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CWA # 446, 31 March 2021
IPRI Conflict Weekly #64, 31 March 2021, Vol.1, No.64
IPRI Conflict Weekly #64, 31 March 2021, Vol.1, No.64
Aparupa Bhattacherjee and Apoorva Sudhakar
Myanmar: Bloodiest week, Armed Forces Day celebration and the resurgence of ethnic conflicts
In the news
On 27 March, more than 100 people were killed by the security forces in a day. On the same day, the regime celebrated Armed Forces Day; it was attended by representatives from eight countries - Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and India. On the same day, the Chiefs of Defence of Australia, Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States released a joint statement condemning the violence in Myanmar.
On 29 March, the Karen National Union (KNU) declared not cooperating with the current government. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) had blocked the food supply to Tatmadaw stationed in the region. On 26 March, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) seized Myanmar's strategic outpost near the Chinese border. On 31 March, the Brotherhood alliance comprising of three ethnic armed forces (National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA) declared war against the Tatmadaw.
This week, the violence and airstrikes have resulted in an exodus of more than 10,000 to the neighbouring countries. On 31 March, Thailand refused the Myanmarese refugees to enter its territory. On the other hand, Manipur, an Indian State, re-tracked its order and allowed the refugees to enter through Tamu, a small-town connecting Myanmar to India.
Issues at large
First, the escalating State violence becomes evident. Compared to earlier weeks, this week has witnessed a surge in violence. The fatality was 200 in February; in March, it has doubled and now is more than 500. This includes several children within the 5-15 age group. Shooting anybody in the road, plain cloth military personnel with ammunitions, killing and burning people during night raids, burning houses and attacking people during funerals have become the regime's strategy.
Second, the Armed Forces Day celebration showcasing the regime's assertion and power. The presence of foreign dignitaries was a part of a strategy to showcase its international support. The Russian deputy defence chief, though, said that Moscow does not support violence, but the support towards the regime is evident. A statement made by Thailand's Prime Minister in Bangkok also underlines the same; regarding Thailand's participation in the above Armed Forces Day, he clarified that Thailand does not support violence but wants to maintain a good equation with the government regarding the refugee problem.
Third, the resurgence of ethnic conflict and a new refugee exodus. The ethnic conflicts in Myanmar are not new; however, the NLD government successfully brought the ten ethnic groups to sign NCA. These groups earlier declared to cooperate with the military but now have started attacking the latter. KNU was one the largest groups to have signed NCA but have declared that they do not recognize the present government. This new development is leading to an exodus with people escaping to the neighbouring countries.
In the coming weeks, the violence is likely to increase; the showcasing of the military power in the Armed Forces Day and the presence of international participants projects the strategy that the regime is likely to pursue in using force. Second, the continuing street protests and the statements from the ethnic groups highlight the likely response from the people and the ethnic groups. Third, the above developments led by the State and the ethnic groups are likely to create a new exodus into the neighbouring countries.
Indonesia: A new suicide attack targets the religious minority
In the news
On 28 March, two suicide bombers (a newlywed couple) attacked a Catholic Church at Makassar- the capital city of South Sulawesi province. They detonated the bomb outside the church gate; more than 20 people were injured in the attack. According to the Police Chief, the attackers were members of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). The target was the Palm Sunday Church returnees during the Easter week. The fatalities could have been much higher had the bomb inside the Church.
Joko Widido, the Indonesian President, strongly condemning the act as terror, said: "Terrorism is a crime against humanity…I call on everyone to fight against terror and radicalism, which go against religious values."
Issues at large
First, the increasing attacks against the minorities in Indonesia. According to 2018 data, Indonesia has a majority population of Muslims (87 per cent), Christians (10 per cent), and other minorities, including the Ahmediyas, Buddhists and Hindus, constitute the rest. Since 2016, there has been a rise in attacks against minorities, especially Christians; the latest attacks is the third in the series of suicide attacks on churches across Indonesia. Apart from the suicide, there were other attacks as well; in December 2020, a group of men attacked a Salvation Army outpost in central Sulawesi, beheading four men. They also burned down the houses of several Christian farmers. Also, there were sporadic attacks on churches and Christian families. The Ahmadiyyas and the ethnic Chinese also have been targeted.
