the past.
As for Corby, assuming all goes according to plan, she will live with her sister and brother-in-law. She will be free to stay elsewhere in Indonesia, so long as she informs the local police of her intended whereabouts.
The catch, such as it is, is that she cannot leave Indonesia until her sentence is completed in 2016. She must also stay in Indonesia for a further year to assure Indonesian authorities that her parole has proven she is of reformed character.
On the scale of hardships, however, and especially after eight years in an Indonesian prison, living in Bali for the next three years should be relatively comfortable. This will be especially so if she is able to moderate any comments she might make to an enthusiastic media. Getting the local community offside with injudicious observations would be the last thing she would want over the coming months and years.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment that Corby will have to make is simply that of coming to terms with her prison experience. There have been indications, at different times, that she has been psychologically troubled by the experience.
More positively, that time will have ensured that Corby is at least familiar with the wider cultural mores of Indonesia generally and of Bali in particular. One would expect, too, after such time, she would have learned some Indonesian, which, although far from necessary in much of Bali, is always more rather than less helpful.
After her experience in prison, Corby’s next biggest challenge will be how she handles intense media attention. If she is able to secure a financially lucrative media deal, such as for an exclusive interview, she would be wise to be discreet about being rewarded, in effect, for her conviction for breaking the law.
Beyond that, we should not read into this parole any potential leniency for the so-called Bali Nine. They are still in very deep trouble.
Australia and Indonesia have worked hard over the past decade to build a strong bilateral relationship, seen as valuable by Indonesia and as critically important by Australia. That relationship is now in tatters.
The Australian government has been at pains to explain to Indonesia that recent naval incursions into Indonesian territorial waters, intended to stop asylum seeker boats, were unintentional. From Indonesia’s perspective, it matters little whether the incursions were intentional or just the logical if unintended consequence of a much disliked Australian government policy.
Similarly, Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers lifeboats to return to Indonesia adds a further layer of complication to Australian policy. From Indonesia’s perspective, the flow of asylum seekers is not official Indonesian policy, but the Australian navy putting asylum seekers bound for Australia in Australian lifeboats bond for Indonesia is official Australian policy.
This policy is seen by Indonesia as diplomatically clumsy as it is objectionable. Indonesia has said, repeatedly, that it wants Australia to abandon its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats. Putting asylum seekers in lifeboats only heightens those objections.
Indonesia has now launched its own naval patrols, not to stop asylum seekers leaving Indonesia but to stop Australian naval incursions. Australian naval vessels will no doubt be extra cautious about future transgressions into Indonesian territorial waters and, beyond that, there are a series of warnings to go through before confrontation.
At best, however, the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate. At worst, mistakes can happen.
The Australian navy may continue to turn (or tow) asylum seeker boats back to near Indonesian territorial waters. But it will not be able to compel asylum seeker boats to remain within them.
When the monsoonal season ends and the "sailing season" resumes, around April, the flow of asylum seeker boats is again likely to increase. The problem faced by the Australian Navy will, therefore, become more rather than less complicated.
The first question is, then, whether Australia’s defence approach to an immigration issue is sustainable. The second and larger question is whether Australia can continue to alienate, seeming indefinitely, its most important strategic relationship.
If Australia is serious about finding a long-term solution to the asylum seeker issue, it needs to work closely with Indonesia and other regional neighbors to put in place agreed and workable policies. Such policies go beyond the simple, if failed, "policing"" that existed until late last year.
Indonesia, probably Malaysia and possibly Thailand and Singapore need to have in place stricter immigration policies, to screen "onward bound" travellers. There also needs to be regional co-operation around the quicker and internationally recognised processing of those asylum seekers who do end up in the region.
Such a policy would limit the flow of asylum seekers, would meet Australia’s international obligations and would not alienate critically important relationships. However, this would require the type of trust and co-operation that Australia’s existing approach to asylum seekers has effectively ended.
The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers worked well as a pre-election slogan, but lacked a properly developed plan. As a result, Australia has dug itself into a policy hole.
If Australia now wishes to extricate itself from this situation it must start by following the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.
Indonesia’s democracy is being increasingly tested by the triple challenges of anti-reform actors, a high-level political malaise and popular disenchantment with the electoral process.
