on this day

Gareth Evans on Cambodia: “For fuck’s sake”

Evans channels Clay Davis

Evans channels Clay Davis

On this day in 1990, not unlike many days before and since, Gareth Evans dropped an f-bomb. While hardly out of character for the notoriously potty-mouthed former foreign minister, this particular utterance of every Australian’s second-favourite four-letter word bears the laudable distinction of being the first time its use was recorded in the Hansard of the Australian Senate.¹

Evans had risen half an hour earlier to discuss ceasefire negotiations in the Cambodian civil war—an interminable, four-faction conflict which had been raging since the Khmer Rouge were expelled from Phnom Penh in 1979. The Vietnamese troops garrisoned in the country for a decade had been withdrawn the previous year, and with the sudden dissolution of the eastern bloc, foreign aid to Hun Sen’s nominally socialist government had quickly dried up. Khmer Rouge troops had advanced into the provinces to the north and west of Phnom Penh, and another invasion of the capital now appeared to be on the cards.

Well-credentialed on matters of international diplomacy, Liberal Senator Robert Hill was one of the leading members of his party’s moderate faction, at a time when there was such a thing. With the Labor Party barely scraping back into government earlier in the year with less than 50 percent of the two-party preferred vote, he could have reasonably expected to be foreign minister after the next election, which even by then was shaping up as an inevitable Labor rout.

Evans had been deferring questions on Cambodia for weeks, assuring the Senate that the government’s position would be put to the parliament on this date. Now that Evans had spoken, Hill was unimpressed. When he rose shortly after 5pm he began to excoriate the minister, accusing the government of failing to account for the strategic advantages of the Khmer Rouge and not doing enough to prevent the rehabilitation of Pol Pot.² Now, in Hill’s eyes, Evans was softening up the public for a policy change, after spending the year insisting that a ceasefire agreement would be concluded by the end of December.

A clearly exasperated Evans began interjecting more frequently from the other side of the chamber, denying that his policy had rested on the assumption that the Khmer Rouge would genuinely participate in a ceasefire agreement and an eventual election. When Hill began reeling off accusations that the Chinese government was continuing to provide military hardware, Evans finally blew his stack:

We have been disturbed by the allegations that they have now been provided with tanks by China. I see that the Minister in his statement today refutes the fact, indicating that Australian intelligence sources now doubt whether tanks have been supplied. That is interesting—it is the first I have heard of it—because it was reported not in any rag but in Jane’s Defence Weekly—

For fuck’s sake.

For what?

Senator Terry AULICH (Acting Deputy President)

For what?

Order! I ask the Minister to withdraw that.

For goodness sake.

I ask the Minister to withdraw that comment.

It is not on the record.

I am afraid it is, and I ask the Minister to withdraw it. The speaker responded, it was most disorderly, and I ask you to withdraw any intemperate statement.

Of course I withdraw it.

I think it is probably unprecedented in the history of this place.

Well, what a monstrous piece of nonsense—

In Evans’s defence, the allegation that post-Tiananmen China was supplying tanks to the Khmer Rouge was total bullshit, the estimable reputation of Jane’s notwithstanding. Evans and Hill were still sniping at each other from across the chamber after the latter resumed his seat at quarter to six, with Aulich cutting off the next speaker to admonish them both at length.

It wasn’t until 1992 that a ceasefire was agreed upon and peacekeepers were sent in to oversee the following year’s elections, which the Khmer Rouge ultimately boycotted as expected. All in all, the blue helmets did a reasonable job in Cambodia—at least when compared to their other unfortunate forays into conflict resolution that decade³—even if we concede that Cambodia’s HIV infection rates went from zero to the highest in Southeast Asia when the arrival of UN soldiers prompted a boom in the sex trade.

The Khmer Rouge were still at it after the UN packed up in 1995, at one point taking Siem Reap, Battambang, the area around Kampot and the highway to the country’s only port in Sihanoukville. Soon the competing factions of the doomed CPP-Funcinpec governing coalition started buying off rival cadre leaders, prompting a coup that obliterated the royalist party and dispatched their supporters in the senior ranks of the military to mass graves. The extrajudicial killings from this time have never been properly investigated. Reduced to a few malnourished true believers on the Thai border, Pol Pot was drumhead court-martialled and maybe-probably murdered in 1999, and the jape was up.

