Suu Kyi offers olive branch to ethnic rebels; Wiranto appointment a baffling Joko twist; Rudd still a chance By Hamish McDonald.

Trump hands out no party favours

Khizr and Ghazala Khan standing before an image of their son, a US soldier killed in Iraq, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Khizr and Ghazala Khan standing before an image of their son, a US soldier killed in Iraq, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Credit: Timothy A. Clary / AFP

Donald Trump kept pushing the threshold of the unacceptable this week, after appalling most of his senior Republican colleagues with his denigration of a Muslim American couple who’d spoken movingly at the Democratic convention about the death in combat of their son, an army captain, in Iraq.

Khizr Khan, with his wife, Ghazala, at his side, had waved a copy of the United States constitution and asked if Trump knew about its guarantee of equal protection, which Trump’s plan to bar entry of Muslims would violate. That would have stopped their son Humayun Khan from signing up to the army and sacrificing his life in battle. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one!” he said.

Trump weakly countered that he’d sacrificed a lot by building up a business that employed thousands, but then went on to charge that Ghazala had been prevented from speaking herself because she was a Muslim woman. She wrote later that she didn’t because she doubted she could keep composed talking about her son.

On the question of sacrifice, The New York Times took another look at Trump’s military draft records, seeing he came of age at the height of the Vietnam War. After four deferrals to let him study for a degree in real estate, he beat the draft on graduation in 1968 with a medical exemption for bone spurs on his heels − a condition that hadn’t stopped his previous sporting prowess, and which seems to have soon afterwards ceased to be a problem.

Not to worry. As Republicans peeled away from his remarks, Trump made more outrageous statements to distract from the previous one. The old standard of calling Hillary Clinton a thief, loser, liar et cetera, got a new insult: “the devil”. A new tack was to say plans were afoot to rig the November election. As for his Republican critics, Trump declined to endorse house of representatives speaker Paul Ryan and Senator John McCain for their primary contests in the congressional side of the elections. Oh, and it turns out at his defence briefings, Trump has been asking why America can’t use its nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama made the obvious point on Tuesday, saying the efforts of Republicans to distance themselves from Trump’s remarks would “ring hollow” if they continued to support his presidential bid. “If you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him?” Obama asked.

Yet Clinton continues to give Trump ammunition with her slant on the FBI investigation of her use of a private email server while secretary of state. She claimed this week it had completely cleared her, yet while saying no prosecution was warranted, FBI director James B. Comey said she and her staff had been “extremely careless” in putting classified information at risk. The campaign lurches towards three debates between Clinton and Trump starting on September 26. The prospect is that Trump will dance around Clinton.

1 . Suu Kyi offers olive branch to ethnic rebels

Your world editor has been roaming the mountainous borderlands of Thailand and Myanmar this week, coming at one point to a rickety suspension bridge across a muddy river where a sign informed him he was only 199 kilometres from Naypyidaw, the garish capital erected by the Burmese generals with stolen petroleum money before they allowed the managed transition to elected government.

Word from Myanmar is that the new de facto president, Aung San Suu Kyi, is to make her first big move towards peace with the rebellious inhabitants of these border hills. About the end of the month, she’s convening what’s being called the 21st Century Panglong Conference between the central government and the ethnic minorities that have been at war with it, on and off, since the British departed in 1948.

The title refers to a similar meeting held by her father, General Aung San, with leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples in 1947 in the Shan state town of Panglong. They agreed on a statement promising autonomy to the minorities and the right to secede 10 years after independence. Aung San was assassinated by rival army officers a few months later and the spirit of the Panglong accord never honoured.

The Panglong II conference (actually to be held in Naypyidaw) will include the 17 armed ethnic movements who signed a truce last October with the previous government of former president Thein Sein. They gathered last month at Mai Ja Yang in Kachin state to prepare. There will also be some new faces from the 13 or so groups still holding out. The United Wa State Army, the strongest ethnic armed group based near the Chinese border, and the Mongla Army, which has recently been fighting the Myanmar army, both want to attend, sending representatives to meet Suu Kyi a week ago. Feelers are out to the others.

The Tatmadaw (army) chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, promises the military will co-operate with the conference, but doubts are understandable. Many ethnic leaders fear promises of autonomy will again prove empty, as peace is not the Tatmadaw’s business. As well as re-opening full-scale war in Kachin state and the Kokang region, it’s in active conflict with groups in Shan and Rakhine states. It demands that all groups commit to disarming before taking part in formal peace talks.

