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.
A plan to end the South Sudan conflict being brokered by neighbouring governments is not likely to come to fruition. Despite talks around a ceasefire proposal since before the first of the year, there has been no sign of movement towards ending a spiral of violence that has torn apart the world’s newest state.
The key protagonists and the immediate causes of the conflict are well known. In mid-July, ethnic Dinka President Salva Kiir sacked his government following a power struggle within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). In the face of a claimed attempted coup d'etat, in mid-December ethnic Dinkas in the presidential guard began disarming their ethnic Nuer colleagues, linked to former vice-president Riek Machar, leading to tit-for-tat killings that quickly spiralled out of control.
The question is, though, why did a country that became independent just two-and-a-half years ago fall apart so quickly? There are three inter-linked answers, each of which will have to be addressed if the country is to have any hope of saving itself from collapse.
The first problem is one that besets most newly independent states that comprise more than one large ethnic group. With most political institutions still poorly formed and economies not sufficiently developed to create economic classes upon which to base political parties, politics tends to cohere around tribal and language groups, usually establishing geographic isolation.
Political leaders develop patron-client relationships with supporters, in which, in simple terms, loyalty is financially rewarded. Thus ethnic identification and reward come to be linked, with other ethnic groups constituting not just a political threat but a challenge to economic survival. This competition for economic resources is most acute when the state relies on a narrow income base; South Sudan is the most heavily oil-dependent country in the world, with oil receipts accounting for 98% of its income. There are, effectively, no other sources for economic distribution.
Even in cases where there is little or no prior internal conflict, such a setting is ripe for internal conflict. In the case of South Sudan, its factions also have a pre-independence history of open conflict.
Machar joined the SPLM/A in 1984, but in 1991 fell out with then SPLM/A leader and ethnic Dinka John Garang over whether South Sudan should remain part of a secular, democratic Sudan or become independent. Favouring full independence, Machar formed the splinter group SPLM/A-Nasir, based in the oil-rich north-east of South Sudan. As a result of this split, there were a number of massacres and a famine that left tens of thousands dead.
Despite his earlier pro-independence leaning, six years later, Machar reached a peace agreement with the Sudanese government and was made head of the South Sudan Defence Force, in 2000 forming a new militia, the Sudan People’s Defence Force/Democratic Front. Yet in 2002, he re-joined the SPLM/A as a senior commander.
Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005, with Kiir assuming leadership of the SPLM/A. It appeared, however, that Machar’s primary interest had been, from the outset, to establish his personal authority over the movement, leading to the events of 2012.
An end to the fighting will now only be possible if one of two outcomes are met. The first is that Kiir’s predominantly Dinka forces militarily defeat Machar’s largely Nuer forces. While possible, this does not look like presenting a permanent solution to a complex ethnic, regional and economic problem.
The second course -- which would be difficult but more sustainable -- would be if Machar abandons what appears to be continuing political ambition to control the state dominated by an opposing ethnic majority. This may be achieved by Machar being given autonomous control over the ethnic Nuer northern region of South Sudan.
There would then need to be a regional revenue sharing agreement, given that most oil production occurs in the north of South Sudan, currently under Machar’s control. As well, there would also need to be some agreement with smaller ethnic groups that are also involved in fighting.
South Sudan’s politics would continue to be dominated by tribalism, patronage and a narrow economic base, meaning it would remain fragile. But, assuming such an agreement, there could at least be an end to the killing, the resumption of oil exports and the rebuilding of this still very under-developed state.
Without a comprehensive political agreement, however, a ceasefire seems improbable, and South Sudan’s warfare is likely to continue.
There we were, sitting in a crowded room of a two-storey stone building dating back to when Bridgetown, Barbados, was a buccaneer and slaving settlement. Convicted Great Train Robber, escapee, Australian and Brazilian resident and Sex Pistols associate Ronald Biggs was sitting, handcuffed but smiling and happily relaxed in the dock, his theatrical local barrister resplendent in a tunic with red leg stripes, arguing his case.
That was April 1981. The air was soft, the water clear and, they say, the spliff was excellent.
Biggs had been recently kidnapped from Brazil by English bounty hunter mercenaries. Their boat had mechanical problems and they were rescued off Barbados, bringing into question the legal status of their involuntary shipmate.
I was a 25-year-old reporter, sent to cover the trial by a significant Australian newspaper, by way of inducement to leave El Salvador’s horrible and increasingly personalised civil war. Biggs was eminently sociable and ensured that he made eye contact with the media scrum on the benches. In the first stage of post-traumatic stress disorder, I nodded back.
