Conflict Weekly 43

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Conflict Weekly 43
IS terror in Vienna and Kabul, new controversy along Nepal-China border, and a boundary dispute in India’s Northeast

  IPRI Team

IPRI Conflict Weekly, 05 November 2020, Vol.1, No.43

Kamna Tiwary, Abigail Miriam Fernandez, Mahesh Bhatta, Sourina Bej and Apoorva Sudhakar

Austria: Four killed in Vienna shooting, ISIL claims responsibility for the attack
In the news
On 2 November, a total of six places witnessed shootings in central Vienna, just before the national lockdown was to come into force amid the surge in COVID-19 numbers. The attack initially suspected to have involved few gunmen, was later confirmed to have been carried out by one person. Further raids and arrests have continued since then, which led to 14 new arrests. Four dead and 22 injured have been reported from the incident. The Austrian Interior Ministry has termed the attack as a ‘Repulsive Terror Attack.’ The attacks have been late claimed by the terror group Islamic State (IS). 

Issues at large
First, lone attacks back in focus. This attack has been confirmed as a lone attack, conducted in an individual capacity. The attacker posted his image on Instagram, with rifles and declared his motivation for the attack to extend support to the cause of the terrorist organisation Islamic State(IS). Lone attacks or lone wolf has been identified as a serious threat in the western societies. The independent way of conducting the attacks and their inspiration to a cause outside their country to a terrorist organisation make lone attacks difficult to prevent. 

Second, timing close with the recent attacks in France. Two major attacks rocked France in the past weeks that brought condemnation especially in the Muslim countries and generated a renewed backlash against Islamophobia. Previously, a similar attack in the French city Nice where an attacker used a knife to kill three people outside the cathedral of Notre Dame. The attack in Nice was also carried out just before the national lockdown was to come into force in France. 

Third, the spotlight on the migrant crisis in Europe. The Vienna attack was conducted by a Macedonian origin young man of 20-years-old. He was a citizen of Austria as well as Macedonia and was identified as Kujtim Fejzulai. He was also found to have travelled to Slovakia for the purchase of ammunition and attempted to visit Syria. He was in Austrian custody briefly for activities that included sympathising with ISIS but was released in December last year on the condition that he extends cooperation for de-radicalisation initiatives and also agreeing to be under close watch. Similarly, the attacker in Nice was of Tunisian origin, 21 years old, who travelled to France not long ago and even the attacker of Samuel Paty was an 18-year-old Chechen origin youth. The origin and past records of attackers may reignite the contentious debate on the status of immigrants, refugees and migrants in Europe who fail to integrate with the society and are prone to harming after falling prey to radicalisation.

Fourth, attacks break the trend of decreasing terror attacks in Europe in the recent past.  Europe witnessed a decline in terror activities in the past three years after seeing a surge between 2012 to 2017. Starting with France, this attack in Austria will therefore suggest a new break in this trend.

In perspective
A surge in terror activities along with the ongoing pandemic has set new challenges for Europe. The national lockdowns have put serious pressures on governments to handle radicalisation of the youth, while, at the same time, it may have emboldened the terror groups like IS.

Afghanistan: 22 killed in Kabul University attack, ISIL claims responsibility
In the news
On 2 November, gunmen killed 22 people and over 40 others were wounded in an attack on Kabul University. The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, ISIS) group claimed responsibility, for what President Ashraf Ghani called a “despicable act of terror”. The attack is reported to have stated when government officials were arriving for the opening of an Iranian book fair organised on campus. The three gunmen rampaged through the campus, firing indiscriminately at their targets. The siege is said to have lasted six hours as Afghan forces and US commandos hunted and killed the gunmen. Vice President Amrullah Saleh accused the Taliban of the attack; however, the latter rejected his claims and accused the Afghan government of harbouring the Islamic State while condemning the attack. Further, this was the second attack on an educational institution in the capital in just over a week.

Issues at large
First, the spiralling issue of violence has reached the capital. The recent attacks show that the violence which has been very prominent in the Afghan countryside has made its way to the capital. The recent attack follows a suicide bombing on 24 October at an educational centre in western Kabul, where more than 40 people, most of them being high school students from the Shiite Hazara ethnic minority, died in the attack, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Second, the surge in Islamic State terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. There has been an alarming surge in IS terrorist attacks mostly targeting the civilian population in Afghanistan. The IS has carried out numerous high-profile attacks in Kabul in recent years, often targeting government postings and Shiite Muslims at schools, places of worship and other easily infiltrated targets. The main objective of the militant group seems to be to sabotage the intra-Afghan talks. Although there have been many campaigns to curb this terrorist group, it still maintains capable terrorist cells in cities like Kabul, protected by secure messaging apps and careful communication with outside leadership.

