Conflict Weekly 69

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Conflict Weekly 69
Violent protests in Colombia, US troops withdrawal in Afghanistan, and the battle for Marib in Yemen

  IPRI Team

Conflict Weekly #69, 5 May 2021, Vol.2, No.5
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI & KAS-India Office

Lokendra Sharma, Abigail Miriam Fernandez, & Jeshil Samuel J

Colombia: As protests turn deadly, President Márquez withdraws contentious tax proposal  
In the news
On 3 May, Colombia's Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigned following days of deadly protests over a controversial tax reform proposal that he had piloted. In a statement reported by Reuters, he said: "My continuance in the government will complicate the quick and effective construction of the necessary consensus." His resignation came a day after President Ivan Márquez announced his decision to withdraw the tax reform proposal from Congress. He said: "I am asking Congress to withdraw the law proposed by the finance ministry and urgently process a new law that is the fruit of consensus in order to avoid financial uncertainty." However, stressing the need for tax reform, he added: "The reform is not a whim, it is a necessity."

Earlier, on 28 April, Colombia's unions had given a call for a national strike against the tax reform proposal, which has since spiralled into a countrywide protest, accompanied by a brutal police response. According to The New York Times, at least 19 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the violence.

Issues at large
First, the social discontent in Colombia. The scope of protests has only expanded since it began on 28 April, reflecting a larger discontent in society that stems from rising inequality, economic downturn due to the pandemic (and lockdown) and systemic issues in policing. People are also unhappy with the forced displacement of thousands of people as different armed groups fight amongst each other to occupy the space left by the FARC group, which was disbanded after the 2016 peace agreement. Due to the factors above, protests have continued despite the withdrawal of the proposal.

Second, the tax reform proposal as an immediate trigger. President Márquez has pushed for tax reform to increase revenues to lower the fiscal deficit, boost the economy ravaged by the pandemic and fund a welfare policy called Ingreso Solidario, which supports poor households. The proposal entails expanding the tax net, eliminating income tax exemptions and increasing the value-added taxes on goods and services. The working classes and middle classes, however, have opposed these proposed measures citing their already deteriorating economic situation.

Third, brutal police response making the situation worse. The security forces and riot police forces have been accused of live firing and driving motorcycles into protesting people. They have killed unarmed protestors, including children. On 3 May, General Vargas, head of Colombia's police force, said that 26 investigations into police misconduct had been opened.

In perspective
Even as the state initially responded to the protests brutally, it did the right thing withdrawing the proposal, saving the country from more mayhem. However, the protests have nevertheless continued, reflecting larger discontent. In that context, withdrawing the proposal is not enough. Unless the larger discontent is addressed, protests over different issues will keep erupting.

President Márquez has announced that he will build a consensus on tax reform; however, given the intensity of anger and protest, it will be difficult to pacify the masses and reach a consensus. His regime faces a tough choice: while at one end, there is a need to address the rising fiscal deficit, at the other, taxing people will be contentious. He may have to find a third way forward to raise revenues.

Afghanistan: The US troops begin final withdrawal amid enduring violence
In the news
On 30 April, a suicide truck bombing struck a guest house in Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province, leaving 26 people dead and over 100 injured. The Presidential Palace condemned the attack as a crime against humanity and a terrorist attack against the people of Afghanistan. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack. However, the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for the blast.

On 2 May, General Austin S. Miller, the head of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, announced that the US military has begun its complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying: "We will conduct an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, and that means transitioning bases and equipment to the Afghan security forces." Also on the same day, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted that there could be all possibilities following the exit of American troops from Afghanistan, including "really dramatic, bad possible results," adding, "there are a lot of variables to this, and it's not 100 per cent predictable." Meanwhile, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan's HCNR said: "because of the vacuum that the withdrawal leaves, it may be able to take advantage of that situation, that emboldens the position of the sides…And that's the concern, that the Taliban position might get further emboldened."

Issues at large
First, the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of US troop saying that the main objective of ensuring that Afghanistan would not be a launching pad for terrorism had been achieved and that it was time for American troops to come home. Similarly, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also announced the withdrawal of NATO and allied forces, thus marking the formal end to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Second, the continuation of violence. Violence has been raging unabated across the country. Both the UNAMA and SIGAR have reported an increase in violence. According to TOLOnews, 226 Afghan civilians and military personnel have been killed in alleged Taliban attacks following the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops on 15 April.

