PNG deal – regional solution or co-dependency

This is a pre-edited version, final version on theconversation.edu.au.

We are yet to find out the details of the deal struck between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. What we know so far is that the agreement will see all boat arrivals without visas to Australia diverted to PNG for processing and potential resettlement. This sounds like a political and short-term stroke of genius to appeal to an important electoral minority, but regionally and for the long-term sounds like another ‘regional solution’ disaster.

From the performances and theatrics that we saw yesterday, as well as the media onslaught via youtube, facebook etc., this announcement is deemed (by the government and grudgingly by the opposition to some degree) to be the ‘silver bullet’, the circuit breaker to end the flow of the boats. Australian politicians have been working to find a solution to the increase in boat arrivals ever since the Tampa incident and Howard’s infamous declaration in 2001 that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Ever since then the issue of refugees in Australia has been inextricably linked to border protection. The view holds that as long as we can police our borders we are in control of who comes here and how many people come here.

Indeed, Australia’s borders are amongst the best protected and policed considering the sheer size of the continent. The issue of control, however, is beside the point, because every boat carrying asylum seekers without visas which arrives on Australia’s shore is doing so legally. It is, after all, legal to ask for asylum of a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

Legality though is not really the issue here. Others have written in more detail about the anxieties of a nation built by boat people and the fear of boats full of ‘others’ arriving on our shores that may displace us, our way of life and culture. Suffice to say that since Vietnamese boat arrivals in the 1970s there has been a steady unease in dealing with the uncontrollable influx of others not regimented by the migration system.

For as Howard himself said in the same speech quoted above in 2001: “we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations.” But these refugees arrived in Australia as resettled refugees via an ordered and controllable system, not a queue, but nonetheless a system that allows us to decide who we let in and who we prioritise.

The resettlement programme in Australia is amongst the most generous systems as it offers a relative direct path to citizenship and an active engagement with the host country that some others do not. This proud history is now being endangered by the bifurcation of the system supposedly rewarding those refugees waiting in camps and urban settings around the world and punishing those who risk the perilous journey by boat. Many refugees have perished trying to make their way to Australia and the government responded with an expert panel on asylum seekers. Although its recommendations were fully taken on board by the government, one crucial element of the report, namely the imperative of a regional cooperation plan on protection and asylum has received scant attention by policy makers.

The PNG deal may raise hopes that finally the government is talking about a regional solution, with regional partners and actual agreements in place, but at the moment it looks more like a policy for regionally dumping refugees for Australia’s domestic political gain. With our short election cycles regional solutions to the refugee crisis in our region seem doomed to short term rush jobs. Indeed, without the major regional transit countries Malaysia and Indonesia at the table, the PNG deal remains just another bilateral contract that will now firmly bind Australia to O’Neill’s administration in PNG.

This creates a co-dependency that is based on substantial Australian financial aid (to be largely carried by the aid budget) for the acceptance of our refugees. This sets worrying precedents for how our aid budget is spent (already Australia is the third biggest recipient of Australian foreign aid after PNG and Indonesia) and how dependent we will be in regards to our refugee treaty obligations that will be effectively serviced by PNG.

Real solutions take time and meaningful engagement with key players, namely Malaysia and Indonesia. Australia could lead these efforts, not just as the paymaster but by engaging regional partners to deal with the ongoing ethnic conflicts in Myanmar/Burma and take an active role in the wider region, e.g. in regards to human rights in Sri Lanka.

All of that takes time, political will and compromise between partners, not Australia demanding regional countries to succumb to their short-term political exigencies.

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My book cover

My first book Modern Muslim identities has a book cover made up of two layered photographs. For a while now I have been thinking that it may be confusing, or at least I should explain my thinking behind it to better illustrate its meaning.

The first picture is of the wayang kulit (shadow play) figures, featuring characters from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as a Western tourist (in the middle in case you were wondering). This picture comes from a dalang’s (puppet master) workshop near Kota Bharu in the Northeast of peninsula Malaysia and he used a range of alternative figures to update his stories. This, then, was a juxtaposition of a pre-Islamic past and post-colonial present, especially as Kelantan is often considered ‘very Islamic’ as it is administered by the Islamist party PAS. The picture also relates to a chapter in the book in which I discuss the arts policies and the contestations between state and federal as well as within Malaysian society about what is or should be ‘Islamic’. This dalang made fun of and amused his audience by drawing attention to his resistance to the state ordered Islamisation of the Hindu epics, for instance. Inherent in this debate is also the tension for Malaysia and Malaysians between being modern (and Western, although these are obviously two different things) and culturally different based on historical heritage (whatever that may be – and the current fights with Indonesia over cultural identity are instructive here). This is especially contentious for Malays, as their cultural heritage is under most scrutiny in terms of its non-Islamic attributes as society at large continues to be further Islamised. This is visually represented by the superimposed lattice, a picture taken at the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque in Shah Alam. The use of geometric shapes became fashionable in Islamic art to avoid the depiction of the Prophet, later people and/or animals in general. Thus it is a symbol for the changing aesthetics as influenced by a world religion upon other cultures and the arts.

There you go, and if you want to order a copy (international), just click here.

In Malaysia? just click here.

No easy solutions for asylum-seekers

Most recently, regional refugee crises have been highlighted by the responses of Australia and a string of European governments in attempting to stem or prevent a perceived flow of refugees from neighbouring countries.

Crucial aid to freedom in Indonesia

Australians have been generous abroad in times of need, and now, the Opposition Leader claims, it’s time to be generous at home.

The biggest cut he put forward was in the aid budget for Indonesia, in particular the education partnership aimed at providing better access to schools and improving the quality of the teaching at both government-run and Islamic schools.

This program is clearly crucial in the light of recent outbreaks of violence against religious minorities, both Islamic and non-Muslim, in Indonesia.

Southeast Asia in turmoil

This article first appeared in the Canberra Times Opinion section, Thursday 1st July 2010

As we saw last week, political coups in Australia happen peacefully and all that is shed are a few tears by the outgoing Prime Minister. Just to the North of us in Southeast Asia the political situations are more volatile and political assassinations can have much graver consequences than just a change in leadership.

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