It is usual to look forward to a new year with a degree of hope and optimism but, so far as much of Australia’s region is concerned, there is little chance for that. Given the conflicts that continue at varying levels of intensity in our part of the world, 2010 will probably go down in the history books as a year of missed opportunities.
For each of the conflicts in the region, a solution has been identified, if rarely taken up or meaningfully so. There is widespread agreement about how to settle many regional conflicts, but a distinct lack of political will to do so.
The separatist Islamic war in the southern Philippines is, at one level, perhaps the simplest to resolve. This is because both main parties to the conflict have agreed on the basic terms and conditions for a sustainable peace.
There is a widespread view in the West that, in its clash with radical Islamism, that Islam and democracy are fundamentally irreconcilable. The view holds that, even in the few cases where an avowedly Islamic country can hold elections, these will reflect tribal loyalties and vote-rigging rather than open and competitive politics.
There are considerable grounds for such pessimism, given the corruption of the electoral process in Afghanistan and Iran and the religious factionalism of Iraq. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh, at best, do little more than stumble between corruption and military coups.
The shooting of one of West Papua’s independence leaders, Kelly Kwalik, has opened up new opportunities for a negotiated resolution to that troubled territory’s long-running problems. Kwalik was one of two senior commanders of the Free Papua Organisation’s National Liberation Army (OPM/TPN), and had a reputation as being among the OPM hard-liners.However, despite recent Indonesian army claims, he was not behind a recent spate of shooting near the enormous Freeport gold and copper mine, a claim which was accepted by local police.
Kwalik’s death came after an informer told another group of police that he was behind the shooting, and where he was hiding. In an attempt to arrest him, police shot Kwalik in the leg. However, he died in hospital, in circumstances that remain unclear.
In Indonesian political culture, there was a view that inconvenient or challenging truths should be suppressed in order to retain harmony. This view had largely disappeared from Indonesian political life in the 1950s, but was re-invented by former President Suharto in order to remove challenges to his personalised authoritarian rule between the mid-1960s and the end of the 1990s.
The decision by US President Barak Obama to send a further 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, to be backed by around 10,000 extra personnel from allied countries, is his attempt to deliver a knock-out blow to the Taliban and the establish order and stability in that historically fractious state. But will this strategy work?
The Australian government’s approaches on asylum seekers, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq are debacles that reflect an inability to break with Howard-era approaches to foreign policy. Trying to turn the Howard-era foreign policy sow’s ear into a Rudd government silk purse is doomed to policy failure.
What does work, and could have reasonably been expected from the Rudd Government, is starting from a clean slate. Going back to Labor Party policy and what is in Australia’s long-term best interest would have produced, and could still produce, some very different results.
On asylum seekers, the numbers coming to Australia are miniscule compared to other signatories to the Refugee Convention. Rather than pander to the artificial panic about Australia being swamped, the government should have taken, and can still take a practical and morally defensible leadership role.
When the Rudd Labor Government was elected two years ago, there were high hopes that it would leave behind the more negative foreign policies of its predecessor Howard Coalition Government. What we have, though, is a foreign policy shambles, overwhelmingly as a result of the Rudd Government allowing itself to be trapped by the Howard Government’s legacy.
Australia’s policy on asylum seekers is framed by the Howard Government’s ‘dog whistle’ politics, which effectively bought off the Hansonite right and confused much of the middle ground over the distinction between legitimate refugees and illegal immigrants – the overwhelming majority of the latter arriving by plane.
Yet the Coalition has been successful in again wedging the Labor Party. In response, the government claims to be ‘tough on border protection’ but ‘humane on asylum seekers’. What it is, however, is confused.
There is no issue more critical to the success of democratic projects anywhere than the civilian control and accountability of those institutions of state that exercise the capacity for compulsion; the military, police and intelligence services. The two requirements of these institutions of the ‘security sector’ are that they are effective in providing security from external threats and internal law breaking, and that they do not themselves constitute a threat to the state or its citizens. Where the security sector does not comply with these conditions, it can and often does create a hurdle to sustainable development, normative political progress and the sense of security these outcomes are nominally intended to provide.
With waves of Tamil refugees now fleeing Sri Lanka, the question has been raised as to whether any among those seeking asylum are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, a group proscribed as a terrorist organisation in many countries. This question reflects a Western obsession with ‘terrorism’, but not much about what drives people to supporting such ‘terrorism’ or fleeing their own country.
The situation in Sri Lanka has been, since independence in 1948, that the Tamil minority have been increasingly marginalised and persecuted by the Sinhalese majority. Sinhalese was long the official language of state, structurally excluding Tamils from public life, with this situation remaining the situation in practice. There have been numerous anti-Tamil riots and the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Tamils at various times over decades.
Just two weeks before it recently left office, the outgoing legislature of Aceh, the DPRA, passed the Qanun Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Bylaw). International reporting on this move portrayed the legislation as allowing – or even requiring – the ‘stoning to death’ of adulterers and the torture of women. The international image of Indonesia generally and Aceh in particular suffered greatly, and unfairly.
It is widely assumed that the out-going DPRA passed this law in an unfortunate and misguided attempt to cause problems for the in-coming DPRA. But the real issue concerns the extent to which democratic principles are finding a home in Aceh, and in Indonesia.