Third, the withdrawal in the absence of a ceasefire and stalled intra-Afghan negotiations. This withdrawal is taking place without any accountability measures, such as a ceasefire, in place. It is also taking place when the intra-Afghan negotiations and other diplomatic efforts are already in a deadlock despite being in their nascent stage.

Fourth, the Afghan government's readiness. Although the government claims that the Afghan commandos, special forces and air force have trained among the best and can defend the country, without the support of foreign troops, the government and its forces remain unprepared to counter any fallouts from the withdrawal.

In perspective
First, the end of American troops in Afghanistan. Over the last 20 years, the US has spent both money and blood in Afghanistan. Apart from the political investment, a substantial amount has been spent on counter-insurgency and civilian assistance to Afghanistan. Conversely, the US forces have suffered more than 2,300 deaths. However, the cost of this withdrawal looks to be on the path of being worse.

Second, the likelihood of spiralling violence. Although violence has continued, recent attacks have taken place closer to Afghan urban towns and cities. These attacks had ceased following the US-Taliban agreement and now Afghans fear that could again become the case once foreign forces withdraw.

Third, the Afghans prepare for further uncertainty. Given the violent nature of previous power transitions in the country, the Afghans have little assurance of a peaceful settlement. More importantly, Afghan women are preparing themselves for a difficult road ahead.

Yemen: The Battle for Marib rages on
In the news
On 25 April, Agency France Press (AFP) reported: "the (Houthi) rebels have taken full control of the North-West Kassara battlefield and made progress on western frontlines towards Marib". The AFP's report also stated that the battle for Marib had moved to the Al-Min area which is just 6 kilometres away from the city. However, the very next day, Yemen's Information Minister Muammar Al-Eryani denied the credibility of the news and declared it as misinformation.

On 2 May, Yemen's Major General, Abdu Abdullah Majili, announced that Yemini troops had successfully expelled militias from numerous locations in the Al-Kasara and Al-Mashjah region through a series of attacks.  He also mentioned that three rebels were captured, and twenty rebel vehicles were destroyed during the attack. The Arab coalition forces provided air support during the attacks and managed to disrupt the flow of weaponry between rebel forces. 

Issues at large
First, the long battle for Marib. It started in February' despite efforts calling for a ceasefire by the Saudi coalition in March, the rebels have been persistent in gaining control over the city. Since then, numerous airstrikes have been conducted by the Arab coalition targeting the Houthis, and the Houthis have retaliated with missile strikes of their own. The recent escalations, however, have been the bloodiest so far. The rebels have been attacking Marib relentlessly in successive waves, with the initial waves consisting of novice fighters (including children). Despite losing hundreds of fighters, the Houthis have continued to reinforce their ranks with members from nearby regions, thereby prolonging the fight.

Second, the significance of Marib. Not only is Marib the last major stronghold of the Yemeni government in the North, it also houses a large number of oil fields, refineries and natural gas pipelines. The city also has a dam that acts as the primary source of freshwater for the nearby regions. All these factors contribute to why Marib is sought after by both parties. The Houthis desperately want to hamstring the functioning of the government before entering into any negotiation. Victory over Marib would unquestionably cement their dominance in the northern region and cripple the government's functioning. The Yemeni government is therefore forced to protect Marib at all costs.

Third, the humanitarian crises surrounding Marib. Since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen in 2014, Marib has been a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens. The 140 temporary camps surrounding the city had been pivotal in sustaining the displaced Yemenis, but recently, these camps have faced Houthi hostility and an acute water and food shortage. Sadly, the escalation of violence around Marib has been so intense that it has displaced 13,600 of the city's own citizens, making them vulnerable to the ongoing violence, pandemic, and water shortages.

In perspective
A quick victory in Marib is not possible for either side. Houthi forces will have a hard time advancing to the city now due to the pushback from Yemeni forces and the mountainous terrain surrounding them. The Yemeni government, on the other hand, unable to handle the rebels and the ongoing humanitarian crises at the same time would have to try and initiate a ceasefire immediately. In the end, no matter which side wins or loses, Yemeni citizens have been bearing the brunt of this war, with more than 80 per cent of them in need of immediate aid.

