Australia is facing a new regional challenge as its northern neighbours increasingly join a global trend towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam. While this shift in religious orientation does not present a direct threat to Australia – at least for the time being - it is already complicating Australia’s regional relationships. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch and one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently announced his country would adopt strict sharia punishments. These will include whipping, amputation of hands for theft, and stoning to death for illicit sex (such as adultery and homosexuality) and apostasy (abandoning Islam).
There will no doubt be many who see the US sending 300 military advisers to Iraq, along with 275 soldiers to protect its embassy in Baghdad, as the beginning of a US re-intervention in that beleaguered country. Added to the placement of a US aircraft carrier offshore, they would be half correct.
The US is deeply concerned about unfolding events in Iraq and has a bottom line position of not seeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant/Syria (ISIL/S) seize control in Iraq. But, having extricated itself from the unholy mess that was the US’ Iraq war, US President Barack Obama and a majority of US people have no desire to go back there. In this, the US is caught in a bind.
The bind that the US now finds itself in is made vastly worse by the incompetent, sectarian government of Nuri al-Malaki, which has openly favoured Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to the exclusion of the country’s Sunni minority. The US has made it a condition for any direct support that the al-Malaki government re-engages with the Sunni minority so as not to create further fertile ground in Iraq for ISIS/L.
Despite increasingly desperate appeals for help, al-Malaki has not yet indicated that he is prepared or able to make any meaningful moves towards a re-accommodation with Iraq’s Sunni population. Any moves made by a-Malaki now might also well be seen as window-dressing – just enough to re-engage the US without any longer term or substantive commitment.
At this stage, the US would, however, probably just settle for a public promise. Should ISIL/S be successful in toppling the al-Malaki government, ISIL/S would probably be halted as it encroached into the southern Shia heartland. Not only would it face Shia militias, it would also face the possibility of direct support from or intervention by neighboring Iran, which would be happy to have southern Iraq as a vassal state.
That would, however, leave the centre of Iraq in ISIL/S hands, providing a base for its future operations in the region and more permanently linking with territory it controls in Syria. With Iraqi forces now being concentrated nearer to Baghdad, Iraq’s border with Jordan is now essentially undefended, and Jordan could well be the insurgent group’s next target.
The other area of instability in the region is in Iraq’s north, in the Kurdish area. The Kurds, already autonomous from the Baghdad government, have taken control of the oil producing town of Kirkuk. In contrast to just a few years ago, the Turkish government has reached a détente with the Kurdish regional government.
In exchange for limiting support for Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey, Turkey now appears prepared to see the establishment of an independent Kurdish state to its east. The establishment of an independent Kurdistan may now, perhaps, be inevitable. But the break-up of Iraq that it would imply is not something that the US wants to see.
So, the US is left with a disintegrating state led by a dysfunctional, sectarian government on one hand and on the other a redrawing of the map of the Middle-East with the possibility of what amounts to an outlaw state in its middle.
It remains very unlikely that the US will commit to a full-scale ‘boots on the ground’ campaign. But at some point in the near future, it will seek to cripple ISIL/S’s capacity. Substantial US air strikes in Iraq are, thus, now all but inevitable.
There has been a growing sense that Indonesia’s presidential elections on 9 July will be much closer than initially thought and that hard man Prabowo Subianto could be a real contender for office. If Prabowo is successful, his presidency would be expected to fundamentally re-shape the orientation of Indonesia’s post-Suharto era.
This shift towards Prabowo follows many months of largely uncritical adulation of the former Jakarta and Surakarta mayor, PDI-P candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, as a certainty for office. But the prevailing wisdom now sees the election as a tight race.
This increased sense of competition for the presidency was enhanced when the chairman of Indonesia’s largest political party, Golkar, billionaire businessman Aburizal Bakrie, recently shifted allegiance from Jokowi to Prabowo.
Some observers have suggested that, as the largest party, Golkar’s official backing for Prabowo will turn out its voters as a block. Prabowo’s coalition of backers, including Golkar, controls just over half of Indonesia’s legislature, compared with Jokowi’s lesser 37 per cent.