Elephants roam the teak forests of Myanmar, and one will be in a corner at Panglong II. So far, “State Counsellor” Suu Kyi tries not to mention the word “Rohingya”. This is the name assumed by the mostly Muslim people of Bengali origin in north-western Rakhine, who have been repudiated as true citizens of Myanmar in a nasty chauvinist backlash. Recognition comes by taking up guns in Myanmar, it seems.

2 . Wiranto appointment a baffling Joko twist

It was premature last week to praise Indonesian President Joko Widodo on his latest cabinet reshuffle. While the recall of Sri Mulyani Indrawati to the finance portfolio is sound, Jokowi’s appointment of former general Wiranto as co-ordinating minister for defence, law and security is baffling.

Wiranto, of course, is the defence chief appointed by the late president Suharto in the dying days of his New Order regime, and from 1998-99 was the top military figure while students were being shot and abducted in Jakarta, and while pro-Indonesian militias were allowed to murder some 2000 activists during East Timor’s referendum on independence and then drive a third of the population across the border in an effort to negate the result.

He dodged the bullet of responsibility. Junior officers were court-martialled over some of the disappearances; token trials over Timor ended with only a Timorese collaborator convicted. When United Nations special investigators tried to get Wiranto indicted for crimes against humanity over the Timor atrocities, Timor-Leste’s new government refused to issue an arrest warrant, preferring a softer truth and reconciliation path with its former occupier.

Sacked by the late president Abdurrahman Wahid after Indonesia’s official human rights commission said he carried moral responsibility for the Timor crimes, Wiranto tried his hand at politics but seemed to be steadily slipping into irrelevance. Indeed, this writer only recently consigned his once-cherished CD of Wiranto’s syrupy croonings in a chuckout to Vinnies.

Even his status as a major war criminal is contestable. The late foreign minister Ali Alatas told me he didn’t think Wiranto was running the militias in Timor. Leaked Australian intelligence material later pointed to another general, Feisal Tanjung, as running a covert operation behind the militias.

However, if Wiranto didn’t intervene to stop the violence in Timor, neither did he move in 1998 when Suharto virtually tipped him to seize power. So in Jakarta’s morally fuzzy political world, he has some status as a promoter of democracy. Many suspect now he’s been inserted to fuzz over an even more bloody episode.

In April, his predecessor as security co-ordinating minister, former general and coal tycoon Luhut Pandjaitan, held Indonesia’s first official “symposium” about the slaughter of Indonesian Communist Party followers in 1965-66 and started a search for mass graves. The backlash from retired generals, a strong voice in Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and Muslim extremists has been fierce. Wiranto has said he will pursue Luhut’s initiative “but the solutions must not damage national interests”.

 The 16 seats in the 560-member parliament held by Wiranto’s Hanura party hardly seem to justify such a senior post otherwise. But who knows? As former Office of National Assessments senior Indonesia analyst Ken Ward points out, Jokowi had three months between winning the election in July 2014 and taking office to select the best candidates for his cabinet, but has now carried out his second major reshuffle before his first two years are up. It all reeks of ignorance and poor judgement, Ward says.

3 . Rudd still a chance

Malcolm Turnbull’s personal decision not to nominate Kevin Rudd for UN secretary-general because he lacks “interpersonal skills” has its ironies, and Turnbull may be even deeper in public disappointment for bowing to the Coalition’s right wing, but that may not be the end of it.

The process of choosing a UN chief functionary is a simple one. The UN Charter’s Article 97 states: “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

There’s been an informal system of rotation among the five regional groups, and a beauty contest among the nominees of member states. But ultimately it comes down to a deal brokered among the five Security Council permanent members, each of which can blackball any particular candidate. Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has revealed the incumbent, Ban Ki-moon from South Korea, was appointed when China agreed on a candidate from a US ally in Asia, but not a strong individual (the Americans didn’t want one either).

Should the Big Five not agree on anyone in the present line-up − for example, the Russians vetoing favourite António Guterres because he’s from a NATO country, the Americans Helen Clark because of her past anti-nuclear record, or everyone the lacklustre bureaucratic types from Eastern Europe − the Security Council could pick out anyone from anywhere.

As José Ramos-Horta pointed out last week, Rudd’s lack of people skills is not so apparent outside the refined halls of Canberra. The Russian ambassador may already be on the phone to the Kremlin, suggesting this would be a wizard way to get back at the Abbottistas for their cheekiness towards Vladimir Putin over Ukraine.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Trump hands out no party favours".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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