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The View from Oz

May 2005

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The View from Oz:

Corby, Chen, Whales, Visas

by Matt Kemp

see also the Tales of Asia guide to Sydney

June 2005

Whales, drug smugglers and diplomatic staff on the run generally make for unusual bedfellows. Here in Australia they have combined to make for an interesting, although not terribly positive month in relations between Australia and its Asian neighbours to the north. Also, fun and excitement getting an Indonesian Visa in Sydney.

Asia - Australia

The 27th of May saw the conviction of Schapelle Corby in Denpasar on charges of drug trafficking. No one who followed the case can have been terribly surprised at the decision, or her 20 year sentence, especially as the chief magistrate’s favourite in-hearing reading material was apparently a lengthy rather and grim looking tome entitled “life sentences”.

The reaction from the Australian media, and a (hopefully) vocal minority was sadly, but predictably vitriolic. The picture that was presented in Sydney was that Corby was the victim of a corrupt, unfair legal system chaotically run by some gibberish speaking incompetents up north in the islands. Some idiot setup a website advising all Australians to ‘ban Bali’ until the Indonesians saw sense and bowed to the will of the always objective and fair minded Australian public, and in possibly the crassest action of all, a number of people contacted international aid agencies requesting the return of their donations to the Tsunami relief fund.

Indonesian embassy staff in Canberra also got a couple of extra couple of day’s holiday due to the delivery of a suspicious ‘white powder’ in a letter addressed to the ambassador.

Guilty or otherwise, the Indonesians have made their decision following their legal processes and like it or not Australia is going to have to respect their decision and accept that unless Corby manages to pull a Steve McQueen (or at least a ‘Pelni ferry / pickup truck to the Timor Leste border’ version thereof) she’s going to be imprisoned for quite some time. Punishing the ordinary Balinese or Tsunami victims is going to do absolutely nothing to help Corby’s case and will only serve to show how far Australia has to mature before it really is a part of Asia, as it currently would like to claim.

One interesting point to come out of the whole Corby saga is the massive disparity in public interest between the white Australian girl in the Indonesian prison and the ‘Asian Australians’ in other parts of Asia, all locked up for smuggling drugs.

Following closely behind the Corby saga came news that a mid level Chinese diplomatic official had abandoned his post at the Sydney Consulate and approached the Federal Government seeking political asylum, which was apparently quickly refused. Mr Chen Younglin, the individual in question, was advised to go back to his embassy and try and patch up his differences with his government, which apparently related to ‘a couple of trifling matters of conscience’ including China’s alleged persecution of Falungong practitioners and widespread abuses of human rights. Understandably, Mr Chen was not terribly keen to front up to his bosses, especially after a helpful government official had called the Chinese Consulate to inform them of his actions and his reasons for seeking asylum. He currently remains in hiding pending further ‘discussions’ with the Immigration Department.

Defecting Chinese diplomats are presumably a headache for the Government at the best of times, let alone when you happen to be in the delicate initial stages of thrashing out a free trade agreement with the world’s fastest growing consumer market. To his credit, Mr Chen has obviously been in Australia long enough to understand how the political system here works, that is if taking action by official channels doesn’t work (and if you’re a foreigner looking for asylum they probably won’t), you simply start releasing potentially damaging information about the government to the media and watch the wheels of government start turning, and turn they did.

Mr Chen had some interesting information about the lengths to which the Australian Federal Government has apparently been going to, to ‘accommodate’ some of the less desirable activities of the Chinese Government in Australia. He claimed that China operated a spy network of about 1000 agents, claimed that they routinely undertook surveillance and filming of activities by Chinese nationals or expats that the government disapproved of and that Canberra had ignored several incidences where Chinese agents had kidnapped people for ‘repatriation’ to China. Perhaps that explains what happened to Harold Holt? (Harold Holt was the Prime Minister of Australia in 1967 and disappeared that same year without a trace while swimming at a beach outside of Portsea in Victoria).

Mr Chen has no little or no evidence to support his claims, and there has been little comment from the Federal Government regarding his claims. During a press conference, The Chinese Ambassador, Madam Fu Ying amusingly indicated that, were she running a spy network numbering in the thousands she probably wouldn’t have the time to attend media conferences such as the one she was currently at. One interesting admission that came from Canberra was that it was routine practice to allow Chinese diplomatic officials to perform private interviews of Chinese asylum seekers held in detention centres, apparently for ‘identification purposes’.

With an unrelated Australian delegation currently in China to discuss a number of the topics raised by Mr Chen (human rights, persecution of religious groups etc) the admission that the delegation would not be raising the matter of Mr Chen’s defection or his ‘spy ring’ claims with Chinese Officials was strange, although not especially surprising given Australia’s current desire to secure a free trade agreement. A large percentage of Australians openly look down on countries such as Indonesia for their ‘user pays’ justice system (especially in relation to the Schapelle Corby case). I would like to see a justification as to why the Australian Delegation made a $1.8 million ‘donation’ to the Chinese (and since when have the Chinese been short of a million or two?) ostensibly to promote the development of human rights and presumably the favourable viewing of a fair trade agreement. 10% makes the world go ‘round? Perhaps Australia is learning a thing or two from its northern neighbours after all.