Prabowo Subianto accepts the Great Indonesia Movement Party nomination for the 2014 presidential election (Photo: Wikipedia).
One indicator of this has been an increasing tendency by the Indonesian military (TNI) to reassert itself into the political debate. Indonesia is heading into legislative elections in April and presidential elections in July on the back of poor performance by the country’s politicians, turning off voters in droves. Against this backdrop, one of Indonesia’s most senior army generals has raised the spectre of the army’s return to involvement in politics.
Indonesia’s army strategic command head, Lieutenant General Gatot Nurmantyo, has criticised Indonesia’s democracy as ‘empty’ and said that popular will expressed through elections is not always right. As a panacea, Nurmantyo has called for a reassertion of the nationalist ideology of Pancasila (five principles), which underpinned Suharto’s three decades as military-backed president.
Nurmantyo’s comments, made to a Pancasila Youth (PP) rally in October, reflect an increasing confidence by TNI hard-liners in challenging restrictions on military contact with politics. It was this hard-line faction of the TNI that helped end Indonesia’s military reform process around the time that President Yudhoyono began his second term as president.
Yudhoyono’s second term has been widely viewed as, at best, lack-lustre, and his Democratic Party-led government has been plagued by a series of corruption scandals. With other political parties fairing little better and ‘money politics’ dominating local electoral contests, popular support for Indonesia’s democratic process is in decline.
A series of surveys have shown that Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral participation rate may slump to below half. There is even an appetite among many voters for a return to ‘strong’ leadership, with a preference for candidates with a military background.
In a political environment in which one of the two front-runners for the presidency is former military hard-liner Lieutenant General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto, Nurmantyo’s breaking of over a decade of military silence on domestic politics signals a potential alternative to Indonesia’s democratic path.
Prabowo’s popularity is behind Jakarta governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in the presidential polls. But Jokowi, himself a populist, does not yet have the backing of a major political party that is required for presidential nomination. Political support — if it comes — will be from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which has also demonstrated pro-military leanings at times.
Democracy in developing states tends to be vulnerable to reversal, particularly where the military remains primarily focused on internal rather than external threats. While Indonesia’s electoral system will very likely be retained, the potential for it to be restricted in ways that render voting more or less meaningless, as under Suharto, cannot be ruled out.
Nurmantyo’s controversial address to the PP was explained away, unconvincingly, by a senior politician as not contravening a ban on military personnel being involved in politics as it focused on the state ideology of Pancasila. The PP itself was founded by the TNI in 1959, soon after the military became directly involved in domestic politics.
Initially a civilian front for the military, the PP quickly degenerated into an organisation of thugs and criminals who often undertook dirty work on behalf of the Suharto regime. It has more recently been involved in violent turf wars with other gangs and remains associated with particular factions within the TNI.
Nurmantyo’s comments are not just the ravings of a military extremist, as he has been viewed as a rising star in the Indonesian army. His hard-line views saw him recently passed over for the position of army commander, but with a more conservative president in office following the July elections it is possible that Nurmantyo’s military career could again rise.
Indonesia’s neighbours are already concerned over the outcome of July’s presidential elections and a possible lurch towards a more assertively nationalist orientation. Set against growing voter apathy, generals such as Nurmantyo are well positioned to push Indonesia even further away from its recent path of reform.
Jokowi is a populist and has not enunciated a clear policy position. He may not be as pro-military as Prabowo, but his views on the military and the nature of democracy are largely unknown. If he was put forward by PDI-P — which is not looking hopeful at this stage — he would be required to follow PDI-P policy, such as it is, which is ‘preservation of national unity’ above all, which in turn is code for a greater role for the TNI.
The likelihood of Indonesia further entrenching its democratic credentials will require a win by a convincingly reform-oriented presidential candidate. Scanning of Indonesia’s political field just months away from the elections, however, holds out limited hope.
A plan to end the South Sudan conflict being brokered by neighbouring governments is not likely to come to fruition. Despite talks around a ceasefire proposal since before the first of the year, there has been no sign of movement towards ending a spiral of violence that has torn apart the world’s newest state.
The key protagonists and the immediate causes of the conflict are well known. In mid-July, ethnic Dinka President Salva Kiir sacked his government following a power struggle within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). In the face of a claimed attempted coup d'etat, in mid-December ethnic Dinkas in the presidential guard began disarming their ethnic Nuer colleagues, linked to former vice-president Riek Machar, leading to tit-for-tat killings that quickly spiralled out of control.