Third, casualties of the fighting leave a high toll on civilians. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report, nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace. The Taliban was accountable for 45 per cent of civilian casualties while government troops were responsible for 23 per cent and the United States-led international forces were responsible for two per cent. Further, most of the remainder occurred in the crossfire were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements.

In perspective
The latest terrorist attack on Kabul University indicates the increasing capacity of the group to launch such a coordinated attack in the capital. However, this rising threat of the militant group cannot be effectively countered without the end of hostilities between the Taliban and the Afghan government forces.

Further, the surge in violence has become a challenging obstacle when it comes to the progress of the intra-Afghan talks which have been slow since their start in mid-September with diplomats and officials warning that rising violence is destroying the already minimal existing trust. Thus, the urgency remains to be the call for the reduction of violence.

Nepal: Fact-finding team allege Chinese shift of border posts; Beijing and Kathmandu deny the charge

In the news
On 3 November, the Kathmandu Post reported that the Nepali Congress lawmaker of Karnali Province Jeevan Bahadur Shahi has expressed dissatisfaction at the Government of Nepal for the lack of a strong investigation against alleged Chinese encroachment in the Humla district. A fresh border dispute between Nepal and China has been brewing near the Nepal-Tibet border. The dispute emerged after the Chinese administration has unilaterally started constructing structures on the encroached land inside the Nepalese territory. The opposition party, the Nepali Congress, has accused China of encroaching and the Government of Nepal set up a 19-member fact-finding team. This team visited the border region of the Limi area on 5 October and confirmed Chinese encroachment with structures such as concrete buildings and rebuilt border pillars constructed without permission from Nepal. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu has however denied the Nepalese media reports and stated that the buildings mentioned were verified on the Chinese side of the China-Nepal border. 
Issues at large
First, an administrative tendency to ignore its northern borders. The 1,414 kilometres Nepal-China border has 69 border posts, constructed from the East Sikkim border to West Lipulek. Among these, pillars numbered 37, 38, and 62 are missing and there is a dispute over pillar no 57. After the recently missed border pillar number-11 was found buried under snow, the border dispute has now been laid to rest. The Communist government of Nepal seems so convinced that it is not even trying to understand the raised issue and has denied the existence of any dispute. During the Chinese President’s visit to Nepal in 2019 both the countries reached the ‘Agreement on Border Management System’ and mentions the formation of a ‘Nepal-China Border Joint Commission.’ However, any progress to that regard is yet to be made. Nepali administration has always been more focused on its borders with India than China, therefore, ignoring an emerging dispute. 

Second, Nepal’s economic dependency on China. It is significant to note that China is Nepal’s highest FDI partner and it is also the member of the China-led Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Nepal has received multiple economic and infrastructural benefits under the BRI. Not to mention, these economic assistances often come with strings attached with tremendous political pressures bordering sometimes on threats. Therefore, the government of Nepal seems to be ignorant of such sensitive issues and plainly refused to accept the allegation reported in the media.

Third, poor border administration. The main reason for the border dispute is the lack of border supervision and monitor. As per the Nepal-China border protocol, a joint border inspection has been agreed to be conducted every 10 years, but no other team has been formed since the last inspection in 2006. While the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu has already said that verification can be done in this regard if the Nepali side wants, it is not necessary to go one step further and respond, rather the regular inspection should be carried out immediately and should continue. 

In perspectives
Nepal is relatively comfortable with China, especially in the political sphere. The Sino-Nepal border is often denoted as a ‘controlled border system’ through an agreement of 1960 and the construction of the pillars of demarcation. Until the recent episode, there was no such border dispute at the Nepal-Tibet border and both sides have been exchanging friendly relations. However, the recent development at the border raised Nepalese eyebrows and reminded Mao Zedong’s Five Fingers of Tibet policy yet again. China’s recent border behaviour in its neighbourhoods, including the growing aggression in the Ladakh region, has certainly sent the South Asian small neighbours including Nepal into a tizzy.

Northeast India: More troops to be deployed to stem violence from border dispute between Assam and Mizoram

In the news 
On 4 November, Assam’s Chief Secretary Jishnu Baruah stated that the central government is likely to send additional paramilitary forces to be deployed at the earliest along the Assam and Mizoram border. This is the latest development to the month-long border dispute flaring between the two states in India’s northeastern region. On 1 November a resident of Assam allegedly died in the custody of the Mizoram police leading the Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to send a strong-worded letter to the Union Home Minister Amit Shah about the “abduction by miscreants” and subsequent death of Intazul Laskar, who lived in a town along the Assam-Mizoram border in Cachar district. The Mizo government responded accusing Laskar to be a drug peddler. The border standoff between the two federal states reached a brink when the main highway to Mizoram remained cut off for over a week since the end of October as truck drivers from Assam refused to carry cooking gas and other necessities across the border fearing life threat, inturn forcing Mizoram to get fuel via Manipur, a longer circuitous route.