Second, the religious polarisation between the majority and the minorities. In Indonesia, growing radicalization and the attacks by the non-state actors against the minorities is polarising the communities. Although the State has condemned the attacks as an act of terrorism, the minority communities feel targeted. The Constitution recognizes and safeguards six religions; however, the local authorities can impose their laws. Aceh, in Indonesia, has imposed Sharia laws and abide by them. Similarly, the 1965 Blasphemy law and vigilante groups like the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) target the minorities. MUI issues fatwa, which is not legally binding, but society dares not disobey.
Third, growing radicalization within Indonesia. There are several terrorist groups operating, and include the following: Fretilin (East Timorese independence militia), the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, and the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, Jemaah Islamiyah Islamist. They have different affiliations, and some adhere to an al-Qaeda ideology. The JAD, which perpetrated suicide attacks in 2018 and 2021, is a newly formed terrorist group and owes allegiance to ISIS. In Indonesia, both the returnees from Afghanistan and Syria have contributed to increasing terrorism. New groups and ideologies have also resulted in radicalization. The 2018 Church attack was conducted by an entire family (parents and four children) who returned from Syria.
First, the violence against the minorities will deepen the existing faultline. Apart from legal safeguards, the government should enhance cooperation between the communities.
Second, Indonesia has Detachment 88-counter-terrorism squad to fight against terrorism. But that is not enough; the country’s Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative is weaker compared to neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. Along with a strong CVE, it is essential to address the larger causes that substantiate the growth of radicalism in Indonesia, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education.
Mozambique: Violence escalates after ISIS rebels seize town
In the news
On 29 March, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the week-long siege over Palma, a town in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province. On 30 March, the International Organisation for Migration said it had tracked "3,361 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 672 families, arriving by foot, bus, plane and boat from Palma" to other districts in the province. According to the IOM, more than three-quarters of those who escaped the violence were women and children. Though initial media reports suggest that dozens have died over the week, the exact number of casualties is unknown.
On 24 March, armed men took over Palma in a coordinated raid attacking from several points. Many civilians escaped by boats, and others took refuge in a hotel; however, many, including foreign nationals, remain unaccounted. The government spokesperson said, "A group of terrorists sneaked into…Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenceless people."
Issues at large
First, the continuing instability and displacement in the province. The instability in the Cabo Delgado began in 2017. Initial attacks targeted government officials and security forces. However, over time, civilians were targeted; some were beheaded. As of March 2021, the UN estimates that at least 670,000 people have been displaced and more than 2,000, including security officials, killed since 2017. On 22 March, some UN officials said if the problem is left unaddressed, then the number of IDPs would reach one million by June.
Second, the local group - al Shabaab and its links with Islamist extremists. Al Shabaab, though is a local group, it identifies itself as the Al-Sunna wa Jama'a (ASWJ) and submits allegiance to the IS. Though the IS has also claimed several attacks, it is challenging to verify the claims.
Third, the government's ineffective response. So far, the government has responded with military operations and has also signed contracts with private military companies to quell the instability. Amnesty International suggests that along with the armed group, the government and the private company have committed war crimes claiming that innocent civilians were being detained and killed by security forces.
Fourth, the socio-economic grievances in Cabo Delgado. The province has attracted foreign companies, including ExxonMobil and Total, because of its gas reserves. However, the local population, especially the youth, opine that the foreign presence has not yielded any benefits to the province compared to other provinces. Further, Cabo Delgado is underdeveloped and is characterized by high illiteracy, subsequent unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, and the like. This has fuelled the anti-government sentiment amongst the local population.
First, the latest attack is a reflection of the government's failure in intelligence as well as its response. It also shows that the government ignoring the increasing frequency and gravity of attacks against the civilians has emboldened the extremist group.
Second, the instability also is rooted in the government's failure in ensuring basic social necessities. While religion could be an element, it is not the only feature shaping the unrest. Therefore, the government and international community covering the issue should look beyond the Islamist extremism and instead focus on addressing the grievances of the people.