The question is, though, why did a country that became independent just two-and-a-half years ago fall apart so quickly? There are three inter-linked answers, each of which will have to be addressed if the country is to have any hope of saving itself from collapse.
The first problem is one that besets most newly independent states that comprise more than one large ethnic group. With most political institutions still poorly formed and economies not sufficiently developed to create economic classes upon which to base political parties, politics tends to cohere around tribal and language groups, usually establishing geographic isolation.
Political leaders develop patron-client relationships with supporters, in which, in simple terms, loyalty is financially rewarded. Thus ethnic identification and reward come to be linked, with other ethnic groups constituting not just a political threat but a challenge to economic survival. This competition for economic resources is most acute when the state relies on a narrow income base; South Sudan is the most heavily oil-dependent country in the world, with oil receipts accounting for 98% of its income. There are, effectively, no other sources for economic distribution.
Even in cases where there is little or no prior internal conflict, such a setting is ripe for internal conflict. In the case of South Sudan, its factions also have a pre-independence history of open conflict.
Machar joined the SPLM/A in 1984, but in 1991 fell out with then SPLM/A leader and ethnic Dinka John Garang over whether South Sudan should remain part of a secular, democratic Sudan or become independent. Favouring full independence, Machar formed the splinter group SPLM/A-Nasir, based in the oil-rich north-east of South Sudan. As a result of this split, there were a number of massacres and a famine that left tens of thousands dead.
Despite his earlier pro-independence leaning, six years later, Machar reached a peace agreement with the Sudanese government and was made head of the South Sudan Defence Force, in 2000 forming a new militia, the Sudan People’s Defence Force/Democratic Front. Yet in 2002, he re-joined the SPLM/A as a senior commander.
Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005, with Kiir assuming leadership of the SPLM/A. It appeared, however, that Machar’s primary interest had been, from the outset, to establish his personal authority over the movement, leading to the events of 2012.
An end to the fighting will now only be possible if one of two outcomes are met. The first is that Kiir’s predominantly Dinka forces militarily defeat Machar’s largely Nuer forces. While possible, this does not look like presenting a permanent solution to a complex ethnic, regional and economic problem.
The second course -- which would be difficult but more sustainable -- would be if Machar abandons what appears to be continuing political ambition to control the state dominated by an opposing ethnic majority. This may be achieved by Machar being given autonomous control over the ethnic Nuer northern region of South Sudan.
There would then need to be a regional revenue sharing agreement, given that most oil production occurs in the north of South Sudan, currently under Machar’s control. As well, there would also need to be some agreement with smaller ethnic groups that are also involved in fighting.
South Sudan’s politics would continue to be dominated by tribalism, patronage and a narrow economic base, meaning it would remain fragile. But, assuming such an agreement, there could at least be an end to the killing, the resumption of oil exports and the rebuilding of this still very under-developed state.
Without a comprehensive political agreement, however, a ceasefire seems improbable, and South Sudan’s warfare is likely to continue.
There we were, sitting in a crowded room of a two-storey stone building dating back to when Bridgetown, Barbados, was a buccaneer and slaving settlement. Convicted Great Train Robber, escapee, Australian and Brazilian resident and Sex Pistols associate Ronald Biggs was sitting, handcuffed but smiling and happily relaxed in the dock, his theatrical local barrister resplendent in a tunic with red leg stripes, arguing his case.
That was April 1981. The air was soft, the water clear and, they say, the spliff was excellent.
Biggs had been recently kidnapped from Brazil by English bounty hunter mercenaries. Their boat had mechanical problems and they were rescued off Barbados, bringing into question the legal status of their involuntary shipmate.
I was a 25-year-old reporter, sent to cover the trial by a significant Australian newspaper, by way of inducement to leave El Salvador’s horrible and increasingly personalised civil war. Biggs was eminently sociable and ensured that he made eye contact with the media scrum on the benches. In the first stage of post-traumatic stress disorder, I nodded back.
Much of Bridgetown had been built by the British in the 17th century, after expelling the Spanish and Portuguese who had been there some 200 years previously. Apart from an airport, a requisite four star hotel and reggae, there was a sense that little had changed.
