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Damien Kingsbury's blog

Indonesian lessons for choppy East Timor waters

The Coalition government’s first months in office have been a crash course in regional politics, with somewhat more emphasis on the "crash". Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has now put in place the first of what is expected to be six steps to repair Australia's damaged relationship with Indonesia, while relations with East Timor are being battered by clumsy handling of that country's claim for arbitration over the Timor Sea.

Bishop's visit to Jakarta and her softer approach to Australia's culpability over spying on Indonesia, including its President, was exactly what was needed to keep this critically important relationship on track. Unfortunately, it was needed more than three weeks ago, when such an approach could have averted the subsequent fallout.

Had Bishop gone to Jakarta with exactly her current approach when the spying scandal first broke -- but before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was involved -- the issue would have been neutralised. Instead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in via Parliament, making a bad situation worse.

That lesson about pre-emptive diplomacy has now been learned. But Indonesia will have to take the lead and shape a re-established relationship.

With East Timor, the government -- and its predecessor -- have known for years that Australia would face a legal challenge over the forced carve-up of the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government has long signalled that its claims against Australia included allegations of Australian spying in order to gain an unfair advantage.

With the first hearing on the matter in the International Court of Arbitration known well in advance, it is deeply puzzling why Attorney-General George Brandis would wait until almost the eve of the hearing before ordering raids on the office of East Timor's lawyer, Bernard Collaery, and the home of a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer.

Brandis claims the raids were not intended to try to thwart East Timor’s case, but were rather focused on preventing the release of classified information. But given the timing, that is not how it looks.

In any case, most of the relevant material was already in The Hague and will be available to the court. The raids and cancelling of the passport of the former ASIS officer are a minor glitch for East Timor’s case, but will be counted against Australia’s argument before the court.

So, too, being counted against Australia will be former foreign minister Alexander Downer’s support for Woodside Petroleum -- the major player in proposed Timor Sea gas extraction -- and the economic benefit it stands to receive as a consequence of the Timor Sea carve-up. That Downer has since been put on Woodside’s payroll looks, at best, like a conflict of interest.

At stake in the hearing is the legality of Australia’s CMATs agreement with East Timor which, if it is found to be invalid, will also invalidate two previous treaties which are "read together" with CMATS. Up for grabs, again, will be the issue of a permanent sea border between the two countries, and control over more than $40 billion worth of gas and oil.

Should this claim be successful, not only will the sea border with East Timor be up for grabs, the previously related sea border with Indonesia will then become out of synch. One border will reflect a median point between two countries, the other the edge of a continental shelf.

Of major concern to Australia is that it could now lose territorial reach and control over a good proportion of the Timor Sea's resources. Of at least equal concern is the flow-on effect this could have for the border with Indonesia.

A dispute between Australia and tiny East Timor over their sea border is troubling. A subsequent territorial dispute with Indonesia would make the recent spying row pale into insignificance.

Thailand on the brink of military intervention -- again

For a country that has so much in its favour, Thailand seems to be locked in a historical cycle of elected governments and military coups. The current political turmoil wracking the country’s capital, Bangkok, looks to be bringing it back to the brink of military intervention.

The political divides in Thailand that have led to the current crisis are not as simple as corrupt elected leaders versus trusted technocrats. Thailand’s politics is multi-layered, geographically divided and reflects a series of differing agendas and ideologies.

As with Thailand’s last political crisis, this one can be broadly understood along "red shirt/yellow shirt" lines. The "red shirts" hold elected government; the "yellow shirts" want them out. But, more accurately, this current contest is now more clearly between elected government and an anti-democracy movement.

The governing Pheu Thai Party (PTP) is headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted prime minister Thaksin Sinawatra, who founded the PTP’s predecessor, Thai Rak Thai. Thaksin and Yingluck hail from the north of Thailand but also draw their support base from the north-east and, broadly, among working-class Thais in and around Bangkok. They have had a generally consistent numerical advantage over the opposition, the support base for which is largely urban and middle-class.

Opposing it is the Democrat Party, with demonstrations organised and led by recently resigned Democrat parliamentarian Suthep Thaugsuban. As deputy prime minister in 2010, Suthep ordered attacks against pro-democracy protesters, leaving 90 dead and 2000 injured. Suthep has announced the formation of the unelected "People's Committee for Thailand's Absolute Democracy under the Constitutional Monarchy", of which he would be secretary-general.

The military, always the key arbiter in Thai politics, is divided, but with its officer corps largely sympathetic to the opposition and/or the royalty. Thailand’s final political authority rests with the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in the past has acted as a political circuit breaker.