Issues at large 
First, the historical boundary dispute. Frictions between the two states returned in the first week of October when the Assam government carried out an “eviction drive” along a contested part of the border, running between Assam’s Karimganj district and Mizoram’s Mamit district. During the drive, a farmhouse and crops were reportedly burned down. The Mizoram government responded by deploying forces in what Assam claims to be its territory. The Mizos, for their part, insisted that they were only “defending their land.” Assam and Mizoram share a 164.6-km-long border, but their border issue has been unresolved for 50 years. Mizoram insists that a 509-square-mile stretch of the inner-line reserve forest notified in 1875 is the actual boundary with Assam, while the latter thinks otherwise. The violence between Assam and Mizoram have often sparred mostly among the border villages as one or the other burn houses viewing encroachment on land. 

Second, ethnic tensions. The boundary dispute often gets coloured into an ethnic tension when the dominant Mizos feel threatened by the Assamese claim on land and vice versa. But today, the fear is of illegal migrants from Bangladesh trying to settle in the contested lands. Mizo civil society groups alleged that those behind the violence from Assam were, in fact, “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh trying to take over Mizo land. The Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a powerful student organisation in Mizoram, admitted to setting a few shops on fire, but insisted that they had been set up by “illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”

Third, economic blockade. A consequence of the border dispute has been stopping interstate goods thereby choking each other of essential fuel. Trucks ferrying essential supplies to Mizoram were allegedly not allowed to pass by Assam residents blocking highways since 18 October. The Mizo groups responded by organising their own blockade. A senior ministry of home affairs official felicitated talks between the two states leading to the lift of the blockade but only to return in a day after a Bengali-medium school was bombed. Fearing that it was the work of Mizoram residents, the drivers across Northeast India, who are mostly from Assam, have feared the violence. They have lost trust on Assam Police after the personnel escorting tankers from Silchar abandoned them near the border on 31 October.

In perspective 
First, in Northeast India, the question of the boundary has remained complex, political and emotive. The showdowns between Assam and Mizoram residents are only recent developments and the most violent has been between Assam and Nagaland residents. Quoting historical precedents, an immediate resolution to this dispute remains unlikely and the issue is likely to be more emotive over the illegal migrant question. Second, land resource allocation which is at the heart of the dispute is unlikely to solved due to overlapping records. There are fewer institutions at the ground to record the land deeds and show historical data to solve the issue. 


Also, from around the world

Peace and Conflict from South East Asia and South Asia 
Thailand: Protesters refuse to compromise after the King’s address
On 1 November, King Maha Vajiralongkorn in rare message insinuated a possibility of a compromise but pro-democracy leaders have remained staunch on their protests for reforms to the monarchy. For weeks now, student-led protesters across Thailand have taken to the streets, calling for a new constitution with authority over the monarchy, an end to the persecution of the political opposition and the resignation of Prime Minister. Although the security forces have not cracked down violently on these peaceful rallies, it’s unclear how long such restraint will last.

Myanmar: Asin Wirathu surrenders before the police
On 2 November, Ashin Wirathu, Myanmar’s nationalist monk surrendered before the police in Yangon. Wirathu has been evading arrest since May last year after a warrant was issued against him for allegedly inciting disaffection with the government. Further, his surrender came just days ahead of a general election. Before surrendering to the police, he spoke to a monk’s association where he stated, “Mainly, I would like to request my fellow monks around the country to ask their followers to vote for the parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion.” Wirathu is known for his hard-line views on Rohingyas and is also a strong critique of the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The National Monks Council had also banned him from making hate speeches for one year but it was not strictly enforced.  

India: Government clears new land laws for Jammu and Kashmir 
On 31 October, protests began in Jammu and Kashmir soon after Centre announced its new land reform laws. On 26 October, the Centre, cleared the changes in the land laws under the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third Order. This came less than a week before its powers to independently amend the J&K Re-Organisation Act, 2019 would cease to exist. The government repealed 12 J&K laws, including the historic land reform laws, and amending 14 others, some of which dealt exclusively with the sale and purchase of land. In defence of the new laws, the government spokesperson described them as “major step towards the development and progress of J&K” and “ushering in land reforms.” 

Nepal: Indian Army chief arrives in Nepal to reset ties amid border discord
On 4 November, the Indian Army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane arrived in Nepal to meet his counterpart, General Purna Chandra Thapa. The main focus of the meeting will be to strengthen bilateral relations after Nepal-India ties came under severe strain following Kathmandu incorporating some sections of Indian territory in a new map. One of the key events during the visit is the conferring of the honorary rank of General of Nepal Army on Naravane by President Bidya Devi Bhandari. Further, Naravane’s Nepal visit is seen as part of a larger exercise by New Delhi to revitalize its ties with its neighbours.