Much of Bridgetown had been built by the British in the 17th century, after expelling the Spanish and Portuguese who had been there some 200 years previously. Apart from an airport, a requisite four star hotel and reggae, there was a sense that little had changed.
Biggs was by far the biggest thing that had happened to Barbados in a very long time. There were British tourists, jetting in and out. But it was otherwise "dreadlock holiday".
The British media was there, Biggs’ criminal notoriety having been given a further boost by his musically questionable appearance with remnant Sex Pistols on their video The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. For a person who could not legally work in Brazil, he had traded socially for years on his reputation as a famous criminal, receiving small gifts from visitors to attend his Rio barbecues.
Ronald Biggs was one of the Great Train Robbers, who hoisted an estimated 2.6 million pounds (a significant fortune now) from the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963. Though no one was killed, the train driver, Jack Mills, was beaten so severely his injuries ended his working life.
Of the 13 convicted participants in the crime, Biggs was a minor player. However, the trial itself was a media sensation, and Biggs gained notoriety by getting over the walls of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 and escaping with his wife, Charmian, and two sons to Brussels, Paris and then Australia.
Biggs arrived in Sydney in 1966 and soon moved to Glenelg, in Adelaide, where he was joined by his wife and sons. The following year, and with a new child, they moved to Melbourne.
In 1969, it had become increasingly obvious that the infamous Ronald Biggs was in Melbourne. He was all across the local news. So he fled by ship to Panama, and then to Brazil where, by fathering a Brazilian child, he fought off extradition appeals by the UK government.
While living in Rio, Biggs became a local celebrity. One could buy T-shirts and coffee cups with his image. The remnant Sex Pistols teamed up for a quick punk recording of No One Is Innocent and Belsen Was A Gas, which made #7 on the UK charts.
In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by ex-UK soldiers. But Barbados, small, only independent since 1966 and without many legal structures, had no extradition treaty with the UK. Biggs was returned to Brazil.
Biggs dragged out the rest of his minor celebrity with other punk bands and generous tourists, but chose to return to the UK in 2001. He was immediately returned to prison, but sought release on the basis of poor health. He was released in 2009, having served a third of his original sentence.
Biggs' health continued to be poor, and he suffered a series of strokes. Free from prison, he said he just wanted to see Christmas of 2009.
Ronald Biggs, 84, has fallen just short of seeing Christmas 2013.
Australia and Timor-Leste are in a diplomatic lull following the revelations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste's cabinet via agents working through its aid program. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is in South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, who had visited him in prison in Jakarta and thus helped elevate his international status.
But one senior minister, left to mind the shop, chuckled quietly. By spying on Timor-Leste, he believes that Australia has provided the mechanism required to invalidate the unequal Timor Sea treaty between the two countries.
There is official insistence that Australia and Timor-Leste remain close friends, despite the occasional angry comment. This particular dispute, the Timor-Leste government believes, should remain quarantined from the wider relationship.
Australia's official perspective is similar, with ambassador Miles Armitage taking a soft line towards recent demonstrations outside the Australian embassy. He was dismayed by riot police over-reacting and firing tear gas at a small group of protesters, also gassing ordinary police who had the situation well under control.
But it is not as though spying in Timor-Leste is much of a secret. One minister privately joked that the Chinese-built foreign affairs building is full of listening devices. And then there is the Chinese-built presidential palace and defence forces headquarters.
Australia is far from alone in its close interest in the Timor-Leste government. It is also far from alone in keeping tabs on the other representative offices here. Embassy row, along the seafront west of the town centre, boasts compounds that would look impressive in much larger capitals.
The substantial presence of China, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Portugal and the other Lusophone states -- Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand -- reflects Timor-Leste's strategically important location astride oil and gas fields, a critical submarine deep sea route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and being in the middle of the world’s largest archipelago.
It also reflects the simple fact that, with everyone here and paying attention, everyone else also feels they need to be here and paying attention to everyone else. Timor-Leste itself demurs on this question, claiming that it does not have the capacity to spy.
Yet in its 24-year struggle for independence, the Timor-Leste guerrilla army's intelligence network surpassed even that of the notoriously extensive intelligence network of the Indonesian military. The old networks, like the old clandestine names -- of which Prime Minister Xanana, President Taur Matan Ruak and past parliamentary speaker Fernando Lasama are but a few -- remain intact.
Information -- about everything and everyone -- always has been and remains the richest of prizes in Timor-Leste. To the extent that intelligence gathering activities have changed since Indonesian times, it is only their much greater scope that is different.
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.
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.
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.