Having noted this, since the return of multiparty democracy in 1999, legislative elections have only once been an indicator of presidential outcomes, and that was in 2009 on the back of the pre-existing popular presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Further, Bakrie became Golkar chairman through elite wheeling and dealing, not because he is loved by its membership.
Many in Golkar would prefer to see Jokowi’s running mate, Jusuf Kalla, still at the party’s helm. This means that the Golkar vote is likely to be divided, diminishing the value of Bakrie’s support for Prabowo.
Smaller Islamic parties have also lined up behind Prabowo, strengthening his position at the margins. Yet with many devout Muslims also concerned about corruption and justice, even here Jokowi’s anti-corruption claims could give him an edge over Prabowo, who is the former son-in-law of the vastly corrupt President Suharto.
One factor in Jokowi’s relative decline in popularity has been that Indonesia’s media, owned by a small group of businessmen sympathetic or linked to Bakrie, have also come out strongly in favour of Prabowo. Prabowo has dominated the media airwaves and only slightly less so the print media. By contrast, Jokowi has had more limited recent exposure and even been actively blocked by some media outlets.
Despite these disadvantages, Jokowi remains so far ahead in public opinion polls that a high number of undecided voters would have to break overwhelmingly in favour of Prabowo for Jokowi to lose.
Just over half of respondents to one recent major survey said they would vote for Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla. Slightly less than a third said they would vote for Prabowo and his running mate, former Yudhoyono economics minister, Hatta Rajasa. Other polls have shown similar results.
On that basis, despite a shift towards Prabowo, largely exaggerated by the media, Jokowi is still likely to be Indonesia’s next president.
While policy matters — or it should — there is little of substance between Jokowi and Prabowo. But Indonesian presidential elections have always been more about (perceived) personality than policy substance. Jokowi is seen to be a ‘man of the people’; Prabowo is a self-styled strong-man. Both styles have their supporters, but Jokowi’s has fewer negative associations with the past.
Prabowo has been busy denying allegations of past human rights abuses, notably those of the kidnap, torture and disappearance of protesters just prior to Suharto’s political demise. Prabowo was ousted from the army because of the claims. Luckily for him, his much darker past, in both East Timor and West Papua, raises little interest in the rest of Indonesia.
No doubt the next few weeks before the 9 July election will see a heightening of Indonesia’s political competition between candidates who have consolidated Indonesian politics around two poles. It might even be possible to discern, between them, a more progressive and a more conservative orientation, giving the race a more conventional democratic hue.
Seeing Indonesian politics in such conventional progressive-conservative terms reflects a Westernised political mindset. And it may be that if Prabowo is successful, Indonesia will move in a less clearly democratic direction.
But Prabowo’s victory still seems unlikely. Indonesia will perhaps not get a great president with Jokowi, who will have to confront a fractious and oppositional legislature. But the likely outcome of Indonesia’s presidential elections will have taken Indonesia a significant step along the path to ‘democratic consolidation’ — in peculiarly Indonesian terms.
As events unfold in Iraq, the US finds itself in the curious position of moving towards effective support for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. Having first intervened in Iraq and then folding on a threat to take action in Syria, the US faces the alternative of the break-up of the nearly century-long construction of the region as a series of sovereign states.
In this, much depends on the strategic capacity and the next tacticalmoves of the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or, more correctly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIS is used by most media because it conflates and hence simplifies two neighboring wars, and perhaps because it has echoes of the ancient Egyptian fertility goddess.
However, the name ISIL better reflects a local and historical understanding of the region, which pre-dates regional states as they currently exist. It also indicates the organisation’s ambitions, which extend well beyond occupation of northern Syria and central Iraq.
Comprised of a number of multi-national groups that coalesced in the latter part of the war against the US-led occupation of Iraq, ISIL split with al Qaeda over a power struggle in late 2013. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, order for ISIL to disband was rebuffed by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This followed an earlier rebuff by al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a US air-strike in 2006. A number of jihadi organisations formally claiming allegiance to al Qaeda have since effectively split with the organisation, in part due to al-Zawahiri’s increasing impotence as a leader in hiding and in part due to the differing circumstances in each of the jihadi fields of operation.