Hill never did rise to the foreign ministry. The portfolio instead became the consolation prize of Adelaide’s most ridiculous bunyip aristocrat, in exchange for graciously stepping down from the Liberal leadership and clearing John Howard’s run to the 1996 election. Back in government, Hill was presented with the same choice put to what was by then the leftover rump of the Liberal Party’s moderate wing: renunciation or the backbenches. His time as defence minister during Dick Cheney’s resource war was rewarded with a posting to the United Nations, where one of his last acts as Australian representative was to fall asleep during a General Assembly speech by Kevin Rudd.

1. Technically, there were earlier recorded instances, but these were all clinical uses in relation to discussion of censorship laws. It only counts if you drop one off the cuff, says I.
2. This is a little cute. The last Coalition government, of which Hill was a member, continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia until the beginning of 1981, well after the atrocities of the previous decade had come to light. It was Andrew Peacock as foreign minister who brought about a policy change by threatening to resign from cabinet—ostensibly a human rights crusade, in reality part of a wider effort to position himself as the next Liberal leader.
3. Srebrenica isn’t a byword for classic Balkan architecture, after all.

on this day

Nick Xenophon: “Clearly someone high up in the Malaysian government doesn’t want me here”

If this were the golden days of 2006, the flagpole would be lodged four feet lower


On this day in 2012, the Malaysian daily New Straits Times issued a hasty clarification: “We hereby retract all the statements contained in the article against Mr Xenophon and unreservedly and unconditionally apologise to him for any distress or embarrassment caused by the article.” It was an unedifying end to a week in which the South Australian senator had been teargassed, accused of insulting Islam and subjected to death threats.

Adelaide, home in sickness and in health to the last superannuated holdouts of Australia’s bunyip aristocracy, is also the spiritual home of liberalism’s disaffected moderates. Steele Hall left the Liberal Party after his tenure as South Australian Premier, founded the Liberal Movement and went to Canberra, voting in support of the beleaguered Whitlam government’s supply bills during the 1975 constitutional showdown. The remnants of the Liberal Movement formed the nucleus of the Australian Democrats—lifelong South Australian Janine Haines was the first party member to gain a parliamentary seat upon Hall’s resignation from the Senate.

Nick Xenophon, the current custodian of this tradition and an eminently more likeable media tart than many of his contemporaries, deflects questions of his past political associations by pleading a wayward youth. “Some people do drugs when they are young, I was in the Young Liberals,” he told The Advertiser; my encounters with student politicians suggests that the two are rarely mutually exclusive, even if the double-barrelled surnames didn’t get their gurn on quite so hard as the lefties.

He ditched the boat-shoe brigade after they rigged the student union’s elections, which inter alia made him at 17 the youngest ever editor of On Dit. After a spell as a workers’ compensation barrister, Xenophon wound up in state parliament in 1997 on the back of a gimmicky campaign to oppose poker machines, introduced earlier in the decade as state governments across the country broadened the legalisation of gambling to combat revenue shortfalls during the recession. A decade later he was in the Senate, re-elected in 2013 with the largest first preference vote out of any independent since Pauline Hanson in 1996.

Xenophon might well have been content to remain the ambassador of liberal Adelaide parochialism, had a 2010 meeting with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim not led the senator to make a decisive break with the politics of his Athenian forebear. A one-time Deputy Prime Minister, the power struggle between Anwar and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis led to a coordinated campaign to discredit Anwar on allegations of sodomy, a practice punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment and a deeply inflammatory accusation under the country’s prevailing cultural mores. His supposed sexual partners recanted after the subsequent trial, saying they had been coerced into giving false statements; Anwar spent six years in solitary confinement before his verdict was partially overturned.

At Anwar’s invitation, Xenophon travelled to Malaysia in April 2012 as part of an international fact-finding mission into the country’s electoral system. The study tour’s conclusions mirrored those documented by international rights groups and the local opposition: postal vote fraud, discrepancies in the voter roll, an overwhelming predominance of pro-government opinion in the media, and gerrymandering by the Election Commission at the behest of the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which had controlled the federal government since the country’s independence in 1957.

