Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Thang Nguyen: The ugly ocker rears his racist head once more

The Australian
20 July 2005

Has the Schapelle Corby drama revived White Australia attitudes?

IN Australia, to paraphrase British political novelist George Orwell, all citizens "are equal, but some are more equal than others". This was made clear last week when Prime Minister John Howard wrote a letter to convicted Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby.

In a personal note to Howard earlier this month, Corby had pleaded: "I need your help to prove my innocence to the courts, release me from this nightmare and set me free." To which Howard replied: "I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that I will continue to take a personal interest in your case." He promised that Corby would get assistance from Canberra.

Meanwhile, as her lawyers have appealed, the Bali High Court has granted Corby a retrial, which starts today. The difference this time, however, is that there will be 12 witnesses from Australia who may get her free.

Howard's letter came after a series of what can be interpreted only as xenophobic acts since the 27-year-old beautician received a 20-year sentence on May 27 for smuggling 4.1kg of marijuana into Bali.

First, Australians told each other to boycott Bali holiday resorts and Indonesian products in Australia. Next, they regretted having made donations to Indonesian victims of the Asian tsunami and some issued death threats against Indonesian diplomats and civilians living in Australia.

Some enraged Australians sent bullets to the Indonesian consulate in Perth and twice sent a chemical powder, which turned out to be harmless, to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra. Worse, someone sent a package that also contained harmless chemical powder to Parliament House in Canberra and addressed it to their own Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who on behalf of the federal Government had sent regrets for the previous incidents to the Indonesian Government.

Why can't these Australians see that a crime is a crime, regardless of where one commits it? Everyone is subject to the laws and punishments of the nation in which he or she commits a crime. An Indonesian who commits a crime in Australia falls immediately under Australian laws. If found guilty, he or she would have to face the consequence -- whether it is imprisonment or otherwise -- of his or her crime under those laws.

Most of what the Australian public saw on television on May 27 was a true-blue, young Australian woman facing stone-faced Indonesian judges and being taken by the arms by Indonesian police after the reading of her verdict. For many Australians, this image provoked nothing less than injustice done to an Australian on foreign soil.

Never mind that 45 Australians are facing drug-trafficking charges across Asia. And never mind that some have received more severe sentences than Corby's. Nguyen Tuong Van and Tran Van Thanh, for instance, have been convicted of drug-smuggling charges, and they both face death row in Singapore and Vietnam respectively.

Why don't these Australian citizens receive any attention or sympathy from the Australian public, let alone personal interest from their Prime Minister? Is it because their surnames are Nguyen and Tran? If this does not sound like racism, what does?

Of course, given Australian history, one should not be surprised that a broad group of Aussies is still xenophobic. Remember, it was only a few decades ago when the slogan "Australia for the White Man" was on the masthead of The Bulletin, the nation's most respected magazine. And who could forget Labor leader Arthur Calwell's "Two Wongs don't make a white"?

Sure, Australia has changed for the better since those dark days, notwithstanding Hansonism in the late 1990s. Just think of the many Asian Australians, their cuisines and diverse cultures that one can find today in Sydney, Melbourne and other places in Australia. Still, as Australians' reactions to the Corby case show, the spectre of White Australia haunts the nation. The message: a white or Aussie life is more valuable than a brown or Asian one. Justice may be blind, but for Australians it's not colour-blind.

Thang Nguyen is a Jakarta-based columnist, whose writing can be read at http://thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Arroyo must decide whether to run or stand and fight

By Thang D. Nguyen, Jakarta

Had Cardinal Jaime Sin been still alive and well, perhaps he would play a leading role in the current political crisis in the Philippines.

Indeed, politics was for Cardinal Sin, who died last month at age 76, a second calling after the church. First, he mobilized "people power" to end former president Ferdinand Marcos's lengthy dictatorship in 1986.

Next, Cardinal Sin pushed Madam Corazon Aquino, the widow of Marcos rival Benigno Aquino who had been assassinated in 1983, to run for president.

And she became the first woman president of the Philippines.

Once again, in 2001, Cardinal Sin put his influence to work, this time to oust former President Joseph Estrada and support the then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to take over the Philippine presidency.

Unfortunately, President Arroyo is facing calls for her resignation. Among other things, she is charged with rigging last year's election to win her second term.

In early June when thousands of Filipinos protested in Manila against President Arroyo, most analysts considered a chance of her being ousted -- as her predecessor was -- slim.

Recent events in the Philippine capitol, however, suggest otherwise. For one thing, Aquino herself last week called on President Arroyo to step down.

What is more, the 85-member Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines met last weekend and issued a statement calling for the creation of an independent "truth commission" to investigate the allegations against the president.

"We ask the president to discern deeply to what extent she might have contributed to the erosion of effective governance and whether the erosion is so severe that it's irreversible," the statement also said.

The bishops stopped short, however, of calling for her resignation.

But the question remains: What will happen?

Three scenarios seem possible: First, President Arroyo may resign; second, if found guilty, she may be impeached; and third, a clash between the military and anti-Arroyo Filipinos may happen.

At the moment, President Arroyo is doing everything she can to avoid resignation, including sending her corruption-tainted husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, into exile in the U.S. and asking her cabinet to resign.

While stepping down may be the last thing she wants to do, it is the best and only way that she can leave in grace, if she is in fact guilty as charged.

In other words, if she has indeed committed the sin of stealing last year's election, she might as well come clean and end her presidency in grace rather than being impeached.

As for impeachment, President Arroyo is willing to go on trial. She has also admitted talking to an election official during the counting of last year's election and apologized to the nation for her "lapse of judgment."

The president's advisors and she probably think that agreeing to go for impeachment hearings may buy them some more time to come up with new defensive strategies -- given the usually long process that it takes to bring a president to impeachment in the Philippines, or any other country, for that matter.

President Arroyo should only agree to go for impeachment hearings if she can prove that she is not guilty at all.

Otherwise, she should not, simply because if she does not fare well in the hearings, she will be found guilty and, thereafter, impeached.

But, what if she is found not guilty? If that is the case, she may stay in office, but most Filipinos will have lost their confidence in her by then. Worse yet, a bloody clash between anti-Arroyo Filipinos and the military may occur.

Thus far, the Philippine military has pledged its neutrality. And it is hoped that there will be no bloodshed this time, given the history of violent politics in the Philippines.

Should the Arroyo presidency come to an end, Vice President Noli de Castro is in line to succeed her.

Among most ordinary Filipinos, de Castro is popular, having hosted the country's evening news programs for 17 years.

The concern that the Philippine elites and business community have, however, is that de Castro does not have the political experience and skills that the presidency requires.

For the Philippines, a country that is best described with political instability, corruption, and poverty, the concern about de Castro's ability to steer the helm is not without legitimacy.

Unlike Arroyo who openly campaigned against her former boss, Estrada, while he was still president, de Castro has thus far appeared calm, not too eager to take over the presidency.

"Let's give President Arroyo a chance to think and decide for the nation," de Castro said last Friday.

The president does, indeed, need some time to think and decide whether to quit or continue her battle.

Whichever course President Arroyo may choose, it may serve her well to remember what Abraham Lincoln once reportedly said: "You can fool all the people some of the time and some people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time."

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His columns can be read at http://thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com.