Trump's wayward messages on Puerto Rico and North Korea. Catalan protests growing. UN committee rejects West Papua petition. By Hamish McDonald.

Commander-in-chaff Trump’s wayward messages

US President Donald Trump delivering a statement this week at the White House on the Las Vegas shooting.
US President Donald Trump delivering a statement this week at the White House on the Las Vegas shooting.
Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

We’ve been hearing a lot from Donald Trump about weapons of mass destruction getting into the hands of supposed crazies such as Kim Jong-un and Iran’s Qasem Soleimani, and how we can’t just stand by and let this happen.

But when a domestic crazy sets a new record in mass killing – as Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, did last Sunday in Las Vegas, killing at least 59, including himself, and wounding more than 500 – he and other American conservatives get all fatalistic. This was “pure evil”, Trump said, as though it appeared from nowhere like the work of Beelzebub.

Paddock was “a sick man, a demented man”, he said. The local police chief, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo, was quick to describe Paddock as a “lone wolf” whose intentions couldn’t have been detected.

Trump joined Republican congressmen – most of them, like him, political clients of the National Rifle Association –in moving quickly on from the usual “thoughts and prayers” with the victims to praise the response of police and medical teams. “What happened is, in many ways, a miracle,” Trump said.

As for gun control? “We will be talking about gun laws as time goes by,” Trump said. How Paddock managed to assemble the 23 weapons he had in his hotel room – in addition to the 19 other firearms, explosives, electronic devices, and thousands of rounds of ammunition found at his home – without raising any alarm is just one of life’s baffling questions, it seems.

Paddock, a former accountant in defence-related companies who lived more recently as a professional gambler, was not known as a member of any extreme religious or political fringe group. But just assembling such an arsenal unnoticed anywhere else in the West but America is unthinkable. If he’d been a Muslim, we can imagine the collective responsibility being assigned to the entire faith.

Hurricane Idol

Strange to think, it’s almost a year since Americans elected Trump as their president, and yet we’re seeing no signs of his administration settling down to coherent policies or Trump himself moderating his crass pronouncements.

The investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller is discovering more and more of the Trump circle’s links with Russia. The secretary of health, Tom Price, resigned for using air force flights for personal travel. The Trump proposal for a big tax cut for companies and people like him is rolled out again.

This week Trump belittled the impact of the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico, leaving most of its 3.5 million Latino people in damaged homes, without power, water and sewerage. Because only 16 dead were counted (the figure is rapidly rising), this was not “a real catastrophe” akin to 2005’s hurricane Katrina, which caused 1833 deaths on the US mainland.

Skip Rex

In the latest on North Korea, Trump said Rex Tillerson is “wasting his time”, after the secretary of state revealed on a Beijing visit that channels of communication were open to Pyongyang, though a response hadn’t yet been received. “Save your energy Rex,” Trump tweeted. “We’ll do what has to be done!”

US experts such as Christopher Hill and Sue Mi Terry said it was excessive even for a good cop, bad cop routine, and damaged Tillerson’s standing with the Chinese. This week Tillerson had to fend off a report he’d called Trump a “moron” over his remarks at a Boy Scouts convention in July and had to be talked out of resigning by the vice-president, Mike Pence.

Still, Australia remains joined at the hip to the US. Julie Bishop says Trump has brought China off the fence on sanctions, and had “changed the debate” compared with Barack Obama’s cautious diplomacy. “I actually believe that the Chinese recalculated their risk when President Trump upped the ante in terms of rhetoric,” she said on the ABC’s Insiders, saying China now backed “the toughest and most comprehensive set of sanctions on North Korea yet”.

The only problem is Trump doesn’t seem to have much faith in those sanctions. Nor do many US strategists see Kim agreeing to scrap his nuclear missiles under any threat or inducement. However, the sanctions will hurt. The day Beijing announced it was cutting back oil supplies to North Korea by about one-third, Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun (“Workers’ Daily”) had an unusual blast at China’s official People’s Daily and Global Times newspapers, accusing them of “collusion with the imperialists” and other “reptile” acts.

Spanish overreach

This week we’ve been watching the turmoil in Catalonia where the Spanish government sent masses of police in an effort to foil the referendum on independence the provincial government carried out last Sunday.

If ever there was a self-defeating move by a government, it was this action by Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, which led to about 900 people including grandmothers being hit by his wallopers in front of the world’s cameras. Before this, the independence push had fairly equivocal support among the Catalans. Rajoy would have been better to let it happen, then declare the result had no legal force before picking up the question of greater regional autonomy.

West Papua acts

Far from the global media, another separatist movement has achieved a quiet miracle. Over months, activists took a petition around the communities of West Papua that calls for a new act of self-determination in the territory, deemed part of Indonesia by the United Nations since 1969.

Benny Wenda, a leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua who is based in Oxford, much to the fury of Indonesia’s embassy in London, says it has been signed by some 1.8 million people − 1.7 million of them Melanesians, or 71 per cent of the indigenous population, plus some 96,000 Indonesian settlers.

The former Dutch half of the island of New Guinea was handed over to Indonesia in a cynical sop to the late president Sukarno by the Kennedy administration in 1963, on condition of an “act of free choice” being held later. In the resulting 1969 exercise 1026 locals were picked, bribed and threatened by Jakarta’s operatives into a unanimous vote to join the republic.

The territory has been restive ever since, and remains difficult to access for foreign media and other investigators, despite a rash pledge by new president Joko Widodo in 2014 that it was open to all. Widodo is now aiming to get a majority share in its richest asset, the US-owned Freeport gold and copper mine, transferred to Jakarta ahead of his re-election bid in 2019.

Wenda took the petition along to the UN in New York last month when the world’s leaders convened there. He got support in the general assembly from the prime ministers of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and at least one Caribbean leader. But he found the UN decolonisation committee, known as the C24, had closed its letterbox.

It’s chaired by Venezuelan diplomat Rafael Ramírez, with Indonesia’s Dian Triansyah Djani as one of his deputies. Ramírez insisted his mandate extended only to 17 “non-self-governing territories” listed by the general assembly. West Papua was taken off the list after the assembly approved the 1969 vote. “One of the principles of our movement is to defend the sovereignty and the full integrity of the territory of our members,” Ramírez told The Guardian. “We are not going to do anything against Indonesia as a C24.”

Indonesia’s media have ignored the petition, which its UN mission described as a “hoax”. Still its authorities took it seriously enough to arrest some 57 people for organising it, and shut down one website promoting it.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2017 as "Commander in chaff".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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