Russia withdraws in Syria; Aung San Suu Kyi’s shadow; Indonesia’s proxy war By Hamish McDonald.

Donald Trump’s finger closer to the button

Donald Trump during a rally at the Tampa Convention Centre in Florida this week.
Donald Trump during a rally at the Tampa Convention Centre in Florida this week.
Credit: Reuters / Steve Nesius

The Donald rolls on, knocking Marco Rubio out of the race in a devastating win in strongly Latino Florida, Rubio’s home state, in Tuesday’s Republican primaries, despite the violence he’s incited at recent rallies and his anti-immigrant rants.

Trump is a Florida local of sorts himself, frequently staying in his mansion Mar-a-Lago. The much-married cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post left it to the federal government in 1973 as what she hoped would be a presidential retreat, but the ungrateful nation gave the estate back to Post’s children, who then sold it to Trump in 1985. He turned part of it into a luxury club in 1995. Its 118 rooms and gilded ceilings must inspire his ambitions.

Ohio governor John Kasich took his home state, however, and may be able to gather enough delegates in the remaining primaries to deny Trump a majority when the Republicans hold their presidential nomination convention in Cleveland in July. The party’s establishment is splitting. Some think while Trump’s an unwinnable presidential candidate himself, he might draw enough angry white male voters to maintain Republican numbers in congress. Others think he’s a disaster whether he wins or not. The next biggest vote-getter, the Christian fundamentalist senator Ted Cruz, who pushed Trump closely in Missouri, could further narrow the party vote. Such is the desperation some even talk of drafting Mitt Romney, the wooden loser against Barack Obama in 2012.

As well as Florida, Illinois and North Carolina, Hillary Clinton won convincingly against Bernie Sanders in Ohio. But he was less than a percentage point behind in Missouri and is likely to stay in the race, pushing Clinton to firmer positions on welfare, financial regulation, income inequality and trade agreements.

Despite widespread doubts about her trustworthiness, her clumsy public style, and the lack of enthusiasm for her among the young, she is firming as the presidential favourite as Trump edges closer to the White House and possession of the “football” − the briefcase that accompanies the United States president everywhere, containing the codes to authorise nuclear strikes.

1 . Russia withdraws

Vladimir Putin delivered another surprise this week by pulling some of his bombers and troops out of Syria, declaring the purpose of their five-month campaign had been to create the conditions for the start of the peace process, a task that had “on the whole, been fulfilled”.

While the Russian intervention shored up the Assad regime in Damascus, the partial withdrawal is seen as putting pressure on Assad to negotiate seriously with rebel groups at United Nations-brokered talks that resumed in Geneva on Monday. It can be reversed. Putin is keeping a number of jets active in Syria, but since late February their activity has been mainly against Daesh, which along with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, is not party to the current ceasefire or the Geneva talks.

Putin’s manoeuvre was also designed to show Moscow as a decisive player in the Middle East, as the Western powers accuse each other of fatal inaction. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine, Barack Obama accuses Britain’s prime minister David Cameron and France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy of exaggerating their role in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya, then not following up with enough support for the struggling successor state. Obama himself is criticised from all sides, including some of his own Democrats, for not striking at Assad for the use of chemical weapons in 2013, and for not imposing an air-exclusion zone in Syria’s north to protect civilians, allowing Russia to fill the vacuum.

Last Sunday’s car bombing in the Turkish capital, Ankara, which killed 37 people, added further complications to the US campaign against Daesh. Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Monday his government was “almost certain” the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, was responsible. But even before all the evidence was in, Turkey’s air force began strikes on PKK bases in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. There and in northern Syria the US has been supporting a PKK offshoot called the People’s Protection Units, which have been some of the most effective forces against Daesh.

The prospect of post-World War I frontiers being redrawn in Syria, Iraq and even Turkey itself to create a Kurdish state straddling their present borderlands has been a nightmare for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s his current obsession, eclipsing his co-operation in the American fight against Daesh or his rivalry with Bashar al-Assad.

The Erdoğans and Assads used to be friends, the Ankara-based British historian Norman Stone wrote in the Financial Times last Saturday. But after one sleepover in Damascus, Assad’s wife, Asma, wrote her husband an email saying these dreadful people must never be invited again: Erdoğan was a thug who had read only one book, and his wife a frump only interested in shopping. Turkish intelligence intercepted the email and passed it on to Erdoğan.

2 . Suu Kyi’s shadow

Myanmar’s parliament elected Htin Kyaw, a 69-year-old former government official and academic, as the country’s president on Tuesday, making him the first leader not a serving or retired army general since Ne Win’s military coup in 1962.

His main attribute was the complete trust in him placed by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the majority National League for Democracy (NLD), who could not become president herself because of a tricky clause inserted in the constitution by the military before it launched a partial transition to democratic rule. Htin Kyaw went to school with Suu Kyi in the 1950s and has been a stalwart in her NLD circles. She will tell him what to do, and may get herself appointed foreign minister and thus a member of a key national security council.

3 . Indon’s proxy war

Elsewhere in the region, female political power was stirring, too. In Indonesia, the Democrat Party set up by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, may be preparing his wife, Kristiani Herrawati, as its presidential candidate in 2019. A social media message is being circulated by the party with her image alongside SBY’s former campaign slogan “Continue!”

Ani Yudhoyono, as she’s known, has long been regarded as an influential figure in her own right, so much so that Canberra’s Australian Signals Directorate once tapped into her mobile phone, according to material leaked by US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. She’s the daughter of the late general Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, whose special forces column across Java and Bali in late 1965 stirred up the massacres of Indonesian Communist Party followers.

These days with the communists smashed and the police handling the jihadists quite well, the Indonesian military is desperately searching for enemies to justify its lingering role in domestic political and social affairs and its bloated ground army numbers, as Sidney Jones covers in a new report for her Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

Military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo and defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, a retired general, have been pushing the notion of “proxy war” whereby unnamed foreign powers are using NGOs, academics, the media and multinationals to create divisions and weaken Indonesian unity, so they can grab hold of Indonesian resources in the manner of the Dutch East India Company.

The defence minister even mentions the push for gay rights as part of the proxy war, designed to brainwash and weaken national fibre. With Australia moving towards a decision on same-sex marriage, he must have had strong words about this for counterpart Marise Payne in their recent bilateral talks.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2016 as "Donald Trump’s finger closer to the button".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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