Things unsaid, people unseen

Mar 14, 2024
(L-R) Leaders hold hands during the ASEAN Australia Special Summit Leaders Arrival and Official Family Photo event in Melbourne. Alamy/  Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo

The irony was thick as lard. What an indigestible image for International Women’s Day. What an appalling advertisement for the Melbourne ASEAN Summit and its Australian host, a claimed world leader for gender equality.

The above pic appeared last week just before Minister for Women Katy Gallagher released the government’s Working for Women strategy to “ensure women are better represented in leadership and decision-making roles.”

The lineup of a dozen leaders representing nine of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus PM Anthony Albanese were all men wearing trousers tailored to allow stand-up use of urinals. This apparently bestows wisdom and authority.

The total population they allegedly represent is 700 million human beings. About half would be women, though not one was on the jolly pix of delegates awkwardly holding hands and weirdly labelled “family”. That usually means Dad and Mum.

Meanwhile, Albanese’s fiancée Jodie Haydon took “spouses” (PM’s Department term) to the Melbourne Museum where they could see how things used to be done and maybe get selfies with koalas.

Women at the conference did get a look-in at some of the breakaway sessions like Digital Transformation Entrepreneurship, but they were battling against the flood of testosterone.

The summit was supposed to celebrate half a century after the first meeting between ASEAN Secretaries-General and Australian officials in Canberra. Photos from the 1974 original show an all-bloke chat, so nothing’s changed for 50 years.

One woman who should have been at the Summit in her own right was Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Her National League for Democracy won the November 2020 Myanmar general election with 346 seats against the opposition’s army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party that took just 25 of the available seats.

The Union claimed the vote was neither free nor fair. Three months later the army ripped up the ballot, seized the government and arrested Suu Kyi.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners claims 4,650 people have been killed and more than 20,000 detained since the coup.

Suu Kyi was tried in a closed court and sentenced to a total of 33 years in a secret jail for “corruption” and a swag of other charges. The 78-year-old will probably die behind bars.

The UN has condemned the sentences. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reportedly called her convictions “affronts to democracy and justice”.

Did any of this disturb Australia and the ASEAN delegates? They never mentioned Suu Kyi in their 55-point Melbourne Declaration. In the section on unrepresented Myanmar, delegates “strongly condemned the continued acts of violence and called for immediate cessation … effective humanitarian assistance, and inclusive national dialogue.” But the lady’s name didn’t appear.

Interference is a fantasy, because ASEAN works on consensus. So the tiny Sultanate of Brunei (pop below 500,000) can kibosh a resolution from giant Indonesia, (pop above 277 million) rendering any decision useless.

It seems the 6,337 civilian killings in the once-British colony of Burma deserve less attention than the former colony of Portugal.

The Summit could have been, but wasn’t about promoting democracy and women’s rights; the idea was never mentioned in the 4,660-word Declaration. It was all about business – selling more Aussie goods into an expanding market now with enough money to pay for goods other than grains and beef.

ASEAN is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes women as equals. The man who introduced HR into the discussions was not the Aussie PM who likes to promote freedom, but Anwar Ibrahim from a flawed democracy.

The Malaysian PM has deep personal knowledge of the topic having been jailed twice (1999-2004 and 2015-2018) on charges of sodomy believed to have been engineered by his political rivals. He has since been pardoned.

In Melbourne Anwar lobbied Albanese to restart funding of the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees, suspended after allegations that some workers for the agency took part in the Hamas attack on 7 October. The stoppage has directly impacted women and kids.

Domestic violence in Australia has only recently been recognised as a national scourge. Laws, shelters, police re-training and other measures are now in place, making us a leader in reform.

The curse of DV is also widespread in ASEAN countries, though little discussed because of cultural shame. The Indonesian Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection reported 18,000 cases of violence for the first nine months of 2023. Women were almost always the victims.

A national survey by the ministry recorded 18 per cent of married women experiencing physical or sexual violence. Twenty-one per cent reported emotional violence, while a quarter had experienced economic violence where the man exploits his partner’s assets.

Here was a chance for this largely hidden crime to be exposed and discussed in the calm of Melbourne. West Australian scholar and Indonesian speaker Dr Kate O’ Shaughnessy has written that Indonesian law “does not properly address ideological, religious and cultural definitions of gender roles.”

At the summit Albanese spruiked an AUD 2 billion fund “to boost trade and two-way investment (focusing on) infrastructure and green-economy transition projects.”

The facility will provide loans, guarantees, equity and insurance for projects that will boost Australian trade and investment in the region. Australia will also give $140 million to a Partnerships for Infrastructure Programme for “governments to deliver projects with expertise such as planning and procurement”.

Women should benefit, but who’ll get the money? Minister Gallagher has already said companies that want government contracts must meet gender equality targets. Only in the Wide Brown – or everywhere?

Also not aired at the ASEAN Summit was pay equality – an issue getting wide coverage in Australia. A UN report on leadership found less than half the women have paid work in Indonesia and adjacent states:

“Women’s share of managerial positions across ASEAN countries remains below parity. With the exception of Laos and the Philippines, women remain underrepresented in management in all countries… representation in middle and senior management is even lower, at 26 per cent.”

Though not on the stage. While the ASEAN Summit delegates in Melbourne were trying to get noticed, US superstar Taylor Swift was sucking out all the available news space in Singapore. Her performances forced fans from elsewhere in ASEAN to travel to the island state that’s earned big money on her success.

While 12 men who think they’re special yarned in Melbourne about their plans to spend public monies, independent Swift sang in Singapore and coined millions. It’s a pity she didn’t make the ASEAN Summit. Then the HR issues she promotes would have been raised to the roofs.

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