Biggs was by far the biggest thing that had happened to Barbados in a very long time. There were British tourists, jetting in and out. But it was otherwise "dreadlock holiday".
The British media was there, Biggs’ criminal notoriety having been given a further boost by his musically questionable appearance with remnant Sex Pistols on their video The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. For a person who could not legally work in Brazil, he had traded socially for years on his reputation as a famous criminal, receiving small gifts from visitors to attend his Rio barbecues.
Ronald Biggs was one of the Great Train Robbers, who hoisted an estimated 2.6 million pounds (a significant fortune now) from the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963. Though no one was killed, the train driver, Jack Mills, was beaten so severely his injuries ended his working life.
Of the 13 convicted participants in the crime, Biggs was a minor player. However, the trial itself was a media sensation, and Biggs gained notoriety by getting over the walls of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 and escaping with his wife, Charmian, and two sons to Brussels, Paris and then Australia.
Biggs arrived in Sydney in 1966 and soon moved to Glenelg, in Adelaide, where he was joined by his wife and sons. The following year, and with a new child, they moved to Melbourne.
In 1969, it had become increasingly obvious that the infamous Ronald Biggs was in Melbourne. He was all across the local news. So he fled by ship to Panama, and then to Brazil where, by fathering a Brazilian child, he fought off extradition appeals by the UK government.
While living in Rio, Biggs became a local celebrity. One could buy T-shirts and coffee cups with his image. The remnant Sex Pistols teamed up for a quick punk recording of No One Is Innocent and Belsen Was A Gas, which made #7 on the UK charts.
In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by ex-UK soldiers. But Barbados, small, only independent since 1966 and without many legal structures, had no extradition treaty with the UK. Biggs was returned to Brazil.
Biggs dragged out the rest of his minor celebrity with other punk bands and generous tourists, but chose to return to the UK in 2001. He was immediately returned to prison, but sought release on the basis of poor health. He was released in 2009, having served a third of his original sentence.
Biggs' health continued to be poor, and he suffered a series of strokes. Free from prison, he said he just wanted to see Christmas of 2009.
Ronald Biggs, 84, has fallen just short of seeing Christmas 2013.
Australia and Timor-Leste are in a diplomatic lull following the revelations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste's cabinet via agents working through its aid program. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is in South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, who had visited him in prison in Jakarta and thus helped elevate his international status.
But one senior minister, left to mind the shop, chuckled quietly. By spying on Timor-Leste, he believes that Australia has provided the mechanism required to invalidate the unequal Timor Sea treaty between the two countries.
There is official insistence that Australia and Timor-Leste remain close friends, despite the occasional angry comment. This particular dispute, the Timor-Leste government believes, should remain quarantined from the wider relationship.
Australia's official perspective is similar, with ambassador Miles Armitage taking a soft line towards recent demonstrations outside the Australian embassy. He was dismayed by riot police over-reacting and firing tear gas at a small group of protesters, also gassing ordinary police who had the situation well under control.
But it is not as though spying in Timor-Leste is much of a secret. One minister privately joked that the Chinese-built foreign affairs building is full of listening devices. And then there is the Chinese-built presidential palace and defence forces headquarters.
Australia is far from alone in its close interest in the Timor-Leste government. It is also far from alone in keeping tabs on the other representative offices here. Embassy row, along the seafront west of the town centre, boasts compounds that would look impressive in much larger capitals.
The substantial presence of China, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Portugal and the other Lusophone states -- Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand -- reflects Timor-Leste's strategically important location astride oil and gas fields, a critical submarine deep sea route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and being in the middle of the world’s largest archipelago.
It also reflects the simple fact that, with everyone here and paying attention, everyone else also feels they need to be here and paying attention to everyone else. Timor-Leste itself demurs on this question, claiming that it does not have the capacity to spy.
Yet in its 24-year struggle for independence, the Timor-Leste guerrilla army's intelligence network surpassed even that of the notoriously extensive intelligence network of the Indonesian military. The old networks, like the old clandestine names -- of which Prime Minister Xanana, President Taur Matan Ruak and past parliamentary speaker Fernando Lasama are but a few -- remain intact.
Information -- about everything and everyone -- always has been and remains the richest of prizes in Timor-Leste. To the extent that intelligence gathering activities have changed since Indonesian times, it is only their much greater scope that is different.