However, the widely respected and much loved 86-year-old (on Thursday) king has been in physical decline in recent years and is regarded as no longer active. His successor, Prince Vajiralongkorn, is (in a country where criticising the royalty remains illegal) somewhat less popular than his father.

Thailand’s powerful business community tends to oppose the ruling PTP. But it, too, is divided. The more powerful lines of influence are not based simply on class, but divides among Thailand’s oligarchy, which shares a patronising top-down approach to all politics. This then reflects competing ethnicities (various language groups of Chinese-descendant Thais are dominant), patron-client networks and a traditional urban-rural divide that casts rural Thais in derogatory terms.

The PTP is widely seen as corrupt, buying votes and then engaging in corruption to cover costs. But the proposition that a "people’s council" of technocrats can be trusted is nonsense; apart from any other tendency they will, by definition, be unaccountable. Corruption is, thus, a given.

Where the king was happy to have a hands-off approach to Thai politics, other than in times of crisis, the prince is said to be more actively interested. One view has it that the current protests intend to restore the royalty to direct rule, with the backing of the army, or most of it.

Their agenda is to remove the PTP from power and to install, at a minimum, administrators appointed by the king. But with the king largely incapacitated, this decision would then fall to his son. The prince would thus become the less-than-benign arbiter of state affairs.

Over the past century, Thailand has experienced a military coup or an attempted coup, on average, at least once every five years. It is instructive, at this time of crisis, to note that the last military coup was seven years ago.

Myanmar: it is not a democracy (yet)

Just having Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.

But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar's still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.

There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.

But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the United National Development Party (UNDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.

So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.

Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.

The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a "Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy", enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.

Suu Kyi’s Australian -- and international -- campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.

Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.

But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.

Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the UNDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.

To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.

This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.

Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.

So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions "constitutional reform" or "change", she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.

Burma backgrounder: it is not a democracy (yet)

Just having Burma’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.

But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar's still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.

There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.

But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.

So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.

Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.

The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a "Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy", enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.

Suu Kyi’s Australian -- and international -- campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.

Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.

But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.

Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the USDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.

To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.

This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.

Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.

So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions "constitutional reform" or "change", she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.

Abbott, that 'coarse' diplomat, is in an Indonesian pickle

It may be that the letter sent by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will start to calm diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Given political sensitivities in Jakarta, it also may be that tensions will continue in any case, particularly if the letter is deemed inadequate.

But what is becoming increasingly clear is that Australia's close relationship to Indonesia, developed especially since Yudhoyono has been in office and at its strongest just a couple of months ago, may remain in reverse for a lot longer to come. This is likely to be the case even if the immediate diplomatic row is resolved.

There are three key drivers to the dispute, at least one of which will continue to affect the relationship regardless of the impact of Abbott's letter. The first driver of the dispute is that Yudhoyono is both angry and dismayed that he, his wife and senior officials had been directly spied on. As a former army general, he was well aware of the vulnerability of mobile phones to intercepts, and he is unlikely to have conveyed particularly sensitive information using it.

But Yudhoyono has gone out of his way to befriend Australia, often to domestic criticism, and now feels personally betrayed. To fix this, a letter and perhaps even a phone call to Yudhoyono are now probably too little, too late. According to senior Indonesian political academic Professor Bahtiar Effendy, Abbott needs to get on a plane and talk this through face-to-face. He will probably also need to propose an intelligence code of conduct.

This then raises the second driver; Abbott's diplomatic skills. His comments in Parliament were seen to diminish the importance of the matter and thus entrenched a pre-existing antipathy from Yudhoyono. Abbott had already alienated Indonesia’s political leadership while in opposition, with his "turn back the boats" policy playing very poorly in Jakarta.

This was made worse during his September visit to Bali, when he showed up late for two functions and excluded the Indonesia media from a press conference. Yudhoyono was said to have made sure he did not sit next to Abbott at the APEC summit dinner.

Indonesia's media, insulted by their exclusion, now regard Abbott as fair game.

Moreover, Abbott's front-footed political style goes down poorly in Indonesia, where it is regarded as coarse. This "coarse" perception was made worse by government pollster Mark Textor tweeting "that bloke who looks like a 1970s Filipino porn star", understood as referring to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

The third and now most important driver in the bilateral relationship is that Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party have been tracking poorly in polls and he is seen as a weak leader. Although he cannot stand for re-election in the presidential elections next year, he wants to anoint a successor. To do so, he needs to be seen to be strong. Standing up to Australia is, now, not just an easy option but a necessary one.