Also from around the World
By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia
China: WHO releases report on origins of COVID-19; 14 countries raise objections
On 29 March, the Associated Press obtained a draft copy of the WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19. The study says the most likely explanation behind the virus is that it was transmitted from bats to humans through animals. It also explains that the possibility of a lab leak is "extremely unlikely." However, on 30 March, 14 countries objected to the WHO report "citing delays and a lack of full access to data." Further, the WHO Chief also pushed for a larger study. He said, "Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy."
North Korea: Pyongyang denounces EU sanctions
On 30 March, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson condemned the sanctions placed by the European Union on North Korea. The spokesperson said, "North Korea strongly denounces and categorically rejects this farce of 'human rights sanctions' by the EU, as it constitutes a part of the stereo-typed policy hostile to North Korea and a despicable political provocation aimed at infringing upon its sovereignty and interfering in its internal affairs." Previously, on 29 March, the EU had imposed sanctions on North Korea on the grounds of "allegedly torturing and killing people."
Thailand: PM says the government is not backing Myanmar's military government
On 29 March, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha dismissed claims that the Thai government supported the military regime in Myanmar. He said, "In what ways do we support Myanmar troops? Nobody supports the use of violence against the people?" Further, he justified sending Thai representatives to Myanmar's Armed Forces Day, saying that since the two countries share borders, Thailand will be affected by the developments in Myanmar. Therefore, the military channel will help Thailand follow political developments in Myanmar.
Indonesia: Blast in refinery leaves at least 20 injured, thousands evacuated
On 29 March, an explosion in the state-owned Pertamina refinery in Java Island triggered a fire at a storage tank and left at least 20 injured and three missing. Around 1000 people were evacuated. The cause of the fire has not been identified; however, the Pertamina officials maintained the incident happened due to a lightning storm. Meanwhile, Greenpeace called for a probe into the matter and added, "These kinds of dangerous incidents have been happening repeatedly in fossil fuel industries...If there’s any evidence of negligence or a violation of [health and safety] procedures, the government must file criminal charges to hold Pertamina accountable.”
Japan: Foreign Minister announces suspension of aid to Myanmar
On 30 March, the Foreign Minister cited the military's crackdown on Myanmar's protesters and said that the Japanese government had suspended any new aid. He said, "Japan is the largest provider of economic assistance to Myanmar, and we aren't planning any new projects. We have taken a clear stance." Bangkok Post explains that Japan is hesitant to impose sanctions on Myanmar because of "strong economic ties to Myanmar and relations with the military" and apprehension that China would use the opportunity to increase its influence in the country.
Peace and Conflict from South Asia
Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka will not succumb to pressure after UNHRC Resolution, says Rajapaksa
On 29 March, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a statement, said that his country would not succumb to any pressure in response to a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution, which was passed on 23 March. He said that Sri Lanka would face the challenge without fear. Further, he stated that since Sri Lanka's national development strategies have been put in place, foreign and local forces who are against the country's progress are misleading the public, adding, "If you give in to those lies the damage could be irreversible."
Pakistan: Janikhel tribe ends protests after talks with the provincial government
On 29 March, the Janikhel tribe of Bannu, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa decided to end protests over the killings of four teenage boys after signing an agreement with the government. The Special Assistant to Chief Minister said that the government had decided to accept all the demands, stating that members of the provincial cabinet, as well as mediators, were part of the dialogue. Previously on 21 March, the residents began protesting over the brutal killing of the four teenage boys whose bullet-riddled bodies were found in a field. Since then, tribesmen and relatives were staging a sit-in in their area, demanding immediate action.
Afghanistan: Three female polio workers killed in Jalalabad
On 30 March, three female polio vaccination workers were shot dead by gunmen in two separate incidents in Jalalabad. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, including the Taliban who denied responsibility for the attacks. This attack took place as the government began its first polio vaccination campaign for the year on 29 March. With polio being currently endemic to Afghanistan and Pakistan, teams of polio workers have been frequently targeted by militants proving to be a major obstacle in vaccination efforts.
