If times of crisis show the true mettle of a government, Malaysians must be wondering about their government’s response to missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
After decades of working with a tightly controlled media and, overwhelmingly, getting a very easy run, the Malaysian government has been asked to answer hard questions by unbowed journalists.
The Malaysian government is used to passing over issues without question, much less challenge, by local media (online media, such as Malaysiakini, is the exception). But over the past several days the struggling Malaysian government has been looking increasingly inept. It would be a laughing stock, but that this is no laughing matter.
At one level, government spokespeople have contradicted each other, often within hours, about the status of the plane, what could have happened to it and what the likely scenarios are. At another, more basic level, they appear wholly unable to gather clear and hard information and to present it coherently.
The government was initially slow to report that the plane was missing at all. It then took days to announce that military radar had determined that the plane had doubled back on its course.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (pictured), who has been the government’s public face on the issue, said that his handling of the MH370 issue was "above politics". Yet the government has "outed" opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim by saying that he is related (distantly, by marriage) to the pilot of the missing plane, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The implication is that there was some connection between the plane’s disappearance and the government’s trumped-up sodomy conviction against the opposition leader.
Yet when French journalist Carrie Nooten asked Hishammuddin if he was being protected for his incompetence as a result of being the cousin of the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, she received a barrage of criticism from the pro-government Star newspaper.
Hishammuddin has been criticised internationally for saying the police had gone to the home of the pilot of the missing plane, even though they did not go to the pilot’s home until several days after the acting minister made this statement. He also raised doubts about the plane’s communications systems being switched off, even though that information had been confirmed.
The Chinese government is also dismayed by the Malaysian government’s inability to provide timely information. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the delay "smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information".
When a foreign journalist on Monday asked about criticism over slow and confused information, Hishammuddin said it was baseless. "I have got a lot of feedback saying we’ve been very responsible in our actions," he said, then went on the attack: "It’s very irresponsible of you to say that."
The government is also refusing to share what information it has about the missing plane with the opposition. Opposition members were not invited to an update briefing on the investigation on Tuesday, yet government parliamentarians were invited. A government MP told the opposition they should not question the minister’s "prerogative" on the matter of invitations. He said opposition MPs had not been invited because they would release the information via social media.
In an information vacuum, and fuelled by the government’s ill-informed ramblings, rumour and speculation has taken the place of hard information.
The Malaysia media has recently reported everything from the plane having burst into flames mid-flight, crashed in the ocean, been hijacked by the crew or others, landed on a remote airstrip, flown in the shadow of another plane, and being seen over the Maldives. Even that doyen of accurate reporting, Rupert Murdoch, has been twittering into the void: 'World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden.'
The Malaysian government’s incompetence is now playing out as an election issue in a byelection in the town of Kajang in Selangor state on Malaysia’s central west coast. Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, is a PKR (People’s Justice Party) candidate in that election. Kajang is currently held by the PKR.
In its five decades in power, assisted by rigging electoral boundaries, the Malaysian government has rarely been held to account, much less scrutiny. It is not used to addressing questions directly or, sometimes, honestly. However in recent years its grip on power has weakened.
The MH370 crisis has shown how sclerotic the otherwise comfortable Malaysian government has become.
Lining up with death and taxes, the outcome of the weekend’s vote in Crimea on whether or not to join Russia was certain before the event. Somewhat remarkably -- with about two-thirds of Crimea’s population being ethnic Russian and the other third being openly opposed to joining Russia -- the vote to join Russia was said to be running in excess of 90%.
While the outcome of the vote may have reflected reluctance by non-Russians to vote in a referendum that was a foregone conclusion, it also -- at least in part -- continued to confirm doubts about the veracity of the result. Foreign journalists had been largely cleared from Crimea before the vote and no independent ballot monitors were allowed.
The referendum was marked by the extremity of the pro-Russia propaganda. Billboards told Crimean citizens that the choice was between Crimean voting for becoming Russian or becoming Nazi. This was in reference to about 10% of Ukraine’s parliament comprising far-right or neo-Nazi party representatives.
The referendum question, too, was whether Crimeans wished to join Russia immediately, or if they wished to be independent, leaving open the option of joining Ukraine at a later date. That Crimea is currently a part of Ukraine was not identified in the referendum.
But backed by Russian troops on the ground and Russian naval ships blockading the strategic port at Sevastapol, the question of nuance over language was only one of a litany of critical problems facing the technically unconstitutional referendum.
The real question now is whether Russia acts to incorporate Ukarine, as passed by its own Parliament two weeks ago. The alternative is that Russia’s President Valdimir Putin could use the vote in favour of unity with Russia to further pressure Ukraine into "voluntarily" turning away from the European Union and returning to the Russian economic camp.