It's also necessary for the rest of the field of likely candidates in the elections. None are as well-disposed towards Australia as Yudhoyono has been and all have jumped on the nationalist, anti-Australia band-wagon.

Regardless of Abbott's letter to Yudhoyono, the negative perception of Australia will now not come off Indonesia's nationalist agenda. The bilateral relationship over the next 10 months ahead of Indonesia's elections will be, at best, cool.

Depending on the outcome of those elections, Australia's relationship with the growing regional economic and strategic power could turn even colder.

What the Australian Prime MInister must do to fix the Indonesian relationship

The current breakdown in diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia is close to -- or is -- the worst the relationship has been. There has been nothing of such damage to the relationship since Australia’s intervention in East Timor in 1999, when Australia sent in troops with the permission of the Indonesian government to address a problem resulting from the Indonesian government being at odds with its own military.

Military co-operation, support for Australia’s asylum seeker program and intelligence sharing has now been suspended by Indonesia, and there is not even a fig-leaf of support in Indonesia for Australia. The current spying issue is more damaging than the East Timor intervention, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono feeling personally betrayed by a country he considered a friend.

The suspension of key bilateral activities has ended Indonesia’s reluctant support for Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It can be safely assumed that Indonesia will not be accepting back any boats for the foreseeable future.

But Indonesia’s response is unlikely to end there. Without an adequate response by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, there is likely to be the suspension of further activity between the two countries. Areas that are likely to be affected include trade arrangements and Indonesia’s support for Australia in regional forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the strategic ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

An element of the current controversy reflects political point-scoring in Indonesia as actors jockey for position ahead of next year’s elections. However, there is also a very real sense of anger and dismay over the spying allegations. Many senior Indonesian figures have never entirely trusted Australia, and this issue has only confirmed their mistrust.

From Australia’s perspective, there has long been a quiet but very real concern that Indonesia’s next president, to be elected in September 2014, will be not nearly as well-disposed towards Australia. It was widely hoped that the strong relationship with Indonesia that existed until recently could be maintained in order to ensure that Australia goes into those uncharted bilateral waters in the best possible shape.

That option has now all but disappeared. Even if this affair can be settled down, there will remain a lingering sense of mistrust from Indonesia.

Australia’s best option at the moment is twofold. Abbott needs to fulsomely apologise to Yudhoyono privately. Yudhoyono might or might not choose to make public some or all of that apology, but that would ultimately be his call to make.

Abbott also needs say publicly that Australia apologises for the hurt and mistrust that has been caused by the allegations of spying, without formally confirming that such spying has or has not taken place. He also needs to say that Australia’s regional intelligence activities will be reviewed with the intent of ensuring that no further offence will be caused to Indonesia. Again, this will not require going into details.

This is what should have happened when the spying scandal first broke two weeks ago. Had this been said then, the current issue would have been nipped in the bud and the fallout would not now exist.

The question for the Australian government now is not whether it acts, but how quickly and precisely how to phrase the public component of the apology to Indonesia. Not to do so risks not just immediate difficulties, but could derail the relationship with Indonesia into the longer-term future.

Australia fails to act on latest spying revelations

Australia’s diplomatic relationship with Indonesia has gone from bad to worse following the latest damaging revelations about Australian spying on senior Indonesian political figures, including President Yudhoyono and his wife Ibu Ani. Indonesia is now expected to act on the matter, expelling Australian diplomats and suspending joint information gathering programs.

The most troubling aspect of this issue is the Australian government’s failure, so far, to attempt to neutralise the damage that is being caused to the relationship. This is despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott, describing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as “all in all, our most important”.

Yet despite this affair now running over two weeks, there has been no action taken to settle it. Had the Australian government acted when the first spying claims were made, this latest issue of top level spying would have already largely been addressed.

However, Mr Abbott’s comments that all countries gather intelligence, though accurate, will be viewed as dismissive in Indonesia and adding insult to injury. This is at a time when Mr Abbott needs to apologise, in public, to the Indonesian leadership, and not as an unconcerned leader to the Australian public.

The revelation that Australia Defence Signals Directorate has tapped the phone of President Yudhoyono and his wife Ibu Ani is particularly embarrassing to Indonesia, given that President Yudhoyono has invested a great deal of political capital in the relationship. There have long been many politicians in Indonesia who have viewed Australia with a much more jaundiced eye than Yudhoyono. They will now be feeling vindicated, and Yudhoyono will have lost face.

