As most people enjoy the cheer of Christmas and all its festivities, a grandmother and mother to a disabled son languish in jail. The mother is unable to care for her vulnerable family or enjoy the season that is supposed to be filled with cheer.
Sixty-five year old Tim Sakmony’s story is a sad reflection of the Cambodian government’s continued program of forced evictions. For speaking out about the impending loss of her home and her subsequent fears for her disabled child, she has been forced into silence, through what Amnesty International believes are trumped up charges.
Bulldozing slums is nothing new in Cambodia and the Australian government was at one stage dragged into this shocking practice of human rights abuse during the construction of the Australian embassy in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
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Australia has an international reputation for hosting world-class sporting events. We have held exceptional Olympic and Commonwealth Games, World Chamionships and World Cups.
The organisation has been superb and the action on the field outstanding.
But the missing piece of the puzzle is Australia’s failure to fully capitalise on many of these events away from the sporting action.
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Britain has recently decided to stop overseas aid to India. It had become untenable for the Government to take money from British taxpayers to subsidise a nuclear power with a space program.
It’s time Australia took a similar, hard-nosed approach to overseas aid. If the Asian Century means anything, it means Australians realising that the hubris, paternalism, and sentimentalism reflected in an old style ‘first-world helping out the third-world’ aid program is anachronistic.
Mutual economic and social benefit must be the criterion for any investment of Australian funds in another country. Leveraging and increasing Australian strengths must be the strategy.
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For the past three weeks much of the cabinet has been doing laps of honour waving the Asian Century white paper as if celebrating a major achievement.
The document has been lofted like a banner in press conferences, op-ed pieces and speeches. It has been taken overseas by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and shown to Asian political and business leaders.
But during those three weeks what has become increasingly obvious is that, outside the clutch of foreign affairs mavens and forward-think business types who didn’t need any educating on the rise of the Asian middle classes, the Asian Century white paper has been a non-event.
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As the ASEAN juggernaut plunges into town, Phnom Penh’s elite are smiling broadly, puffing out their chests and standing tall on the international diplomatic stage. Everyone can feel the eyes of Australasia – and the world – focusing on the small nation of Cambodia.
But some of those eyes are peering into Cambodia’s more vulnerable diplomatic corners and the human rights abuses that are rife in this country of 15 million people.
Cambodia still bears the scars of arguably the most horrific human rights abuses of the twentieth century. Millions still live with the legacy of the systematic extermination inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s.
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For Australia to seize the opportunities of the Asian Century the Australian business community needs to confront an uncomfortable possibility – it may be the weakest link.
Australian business is typically sparing in its praise but never short of criticism of our national and state governments. Sometimes, we are so busy finding the negative in the details, we don’t support the positive in the big picture.
For example, it is time for Australian business to say the following: ubiquitous national broadband is an unqualified good thing for Australia and a massive opportunity for business at home and in Asia.
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Since last week, plenty of sushi-eating, bubble-tea-sipping Aussies have taken to the Interwebs to voice their indignation on behalf of Asian-Australians over A Current Affair’s “All-Asian Mall” blunder.
They wanted to make clear they were personally aware that the members of our community who cling-wrap their remote controls, chop their food with giant cleavers and apparently want to start specialty stores in Sydney’s North-West are, indeed part of the community.
But as a country, it looks like Australians aren’t all that into “Asia”.
I saw something a couple of days ago that made me want to throw a brick through the TV.
I’m not normally a violent person, but A Current Affair’s “special investigation” on the “Asianisation” of our shopping centres wasn’t just dumb, it was dangerous.
If you were lucky enough to miss the program, you missed reporter Ben McCormack’s “exclusive” story on the “Great mall of China” in Sydney’s Castle Hill.
The Gillard government’s much-touted Australia in the Asian Century report is packed full of eye-popping statistics about the rise of Asia. Did you know, for example, that 80 million people played football in Asia in 2006 and that by 2020, this is expected to reach 380 million?
