At a time of unprecedented good bilateral relations with Indonesia, Australia is now looking to its future. Indonesia’s shift towards a more open democratic framework has allowed the previously troubled relationship to stabilise, but its future remains uncertain, especially over the medium to longer term.
The renewed focus on relations with Indonesia reflects its continuing critical value to Australian foreign policy. It is Australia’s largest near neighbour, the world’s largest Muslim country, a major regional diplomatic actor, the key transit point for Australian trade, travel and irregular migration and, again, a growing economic partner.
Australia policy thinkers are therefore looking at options for the longer term relationship. Among those considerations is increasing bilateral strategic engagement. More than any other aspect of the relationship, this is likely to generate controversy both within Australia and in Indonesia.
The current debate in Timor-Leste about whether to use a ‘mother tongue’ or home language for the first years of education or whether to focus on building Tetum as a national language has raised a number of important points. These include whether local languages are, in the long term, viable and whether they could promote disunity, or whether children already disadvantaged by communication in a multiplicity of languages will learn better if they start in a language they are most familiar with.
The literature on learning does clearly indicate that children are more engaged and do have better educational outcomes if they at least begin their education in a language they are most familiar with. A second, national language can be taught as part of the school curriculum and, at a point at which students are sufficiently advanced, they can switch to the national language.
As the rhetoric heats up ahead of Timor-Leste’s official campaigning period for the forthcoming presidential elections, there is considerable interest in how the political process will unfold in 2012. There are a range of possibilities, but some possible outcomes do seem more likely than others.
The big question is whether Timor-Leste voters are likely to show the voting discipline they did in the three rounds of elections in 2007. In those contests, the vote for the first presidential round was very closely reflected in the second round, with the minor parties but one throwing their support behind Rose Ramos-Horta, who was elected in the second round with an overwhelming majority of just under 70 per cent. Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, increased his vote from just under 30 per cent to just over 30 per cent, reflecting the addition of the support of a further, minor party.
The first (verbal) shots have been fired in Timor-Leste’s presidential elections, scheduled for 17 March. Among the announced candidates for the election are Fretilin’s president, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and former commander of Timor-Leste’s armed forces (F-FDTL), Jose Maria Vasconcelos, better known as ‘Taur Matan Ruak’. Current president Jose Ramos-Horta has said he will announce whether he will stand for a second term as president in early February. The Timor-Leste presidency is, according to the constitution, a largely ceremonial position. However, Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao before him have tested the constitutional limits of the office. In a speech to Fretilin village chiefs in Baucau recently, Taur Matan Ruak spoke strongly in favour of his candidacy for the presidency. Fretilin, he said, had not governed well as the first post-independence government.
There is a quickly developing sense that Burma, long an outcast in the international community, has begun a serious process of reform. It is as though the Burmese opposition, and the world behind it, are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, where a hostage comes to love the hostage taker following a small sign of kindness.
Burma’s human rights record over the past five decades has consistently been among the worst in the world. It is also one of the world’s biggest international drug suppliers.
To counter the damaging opprobrium this brings, the Burmese military-derived government has now released hundreds of political prisoners, signed a ceasefire with the country’s largest ethnic rebel group and has allowed the opposition National League for Democracy to re-form. The NLD has announced that it will challenge 23 of 48 vacant seats in by-elections to be held on 1 April.
The handing down of a ‘not guilty’ verdict on sodomy charges against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim indicates a tectonic shift in Malaysian politics. Following a previous overturned conviction on a related charge, the immediate outcome of Anwar’s judicial decision is significant, but its longer term implications could be profound.
In a country in which the judiciary has been used as a political tool since the late 1980s, the ‘not guilty’ decision by Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah went against expectations, even by Ibahim himself. Although the decision was widely viewed as a vindication of Anwar, it also reflects a possible break in political interference in the judiciary and, in turn, a relative weakening of what was a high level of central political control.
When one’s expectations are low, it is difficult to be disappointed. But even with almost no expectation that the report of Sri Lanka’s ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) would seriously address prima facie evidence of war crimes, it has still left a wide range of observers dismayed. The only lesson that appears to have been learned is that the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has worked out how to get away with murder.
The Journal of Foreign Relations said the report ‘exonerates the military, does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism’.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is continuing at its all-time high following the conclusion of the East Asia Summit in Bali. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has come away from the summit confirming a major reduction in tariffs in trade with Indonesia, providing further "ballast" to the once-troubled relationship.
Even Australia’s agreement to host US Marines in the Northern Territory has caused fewer problems than sometimes insecure strategic commentators in Jakarta might have indicated in the days immediately after the plan was announced. Having said that, it is unlikely that Australia will take up President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s suggestion that Australia also play host to China’s military, by way of balancing assertions of regional power.
Presentation to the Asia-Pacific Civil-Military Centre for Excellence, 8 November 2011.
Gadhafi’s death brings to a close the war for liberation that has wracked Libya for much of this year, but pushes to the forefront a host of new issues that have only just remained under the surface, particularly over the few weeks. How these issues are handled will shape Libya’s foreseeable future.
There are a range of criteria that indicate the likely success or failure of a post-conflict state, high among which are ethnic or tribal distinction, and institutional capacity. Institutional capacity includes not just a functioning administration and the provision of basic services, but the extent to which rule of law is embedded in society and the legitimacy of ruling groups or individuals.