Having crossed from Iraq to Syria, ISIL rose by early 2013 to become the most powerful of the country’s anti-Assad factions. It now controls Syria’s north and north-east. With its origins in Iraq, it was unsurprising that ISIL crossed back to challenge the enfeebled government of Iraqi President Nuri al Malaki.
A large part of ISIL’s advantage in Iraq is that it claims to represent Iraq’s minority Sunni Mulsims, who predominate in the centre of the country. Politically dominated by Sunnis, including ousted and executed dictator Saddam Hussein, since its founding, Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims are now in political control and operating to large extent to the exclusion of Sunnis.
ISIL’s intervention has only deepened the Sunni-Shia divide, and in so doing has inadvertently strengthened the strategic position of Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds run a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq and have just taken the main northern, oil-rich town of Kirkuk.
ISIL is now facing a more concerted defence by Iraq’s embattled defence force but, as with Syria, may be expected to hold much of the territory it has gained. Having transitioned from being a guerrilla organisation to a state within two states, ISIL’s longer term ambition is to combine the Arab lands divided by English and French colonial planners in the dying days of the Great War.
As ISIL’s name suggests, its origins are in Iraq, but it rejects the division of the Middle-east based on colonial and subsequent administrative convenience. ISIL’s goal, therefore, is to eventually subsume Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, southern Turkey and Cyprus into a greater Islamist caliphate.
As ISIL’s strengthens its regional grip, the US is increasingly motivated to act, if not with ‘boots on the ground’ then with equipment and, more importantly, air strikes. If this action is successful – and it is a big ‘if’ – the US will have broken the back of the main anti-Assad organisation in Syria, tipping that war in favor of a dictator that, only last year, it was considering ousting.
In so doing the US will be reconfirming that, states loosely based on arbitrary conglomerates of old Ottoman administrative districts, the region can only exist as disaggregated squabbling fiefdoms or, as states, under the control of dictatorial leaders. Whatever dream the US had of exporting ‘democracy’ to this part of the world is now, in a functional sense, quite dead.
A certain predictability has developed in the public exchange on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In keeping with this predictability, the UN Human Rights Commission recent report on Sri Lanka’s continuing serious human rights abuses is yet another expression of deep international concern which, almost certainly, will end up gathering dust.
The Human Rights Commission report lists a litany of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Sri Lanka or its agents dating back to the end of that country’s ethnic war in 2009. In response, the Government of Sri Lanka continues to deny all such accusations, claiming there is an international conspiracy against it and that the evidence is manufactured, falling back on the argument that its actions were predicated on crushing terrorism.
With the backing of states less sympathetic to human rights issues, Sri Lanka has, since 2008, been immune from expressions of international concern. Attempts to impose an internationally driven solution to its human rights situation or the fate of its ethnic Tamil minority have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Sri Lanka’s main international guarantor, China.
China’s interest in Sri Lanka is part of its so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategic push into the Indian Ocean. However, with China making inroads into India’s strategic sphere of influence, India has also been keen to try to keep Sri Lanka on side following its troubled relationship.
As an initial gesture towards the West, Sri Lanka did allow a circumscribed ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ investigation into the vast scale of atrocities that occurred in the period to May 2009. It was at that time that some 40,000 people were killed by intense government army attacks against civilians sheltering on a sliver of land in Sri Lanka’s north- east coast.
Yet even the innocuous report that came from this tame commission was effectively ignored, reflecting the government’s distaste for anything that does not accord with its brutally hard line on Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil question’. So it was with the just released UN Human Rights Commission report on ‘Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka’.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay found that, despite previous recommendations, there had been no action by the government on issues of enforced ‘disappearances’, hate speech, witness protection or improved ‘truth seeking’ processes. She noted that there remained several outstanding human rights problems to be addressed by the Sri Lanka government.
Among continuing human rights problems identified by Ms Pillay were continued limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances. In this, she expressed concern over the role and security of human rights defenders, the independence of judges and lawyers and discrimination against women both in law and in practice.