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa
Tajikistan: 'Heart of Asia' conference
On 30 March, the Ninth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process took place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The main theme of the conference was focused on strengthening a regional and international consensus for a secure and stable Afghanistan to enhance regional security, economic and political cooperation centred on Afghanistan can be promoted.
Kyrgyzstan: PM and Uzbek counterpart approve the border settlement agreement
On 25 March, the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan approved a border settlement agreement that is expected to end the persistent territorial disputes and friction between border communities. Kyrgyzstan's head of security services opined that by signing the agreement, all the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border issues have been resolved and that "there is not a single patch of disputed territory left."
Syria: Antony Blinken calls for reauthorizing border crossings on humanitarian ground
On 29 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the UNSC drawing attention to the Syrian conflict. He called for the reopening of two border crossings on humanitarian grounds and said, "The lives of people in Syria depend on getting urgent help. We have to do everything in our power to create ways for that aid to get to them, to open pathways, not to close them." previously, in 2020, China and Russia had vetoed the reauthorization of the two. Further, he demanded a reauthorization of one crossing through which aid was supplied to Syria. He called on the UNSC to not make the humanitarian needs of Syrians a political issue.
Syria: Kurdish forces arrest more than 50 suspected ISIS fighters from Al-Hol camp
On 30 March, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed Kurdish group, arrested 53 suspected ISIS members from the Al-Hol camp during an anti-Daesh operation. On 28 March, the SDF had launched its anti-Daesh operation in the camp, which is the second-largest Kurdish run facility for families of the ISIS militants in Syria.
Saudi Arabia: Houthi rebels target several oil facilities
On 26 March, the Saudi Arabian government said that a fuel tank at an oil facility caught fire after it had been hit by a projectile launched by the Houthis on 25 March, marking six years of Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Yemen conflict. Following this, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack and listed their targets. They said they had "launched attacks against King Abdelaziz military base in Dammam and military sites in Najran and Asir" and "targeted Aramco facilities in Ras al-Tanura, Rabigh, Yanbu and Jizan, using 18 drones and eight ballistic missiles."
Sudan: Government signs deal with SPLM-N
On 28 March, the government and Sudan's People Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) signed an agreement signifying a breakthrough in the peace negotiations. The SPLM-N was one of the two major rebel groups which had refused the peace deal in 2019 after the ousting of Omar al Bashir. In the agreement, the SPML-N calls for a secular and democratic state "with no role for religion in lawmaking, the disbanding of all of al-Bashir's militias and the revamping of the country's military." The group warned that if the government fails to fulfil these demands, then it would call for self-determination in the areas under its control.
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
Turkey: Protests continue over Erdogan's decision to withdraw from the domestic violence treaty
On 27 March, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets for the second consecutive weekend against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Protesters gathered in an Istanbul seafront square with purple flags and chanting slogans "Murders of women are political," "Protect women, not the perpetrators of violence." On 20 March, Erdogan withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence through a presidential decree.
EU-Turkey: EU officials ask Turkey to take back migrants from Greece
On 29 March, the European Union home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said, "I call on Turkey to urgently resume the return of migrants from Greece," adding that Turkey should adhere to the 2016 agreement which would take back asylum seekers from Greek islands who had their applications rejected. This statement comes as EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel are meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to discuss the matter of migration and other regional issues.
The US: Journalists allowed inside main detention facility for migrant children at US-Mexico border
On 30 March, the Biden Administration allowed a small number of journalists inside its main detention facility for migrant children in Donna, Texas, at the eastern end of the US-Mexico divide. The visit revealed that the facility had a capacity of about 125 but that around 4,000 migrants, including unaccompanied children and families, were staying in the severely overcrowded tent structure. This visit comes after photos from this facility were made public by Democratic Representative as well as pressure on the Biden Administration to ensure more transparency to the process of handling the current influx of migrants.
About the authors
Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD Scholar; Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Project Assistants at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.
V S Ramamurthy and Dinesh K Srivastava
Abigail Miriam Fernandez