ALISON BROINOWSKI. Our mission creeps into Southeast Asia

We should not have to resort to speculation about what our troops are doing either in Syria or in the Philippines. But the mere mention of Islamist terrorism now generates an armed response.

When several prominent Americans visit Australia in succession, it’s a warning that something serious is about to happen.  Last year US Admiral Joseph Aucoin, Commander of the US 7th Fleet, arrived to warn us that we must push back against China in the South China Sea. Then came another Admiral Jonathan Greenert to tell Australia the US wants to put warships in the port of Darwin. In April, Vice President Mike Pence arrived to ‘reassure Australia of the closeness of the relationship’ under the Trump administration. North Korea tensions, the South China Sea, trade, regional security, and military tensions were also on the agenda. After him in May 2017 came Republican Senator John McCain to beg us to show patience, and even leadership, in coping with President Trump. At the end of May former ADF head Admiral Chris Barrie warned that having been involved in proxy wars in the Middle East for two decades, Australia was ‘sleepwalking’ towards a major war.

So it seemed in Syria, for after a series of American bombing raids that were said to be ‘mistakes’ – in one of which more than 60 Syrian soldiers died in September 2016, and the RAAF was involved – the US on 19 June 2017 shot down a Syrian fighter plane and two Iran-supplied drones that had reportedly attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) are Arabs and Kurds allied in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, and are among several groups of so-called Islamic ‘moderates’ supported by the US. After the strike, which was in the ‘deconfliction zone’ bordering Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, the US did not even claim to have made a mistake. On 20 June, the ADF halted Australian air operations when Russia announced that it would scramble its fighter planes, track US-led coalition aircraft and drones in the area, and shut down the hotline between the two sides. How long Australia’s ‘temporary’ suspension of RAAF flights over Syria will continue, we have not been told (Rory Callinan, Australian, 21 June 2017).

Russia has also called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. If this occurs, the illegality of Australia’s bombing of Syria could be exposed once again. For not only does Syria pose no threat to Australia, we are effectively attacking the government of a sovereign state which has shown itself to be increasingly in control of its territory, and which has certainly not invited us to bomb its forces. In doing so, our leaders are evidently committing the war crime of aggression, and they would be wise to make the suspension permanent.

Australia has also been sleepwalking in Indonesia and the Philippines. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia announced generous funding for Wahhabi proselytisers in nominally secular Indonesia and in the southern Philippines, reviving concerns about fundamentalists in their outer provinces and the rise of Islamist activism. In May Islamic State (IS) announced the establishment of the ‘Islamic State-Eastern Region,’ and just before Ramadan, some of its members suicide-bombed a Jakarta bus station. Others besieged Marawi city in Mindanao. In June when the four Muslim rebel groups currently active there declared allegiance to IS, two RAAF Orion aircraft were dispatched to the Southern Philippines to join US Orions in fighting the ‘terrorists’ and supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, who in the past had shunned any American re-occupation of bases in the Philippines and was prepared to negotiate with China in respect of disputed islands in the South China Sea.

In Mindanao, people in the Muslim community (‘Bangsamoros’) traditionally engage in piracy, smuggling and kidnapping. The latest of several Moro groups to become prominent are Abu Sayaaf and the Maute, allied under Isnilon Hapilon who is wanted by the FBI for terrorism. Now they have been joined by brothers from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Yemen. The predominantly Christian government in Manila has for decades responded to the Moros with oppression, and last December Duterte arrogantly rejected a ceasefire offered by the Maute (Peter Hartcher, SMH 20 June 2017).

Australia had rural development programs and Catholic priests in Mindanao for decades, and occasional threats, attacks and abductions occurred nearby, but we never called in the ADF. The rationale was that offering local people better conditions would deter them from joining the rebels in the jungle and on the Sulu Sea. But in the Southern Philippines, piracy, gun-running, and dope dealing always paid better than tenant farming for rich absentee landlords. Duterte’s ‘extra-judicial killings’ of thousands of those engaged in the drug trade have fomented Muslim outrage and desire for vengeance. As Hartcher observed (20 June 2017), the events in Marawi show that ‘any part of the planet that is ungoverned, or even just poorly governed, is ripe for jihadi land grab’.

Obvious similarities exist with the Cold War period, when Communists were the nominal enemy and Western countries tried to suppress nationalist guerrilla movements against local dictators. Now we hear that Islamism in Southeast Asia could reach Australia creating a revived domino effect. Malaysia is sending naval support to the Philippines, and Indonesia, where official concern about copycat operations is growing, has done the same. No one inquires, apparently, why Trump doesn’t pressure his Saudi Arabian friends to stop funding and arming Salafists in Indonesia and the Philippines, or how Duterte’s extra-judicial murders are forgiveable when Assad’s killings of Syrian citizens are not.