India-Pakistan: Imran Khan grants ‘provisional provincial status’ to Gilgit-Baltistan
On 1 November, PM Imran Khan announced that his government has decided to grant “provisional provincial status” to Gilgit-Baltistan, keeping in view the UN Security Council resolutions. After the announcement, India urged Pakistan to “immediately vacate all areas under its illegal occupation” and “firmly rejects” Pakistan’s attempt “to bring material changes to a part of Indian territory, under its illegal and forcible occupation.” In response to this rejection, the Foreign Office spokesman in Pakistan categorically rejected the statements and termed them “irresponsible and unwarranted,” adding, “India has no locus standi whatsoever on the issue — legal, moral or historical.” Further, this comes as the plan to grant Gilgit-Baltistan provincial status gained momentum in the last one year.

Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle-East and Africa
Azerbaijan: President Aliyev warns that the Azeri forces will “go to the end” 
On 1 November, President Ilham Aliyev said the Azeri forces will “go to the end” to restore their territorial dignity if negotiations fail to develop an agreement for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. On 30 October, Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Geneva for a day of talks mediated by the OSCE and agreed they will "not target civilian populations or non-military objects." However, Nagorno-Karabakh officials accused Azerbaijan of shelling civilian settlements.

Syria: Government shelling kills seven in Idlib
On 4 November, seven civilians, including four children were killed when the Syrian government shelled a rebel enclave targeting Idlib city and two towns. The shelling which comes a week after Syrian ally, Russia, carried out airstrikes targeting Turkey-backed rebel camps in Idlib, has sparked retaliatory violence. Meanwhile, the international community has called for a nationwide ceasefire.

Ethiopia: PM declares six-month emergency in Tigray
On 4 November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed imposed a six-month emergency on the Tigray region for "threatening the sovereignty of the country." He said the army was successful in containing the Tigray People's Liberation Front forces who had attacked the military base of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces. The latest tensions were sparked when the Tigray region conducted its regional elections without approval from the Ethiopian government. The UN, International Crisis Group, US Secretary of State and the British embassy in Ethiopia have called for a de-escalation of tensions.

Libya: JMC meet to implement the October ceasefire
 On 2 November, a Joint Military Commission JMC comprising five members each from the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army met to implement the ceasefire signed on 23 October. The talks concluded with a set of recommendations including withdrawal of foreign troops and a request for a UNSC resolution to accelerate the implementation of the ceasefire. The Commission is set to meet in the coastal city of Sirte which has been on the frontline of the conflict.

Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
France-Turkey row: France bans Turkish nationalist group called Grey Wolves 
On 4 November, the French government banned the Grey Wolves, a far-right nationalist group accused of inciting hate speech within France. The ban was approved after the group was seen as ‘extremely violent’ in its actions and steadily inciting hatred against authorities and the Armenians. The Grey Wolves group are linked to a top ally of the Turkish president Erdogan and the ban follows escalating tensions between Ankara and Paris over France’s fight against extremism. More so it also follows another conflict in the Caucasian region that in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia where Turkey lends support to the Azeris and France to ethnic Armenians.  

Poland: Amid protests government delays implementation of abortion laws 
On 3 November, the right-wing government in Poland delayed the implementation of a court ruling on controversial abortion laws. The ruling was set to impose a near-total ban on abortions in the Catholic country. This sparked protests across the country, targeting the state and church as a symbol of domination on women’s body and remains one of the largest protests since 1989. The country already had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws before its Constitutional Tribunal ruled on 22 October decided that terminating pregnancies for fetal abnormalities would violate the Constitution. 

The US: Its Election Result time, So are protests, nasty remarks and vilifying results by Trump 
On 6 November, the counting of votes to choose the President of the world’s biggest democracy has begun. With no clear winners, the presidential race is yet to be called because neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden, the two contenders to the office, has collected the requisite 270 Electoral College votes. Biden’s victories in Michigan and Wisconsin have put him in a leading position to win the presidency but it is Pennsylvania that will yet again be the deciding factor for Biden to close in on Trump. This presidential election has been filled with violence, strong rhetoric and more so exposed the sharp divide within the American society along clear political ideological lines. Protests have broken out in several vote counting centres with supporters of Trump calling to “Stop Count.” President Donald Trump has also claimed without evidence that Democrats were trying to “steal” the US election with illegal votes. 

About the authors
Kamna Tiwary is a France-based independent analyst. Mahesh Bhatta is a Research Officer at the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS), a Kathmandu based think-tank. Sourina Bej is a Project Associate; Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Research Assistants at NIAS.

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