Capping off a top month for Australian diplomacy is the recent row that erupted between Australia and Japan at the recent International Whaling Commission meeting in South Korea. Japan runs what can only be described as a ‘highly dubious’ scientific project whereby they send whaling vessels out into the Southern and Antarctic Oceans.

In these sensitive ecosystems (which are about as far as you can get from Japan) using delicate scientific instrumentation such as explosive tipped harpoons and blubber knives they “sample” several hundred whales per year, apparently in an effort to ascertain critically important factors such as population diversity, migration patterns and what species of whale goes best with wasabi and Asahi.

Surprisingly, rather than taking a ‘lets not upset the neighbours’ approach, the Australian Environment Minister gave the Japanese delegation ‘quite the bollocking’ to which the Japanese tersely indicated that they were more than prepared to sacrifice their ‘close relationship’ with Australia to pursue their whaling interests.

However, in continuing the ‘10% makes the world go around theme’ Australia’s opposition to Japan’s plans to resume commercial whaling may not matter for much longer. Japan has allegedly been investing large sums of money in developing infrastructure in poor countries (such as Nauru) in exchange for their pro-whaling vote at the IWC. Which, in a way, goes to show that we are really all as bad as each other.

Visa Anyone?

Arranging for Entry Visa’s is one of my least favourite tasks when going on holiday. All too often the ‘published visa requirements’ differ from the ‘actual’ requirements. Combine that with irregular consulate hours, one bored staffer ‘holding the fort’ while 50 people wait to have their applications accepted and finding that those forms had to be completed in triplicate rather than duplicate (do not pass go, do not submit visa application) make for a less than fun experience.

With this in mind I decided to make a few phone calls before I turned up to apply for my Indonesian visa last week. What we were after was pretty straightforward, two 60 day, single entry tourist visas at a cost of $60 each. I called the Indonesian embassy in Canberra on a Friday to be told that they had decided to ‘take a long weekend’ and I should call back next week regarding my visa (fair enough, I’d take a long weekend if I could). Following instructions I called back on the following Tuesday and spoke to a helpful person from consular affairs. Yes they did issue 60 day tourist visas for $60, but they said their service was ‘very slow and unreliable’ and they preferred that as I was in Sydney I should call the Sydney Consulate, which I did.

The Sydney consulate confirmed that yes, they did issue visas, but I could also consider sending my passport to the Embassy in Canberra if I wanted to. Hmmmm. Yes the application forms you download from the Canberra Embassy website are acceptable (completed in duplicate) and yes they accept eftpos and credit card for payment. Yes you do need to show an ongoing ticket, but any printed itinerary is probably good enough.

Well so far so good, and with passports, completed forms, flight details and passport photos in hand I set out for the Indonesian Consulate confident that all would be well. The Indonesian consular staff are very friendly and helpful (even their security guy who spends 5 minutes scrutinising your documents before he lets you in the gate does so while smiling). The nice sounding lady that answers the phone when you call the consulate for information however, has either never worked there before or just likes having a chuckle at other people’s expense.

I arrived at the visas desk just after opening (no queuing for me I thought), handed over our passports, carefully filled in application forms (all 10 pages of them), photos and itinerary.

Consular staff shaking their heads, even while smiling, is never a good sign. “Sorry sir, these forms are for visa applications at the Embassy in Canberra, you will need to fill out these forms for an application here in Sydney”. At which the staffer handed me four application forms that looked identical to the ones I had filled in, except that someone had photocopied (badly) over the Canberra Embassy details with the Sydney Consulate details.

Although it was not ok to apply for a visa on identical forms with a slightly different letter head, it was ok for me to fill out my girlfriend’s application forms, and when I asked what I was going to do about getting her to sign the forms (as she was at work) I was met with a smile, an “Ah, don’t worry about it” and a ‘we don’t worry about silly formalities here’ type wave of the hand from the guy behind the desk. Well it could be worse I suppose.

After half an hour of bad handwriting and a brief stint in the que I was back at the visas desk, with a different, yet equally friendly official. Forms were considered acceptable, as were photos and the itinerary. Relieved, I handed over my credit card when asked for $120. There was that smile again, but this time combined with two upturned hands and an apologetic shoulder shrug. “Let me guess, you don’t accept cards?” I asked. “Sorry sir, cash only” He replied. “There is an ATM a few hundred meters down the road”.

Half an hour later and I had signed receipts for payment and was instructed to return in 5 working days to pick up my visas. I guess we will find out how relaxed they really are about minor things like signing official forms when I go to pick up our passports next week.

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