With an estimated 60,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders too, and considerable dissent and pro-Russian sympathy in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev will be disinclined to try to wrestle back control of Crimea by military means. At best, this would spark a civil war, which would leave Ukraine divided. At worst it would lead to a Russian invasion, which Ukraine would not be able to stop.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government's friends in the West remain conflicted on what action to take over Russia's heavy-handedness in Crimea. Germany in particular is taking a softer line on proposed economic sanctions than other EU countries.
Economic sanctions are likely. This then plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s hard-liners, who have long been in favour of a split with the West. Instead, they are seeking to strengthen ties with an increasingly powerful China. Some even want a deliberately confrontational relationship with the West, by way of reasserting Russia’s status as a power worthy of the world’s attention.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry says he still hopes for a compromise arrangement with President Putin, in a bid to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The difficulty with this is, increasingly, there is no mood in Moscow for a deal. In any case, as Russians will tell you, in Russian there is no equivalent for the English word "compromise".
In linguistic theory there is, broadly, a view that the language that is available defines one’s ability to conceptualise -- if the word does not exist then neither does the corresponding idea. If this leaves what English speakers might regard as a gap in how Russians thereby understand the world, they might take even less comfort from the further fact that, in Russian, there are seven different words for "enemy".
In the race for the Indonesian presidential elections in July, Joko ‘Jokowi' Widodo has just been nominated as PDI-P's presidential candidate. This follows a decision by former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to shelve her own plans for an unlikely comeback to support the long-standing front-runner.
The 52 year old Jokowi is streets ahead of the nearest contender, former Kopassus chief and ex-Sunarto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto. Opinion polls show Jokowi consistently running at between double and triple Prabowo’s potential vote, with more than a third of the electorate favouring Jokowi in the first presidential round. Translated into a second round vote, Jokowi should, on current numbers, win the presidency in a landslide.
Having said that, Indonesia’s presidential elections are not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, nothing is a foregone conclusion in politics. But Jokowi would now have to make a serious error not to have a fairly easy run to the finish line.
Such challenges that the preferred presidential candidate now face will come after the elections, not before. The challenges that Jokowi will face will be principally around economic policy - he doesn't have any, yet Indonesia desperately needs to start charting a clear course if its economy is to reach anything like its potential.
Related to this, there remains a big question as to how Jokowi will handle Indonesia's economic rise, assuming it happens as predicted, and its parallel rise as a strategic power. The choices he will face are whether to continue to be inwardly focused and not assert Indonesia's increasingly important role in the region, or to look outwards and make Indonesia a more active international player.
On balance, one would say he will likely remain a conservative, or a minimalist, on foreign policy. Indonesia’s economy, on the other hand, could certainly benefit from clear economic direction, but Jokowi can be expected to be fairly hands off, with his default position tending towards nationalist or protectionist policies.
Beyond that, at this stage of the political game, there is not a great deal the others can do to 'steal' Jokowi's limelight. In Javanese culture, power accrues through perceived lack of action, or discreet action, rather than through overt action.
The more Jokowi’s main rivals, Prabowo and Golkar’s Aburizal Bakri, act, the more they will be seen as 'kasar' or coarse and over-reaching. Jokowi only need be himself to continue his good run of luck and the sense of charisma that appears to build based in his populist but not assertive appearances.
Jokowi is often portrayed as a ‘man of the people’, and he can claim to be closer to the ‘wong cilik’ (little people) than most of the political elite. Indeed, so much invested in Jokowi’s populism that he is seen to represent a clean break with the corruption and money politics that has dominated Indonesia in its post-Suharto period.
Yet in Indonesia, it is all but impossible to be successful in business, as Jokowi was in his home town of Surakarta, without at least flirting with corruption. That he has been a successful politician, first in his home town and then as Governor of Jakarta, perhaps speaks more to his engagement outside the main players in Indonesia’s oligarchy, rather than his complete removal from the world of patronage and favors.
The only possible problem that Jokowi would now face in his run to the presidential finish line will be if there is a critical issue between now and the election that Jokowi is unable to respond to adequately, and if his facade consequently crumbles, His charisma might then quickly crumble.
This close to the elections, though, it would have to be a dramatic issue and an equally dramatic collapse to have any real impact. All Jokowi need do is react little and he would be sufficiently politically preserved to use his electoral buffer to get across the line.
If one was to lay a bet, one would have to say that the odds are now very much stacked in favor of Jokowi becoming Indonesia’s next president. The next big question will be, once in office, how he will wield the still considerable authority the office holds, and whether he can stitch together a legislative majority to help ensure that whatever program he does try to implement will have some success of being passed into law.
Achieving office, in Indonesia, is one thing. Being able to do something with it to address the country's sense of drift is, however, quite another.
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.