Conflict Weekly 17

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Conflict Weekly 17
The return of Hong Kong Protests, a new Ceasefire in Myanmar, China-Australia Tensions on COVID & Trade, and the Al Qaeda-Islamic State clashes in Africa

  IPRI Team

IPRI Conflict Weekly, 13 May 2020, Vol.1, No. 17

 Harini Madhusudan, Aparupa Bhattacherjee, Aarathi Srinivasan & Harini Sha

Hong Kong: Protests revive amid the introduction of Anthem Bill 
In the news
Three incidents took place in Hong Kong this week in relation to the resurgence of pro-democracy protests. On the night of 10 May, the Hong Kong police arrested over 250 people in Mong Kok, a day after the anti-government protests took place in 10 shopping malls. The echoes from the past protests revived as the anti-government protesters were heard chanting the Glory to the Hong Kong anthem while setting fire to the trash bins to block the streets.
On 12 May, Carrie Lam, made the anthem bill a priority for the government. The pro-democracy lawmakers warned that the Hong Kong government is repeating the mistakes from last year. 

On 8 May, the Hong Kong Legislative council session descended into chaos as the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing legislative members were seen competing to take the empty seat of the chairperson. The opposing lawmakers threw placards and scrambled over each other to take control of the house committee. 
Issues at large 
The return of the protesters is the first issue. Since 26 April 2020, with a fall in the number of coronavirus cases and the easing of a few restrictions in Hong Kong, the protesters have gathered with a new vigour chanting slogans at the Cityplaza. 

The anti-government protests have evolved through the 11 months, with "five demands, not one less," as a goal. The months' long protests have helped elect pro-democracy candidates in the legislative elections. In the months during the pandemic, the protesters' cooperated with the situation, but not forgotten the cause.' Even in this time, the protesters resisted attempts by the mainland to set up medical facilities in Hong Kong. 

The response of the Hong Kong government forms the second issue. It has formed a task force to check the resurgence of the protest groups, and in spite of it, the malls and shopping centres are quickly becoming the places of choice for the protesters now. China's State Office for Hong Kong and the Macao affairs office on 5 May had warned against 'stirring up of trouble again,' and called the protesters as "political virus." This statement from the mainland government came after Hong Kong's economy was reported to have declined by 8.9 per cent in the first quarter and is showing clear signs of recession. 
In perspective 
The return of protests comes at a time when China has just begun the social and economic recovery processes. Though Hong Kong never had a complete lockdown, strict restrictions on mass gathering were in place, and now both sides seem stronger and prepared to face each other head-on. It can be seen in the authority that the police have shown in making arrests in the early weeks of protests. 
Both Hong Kong and mainland China want to put a stop to the protests to revive their economies. The protesters who understand this, seem to deliberately target the commercial spaces in Hong Kong. A strong statement by China is an indication to the protesters that Beijing is likely to consider the option of stepping in and taking charge of the situation in Hong Kong before it escalates this time.  

Myanmar military declares temporary ceasefire excluding the Rakhine province
In the news
On 9 May, Myanmar's military, Tatmadaw, issued a statement announcing their call for a ceasefire from 10 May till 31 August. As stated by the Commander-in-Chief, the ceasefire will enable the people and the army to participate effectively to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Tatmadaw has excluded the Rakhine and parts of the Chin provinces, where the Arakan Army (AA) operates. 

On 11 May, the Brotherhood Alliance - a coalition of three-membered ethnic armed organisations (EAO), of which AA is part of, has requested Tatmadaw to not exclude these provinces from the unilateral ceasefire. 
Issues at large
First, Tatmadaw's decision to exclude the region where the AA operates hints at their intention to continue the fight in the Rakhine. Perhaps Tatmadaw has declared the AA as a terrorist group compared to others that are being viewed as armed insurgent groups.

Second, the exclusion of a region makes the call for a ceasefire a façade and will fail. Earlier attempts like this failed; National Ceasefire Agreement and the 21st Century Panglong conferences excluded the members of the Brotherhood Alliance. They did not succeed. 

