Insults in our region continue

Jan 31, 2014

Sometime late last year, the Australian government made the seemingly innocuous decision to revert, after 18 months, to calling the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar by its British name Burma. One of Tony Abbott’s growing list of regional insults.

The country’s leaders in its capital Naypyidaw would have been furious. In recent years they have commenced a surprising, admirable program of reform, opening the country to foreign investment, introducing limited democracy with a stated intention to go further, releasing thousands of political prisoners and much more. The resource rich nation with about 60 million people is widely seen as the greatest greenfields economic opportunity in the bustling region.

So why is Australia insulting it by reverting to a name used by their former colonial masters? It’s the latest in a string of condescending or bullying actions and comments by Tony Abbott’s government towards our neighbours, including Indonesia, China and Timor-Leste. Countries that Abbott insists will, at some point “come around “ to Australia’s “way of thinking”. Countries he keeps telling us, will “get over it.” But in which parallel universe or timeframe – perhaps the heady colonial centuries of yesteryear – would this happen?

Perhaps most dramatically, Abbott has publicly “chosen” Japan (and its US ally) over China as Australia’s “best friend” in the region (Japan is also clearly China’s worst friend) when such a choice was not only unnecessary but damaging, as I explained in earlier this week in a piece on Abbott’s missteps with China. (

Behind these decisions and commentaries by Abbott, many long time observers of Australia’s foreign policy and its progenitors, there lurks the invisible hand of Michael Thawley, John Howard’s first and most influential foreign affairs adviser who he would later send to head up the embassy in Washington from 2000-2005.

In Washington it was Thawley who was the glue between Howard and the war cabinet of George W Bush: his Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser, later Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and Defence supremo, Donald “unknown unknowns” Rumsfeld. Some have suggested that Thawley was the brains behind W’s famous “Man of Steel” compliment to Howard.

After Thawley went to Washington, Howard began churning through FA advisers.

Like Bob Hawke’s economic adviser Ross Garnaut, who stretched his portfolio into foreign affairs and was sent as Ambassador to China in 1986, Thawley continued to hold sway over foreign policy decisions from afar with his unprecedented access to Bush’s inner circle. He also was the mentor to a rising group of diplomats, many posted to Washington. One of this group, Andrew Shearer has risen to the position of chief foreign affairs adviser to Tony Abbott. He shares foreign duties in the PM’s office with Mark Higgie (who was spy agency National Office of Assessments point man in London before he joined Abbott in 2012).

Many believe, that Thawley, through his apt pupil Shearer, still holds ideological sway over Australia’s foreign policy which appears to be being dragged back to a neocon past of all-the-way-with-the-USA.

People familiar with Howard’s office say that none of Thawley’s successors in the job really clicked with Howard as he had. Generally they did not hold Thawley’s strong ideological convictions but they were all rewarded well for their efforts.

Peter Varghese, Howard’s foreign adviser from July-December 2003 was then shuffled off to the top job of spy agency National Office of Assessments. He was later appointed by Julia Gillard as Secretary of DFAT in 2012. His careful and moderate views, DFAT insiders say, do not appear to be reflected in Abbott’s foreign policy so far.

In an interview in Jakarta last year with The Australian’s Peter Alford, Varghese  had this to say:

“We’re in a position now where the relationship with China is strong. The relationship with the US is strong and for those who argue that we have to choose between the two, the facts are demonstrating otherwise.

Instead, quite the opposite has happened.” In the same interview he said:

“The thing about the Australia-Indonesia relationship is that it’s underpinned by very strong mutual interests; not just strategic interests, but mutual trade and economic interests, and increasingly a people-to-people connection which is growing very fast.”

Yet a range of business people who work in, or deal regularly with, Indonesia now say that doors in Jakarta that were open are now closed and being an Australian is making business more, not less, difficult following Abbott’s aggressive prosecution of his “turn back the boats” policy.

It’s also worth noting that Paul O’Sullivan, Varghese’s successor in Howard’s office – for 18 months  – was appointed in 2005 as ASIO chief. O’Sullivan is now chief of staff to Attorney General George Brandis, the Cabinet minister who ordered raids on the office of Bernard Collaery long-time legal adviser to the government of Timor-Leste and a key witness, known simply as Witness K in its ongoing UN legal action against Australia.

The case was predicated on claims that in 2004 Australia, under the last Coalition government, spied on the Cabinet of Timor-Leste. The allegation, so far unrefuted, is that the spying was ordered by then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and executed by ASIS chief David Irvine. He was appointed by Howard as appointed China Ambassador in 2000 and is now head of ASIO and was therefore in charge of raiding the offices of Collaery and Witness K in December over a case in which he is, in fact, one of the key players.

While Brandis has used the cover of parliament to deny it, those raids are clearly linked to Timor-Leste’s battle against Australia over an unfair 2006 treaty for subsea energy resources.

