My memory isn’t perfect – and I must admit that the hazy days of September are lost in the glow of early Autumn Oxford – but I don’t recall Australia’s long-serving Foreign Minister making such stern noises after the Thai coup. According to the report in today’s The Nation, Alexander Downer has “urged Fijians to passively resist the rule of military chief Voreqe Bainimarama after he toppled the pacific nation’s elected government in a coup”.
Minister Downer said:
I think the ordinary people of Fiji and the institutions of government in Fiji should show passive resistance to this imposition of dictatorship on their country…I don’t think public servants should cooperate with the commodore and the military. I don’t think the police should cooperate with the commodore and the military. I think they should show passive resistance to this regime…
In his press release, Downer called it “a tragic day for Fiji and for the region”. He also threatens that the coup “will have serious and adverse consequences for Fiji’s economy and standing in the international community”.
Back in September, the press release concerning the Thai coup had a much friendlier tone. I accept that the situations are not completely analagous: I am certainly not going to stake an undifferentiated position that a coup is a coup is a coup. Coups can be very different beasts. But Downer had nothing approaching similiarly harsh words for the Thai Generals.
In fact, on September 20, in an interview with the ABC’s Louise Yaxley, Downer clarified his position on working with Thailand’s military regime:
YAXLEY: We have a military coup at the moment. While you say it is still early days, do you see a point where Australia would work with a military regime?
DOWNER: Well look, I’m not sure what they’re going to do. I mean, the day has barely dawned in Bangkok, so I’m just simply not sure what they’re going to do, and we’ll have to wait and see. We’ll just need to find out more about what’s happened before we start to make policy changes in relation to Thailand. But obviously it’s a very important relationship to us, the relationship with Thailand. We have a free trade agreement with Thailand, we have a lot of trade with it, we have very close political relationships with them – opposition and government together – we obviously have, our military in particular, has close relationships with many people in the Thai military as well.
What explains the very different tone of the Foreign Minister’s statements back in September?
I can only speculate, but I do find it interesting that the two most recent coups in “Australia’s region” have been greeted with such different responses. There are, I guess, many good explanations for this difference. One is that in September the Thai Generals probably had something of a better reputation than their Fijian counterparts. Another is that the Australian government has invested a great deal in Fijian democracy through aid and capacity building. That probably helps to explain Downer’s attack against the Fijian coup-makers.
Downer’s moderate stance on the Thai coup is couched, in contrast, in the rhetoric of a mature relationship that he hopes will endure even with military rule. There was certainly no call from Downer for passive resistance on the streets of Bangkok. Perhaps it would have been a laughable suggestion.
The Fijian coup-makers obviously aren’t considered on the same plain. But, this begs the question, are they that much worse? Are the Thai Generals that much better? I don’t know the answers to these questions. Some other blogs are, in their own ways, offering some insight: Fiji coup – utterly illogical, Fiji’s military coup: it’s not so simple, and A Military Coup in Fiji – Suprise! Downer obviously thinks the Thai and Fijian coups are very different and so the Fijians don’t escape his stinging rebuke or harsh put-downs: “We are going to be very tough on these people – this is a simply disgraceful thing that has been done by Commodore Bainimarama”.
The contrasts are stark. I can’t help feeling that contradictions leap out of these Ministerial statements.
It all begs the further question… Just what message is the Foreign Minister trying to send?