Third, the ceasefire is declared by the military and not by the government highlights the firm grip of the military. The government should have made the announcement, long before when it started implementing the precautionary measures against the spread of the pandemic. The statement from Tatmadaw reiterates where the power centre is.
In perspective
The conflict-torn Rakhine region needs a respite from the fight in order to prepare for the pandemic. The region lacks economic and medical facilities required to prevent the COVID-19 contagion and given the large-scale ongoing displacement, it is difficult to implement any precautionary steps to avoid the spread of the diseases. 

Leaving Rakhin out of the ceasefire means, escalation of the conflict in this region. The AA's will garner popular support in the Rakhine province and also among the other ethnic minorities. 

Politically, the above will impact the NLD in the provinces. In the 2015 elections, it won only nine seats; Arakan National party won 22. The sympathy for the AA, the continuation of violence, lack of political representation, and poor development in the region will cause the NLD to fail in the Rakhine state. 

China-Australia trade tensions escalate over import barriers on agricultural goods
In the news
The bilateral relation between Australia and China has reached a new low over two incidents of import suspension and tariffs. On 12 May, China suspended imports of red meat from four Australian abattoirs over labelling and health certificate requirements. The import suspension follows another move by China wherein it threatened to slap a dumping margin of up to 73.6 per cent and a subsidy margin of up to 6.9 per cent on barley imports from Australia. 

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked Beijing to address this issue based on whether it is an anti-dumping issue from the Chinese perspective. China is expected to reveal its anti-dumping investigation findings on Australian barley exports by 19 May. 
Issues at large
The tariffs and import suspension from China have come at a time when Australia has been pushing for a global inquiry into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. The retaliation by China can be understood under three issues. First, the levy of the tariff has worsened the relationship between China and Australia to the extent that besides crippling the agriculture industry, it has led to bitter tiff in their political relation amid the pandemic. The diplomatic relation has already deteriorated since China has become more aggressive in stopping the inquiry on the virus.
Second, China's retaliation to boycott wine and beef is interpreted by the Australian officials as an attempt to economically coerce and affect the movement of goods and people at a time when the country is facing the impacts of slow economic growth. 
Third, the barley export to China has reduced by half in the previous year following China's anti-dumping policy. An increase in the import tariff to 80 per cent can now completely halt agricultural trade between the two countries altogether, affecting the farmers severely.
In perspective
The pandemic has brought trade to a standstill, but Australia may still maintain a positive trade balance with China because of the latter's dependency on coal and iron ore. The pandemic is expected to drain the economy, and hence bilateral trade will become an integral part to revive the global economy.
At the same time, a prolonged tiff can affect the primary produce and consumer goods market in Australia. It will also have a huge impact on the development of the Asia Pacific region. It is also important for Australia to strengthen its position in the international forum in order to navigate between the US and China so as to maintain friendship and trade partnership, respectively.
Africa: the Sahel becomes the new hotspot for al Qaeda-Islamic State clashes
In the news
On 11 May, the BBC report highlighted that West Africa's Sahel is becoming the latest battleground between al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. This was based on an announcement by the IS that the group has been engaged in fierce fighting with al Qaeda in Mali and Burkina Faso. The report in al Naba has blamed the al Qaeda's Sahel affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) for mobilising troops and starting the fight in the region. 
Issues at large
First, there has been a strong presence of both the IS and al Qaeda in the Sahel region. In the western part of North Africa that includes countries like Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, both have been fighting. The region has remained home to several Islamic terrorist groups who have killed thousands of people and displaced 50,000 villagers in the tri-border region at Lake Chad. 

Second, these groups have been fighting with each other. According to the BBC, in-fighting between these two groups has been the case in Yemen, Somali, and Syria. The IS-affiliated group called Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) has been fighting the JNIM for being moderate in spreading ideologies in the Sahel region. 

