Duterte fist-bump photo raises fears for Australia’s South-east Asia approach

Photographs splashed in the Philippine media of Australia’s top overseas spy Nick Warner meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte have raised concerns about Canberra’s engagement with the region.

Australia’s defence minister Marise Payne later defended Australia’s efforts to step-up engagement with south-east Asia where political and other freedoms have stalled under increasingly authoritarian governments.

Duterte dismisses human rights concerns

The president of the Philippines pointed to the conflict with an Islamic State affiliate when asked about alleged human rights abuses under his leadership.

The United Nations has accused Mr Duterte, a boastful, foul-mouthed former provincial mayor, of presiding over a so-called war on drugs that could amount to crimes against humanity.

The meeting between Mr Warner and Mr Durerte at the presidential palace in Manila came a day after Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop had said Australia is “deeply concerned” about an escalation of the crackdown which has left more than 12,000 Filipinos dead.

Mr Warner, the only member of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service whose identity can be revealed – but whose activities are rarely made public – was seen in the photographs making a fist-bump to the camera with Mr Duterte.

The palace described the meeting as a “courtesy call” and the two men “touched in regional security issues and declaration of mutual support.”

During a visit to Thailand, where the military that toppled an elected government in 2014 has repeatedly delayed promises of a return to democracy, Ms Payne told Fairfax Media “we can’t walk away from the region.”  

“While we are not always of the same mind with governments with which we are engaging but that doesn’t mean we don’t engage,” she said.

Making the first official visit by an Australian defence minister since the coup to Thailand, Ms Payne said it is increasingly important for regional countries and their allies like Australia to “help each other out” amid fears that Islamic extremists will attempt to establish bases in the region after being pushed out of the Middle East.

Ms Payne met Thailand’s prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general whose government has ruled with an iron-fist since 2014.

She will also travel to Laos and Vietnam, where communist governments brutally brutally repress critics.

Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said the visit by Ms Payne and another by foreign minister Julie Bishop to Bangkok two weeks ago are sending the wrong message at a time when repression and basic civil liberties are intensifying in Thailand.

“Australia should be insisting Thailand stop arresting and imprisoning critics, lift the ban on political parties and permit peaceful democratic discourse, and revoke its draconian measures restricting speech and barring public assemblies of more than five people,” she said.

Amid rising tensions in Thailand Mr Prayuth’s government are blocking supporters of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from massing in Bangkok ahead of a verdict on Friday in a negligence case over a rice subsidy scheme before the military toppled her government.

Ms Yingluck could face up to 10 years jail.

A conviction is likely to stoke deep divisions in Thailand between Bangkok’s royalists and elite and people in rural areas loyal to Ms Yingluck and her elder exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra.

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