China is already the world’s biggest buyer of Rolls Royce cars. In the first decade of the 21st century, the number of cars per 100 urban households in China jumped from less than one to more than 18. There are now 80 computers per 100 households in China, up from eight. There are 60 microwave ovens, up from 16. And a whopping 200 mobiles, up from 16.
Are you excited about the Asian Century yet? Wait, there’s more.
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Australia’s foreign policy, according to Foreign Minister Bob Carr in a piece published the day after Australia’s UN Security Council win, is not only about protecting our national interest, it is “about doing the right thing”. If so, we should have expected more from the most significant work on Australian foreign policy for many years.
As an advocate for human rights and democratic freedoms in Tibet, I was encouraged when the Gillard government announced its plan for a white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Our understanding of Asia, and China in particular, was in dire need of updating. When it came to Tibet, Chinese propagandists had spent years happily filling the vacuum left by the dearth of information escaping the Great Firewall and waning government interest in the region.
During the consultation phase, several Australian NGOs provided thoughtful input on how Australia’s deepening economic relationships with Asia might also support the wellbeing of disadvantaged or marginalised groups, particularly those paying for China’s “economic miracle”.
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A woman sits in a courtroom dock. Eyes downcast. Fidgeting. Clearly tormented by recollections that are now flooding back as fresh as they were decades ago.
She describes the being frogmarched from her home by armed black-clothed soldiers. A month-long walk to a concentration camp. Giving birth on the side of a road. Being worked to the bone. Sleeping in pits covered in worms. Seeing fellow captives beheaded. Hearing the screams of innocents being tortured. Giving up her sick children so they could get proper medical help only to learn they were never treated and died alone. Knowing her husband was locked in a dark prison cell, interrogated, tortured and finally murdered.
But it isn’t Nazi Germany she is describing. It isn’t even that long ago. And it didn’t happen that far away from our shores.
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Leaving aside the irony of the term “White Paper”, there are other reasons to be a little cautious, if not blasé, about the Australia in the Asian Century report.
Basically, it is one of those big fat paper bricks created by bureaucrats which for now at least, appears to have no immediate practical application beyond starting a conversation about the kinds of real world initiatives we’d actually like to have one day.
Oh, there are stats and graphs and so forth. Some stats are rather eye-opening, such as the one that shows Asia’s food demand will double by 2050 – and that Australia will play a much bigger part in helping to feed Asia.
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It is Australia’s invisible northern neighbour. The Philippines are south-east Asia’s first democracy and only Christian nation. Most of us know at least one of the 230,000 Pinoys who live here in Australia, but that is about it. Virtually none of us learn their national language of Tagalog, trade is negligible and tourism is effectively non-existent.
This week, the Philippines hit our headlines for all the right reasons. After forty years of civil war in the south, uber-popular new President Noynoy Aquino struck a peace deal with Muslim separatist group MILF. The previous day, he had released details of a national audit of his predecessor President Arroyo’s regime, which found $3.2 billion dollars had vanished in potentially corrupt payments. Apparently, 744 officials could face prosecution.
But the veneer of good news is little more than skin deep. Aquino has devoted half his first term to fighting Arroyo appointments like the Chief Justice. Last week he had Arroyo herself re-arrested, a move that was foiled only by her dash to hospital for medical care. It all makes for great TV, but fabulously little impact on the ground in this nation of over a hundred million peace-loving people and seven thousand islands.
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Australian Dominic Bird from Perth is likely to face a death penalty trial in Malaysia in December on drug charges. Meanwhile, Melbourne nurse Emma Louise L’Aiguille is also being held in a Malaysian women’s prison on similar charges, following her arrest on 17 July.
Fellow Australians facing execution in Bali, Myuran Sukumuran and Andrew Chan, have lodged their final appeal for clemency to the Indonesian President. These cases have refocused Australia’s attention on capital punishment across the Asia Pacific.