The head of ASIS these days, the agency at the centre of the Timor-Leste spy allegations is Nick Warner, Howard’s FA adviser from 2005-2006 who was then moved to Defence Secretary from 2006-2009.

So there is a complex and apparently cosy web of relationships of former Howard foreign advisers and spy agency chiefs at play here.

Abbott’ decision on Mynamar was sneakily handled. It was not announced publicly, just internally told to a deeply puzzled and generally disturbed Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who must all bite their tongues.

The Myanmar/Burma etymology is complex as Griffith University Professor Andrew Seith wrote late last year on the Lowy Institute website:

“The name ‘Burma’ derives from the ethnic Burman (or Bamar) majority and, following local custom, was adopted by the British colonialists in the 19th century. Yet the more formal indigenous name ‘Myanmar’ has been used for titles, in literature and on official documents for centuries. The English language version of the 1947 constitution, prepared the year before the country regained its independence, referred to the ‘Union of Burma’, while the Burmese language version used the name ‘Myanmar’.”

But the intent is clear and insult either inadvertent which signals incompetence or more problematically, calculated.

Even more slippery has been the admission by DFAT spokesman Paul Wilson that despite the name “change” to Burma, in communications with the Myanmar government, Canberra would still use the nation’s preferred name Myanmar. Does the government think that perhaps the government in Naypyidaw may not notice? Is this a lack of conviction or lack of spine?

It may simply be that Aung Sun Suu Kyi, of whom Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has admitted she is “in awe” of, prefers the term. As sainted the woman her countrymen call “The Lady” may be, it’s worth reading the history of her father and observing her inability to speak out in favour of Mynamar’s ethnic minorities before being too over-awed by an admittedly brave and principled woman.

Imagine the ignominy for Australia’s admirable Ambassador, Bronte Moules, when she was/is asked to explain the name-change decision by Myanmar’s leaders? Its also highly unlikely Australian businesspeople, seeking to establish themselves in a country where government sign off is needed at multiple project stages made aware of this? And in business, these things DO matter.

Abbott’s government, certainly, has refused to explain the decision despite multiple requests from this reporter.

Diplomatic insiders say the decision will also dint Australia’s excellent standing with the Myanmar leadership. Despite limited diplomatic resources, in a country that is ripe with opportunity (and of course potential minefields) Australia is listened to in Myanmar by a government that appreciated our more cautious and nuanced approach to sanctions over the years.

 “If the Abbott Government should revert to the old name, at least outside diplomatic exchanges, it would be in the face of this clear trend. It would also risk isolating Australia on an issue that, however trivial it might first appear, has the potential to complicate not only recent efforts to get closer to Naypyidaw but also the wider bilateral relationship,” Griffith’s Seith wrote.

So what changes will Abbott decide upon next? Will he insist on calling the Chinese capital Peking and its southern metropolis Guangzhou by its own colonial name Canton (the Chinese list is long). Are we to revert to calling India’s movie capital Bombay and its huge western city Calcutta?  Why Iran when, really, we all know it’s Persia?

The Myanmar/Burma name change has become a state secret in the same way that getting details on Indonesia boat tow-backs, Australia’s switch in foreign policy to publicly favour Japan over China and the bullying raids on Bernard Collaery and his witness have become. Voters and taxpayers are being treated like the proverbial mushrooms.

This would appear to go hand in hand with the retrograde, potential damaging foreign policy decisions made by Abbott and his shadowy advisers.

There is certainly some method in the PM’s (and his advisers’) madness. Despite his tough attitude towards many of our Asian neighbours, Howard managed to eventually kick a few goals in regional foreign policy arena and again, many slate this home largely to the influence of Thawley.

Former Lowy Institute chief Michael Wesley described this as the Howard Paradox, the title of his book on the subject and summed it up thus:

“How has a government that has been so rhetorically uncompromising in its relations with its neighbours, that has done so many things that critics have claimed would damage Australia’s relations with its region, managed to build such strong links with Asian countries?”

But if a year is a long time in (international) politics then six years – the gap between Howard’s defeat and Abbott’s election – are a lifetime, particularly when they contained the global financial crisis and continued, relentless rise of China and its newfound assertiveness towards its neighbours and the concomitant US “pivot” towards Asia. The times, Howard was fond of saying, suited him. Abbott may not find them so conducive and one has to wonder where is the voter base for these shenanigans?

But perhaps the ultimate irony that the sum total of Abbott’s aggressive Anglo-centric superiority-complex insults; utterly opaque foreign policy switching; and, senior-official/political mate cover up over the Timor-Leste spying affair, has Australia behaving much more like China than any other nations it wishes to ape, or please.

Michael Sainsbury is an Australian journalist based in Bangkok…[email protected]

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