Third, the supply of arms through illegal markets and the lack of governing bodies in the semi-arid Sahel region remains the primary cause for the presence and continuation of these groups in the Sahel. The central part of the Sahel has been the strategic point for the illegal arms movement which connects the borders of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. The supply of arms by the UK, the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the civil wars in Yemen and Libya have found a route through Sahel's illegal arms market into the hands of IS and Al-Qaeda. Besides, the differing governing systems in each state have left the region underdevelopment and the people in abject poverty. In the absence and failure of the governing systems, the terrorist groups like Boko-Haram, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State are filling the space to grow. In addition, the existing terror groups in the region have vowed allegiance to either al Qaeda or the Islamic State, thereby leading to a deepening presence of these terrorist organisations. 
In perspective 
The poorer countries, weaker governments, large Muslim demography, and oil-rich countries have accelerated the spread of these terror groups and became vulnerable to the Islamic State. The Islamic State has been searching for an alternate ground away from the Middle East after it lost a considerable amount of territories and control in the region. This transition of the Islamic State and the clashes between two terror groups in West Africa will now lead to increased violence and intra-group conflicts in the region. 

The increasing terror activities in the region had also called for international attention in 2017 when the Sahel Alliance was launched by France, Germany, and the European Union jointly with the G5 Sahel countries to coordinate the action in the fight against terrorism. With an additional clash between Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliates, it will be a challenge for the alliance to contain the spread of violence by JNIM which will now emerge as one of the deadliest branches of al Qaeda in the region.

Also during this week…

In Kabul, militants target a maternity clinic killing mothers and babies; in Nangarhar, a suicide bomber kills 25 in a funeral. "This is not peace, nor its beginnings," says, the Afghan NSA.
Amidst the COVID-19 fight, more than 15 got killed when three militants stormed a maternity clinic run by Doctors without Borders; the dead include mothers, newly born babies, and health workers. The brutal killings included a fully pregnant mother and her unborn baby. During the same day, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a funeral, killing 24 people. 

The Taliban has denied responsibility for targeting the babies and their mothers in the Kabul attack. However, the President of Afghanistan – Ashraf Ghani has asked his security forces to resume operations. The Afghan National Security Advisor tweeted: "If the Taliban cannot control the violence, or their sponsors have now subcontracted their terror to other entities —which was one of our primary concerns from the beginning— then (there) seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in "peace talks." He also said: "This is not peace, nor its beginnings."

The US Special Envoy, who led the dialogue with the Taliban tweeted: "The unspeakable acts of violence in Afghanistan today against mothers, babies, and unborn children as well as the attack on a funeral procession are acts of pure evil."

Border scuffles between the troops of India and China it two sectors
During the last week, Indian and Chinese security forces engaged in a heated exchange of words and body blows in two sectors in Ladakh sector in the west, and in Sikkim more than 1000 km away from each other. The exchange took place in those sectors, where the two countries are yet to demarcate the border. The first one took place along the banks of a lake – the Pangong Tso in the Ladakh region in J&K, and the second one near a mountain pass – the Naku La, in the State of Sikkim. In Ladakh, it was reported later that the Chinese helicopters and Indian fighter aircrafts flew, though without any border violation, but underlying the tensions.

The lack of border demarcation has been a cause of such exchanges in recent years. However, the differences were resolved at the local level, with the officials from both sides engaging in an immediate dialogue.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: "Our our position is clear and consistent. Our troops there are committed to uphold peace and stability." (The Indian Express) He also said, "China and India have been staying in close communication and cooperation on prevention and control to jointly meet challenges…This serves the common interests of our two countries and two peoples. We hope India will work with China to uphold peace and tranquillity in the border regions with concrete actions."
During the last few years, there has been an intense dialogue at the highest levels between the two countries, at the same, military confrontations at the borders. Both Modi and Xi met twice in Wuhan in 2018 and Mahabalipuram in 2019; earlier, in 2017, there was an intense military standoff in Doklam, not far from Naku La, where there was a scuffle early this week.

About Authors 

Harini Madhusudan and Aparupa Bhattacherjee are PhD Scholars at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Harini Sha and Aarathi Srinivasan are Research Interns at NIAS. 

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