Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

It seems Australia likes to spy on its neighbors. After Indonesia, it is East Timor’s turn to criticize Australia for alleged espionage targeting its leaders.

Australia is accused of conducting an operation that targeted East Timor’s Cabinet when the two countries were negotiating a gas treaty in 2004. After learning about the spying, the East Timor government wants to revoke a deal worth billions of dollars that it signed with Australia, claiming that the latter had illegally obtained intelligence to gain advantage during the negotiations. The petition is now lodged at The Hague.

Things became more heated early this month when the Australia Security Intelligence Office raided the Canberra office of the lawyer who is representing East Timor in the case. Australia said it merely acted to defend its national security but East Timor is now demanding the return of the documents seized in the law office.

The spying revelation elicited a strong response from Timorese leaders. Former East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta criticized Australia’s hypocrisy: “Australia likes to lecture Timor-Leste and other countries about transparency and integrity in public life. Well, this has not been a very good example of transparency and honesty.”

“When you try to listen in to phone conversations of the president of Indonesia, a friendly country, or his own wife, or when you spy on a friendly neighbor like Timor-Leste which Australia helped to free in 1999 and which Australia claimed to be a friend, well it really undermines 10 years of our relationship,” Ramos-Horta added, referring to Australia’s spying activities in Indonesia which sparked a separate diplomatic row last month.

It has actually been a very challenging two-month period for Australian diplomats in Southeast Asia: they have either had to explain or deny the various spying allegations involving their government and a number of countries in the region. Aside from Indonesia and East Timor, the Malaysian government also summoned its Australian envoy about the reported intelligence sharing network maintained by the United States in the region, which included the posting of espionage equipment inside the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Apparently, Australia is a major player in this U.S.-led surveillance network, which monitors communication signals in the Asia-Pacific.

East Timor citizens immediately held a peaceful protest outside the Australian Embassy in Dili to condemn Australia’s illegal spying operations. The protesters also identified Australia Aid as an “espionage agent;” its aid work in 2004 was purportedly used as a cover to tap the phones of East Timor leaders.

The issue also highlighted the continuing controversy over Australia’s “occupation” of the Timor Sea.

“Australia has been stealing the oil and gas from the Timor Sea, in an area which belongs to Timor-Leste under international legal principles. Sadly, Australia has shown its manner and its greed to make our small and poor country in this region lose our resources and sovereignty,” said the Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea.

It’s unlikely that Australia will issue a formal apology in relation to the East Timor espionage, in the same way that it refused to express remorse over the leaked surveillance report involving Indonesia. But Australia should rethink its stance, as failure to act on this matter will only antagonize what were once friendly neighbors.

Mandela Remembered in Southeast Asia

Written for The Diplomat

Southeast Asian nations joined the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and first black president. Mandela is remembered in the region as a freedom fighter and the most popular endorser of batik, a traditional Indonesian fabric.

Following his release from jail in 1990, Mandela visited Jakarta and received a souvenir batik shirt from then President Suharto. He eventually made the batik shirt his trademark outfit for international gatherings, impressing Indonesian leaders.

“He had the courage to wear batik during a United Nations’ session. Even I might have had doubts wearing a batik shirt and speaking before the audience at a UN meeting,” said former Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla.

Some of Mandela’s batik shirts were designed by Indonesian batik maestro Iwan Tirta. In South Africa, the batik came to be known as the Madiba shirt.

But many Indonesians also acknowledged Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle and linked it to the anti-colonial legacy of 17th-century Indonesian icon Sheikh Yusuf of Makassar. When Mandela first visited Indonesia, he visited the site of the historic Asia-Africa Conference held in Bandung in 1955, which he said was an important and inspiring event for many oppressed peoples.

Meanwhile, journalist Aboeprijadi Santoso recognized Mandela’s role in raising the prestige of the liberation movement in East Timor. When Mandela met Suharto in November 1997, he insisted on talking with Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao, who was imprisoned for leading the independence struggle against Indonesia.

“Mandela’s intervention and encounter with Xanana became public relation’s greatest victory for the Timorese. The 1997 momentum had, therefore contributed to the changing circumstances and awareness among both the Timorese resistance and in the international community,” wrote Aboeprijadi Santoso.

Fellow Nobel Laureate and Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi praised Mandela for raising the standard of humanity.

“He also made us understand that we can change the world – we can change the world by changing attitudes, by changing perceptions. For this reason I would like to pay him tribute as a great human being who raised the standard of humanity,” Suu Kyi said.

Prior to her election victory in parliament, Suu Kyi was often described as Myanmar’s Mandela. But Suu Kyi has been criticized in recent months regarding her decision to work within the corrupt and military-controlled parliament as well as for her silence on the persecution of the Rohingyas. Mandela’s death has further highlighted the challenges facing Suu Kyi in her bid for the presidency and the reforms she wanted to implement in her country.

In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III fondly recalled his conversation with Mandela regarding his mother, Cory Aquino, who is another democracy icon in Southeast Asia:

“On a more personal note, I recall with gratitude and humility the kind words he told me during his visit to the Philippines when I was still a Representative. He told me then, ‘You chose your parents well.’ My mother admired him; like all of us, she would have been deeply saddened by his passing.”

In Malaysia, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad named Mandela as the leader he admired the most. Malaysian politicians also claimed that Mandela, who visited the country three times, was “fascinated” by the country’s multi-racial and multi-religious harmony and that he regarded it “as an example of moderate development.”

In Thailand, where street protests have engulfed the capital in the past three weeks, pacifists are urging political forces to learn from the struggle of Mandela.

“Mandela’s death at this time should serve as a reminder for Thais to wake up and think about the conflicts that caused so much loss in South Africa, and the patience and time it took for Mandela’s peaceful fight to be successful,” said Gen Ekkachai Srivilas of the Office of Peace and Governance at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.

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