Jokowi strengthens Papua relations; Singapore’s new media predicament; tense days in the Middle East. By Hamish McDonald.

Julie Bishop faces test over execution of foreign aid cuts

Amos Yee, 16, leaves court in Singapore after being found guilty of obscenity and insulting religious feelings with a YouTube video called “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!”
Amos Yee, 16, leaves court in Singapore after being found guilty of obscenity and insulting religious feelings with a YouTube video called “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!”
Credit: AFP

So here’s another task for the agile diplomacy of Julie Bishop: explaining to Indonesians why the 40 per cent cut in aid to their country is not one of the “consequences” darkly threatened by her prime minister if the executions of the two Australian drug smugglers went ahead.

She will be helped by the truculently nationalist mood of the Jakarta political elite stirred by the international backlash against President Joko Widodo’s resort to the firing squad. Indonesians can’t be seen to want or need foreign aid. Widodo is also the “functionary” of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s political party, as she recently put it, and her father, Sukarno, was the leader who famously told the United States in 1964 to “Go to hell with your aid.”

However, the $605.3 million in Australia’s bilateral aid, now cut to $366.4 million in the 2015-16 budget, has given Canberra a lot of kudos with the Indonesians actually trying to improve the life of its people. Much of it was devoted to secular education, either in state schools or those run by moderate Islamic organisations, as a counter to jihadist messages, so it has also fulfilled
a broader national security objective.

The smaller aid budgets going to the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar have been cut in the same proportion. Only if you help the Abbott goal of “stopping the boats” can your aid be spared. Aid to Nauru stays the same, and Papua New Guinea, the other host to “offshore processing”, gets a 5 per cent trim to last year’s $577.1 million. Cambodia, which has offered to resettle refuges from Nauru and PNG if there are any takers, keeps the same level, too.

There is a diabolical way that the Indonesian government could pay Abbott back, however. Over recent days, at least 1500 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra. On Tuesday, the Indonesian navy turned back a wooden ship packed with more Rohingya and gave its crew enough fuel and food to reach “their destination”, Malaysia. Up to 20,000 Rohingya and would-be migrants from Bangladesh are thought to be at sea looking for a haven.

Thailand’s military government, embarrassed by the discovery of jungle people-smuggling camps littered with graves, has called a meeting of regional governments at the end of this month. Bishop or Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will attend. But given the poor record of South-East Asian countries in dealing with collective crises, the helpful attitude of the Indonesian navy could send a few boatloads further south to spoil Abbott’s pre-election party atmosphere.

1 . Joko strengthens Papua relations

Joko Widodo has meanwhile been working on his country’s eastern frontier to head off a move by the Melanesian Spearhead Group (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia) to admit Indonesia’s two Papua provinces as a member. 

Last weekend on a visit to Papua he gave pardons to five Papuans who had served 12 years of life or 20-year sentences for seditious crimes. They were among an estimated 60 political prisoners, mostly Papuan and some from nearby Ambon, in jail for separatist activity. Widodo then announced that foreign journalists would no longer need special permission to visit the two provinces. 

However, Widodo doesn’t seem to have co-ordinated his decision with his Co-ordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, a retired admiral, who seems to have choked on his nasi goreng at the news. “We’ll allow it, on condition they report on what they see, not go around looking for facts that aren’t true from armed groups,” Tedjo said. Journalists would still need permission to report from Papua’s interior, where four factions of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement) operate.

“There’s a lot of news out there that makes it look like violations are taking place here all the time, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Tedjo said. Human rights groups are still waiting for results of the investigation called by Widodo last December after security forces in Paniai district fired into a crowd protesting against reckless driving by military vehicles. Five people were killed.

The president then went on to Port Moresby for a two-day official visit in which he seems to have convinced PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill that admitting Indonesia itself to the Melanesian forum as an associate member is better than accepting the Papuans. Widodo was less convincing on another front. His example has made O’Neill think again about the reintroduction two years ago of the death penalty for some serious crimes of violence. So far no executions have been carried out. Taken aback by worldwide reaction to the Indonesian executions, O’Neill says he will take the question back to parliament.

2 . Singapore’s new media predicament

What to do when your conventional media is state controlled – and supervised by ruling party and former intelligence service trusties – to deliver the right constructive and positive coverage, and yet at the same time promote your country as a hub in the new media age?

China employs thousands of cyber cops to patrol the internet and social media. Singapore employs its time-tested method of plodding prosecutions. Take the case of 16-year-old Amos Yee, who posted a YouTube video “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!” at the death of the island republic’s patriarch in March, in which he said that Lee, like Jesus, was “power-hungry and malicious”. Yee then cut and pasted the heads of Lee and Margaret Thatcher onto a picture of a couple engaged in sex.

Yee was arrested, then kept in Changi Prison when he refused to stop blogging as a condition of bail. This week he was found guilty of obscenity and insulting religious feelings, but freed on enhanced bail pending sentencing on June 2. The prosecutor has asked for him to be put on probation for three years and obliged to undertake counselling. 

Another free-speech case has an Australian dimension, and the charges are more serious. The defendants, Japanese-born Australian citizen Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng, have been studying at the University of Queensland. They are charged with seven counts of sedition over posts on their website, The Real Singapore, criticising the treatment of foreign workers, who form a third of Singapore’s workforce. Takagi and Yang have been allowed to travel back to Australia between hearings, on higher bail. If they return it will be a case to watch. 

3 . Middle East tension

These are tense days in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies slug it out against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen while fighting in parallel with Iran-backed militias in Iraq, the Iran nuclear negotiations move to the final stages, and Washington waits to see how Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government acts on an Iran deal and Jewish settlements.

Barack Obama will sprinkle the traditional fairy dust of more sophisticated weaponry to both the Israelis and Arabs, while they wait for the next occupant of the White House. The most prospective Republican, Jeb Bush, regards his brother George W. as his “most influential counsellor on US–Israel policy”, and says he would have gone into Iraq in 2003 also, “given what people knew then”. What they knew, of course, was based on intelligence doctored by US and British security chiefs.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Bishop faces test over execution of aid cuts".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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