With the Australian spying issue being played out in Indonesia against the backdrop of next year’s elections, Australia has further made itself an easy target for political point scoring. A strong and defensive sense of national pride has long characterised political debate within Indonesia, with Australia regularly singled out as a country with a history of offending that sensibility.

But even moderate political actors in Indonesia will feel compelled to take a strong stand against Australia. Not to do so will be seen domestically as having abandoned Indonesia’s sense of sovereignty.

In the short term, the expulsion of some diplomatic staff and the suspension of bilateral programs will cause problems, especially to Australia’s asylum seeker program. But the longer term fall-out could be at least as damaging.

Because Australia has not yet moved to assuage Indonesian concerns, Australian spying can be expected to resurface each time the issue of the bilateral relationship is raised in Indonesia. Each time a proposal is put forward about closer diplomatic, intelligence or strategic ties, the spying issue will be inserted as a consideration.

Australia will not, and probably cannot, substantially reduce its intelligence gathering activities in Indonesia. But it remains possible to at least give a public rhetorical semblance to a review of such activities. This would go a long way towards calming the growing anger that is being expressed in Jakarta.

Australia’s previously troubled relationship with Indonesia has, in recent years, been described as the best that it has ever been. It has been widely viewed as critical to secure the strength of that relationship as Indonesia heads into a new, post-election political environment. That intention, however, now appears to have been dashed.

At best, Australia can look to salvage what is left of the relationship. To do that, however, it must start taking public diplomatic steps in that direction.

East Timor's fragile stability under threat with PM retiring

East Timor's Prime Minister and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, has announced his intention to retire from politics. Two East Timor media sources say Gusmao will retire in 2015, two years before the conclusion of the current Parliament, with another source saying he will leave in 2017.

Gusmao, 67, will make way for a new generation of political leadership within his own party, the Timorese Council for National Reconstruction (CNRT). His departure from politics may also signal a more broad generational change in East Timorese politics.

Former prime minister and current Opposition Leader Mari Alkatiri was also expected to retire ahead of the 2017 elections, paving the way for a new generation of leadership to come forward on both sides of politics.

There is, however, concern as to whether the still fragile country will be able to sustain a coalition government under a less charismatic and less widely respected leader. The current governing coalition is comprised of three parties, led by CNRT and dominated by Gusmao.

Gusmao has had health issues in recent times, in particular a back problem that has caused him to seek treatment overseas and that continues to plague him.

No successor to Gusmao has been announced, but a likely candidate is the CNRT's general secretary and Justice Minister, Dionisio Babo Soares. Soares has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University and a degree in constitutional law from Udayana University in Bali.

Another possible successor is Secretary of State for the Council of Ministers and trusted Gusmao adviser Agio Pereira, who spent much of the Indonesian occupation in Australia, where he was a conduit for Gusmao's external relations.

Gusmao rose to power during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Following a series of serious setbacks to the resistance (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin) and as the only surviving member of Fretilin's central committee, in 1981 Gusmao was elected to the leadership of the resistance.

By the mid-1980s, Gusmao reconsidered the appropriateness of Fretilin's hard ideological line, leading in 1987-88 to his decision to leave Fretilin and remove the guerrilla army from control of the party. He then set about establishing a broad pro-independence movement and building international support. It was the 1987-88 division that has continued to mark the key ideological division within East Timorese politics.

Gusmao was captured by Indonesian troops in 1992, but he continued to lead the resistance from prison in Jakarta, being released following East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999.

In terms of post-independence national leadership, Gusmao has held the fragile state together in a way that his predecessor, Mari Alkatiri, could not. The stability that currently marks East Timor’s social and political life can be traced to Gusmao taking the prime ministership in 2007, following its near collapse in 2006.

Following Gusmao’s departure in 2015, there will be a question as to whether East Timor’s still-fragile politics will continue to cohere around two general political blocs, or whether it will fragment into less stable coalitions.

There is also a question of the country's continuing financial viability, which, on current planned spending, is expected to run into financial problems in around 15 years, or sooner if spending stays at current levels.

Gusmao's departure will come at a time when East Timor faces a new set of critical challenges -- reducing economic capacity, a growing population entering the very limited employment market and a potential lack of unifying leadership.

Sri Lankan human rights concerns derailing Commonwealth summit

Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has gotten off to a troubled start, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh withdrawing his participation over the host country’s human rights record. This follows a decision by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to also boycott the event due to human rights concerns.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is attending the event but has called for an independent international investigation into Sri Lanka’s human rights record if there is no meaningful progress by the Sri Lanka government. This marks an escalation of British pressure on Sri Lankan government, as it is the first time that the UK has called for an international investigation into the deaths of some 40,000 people in the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war.

While Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is attending, his own visit has been overshadowed by the detention of Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and New Zealand Greens MP Jan Logie. The two Greens politicians were attending pro-democracy meetings when they were detained and questioned, before being deported.

The Sri Lankan government’s somewhat brittle responses to human rights concerns was only highlighted to journalists covering CHOGM. The Sri Lankan Government handed out to visiting journalists a 222-page book attacking reports by the UK’s BBC Channel 4 on human rights issues in Sri Lanka. Channel 4 has issued a rebuttal.

Singh withdrew from the CHOGM under pressure from Indian politicians, in particular from the large Tamil Nadu state in south-eastern India. While Sri Lanka’s Tamils are largely separate, the two groups have retained close cultural contacts, and the Tamil Nadu government provided support to Tamil Tiger rebels in the 1980s.

India is also concerned about the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka, given Sri Lanka’s strategic proximity to India. China helped arm the Sri Lankan army for its final push against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and has since invested heavily in the country, including helping to build a port in the south of the country.

Since the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tigers, there have been increasing concerns about broader human rights issues. These have included forced disappearances, sexual violence against Tamil women, attacks on Sri Lanka’s media and what is said by critics to be an increasing closure of Sri Lanka’s democracy.

Abbott will attend CHOGM, in part not wishing to offend a government that has been quite willing to assist with stopping asylum seekers leaving Sri Lanka for Australia by boat. However, the conditions that compel at least some Sri Lankans to leave their homes for the risky journey to Australia will now receive closer attention by the international media.

The Sri Lankan government had hoped to showcase the country’s development since the end of the Tamil separatist war. Increasingly, however, the international media is focusing on stories a little more critical than an otherwise largely anodyne meeting in a country that has such a bloody recent history.

With Indonesia, the relationship is going from bad to worse

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is at one of its historic low points, despite claims to the contrary by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. What is unusual about this most recent contretemps with Indonesia, with which Australia has previously had several difficulties, is that, unlike in the past, the current problems are entirely a consequence of Australian policy.

Australia’s alleged spying on Indonesia is both bipartisan and largely necessary. But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not yet moved to allay concerns in Jakarta by saying Australia’s intelligence program will be reviewed and offensive activity ceased (even if it will not).

However, the Australian government’s handling of the asylum seeker issue has been purely a matter of domestic political choice. It is an "own goal" that was part of the planning for the game.

That policy is all but in tatters, following Indonesia refusing to readmit 63 asylum seekers bound for Australia. According to Indonesian authorities, this is the third such refusal to accept back asylum seekers; Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has finally acknowledged it was at least the second such rebuff, not having acknowledged previous problems in his less-than-frank weekly briefings on the asylum seeker issue.

Indonesia’s point-blank refusal to accept the asylum seekers on this more public occasion has raised real doubts about whether the government’s policy on turning back asylum seekers can work. If the government cannot turn back boats, as it said it would in opposition, it may now be forced to accept the same, much criticised policy as adopted by the former Labor government.

Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Legal Political and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, is expected to soon formalise Indonesia’s permanent refusal to accept asylum seekers from Australian rescue vessels, other than in emergency situations. This would appear to end the government’s plan to return asylum seekers "when safe to do so". Indicating Indonesia’s growing frustration with Australia, on Friday, Djoko said:

"The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government."

Following Djoko’s statement, the Australian government backed down on its push to have Indonesia accept the asylum seekers.

Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro added to Indonesia’s public dismay over Australian asylum seeker policy by confirming that Indonesia had never agreed to asylum seekers being returned to Indonesia and that Australia should "send the asylum seekers to their detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not to Indonesia".

Anger in Indonesia over Australia’s attempt to return the asylum seekers has further damaged relations already seriously strained over allegations of Australian spying in Indonesia. Indonesia’s presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah has again reconfirmed that spying on Indonesia is "unacceptable".

In response, he said that Indonesia "will take steps that cannot be disclosed to the public". Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already identified co-operation on people smuggling and terrorism as areas that will be "reviewed".

The government’s closely controlled media management strategy also appears to be coming unstuck over these two issues, with Indonesian authorities either contradicting or providing alternative accounts of matters that the Australian government is only reluctantly revealing.

The issue of Australia spying on Indonesia is far from resolved, and the asylum seeker issue is now front and centre. No doubt, where Indonesia is concerned, the government must be hoping that bilateral policy issues don’t come in threes.

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