Overall, Ms Pillay said, there had been little movement towards addressing issues of truth about human rights abuses, issues of justice and reparation for victims, and guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations. All of these issues have also been highlighted by civil society organisations in Sri Lanka such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In response to the report, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Envoy in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, ran the government’s usual line, claiming that the details of Ms Pillay’s report ‘reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka’. He accused Ms Pillay of ‘double standards’ and paying ‘scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka’.
He also criticized Ms Pillay’s report for arriving at conclusions in a ‘selective and arbitrary manner’ while ignoring requests from the Sri Lankan government to provide factual evidence to substantiate allegations and to otherwise not make ‘general comments’.
Yet Ms Pillay is not alone in the concerns expressed in her report. A petition signed by leading international figures, headed by South Afrca’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has called for an independent international investigation in the form of a Commission of Inquiry. ‘Only this will help to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation’, the petition says. Similar comments have been expressed by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.
Underpinning the culture of impunity which informs Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record is a heightened sense of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance that has increasingly characterised Sri Lankan politics. This is now institutionalised under the Rajapaksa government, which has enjoyed massive ethnic Sinhalese support following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
Since coming to office, President Rajapaksa’s government has been intolerant of dissent or opposition and has fostered a climate of fear. This initially focused on the country’s ethnic Tamil population, but has since spread to ethnic Sinhalese uncomfortable with the direction of Sri Lanka’s politics.
Sinhalese journalists are now regularly intimidated, occasionally abducted and sometimes murdered. Reporters Without Borders has consequently ranked Sri Lanka at 165th of 180 countries assessed. This shift away from plural politics towards a closed chauvinist ethno-politics has increasingly closed the distinction between the individual and the state, giving Sri Lanka an distinctly authoritarian hue.
For Tamils, despite the wars’ formal end, they remain second-class citizens in their country of birth. The north and east of the country, where most Tamils live, continues to function under military occupation, in which Tamil civilians do not know from day to day whether they will be subject to an arbitrary search, rape, torture or disappearance.
Despite concerns expressed by more liberal sections of the international community, and Ms Pillay’s report and others like it, the Sri Lanka government refuses to budge. With the backing of China, Russia and Pakistan, it is under little real pressure to do so.
Once relatively free, Sri Lanka has now firmly joined that list of authoritarian states that primarily acknowledge basic human rights in the breech. Despite the Human Rights Commission report, and others like it, there appears little the West can now do.
It was, perhaps, an act of optimism to believe that a media conference would be called by the Thai army to explain, as it had announced, its concrete plans for the restoration of Thailand’s democracy. This is especially so given that, when local journalists questioned Thai army officials a few days ago about when democracy would be restored, the news conference was promptly ended.
Yesterday afternoon, Thai army spokesman Colonel Sirichan Ngathong said the junta’s plans were to take steps towards restoring normal administration to the country, establish a legislative council and a reform council and work towards holding democratic elections in a time frame yet to be determined. That is, the anti-government "yellow shirt" key claim has been met, and the terms of "democratic elections" will be determined by a constitution that is yet to be written.
Of the information that is otherwise available, little of it relates to Thailand being under army lockdown and, where that is mentioned, it is in formal and strictly factual terms. What we do know is that the international broadcast media has been blocked, that local journalists have been called in for questioning, with some arrested, and editors have been formally warned.
Around 250 people have now been arrested by the junta, with those few handfuls who have been released having signed a pledge not to oppose the junta’s activities. The army is continuing to hunt for many more, issuing public broadcasts for people to hand themselves in.
At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, however, a handful of news hacks propped up the bar, given there is little else they can do. All foreign news channels are blocked.
The once-proud BBC went missing in action before the coup was even announced. Locals are now asking themselves if the BBC was taken off the air because it was an unfettered voice of international journalism, or just because its reporting of local events had become so superficial and, seemingly, ill-informed.
The army has also warned that it will limit internet access to block social media from discussing the coup. Facebook was taken down for 37 minutes on Wednesday, although this was said by an army spokesman to be a "gateway" problem.
