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Can Australia host another Asean summit?

Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan / Khmer Times Share:
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pointed to the increasingly trans-national nature of terrorism. POOL/AFP / DAN HIMBRECHTS

If the regional grouping’s agenda is constantly hijacked by Australian activists and local parochial opposition MLAs playing politics like an Aussie rules footy game, the resounding answer is no, argues Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan.

Political partisanship is like a sports fandom: testosterone levels rise and fall as politicians play to the gallery. Australia is due to go into elections anytime between August this year and May next year, with the opposition Labor Party hoping to wrest control of the House of Representatives and also the Senate.

It is rather unfortunate that the Australian Labor Party has decided to make Cambodia its rallying cry to try to derail the first ever Asean-Australia Special Summit, in a federal election year, just to score brownie points with their constituents.

Important issues have been tabled at the special summit and they include the Agreement Establishing the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), and the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks that benefits both Australia and Asean, in the face of the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – whose demise was caused by the Trump administration. Also at the sidelines of the special summit, counterterrorism issues were discussed with the threat of jihadist Islam becoming more and more real in the region.

But whether these issues now would get reported in the Australian media and see the light of day – with sideshows in Sydney’s Hyde Park and Townhall hawking all the media attention – is a big question mark.

The host government, Australia, led by the coalition, is now in damage control in the face of an enraged Australian public. It’s worth asking now, whether Australia can ever be a venue for any other Asean summit, and whether it has the trust and support of all the 10 Asean members as a partner of equal standing, if the regional grouping’s agenda is constantly hijacked by Australian activists and local parochial opposition MLAs playing politics like an Australian rules footy game.

On March 9, Gareth Evans, the former Labor Foreign Minister told a public conference organised by the Australian National University that, “Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder”.

“Not the kind of genocidal slaughter conducted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Nor the scale of killing that has been roiling Syria, or that has put Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and Bangladesh in the global headlines of late. But murder nonetheless, with Cambodian citizens deliberately targeted by their country’s security forces…,” he added.

Mr Evans castigated the Australian coalition government’s invitation to Prime Minister Hun Sen to attend the special summit and added it was “not surprising given the government anxiety not to rock any boats in the lead up to the summit, and above all to try to keep alive its manifestly indefensible, as well as unworkable, Cambodian refugee-dumping programme.”

Unfortunately for Mr Evans, history will also be his judge – a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

In November 1991, when Indonesian troops opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Dili East Timor, killing at least 100, with a further 200 feared missing, the response of the then Australian Labour government was muted. While international criticism of the Suharto regime over the Dili killings appeared to be reaching new levels, the Australian Labor government however stuck to the line touted by the then foreign minister, Mr Evans, who said the massacre “was the result of aberrant behavior by particular groups within the [Indonesian] armed forces”.

When asked to comment about the 200 missing Timorese, Mr Evans said: “They might have simply gone bush.”

In 1985, Australia became the first Western country to formally recognise Indonesia’s then sovereignty over East Timor. Asked about the international practice of not recognizing territory acquired by force, Mr Evans said: “What I can say is that the world is a pretty unfair place.”

The stakes for Australia are high now and it needs Asean more than the regional grouping needs it as a “policeman” with knuckle-dusters.

There is indeed a security vacuum in the region with an inward-looking United States. Whether we like it not, we’re now seeing the reemergence of China as a global power with Beijing willing to exert its military muscle in the region.

Asean will be a bulwark against Chinese hegemony and Australia can least afford to antagonize the 10-member regional grouping. The ball’s now in Australia’s court to gain the trust of Asean, and rein in antagonistic local sentiment that might jeopardise this relationship in the pursuit of selfish narrow local political gains – just to garner votes.

Mr Evans himself would be best placed to understand this urgency if he cares to recall the fiasco in 1993 when the Australian-initiated Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum came into direct confrontation with the concept of Malaysia’s East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) to be formed with Asean consensus.

Mr Evans, as Australia’s foreign minister, was the prime mover of APEC, and it was a period when Asean mistrusted Australia’s regional role and labelled it as America’s sheriff trying to browbeat the regional grouping into submitting to Washington’s Asia-Pacific agenda. Let it not happen again.

Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan is the author of ‘East Timor: Blood and Tears in Asean’.

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