Republicans have some primary concerns; border guards on Timor-Leste; US bombers coming Australia’s way. By Hamish McDonald.

Turkish President Erdoğan edits out Zaman’s bad press

Riot police use tear gas to disperse protesting employees and supporters of Zaman newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey.
Riot police use tear gas to disperse protesting employees and supporters of Zaman newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey.

Refugee flows aren’t an embarrassment to authoritarian leaders, they’re a help, as some of Australia’s neighbours helping “stop the boats” know well.

One United States general has told congress Vladimir Putin is “weaponising” Syrian refugees to destabilise and break up the European Union – he meant using the refugee flood to cause social and political division, not giving them guns. As if to show it might work, EU leaders this week held another “emergency summit” with Turkey to plead for co-operation in stopping the flow.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was fresh from taking over his country’s biggest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, on March 4. Nothing political of course, but a court order from Turkey’s entirely independent judiciary. New management and editors came in last weekend, as riot police cleared demonstrators outside the Zaman office in Istanbul with water cannons. Zaman appeared in print again last Sunday, complete with hagiographic articles about Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, the AKP.

It goes back to a rift in the moderate Islamist forces that brought Erdoğan to power, for 11 years as prime minister and then from 2014 as president, an office he is trying to equip with full executive powers. One of his backers was the Gülen movement, named for the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who now leads it from exile in the US. It built a strong following in many arms of Turkish society and government, set up a network of schools, and promoted with Zaman’s publisher the company Feza Journalism, which also has a successful news wire and an English-language daily. Despite the affiliation, Zaman built a strong reputation for its reporting. 

Gülenist police and prosecutors are said to have been prominent in the trials of hundreds of military officers and civilian officials from 2008-10 for allegedly being part of a “deep state” network plotting to return Turkey to army rule. The resulting convictions, on somewhat nebulous evidence, put the coup-prone Turkish army in political retreat.

The movement started parting company with Erdoğan around 2010, over his decision to cool relations with Israel following its blocking of a “peace convoy” to Gaza with the death of several Turkish activists, and then Erdoğan’s opening of peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. By 2013 the AKP and Gülen were in opposition. The government closed down Gülenist schools. Prosecutors suddenly found numerous corruption cases involving AKP figures. The government purged Gülenist police and prosecutors, and went after Gülen-linked publishers. Zaman’s journalists are starting a new paper, Yarina Bakis (Look to Tomorrow). But they face an Erdoğan using the same repressive measures he used to fight when Turkey was under secularist and military rule. Criticism from Western governments is muted, because they need his help with Syria and the refugees.

In Australia, a Gülenist organisation, the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, has been at the forefront of efforts to connect Muslims with the wider community, through interfaith dialogues and other activities. Now Affinity is getting the cold shoulder from its own community. “People are not wanting to talk to you,” co-founder Ahmet Keskin told me. “You can’t have a conversation.” It’s unfortunate collateral damage to our counterterrorism efforts.

1 . Primary concerns

The Republican presidential nomination race narrowed towards a two-horse field of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the latest primaries, after Marco Rubio made himself look small by suggesting Trump had a small penis, a charge Trump denies.

Former New York mayor and financial-information mogul Michael Bloomberg announced he was abandoning plans to stand as a centrist independent, with retired admiral Mike Mullen as running mate, for fear he would draw votes from Hillary Clinton and help Trump win.

The unedifying choice between a blow-hard property developer (Trump) and the ultra-conservative senator who shut down the US government in 2013 (Cruz) has got America’s establishment types seriously worried. Both should be unelectable, but no one is sure anymore. 

A clutch of chief executives from high-tech companies and Republican leaders in the US congress attended a closed-door forum called by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, meeting on a small island off the coast of Georgia last weekend. Among other things, they discussed ways of heading off Trump.

The best shot, it appears from reports filtering out, is to hope Tuesday’s primary votes in Ohio and Florida see local candidates John Kasich (the Ohio governor) and Rubio (a US senator from Florida) clinch these winner-take-all contests. This would then require Trump to win 70 per cent of the delegates in the remaining primaries to go into July’s nomination convention with a majority. With his vote running below 50 per cent, this looks unlikely. This would lead to a “brokered” convention where after the first vote Trump’s delegates would be free to vote for someone else.

2 . Border guards

Supporters of Timor-Leste’s campaign to reopen negotiations on the seabed boundary with Australia will be out in public protesting this month, starting with a gathering on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday and demos outside government offices in Sydney and other cities the following week. 

The Howard government’s withdrawal from international court jurisdiction on such matters, just ahead of Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, is indeed not a good look.

Meanwhile, Timor-Leste’s Maritime Boundary Office, reporting to former prime minister and current planning and strategic investment minister Xanana Gusmão, has opened its own website and posted a map indicating what Dili hopes to achieve by redrawing the sea boundary.

It’s not so much the shift of the border south to the median line between the two coasts, taking the current joint development zone fully into Timor’s jurisdiction. It’s a big swing outwards of the eastern lateral boundary, to bring all of the Greater Sunrise gas field under Timor-Leste’s control.

But this would require more than just Canberra’s agreement, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her officials insisting the current 50:50 split of potential Greater Sunrise revenue is generous enough, given 80 per cent of the field currently lies in Australia’s seabed zone. It would require Indonesia to agree to a geometric exercise discounting the weighting now given to sparsely populated islands to the east of Timor-Leste. Australia has already ceded the “water column” and its fisheries above this part of the seabed to Indonesia. If the maritime border in this region becomes fluid, why wouldn’t Indonesia start haggling to get Greater Sunrise as well? Maybe Xanana is counting on some debts owing in Jakarta, after newly independent Timor-Leste took a conciliatory line about war crimes committed by its military during the occupation and liberation struggle.

3 . Bombers away

The US Air Force keeps looking to show off its big bombers in this part of the world, with its Pacific commander in Canberra this week in talks about staging its B-1 bombers and air refuelling tankers through the Australia bases at Darwin and Tindal, also in the Northern Territory.

Bombers are the aerial battleships of the era, used to cause awe on the ground, but with uncertain usability in current conflicts where “surgical” strikes are more the vogue, and carpet-bombing a potential war crime. The swing-wing B-1 has been used against Daesh strongholds in Syria and Iraq, but the fleet is now out of action for several months for maintenance, with the 60-year-old B-52 called in.

Not deterred by cost overruns in the smaller F-35 strike fighter program shared with Australia and other countries, the flop of the B-2 bomber (only 20 of the planned 80 were built, making the cost $US1 billion a plane) and the rise of missiles and drones, the US Air Force is determined to stay in the business of manned long-range bombers. It got a $US21 billion contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in October to develop a new bomber, the B-21, currently just a futuristic bat-winged concept for a heavy bomber able to fly nonstop anywhere in the world from the US. The cost is likely to be about $550 million for each aircraft. 

The Australian outback is of course known for its dinosaur discoveries.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2016 as "Turkey’s Erdoğan edits out bad press".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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