However, Facebook, Line, Instagram and YouTube have been identified for potential closure if they promote "divisiveness" or "infringe on the monarchy". There is also a related move by the junta to closely screen information sent via the internet.
These threats, and to crack down strongly on any further protests, reflect a growing sense of frustration by the army over what it views as a lack of compliance with its world view, and continuing if limited protests around Bangkok.
Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol who, under increasingly strict lese majeste laws, cannot have anything said about him that could be construed as less than supportive, is said by the army to have condoned the coup. The king has condoned military coups in the past.
However, the much-loved 86-year-old king, who has been in poor health, has not been seen in public during this period of military control. The venerated king has also not issued a statement under his own name.
But there is no question as to who is in control in Thailand. The area around the Victory Monument, which has been a daily protest site, has now been reopened to traffic, if with a continuing military presence to ensure that protesters do not return. Soldiers lounged by their trucks along the main roads on the outskirts of Bangkok, while a machine-gun armed Hummer patrolled a main road near the Thailand stock exchange.
After having yet again deposed a democratically elected government, the Thai junta’s plans to restore "democracy" raises questions over the meaning of the term. That the junta also has no time frame in which to do so similarly raises a variation of the legal adage that democracy delayed is democracy denied.
Thailand’s army has tightened its grip on the country’s domestic political process since launching its coup d‘etat last Thursday. Up to 200 politicians, journalists, academics and activists have been arrested, with more ordered to surrender to authorities. The media have been tightly restricted on what can be reported and there has even been a brief shut-down of social media sites.
The army’s National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO), now acting as the government, dissolved Thailand’s semi-appointed Senate over the weekend, ending speculation that the army would use the conservative Senate appoint an interim prime minister. With this move, coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed all parliamentary authority, although he has appointed a small body of advisers.
Further tightening the army’s grip on Thai politics, officers not deemed to be supportive of the coup, including national police chief General Adul Saengsinglaew, defence secretary General Nipat Thonglek and Special Investigations Department director-general General Tarit Pengdith, have also been sacked.
Thailand’s land borders have been closed and senior ousted government Pheu Thai Party figures who have not yet surrendered to the army have had their bank accounts frozen.
Further details have emerged as to how the coup was staged. The army chief called a meeting for 2pm last Thursday of Thailand’s government and opposition leaders, senators, election commissioners and key figures in the pro-government ‘red shirt’ and anti-government ‘yellow shirt’ factions to a meeting at army headquarters last Thursday. The meeting was ostensibly to avoid further yellow shirt protests planned for the weekend.
The talks became deadlocked over demands that the government resign and whether and when there would be fresh elections. When, two and a half hours after the meeting started, General Prayuth asked government Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri whether the government would resign, Chaikasem said it would not. General Prayuth then said he was seizing political power.
While most of the politicians at the meeting were then detained, senators, election commissioners and Opposition Democrat Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejajjiva was freed. Yellow shirt protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was also freed a short time later, indicating the army's political preferences.
It is now thought that the army will remain in power until Thailand can go to new elections under a new constitution, probably not until next year.
The new constitution, when it comes, is expected to include limits on majority rule, including increasing the appointment of members of parliament, formerly limited to 74 of the 150 members of the Senate. There have also been calls for extending the political role of the now ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej or his successor.
Meanwhile, in Thailand’s pro-government ‘red-shirt’ heartland of Khon Kaen in the country’s impoverished north-east, there were arrests over the weekend of 21 people said to be in possession of weapons and explosives, sparking fears of an armed anti-coup insurrection. An army spokesman claimed the group was supposed to launch the first stage of an armed insurrection against the new military junta.
Meanwhile, numerous , if small, anti-coup protests have sprung up in direct defiance of the government’s ban on gatherings of more than five people. Soldiers and police have so far acted with restraint in the face of the growing protests.
In Thailand's restive south, however, there have been more than 20 bomb blasts and further shootings since the declaration of martial law. Young Muslim militants, some who have now trained on the battlefields of Syria, have returned with a much less compromising approach to how their own political claims should be settled.
Thailand's main towns remained relatively quiet, but there was also an undercurrent that this situation - and Thailand's military rule - would not go unchallenged.