Towards the end of the scheduled activities, the delegation attended a mass demonstration in Kuala Lumpur held by Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections), a civil society coalition backed by the opposition, international democracy endowments and many of the organisations the group had met with in the previous days. As in previous Bersih mobilisations, the response was violent: the Malaysian Bar Council’s report into the crackdown claimed that the demonstration was peaceful until mid-afternoon, when police began an arbitrary attack on the procession. Xenophon’s faceful of tear gas was captured on video.

Facing a PR debacle, Barisan Nasional went on the offensive. After smearing Beriseh, its constituent organisations and the protesters, it fell to a young ethnic-Chinese reporter by the name of Roy See Wei Zhi to smear the delegation. Roy was a staff writer for the New Straits Times—a paper owned by the UMNO, Barisan Nasional’s senior coalition partner. On May 2, the paper carried an article by Roy which questioned Xenophon’s credentials as an observer to the rally and purported to quote the senator during a parliamentary speech: “Islam is not a religious organisation. It is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.”

Xenophon’s quote was actually in reference to the Church of Scientology, during an adjournment debate on the religion’s tax-free status in Australia. Paired with a suggestive quote about the senator’s stance on same-sex marriage, Roy’s piece was clearly a hatchet job designed to discredit Anwar through clumsy innuendo.¹ Xenophon threatened to sue and the paper pulled the article with a full apology the following day; he was undeterred, promising litigation after he was told that the article’s publication constituted a threat to his safety.

Had the senator not been embittered by this experience, he might not have become such an outspoken advocate for democratic reform in Malaysia. As it was, he decided to return to the country the following February, once again at the invitation of Anwar. After passing through immigration and reaching the customs desk at Kuala Lumpur International, he was approached by police and informed that he had been deemed a security risk; he was detained for 16 hours and sent back to Australia on a 2am flight.

“I just find it extraordinary,” he told the ABC from the airport’s immigration detention. “I’ve been here before [and] I’ve made statements about the state of Malaysian democracy previously. But on this occasion clearly someone high up in the Malaysian government doesn’t want me here.”

Three MPs set to join a delegation to observe the run-up to the 2013 general election cancelled their trips in protest.


Still better than the best experience I’ve had at Yangon International. Or Avalon.

The biggest shill in Australian journalism, Greg Sheridan, felt compelled to offer his own verdict on the saga. There is so much to loathe in Sheridan’s Wikipedia assessment of Malaysia’s polity,² but some offences against logic and empiricism are egregious enough to render other frustrations irrelevant. The Murdoch stable’s S.O.P. is to charge the advocates of the causes they oppose with hypocrisy for failing to dedicate their passions to causes deemed of greater moral urgency. Sheridan wonders, in the aftermath of his deportation, why Xenophon hadn’t instead campaigned for electoral reform in Cambodia, a more deserving recipient of democratic advocacy. (This, of course, didn’t lead him to withhold his endorsement of Australia’s refugee resettlement deal with Phnom Penh the following year.) The New Straits Times, evidently still smarting from the previous year’s legal threats, gleefully quoted Sheridan’s column at length.

The next Malaysian general election was held less than three months after Xenophon’s last trip to KL. Amid fresh claims of electoral improprieties and continued protests against the Election Commission’s gerrymander, Anwar’s opposition coalition won more than 50 percent of the vote while Barisan Nasional took 60 percent of the seats.

Barred from Malaysia, Xenophon’s case against the Times appears to have stalled. In October 2014, he travelled to Jakarta to meet with Anwar once again. Since his return to parliament in 2008, the opposition leader had been facing fresh sodomy charges. The 61-year-old was accused of overpowering and assaulting an aide 37 years his junior; when this was disproven, the charge was amended to “homosexual conduct by persuasion”.

