The Awesomeness of the Aussie High Commission ;)

Alhamdulilah, I have arrived safely back in Sudan after a short-but-informative trip to Malaysia for the Asia Pacific Roundtable, the Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program (supported by the Aus-Malaysia Institute, ISIS Malaysia, St James Ethics Centre, Asialink, Australia-Thailand Institute (ATI) and the Australia-Indonesia Institute (AII)) and a lunch event with young Malaysian leaders and the Australian High Commission. Woah, a mouthful! Now that the official part is over...

It was a fantastic week, and as some of the previous posts can attest to, I learnt a great deal: much I am still processing.  The Emerging Leaders part of the program gave us (about 20 young people from Australia and ASEAN) an opportunity to present on and discuss issues of import to the region, including illicit migration, regional security and the effect of middle powers.  St James Ethics Center's Dr Simon Longstaff also presented an extremely moving and interesting piece on "the biggest strategic mistake leaders make..." .  I won't give it away but suffice it to say that it has a lot to do with leaders just "looking away" and how often do they do that? Thing Houla -- quite often indeed.

On the last day of my stay, I was fortunate enough Alhamdulilah to be a Guest of Honour at a lunch hosted by the Australian High Commission and an Aussie Muslim Diplomat (which I think it totally awesome).  It was an awesome opportunity to meet the staff of the High Commission and spend some time with young Malaysian leaders.  I shared a little of my life story (haha! the poor audience) and tried to listen to the stories of the people around me.

It was a great opportunity to shift some of the thinking about Australian in Malaysia.  It seems that there is a particular impression (or stereotype let's say), of what Australia as a nation is and represents, and the fact that a Hijabi-wearing-brown-skinned-young-female is up representing Australia...well that challenges a few of those assumptions.

It was also an opportunity to hear about some of the issues that face young people in Malaysia - and interesting, being young and full of ideas is one of them.  Growing up in the Sudanese culture, I think I can relate: the idea that age = wisdom, respecting and listening to your elders and "waiting until it is your turn" is strongly entrenched.  I don't think that within the Sudanese community I am even seen as an "adult" yet! (Not until I get married and have kids anyway) so for young people striving to be involved, this is quite an issue and one that is deeply entrenched in cultural expectations.

Hopefully something that will shift though, as the generational change occurs.

All in all, a fantastic affair and I hope to stay in touch with the fabulous people I met.  Inshallah something comes out of it all!  Kudos to the Aussie High Commission and all the ISIS etc people involved for a truly interesting and thought provoking week.

(Oh and the food was a-maaaaazing. Just sayin').

*Fun Fact* 

Did you know a High Commission is the equivalent of an Embassy, just in a Commonwealth country? I didn't until only recently! You learn something new every day...


Reflections on the APR

So the 26th Asia Pacific Roundtable has come to an end, and so has my first foray into truly international relations at the higher levels. I have learned a great deal over the last two days; a lot that I didn't know about the region, many perspectives that I hadn't thought to consider and even more so about the efficacy, purpose and outcomes of such an event.

Having spent most of the plenary sessions listening intently, attempting to understand not only all that was said but was was being said between the lines certainly was a new (and surprisingly exhausting) experience.  I found myself asking not one or two but quite a number of questions of the various panelists; so much so that when I met new participants I no longer had to introduce myself -- I was "Yassmin, from Australia", who asked all the questions.

I was a little unsure as to whether it would be polite or appropriate to ask so many questions, however at the end of the day it was a way for me -- and I hope the rest of the participants -- to learn about a speaker's perspective on a particular nuance of an issue.  Most of my questions were quite to the point and as such weren't always answered (i.e. asking a highly ranked US Marines official if he thought the rotational deployment in Darwin was worth the ire Australia was receiving from its ASEAN neighbours for one) but asking them allowed me to:

  • Learn to frame my questions in a way that I could clearly articulate to the speakers;
  • Listen closely to sessions to see where I had questions or queries;
  • Open up avenues of discussion that might not have previously been being explored; and
  • Introduce me as an Australian participant to the attendees -- and demonstrating that the "emerging leaders" were taking notice and asking questions.
I also think that sometimes, someone needs to ask the hard (or to an outsider, obvious) questions.
Coming from my engineering background I sometimes (quite often) feel like a flying fish out of water -- i.e. I can survive, but it isn't my natural habitat.  What it does give me though, is an external viewpoint as well as an alternative approach to issues.  Furthermore the fact that I represent an NGO is always quite liberating in such forums...
I think I just need to suck it up and read more...ensuring of course, its relevance. Hehe.
I learnt a lot at the forum and it will take time for me to process.  Suffice to say here were some themes that struck me and others:
  • The topic of the day is clearly the issue of the South China Sea and how it is to be resolved;
  • Australia doesn't seem to factor in any decision making or thought process about the region;
  • India seems happy to remain as a "developing country" and doesn't seem ready to step up to the plate as yet;
  • ASEAN wishes as a bloc to be in the "driver's seat" and "be providers of security instead of consumers of it..." however there is a long way to go before this is even feasible perhaps?
  • North Korea...well, see below;
  • Myanmar has been doing fantastically but rebuilding a nation takes time and the region shouldn't expect all the changes to happen at breakneck speed;
  • Back door diplomacy is really how things happen;
  • The United States, regardless of rhetoric, is interested in the region and sees itself as an important player; and
  • The ASEAN way is probably the method of the day.
That is an initial outpouring of thought, I will come back for further analysis later.

North Korea: The Soprano State?

Day Two of the Asia Pacific Roundtable

I am currently attending my first official Track II diplomacy level conference, and so far it has been an intense and slightly Model UN reminiscent experience.

The last session of the night however, was an amazing presentation by a certain Professor Andrei Lankov.

The guy has a wikipedia page. That, in my book, clearly indicates he is an academic of worth (hehe).

In all seriousness however, it was probably one of the best presentations I have ever attended, let alone on the issue of North Korea.

In his adrenalin fueled, Russian accented speech, Professor Lankov gave us an insight into where North Korea is at, and why he believed that inevitably the nation would collapse.

He started off by emphatically stating:

You may think that the North Korean leaders are irrational and unpredictable.  You couldn't be more wrong.

The North Korean administration he stated, are the world's best Machiavellians.  They are rational, pragmatic and cold minded.

They are in the business of SURVIVAL.

What do we mean by that, you ask?

Well, the North Koreans for decades now, have run a tightly controlled state in which they perpetuate the fantasy that their neighbour, South Korea, is poor, malnourished and beneath them. They are proud of being the North Koreans.

If the North Koreans understand however, that the Kim Jong era has in fact failed economically, that their previously impoverished South Korean cousins are now flourishing and prospering, the Northern state will fall apart.  As such, the administration is in the business of stability.

The Four North Korean Rules of Stability are summarised as such:

1. Do not reform.

If the NK's begin reform, there is the almost inevitable possibility that information from the outside will filter through and the dictatorship will begin to lose control. As such, avoiding reform means avoiding avenues that will lead to loss of control.

2. Kill all dissenters.

So that no one with a single opposing view remains. Until the mid 90's, if an individual dissented, they and their family would be jailed for their disobedience.  The zero tolerance approach is a crucial component of controlling the populace.

3. Keep the nukes.

Talks about disarmament, Lankon cautioned, will never come to fruition because the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons.  Why? Nukes are the dictatorship's currency: they are an effective deterrent and their most effective diplomatic tool.

The Northern Koreans know that as long as they have nuclear capability they will not be invaded: if Libya hadn't given up it's nuclear weapons a decade ago for example, NATO wouldn't have aided the rebels/freedom fighters against Gaddafi. The US, China...no country will attack a country with such a high risk.

Furthermore, the North Koreans use their nuclear program to secure an exorbitant (read millions of tonnes) of free aid and food by promising to freeze their nuclear program, due to the world's desire for disarmament.  Essentially, they are eating their nukes.

4. Control changes from below.

One of the ways that change may happen is from below -- similar to Tunisia.  As long as these changes are kept under control, the risk of change is minimized.


It would seem that the collapse of the North Korean state is inevitable, but that time frame in which that will occur is unknown. If they newer generation of leaders (who are all educated overseas, proud of their country, enamoured by the cases of China and Vietnam) decide to undertake reforms in the next decade or so, Lankov believes they probably won't survive the transition. If they are cautious, emulate the policies of their fathers and forefathers, it is likely they are "just waiting..."

It is amazing to think a nation like North Korea still exists today.  A nation where health care and education are comparatively high due to the socialist method of care, but where owning a tuneable radio can lead to a five year prison sentence... a nation which, if they fail, will produce millions of refugees, the opportunity of kilos of plutonium for sale and procure an extremely costly rebuilding project...all on Australia's (relative) doorstep.

Food for thought.