While there is a strong trend towards abolishing the death penalty in the region, a few of our neighbours continue to apply the ultimate inhumane punishment.
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Perhaps the bigger problem with the recent racist Coles ad is that Coles and its team of contractors do not think India is part of Asia.
The ad, which was placed on Gumtree by one of Coles’ cleaning subcontractors, says “Store requires no indians or asians please. MUST SPEAK ENGLISH”.
The embarrassment for Australia’s major supermarket and its contractors and subcontractors, or whoever Coles is alluding to, is that it has no idea about the geography of our neighbours.
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In 2007, Singapore’s first and longest serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew angered Beijing by writing that China’s rise created widespread apprehension throughout the region, while the rise of other large democratic countries such as India were either welcomed by most countries or else created little interest or fear.
The former Singaporean leader’s observations are correct. Despite being the second largest economy in the world, China has no genuine allies in the region to speak of. Beijing is intensely distrusted by every major power in Asia – from Japan, South Korea, to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, to Australia. All of these countries have moved closer to America and each other as an insurance against an increasingly formidable China.
Why is there wariness in the region?
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There has been plenty of diplomatic semantics around the American presence in Darwin but many including the Chinese are still not satisfied. The United States has long wanted a permanent military base in northern Australia.
But they are not stupid.
So when Australian officials conveyed that a fixed establishment would not be politically palatable here they saved us the embarrassment of having to say no in a high-level bilateral meeting if the request was made.
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US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev will attend the sixth East Asia Summit in Bali this Saturday, November 19. This historic development will make the East Asia Summit one of the world’s most important leadership forums. It will also be another signal of a continuing global power shift that will make the 21st century the Asian Century.
US and Russian participation in the East Asia Summit represents an extraordinary achievement for an Asian integration process initiated by (originally 6, now 10) ASEAN countries during the Cold War. US military primacy will continue for at least for the first half of the 21st century, highlighting the importance for Australia of the ANZUS alliance.
President Obama will celebrate the 60th anniversary of ANZUS this morning in a speech to a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament. The ANZUS alliance protects Australia with US nuclear deterrence capability that is likely to remain an effective deterrent of military adventurism by a ‘rising’ China.
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Last week’s default to onshore asylum seeker processing is not a story of government incompetence. It isn’t even a story of partisan gridlock. At its heart this is about of our collective failure to grasp what it means to live in an interconnected world. We are yet to leave our foreign policy training wheels.
My most visceral reaction to this announcement was a feeling that we’ve lost control over our ability to shape events in the national interest. The political stalemate highlights not only the Gillard Government’s current lack of an authentic asylum seeker policy, but also a broader paradigm that suggests our leaders don’t control the big decisions anymore.
But we lost control long before last week. In the 10 years of the Howard Government, there were over 13,000 asylum seeker arrivals; in the course of the Rudd/Gillard Governments, there have been no more than 5,000. The perception of asylum seeker control in the Howard era was just that – a perception of control.
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I’ve always half-liked the Labor Government’s Malaysian solution on asylum seekers. I like the half that involves bringing an additional 4000 refugees from Malaysia to Australia. It’s a small additional burden that our rich little country is very capable of bearing.
It’s quite a clever strategy, too, in light of new research showing humanitarian arrivals are generally younger and more likely to live in regional areas, thereby helping to counter our rapidly ageing, urbanised population.
But I abhor the other half of the equation – the part that involves sending 800 asylum seekers to Kuala Lumpur, where 90,000 mostly Burmese are already rotting in a refugee quagmire in the hope of a better life they’ll never get.
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With foreign policy barely rating a mention in the election campaign, the strongest indication we will have of the eventual winner’s view on the world is where they decide to go first.
Like most elections this campaign wasn’t fought on foreign policy.
Even with the tragic deaths of three soldiers in Afghanistan it was a passing topic. Tony Abbott did promise to dump Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and appoint a Minister for International Development. But the closest we got to a genuine debate on our place in the world was one about which island country to our north to send asylum seekers.
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