As for Australia, if we never sent Orions during decades of Moro uprisings, why are we doing so now? We can speculate that the mere mention of ‘terrorism’ engages the national security industry and generates media excitement out of proportion to the event itself.  We can imagine what our American visitors want us to do. We can also expect that a Western armed response will attract more Islamist recruits and more publicity, generating an endless revenge cycle.

We should not have to resort to speculation about what our troops are doing either in Syria or in the Philippines. Deployment of the ADF is an act of war, which should be openly debated and voted on by the Parliament, with clear objectives and strategies. As long as these are absent, Australia will continue to sleepwalk into disastrous wars, dreaming that the US will protect us.

©2017 Alison Broinowski


Dr Alison Broinowski was an Australian diplomat in the Philippines from 1974 to 1978. She is Vice President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform, whose websites have shorter versions of this article.



Dr Alison Broinowski AM is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1963, lived in Japan for a total of six years, and for shorter periods in Burma, Iran, the Philippines, Jordan, South Korea, the United States of America and Mexico, working alternately as an author and Australian diplomat.

Since leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she has received a PhD in Asian Studies from ANU, and has continued to lecture, write, and broadcast in Australia and abroad on Asian affairs and cultural and political issues.

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2 Responses to ALISON BROINOWSKI. Our mission creeps into Southeast Asia

  1. Avatar James O'Neill says:

    Alison, I don’t think it is sleepwalking as such. There is an important distinction between what the government is consciously doing on the one hand and what we the public are allowed to know or have any input on the other. In Australia’s case the public are treated like the cultivation of mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed a constant diet of BS. The problem is compounded by the absence of an independent media. Fairfax and Murdoch are more in common than separates them, and keeping us ignorant is high on their common agenda. It is not so much that we are told lies, although that happens too, but that so much relevant information is simply not published.
    The war in Syria is a classic example but there are others, and I suspect that your discussion of current events in the Philippines and Indonesia falls exactly into that category.
    The recent visit to Australia of sundry top politicians and military types we will find in due course was not for “reassurance ” or any similar claptrap but to give us our orders for the next phase of operations on behalf of the dying empire.

  2. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    I expressed the view at the beginning that the invasion of Iraq was best compared with a slow moving beginning of WW1

    We are, I think, closer to 1915 than 1918.

    I’m not sure if people have gone sleepwalking since those heady days of protest or simply succumbed to the parade of power, or worse.

    Your list of legates come to bully Turnbull, not to mention praise him, represent something that the Vatican, with modern technology, might have brought to bear on Henry 5 before he got too independent minded. We are glugged by Hollywood, carrying to bed with us apps of News Dubious, not sleeping. Nobody believes anything any more.

    And when Seymour Hersh presents in detail the truth that Syria did not use chemical weapons in April, that US forces knew in advance what the Syrians were doing and supported it… and that grown men with chests of ribbons and jobs they don’t want to lose then presented a Caligula with a whole truck of gelato options, with pictures, things are sick, not sleeping.

    Ron Paul noticed [yawn]:

    There is clear need, has always been clear need, but it becomes more urgent, for proper national debate before any new deployment of force, anywhere. But no one up there in our firmament can debate it. Not sleepwalking, ignorance.

    I’d be careful about use of the word ‘traditionally’ as in your:

    “In Mindanao, people in the Muslim community (‘Bangsamoros’) traditionally engage in piracy, smuggling and kidnapping.”

    Traditionally people like Alison and me ([1] female and uppity and [2] left handed) would have been burned alive, three centuries BB (before Brexit). Just over two centuries BB a natural scientist with novel ideas, William Blake, etched himself in romantic form and wrote his books backwards on copper engraving plates to avoid the significant traditional reward for wrong cleverness of being hung, drawn and quartered.

    Traditionally there were Moslems long before Christians in the southern Philippines. Traditionally we were taught at school that the guy defending his the beach in the Philippines who killed Magellan in 1521 was a bad guy, but there may be other perspectives. As regards kidnapping of tourists and others, I’m surprised there are not more, in the DPRK or the Philippines or right across the developing world, given the way many people from rich countries behave in other people’s ‘living rooms’.

    Rage is confected over arrested miscreants in Indonesia or children struck by chemical weapons in Syria, even when it didn’t happen (repeat, even when it didn’t happen) and grown men in positions of power suck up to monsters in fear of staining their pants or even… or even… fear of losing their employer-provided health insurance.

    Once upon a time, Seymour Hersh brought us My Lai and Abu Ghraib, now he is met with silence. Catatonia, perhaps, not just innocent sleep walking.

    Quorum? Ring the bells? No quorum? The House is adjourned and will avoid the grubby bits when it returns.

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