With a looming court decision all but certain to convict him, Anwar used a joint press conference to criticise Australia for failing to speak out against his politically-motivated prosecution, in spite of private overtures from former foreign ministers Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith. “It’s an incredibly melancholy meeting today because it might be the last time I see him,” Xenophon told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Anwar returned to prison this February to begin his five year sentence. He will be 72 by the time he is released, and 77 before he is permitted to stand for office again. A motion calling on the parliament to convey its concern over the verdict to the Malaysian High Commissioner was tabled by Xenophon and carried unanimously in the Senate. Australia’s diplomatic, trade and defence ties with Malaysia continue unabated.

Far from receiving any official reprimand, Roy See Wei Zhi remained on the Times staff list for another two years, where it appears he was eventually promoted to columnist. His most recent contribution to the public sphere, dated July 2014, was an admonishment of the Road Transport Department’s proposal to introduce automatic transmission drivers’ licences. Laden with incisive prose—”first, let us define a car” is a quote that will resonate with me for some time to come—it seems the free press is enjoying a resurgence in Malaysia.

1. In your endo.
2. For one, his characterisation of PAS, the smallest party in the opposition coalition, as having a decisive influence over its peers and prosecuting a hardline Islamist agenda. Whenever Sheridan needs to pad out his columns, he pretends to be the antipodean Daniel Pipes, possibly the only other neo-con that rivals his own vacuity.

on this day

Conor David Purcell: “Nobody in this country has authority over me”

He can also bend spoons with his mind.

“He can also bend spoons with his mind.” — The Bangkok Post, while not especially fond of holding senior military figures to account, never resiles from the chance to make western expats look like fuckwits

On this day in 2010, Irish-born Australian national Conor David Purcell, then 29, took to a makeshift stage in downtown Bangkok, and gave his account of the April 10 assault on anti-government protesters which left 25 dead and 800 injured.

Some men are born to tilt at windmills, others have their windmills thrust upon them. A resident of Thailand for less than five months, and claiming to be a member of Australia’s Special Air Service of seven years’ standing (in truth a former part-time army reservist), Purcell was working as an English teacher and living off the kindness of strangers when the redshirt movement, aligned with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, began protests the previous month calling for the resignation of the Democrat Party government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva. In the article above, he told the Bangkok Post that he has lost an emergency passport issued by the Australian embassy along with his last 1,400 baht (~AU$50) in the April 10 fracas, during which he was shot with rubber bullets by the Thai military.

“You need to take what he says with a big dose of salt. He’s a big noter who gilds the lily big time,” was the unofficial response of the embassy, apparently already rather well-acquainted with Purcell—sometime before his onstage debut, he had emailed dozens of media organisations and MPs back home demanding an official Australian response to the actions of the Abhisit government.

One would think that advertising your lack of legal documentation in Thailand’s newspaper of record would make one a little circumspect about seeking publicity, let alone attaching oneself to an opposition protest movement during a State of Emergency. Sure enough, Purcell was arrested on May 24 on suspicion of violating emergency decree laws that forbade participation in the protests, carrying a maximum two-year custodial sentence. While his continued detention was considered in court, he berated the judge and insisted he was being unlawfully held, disregarding an embassy representative who repeatedly asked him to be quiet. “Nobody in this country has authority over me,” he said at one point, demonstrating once again the timeless maxim that white privilege is the last refuge of the Australian abroad.

Lawrence of Siam arrives back in Sydney

“Ask me about my PTSD” — Lawrence of Siam arrives back in Sydney to rouse the masses, while a handsome young graduate at DFAT’s offices 300 kilometres to the south sets a Microsoft Outlook reminder to cancel Purcell’s passport ~15 minutes after he expects the press pack to head back to Holt Street

Away from the media he evidently calmed down and accepted the embassy’s counsel, serving six weeks of an eventual three month sentence once he admitted to addressing the redshirt rallies on two occasions. With no-one either back in Australia or at the embassy to spring for the $460 plane fare home, he spent a further two weeks in immigration detention before his flight was paid by Dr Pongsak Phusitsakul, a Thai surgeon who met Purcell during the crackdown and encouraged him to speak to the crowd on April 18. Upon his arrival in Sydney, Purcell told reporters he was beaten by prisoners on the order of guards, and said he would soon travel back to Thailand and continue to “fight for democracy”. I have found nothing to indicate his return, and his Facebook page suggests he is now living in Brisbane.