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.
As we learned from Foreign Minister Stephen Smith last night (20 October), there is now an agreement between the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for Indonesia to accept asylum seekers bound for Australia. Move over John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, and make way for Kevin Rudd’s ‘Indonesia Solution’. Mr Rudd will take considerable satisfaction from his visit, formally to mark President Yudhoyono’s swearing in for a second term, producing what he will no doubt regard as a diplomatic coup.
Australia’s sometimes difficult relations with Indonesia are travelling fairly well at the moment, in large part due to President Yudhoyono’s democratic reformist tendencies. That Mr Rudd is also comfortable with regional leaders, and has taken an active interest in Indonesia since at least 1997, further assists the relationship.
The death yesterday of South-east Asia’s most wanted criminal, the terrorist Noordin Mohamad Top, came as a happy surprise to Indonesian authorities, given they did not know he was in the Solo, Central Java house they were raiding. However, given the closing security net around Top, it was always possible that he would meet his end in such an unplanned way.
The real question that comes with the death of Malaysian-born Top is whether this will spell an end to Islamist terrorism in Indonesia or, indeed, South-East Asia. The answer is twofold, the first part depending on how one defines ‘terrorism’, and the second part depending on how one defines ‘Islamism’.
The Australian Federal Police announcement that it will investigate charges of war crimes against perpetrators of the murder of five Australian based journalists in the East Timorese town of Balibo in 1975 has put a legal cat among the diplomatic pigeons. Already senior Indonesian politicians have objected, saying they will not cooperate with such an investigation, while the Australian government and department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is going into a now well practiced mode of damage control.
The Australian government, including PM Rudd and Foreign Minister Smith, have predictably – and correctly - said that the matter is a judicial one that does not involve political intervention. Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono is likely to say much the same, although a government spokesman has already reacted with some hostility.
It is hardly novel that a politician looking back at the glory days of office will want to ensure that their political legacy looks as positive as possible. And for whatever faults one might find with John Howard’s period as prime minister, he was a politically-successful prime minister.
One wonders, then, why Howard finds it necessary to create a palpable fiction over his commitment to East Timor's independence, which he claimed was both inevitable and that he would go along with it. Similarly, one wonders why a journalist of Paul Kelly's stature would participate in the peddling of the fiction that "the Howard government decided in early 1999 to work for East Timor's independence", given evidence to the opposite is both overwhelming and freely available.
Steve Holland wrote in Crikey yesterday complaining about a supposed ‘media blackout’ in East Timor. As with another issue, he is wrong about this. There is no media ‘blackout’, but rather a refusal by the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, to continue to feed into under-researched stories that have already been shown to be factually incorrect.
Refusing to comment on an incorrect premise does not, of course, equate to ‘censorship’, as Steve Holland claims.
As a matter of principle, all governments, including those of small and democratic neighbours, should be open and accountable. For those who have been following East Timor for some time, this has generally been shown to be the case.
On Sunday (30 August), it will be 10 years since the people of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia. Following 24 years in which more than a quarter of the population was killed or died as result of the occupation, the vote of almost 80 per cent in favour of independence was not surprising.
What was extraordinary was that in what had become a war zone, 98.6 per cent of registered voters turned out to vote. Many had trekked long distances over rough tracks, coming down from the relative safety of the mountains to line up before dawn at polling stations across the territory.
Heavily armed Indonesian police and soldiers stood at, and inside, polling centres. The Indonesian army’s proxy militias strolled in and out intimidating voters. In the village of Balibo, Indonesian intelligence officers directed the Halilintar (Lightning) militia and paid cash to ‘voters’ trucked in from West Timor.