Also from around the World
By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia
Australia: Government to increase childcare subsidies
On 2 May, Reuters reported that the Australian government would increase childcare subsidies to USD 1.3 billion to increase female participation in the workplace. The Guardian explains that the initiative targets families with two or more children under the age of five. A media release by the Treasurer says: "The investment will add up to 300,000 hours of work per week which would allow the equivalent of around 40,000 individuals to work an extra day per week and boost the level of GDP by up to $1.5 billion per year."

China: Xinjiang spokesperson calls western sanctions a piece of waste paper
On 30 April, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang regional government said that sanctions imposed by western countries over the alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang were mere "a piece of waste paper." He said: "Their real purpose is to conduct an 'industry genocide', to sabotage the participation of Xinjiang in the global value chain." He added that despite the sanctions impacting exports of companies based in the region, they would boost their competitiveness by investing in science and technology. 

North Korea: Pyongyang says Washington's recent statement reflect a hostile policy 
On 2 May, Reuters reported that North Korea had criticized "the US and its allies in South Korea" claiming that some recent statements from Washington reflected a hostile policy towards them. North Korea's reaction comes after the US completed a review of its policy towards North Korea. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson is quoted to have "accused Washington of insulting the dignity of the country's supreme leadership by criticizing North Korea's human rights situation." He said Washington is "girding itself up for an all-out showdown" with Pyongyang.

Thailand: Office of the Judiciary calls for action against Redem protesters
On 3 May, Bangkok Post referred to the Office of the Judiciary statement, which said legal action would be taken against the Restart Democracy (Redem) group members, who protested outside the Criminal Court on 2 May. The protesters were calling for "the release, on bail, of leading activists of the Ratsadon movement detained on lese majeste and other charges." The Office of the Judiciary, however, held that while courts welcomed opinions from all parties, violence aimed at pressuring the court to pass orders favouring them and also aimed at ruining the independence of the judiciary.

Myanmar: Ethnic divisions soften following coup, says NYT
On 30 April, The New York Times published an article outlining that the military coup in Myanmar had softened ethnic divisions within the country. The article quotes people belonging to different ethnicities and highlights "a growing acceptance of the nation's ethnic diversity, something that was notably absent during an earlier political transition." It says that after witnessing the military crackdown and violence, people have realized that "democracy cannot flourish without respecting ethnic minorities, who have endured decades of persecution." 

Indonesia: Papuan separatists designated as terrorists
On 30 April, The Strait Times reported that Indonesia had designated Papuan separatists as terrorists following the shooting down of an intelligence officer on 25 April. On 29 April, the chief security minister said: "The government thinks that organizations and the people in Papua who commit massive violence can be classified as terrorists." 
Peace and Conflict from South Asia
India: Manipur High Court orders safe passage for seven Myanmarese to UNHCR office
On 3 May, the High Court of Manipur allowed seven Myanmar nationals to travel to New Delhi to seek protection from the UNHCR office. The court said: "The far-reaching and myriad protection afforded by Article 21 of our Constitution, as interpreted and adumbrated by our Supreme Court time and again, would indubitably encompass the right of non-refoulement." Further, the court said: "In such a situation, insisting that they first answer for admitted violations of our domestic laws, as a condition precedent for seeking 'refugee' status, would be palpably inhumane."
India: 12 killed in post-poll violence in West Bengal
On 2 May, 12 people were killed in post-poll violence in West Bengal after the assembly election results were declared. Both TMC and BJP accused each other of the same. Mamata Banerjee called for calm; however, she blamed the BJP for the violence. The West Bengal BJP leadership alleged that their party supporters were being targeted. Further, the Home Ministry has sought a report from the state.
Pakistan: PM Khan urges OIC to vehemently counter Islamophobia
On 3 May, PM Imran Khan urged the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to vehemently counter Islamophobia and the false equation of Islam with radicalism and terrorism. He said that Muslim countries have failed to convince the West that the blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) hurt the sentiments of over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and was not an issue of freedom of expression. PM Khan made these statement during a meeting with over 30 OIC ambassadors in Islamabad.
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa
Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan: Troops withdraw from border area after clashes leave 46 dead
On 3 May, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan completed the withdrawal of troops from the border areas as part of a ceasefire held since 2 May. The withdrawal came a week after deadly clashes claimed at least 46 lives and injured nearly 200. On 2 May, Aljazeera quoted local authorities and reported that 58,000 people were evacuated from the region. They said around 52,000 of them were women and children. 

Israel-Palestine: Israeli settlers attack Palestinian village in West Bank
On 3 May, Aljazeera referred to an Israeli rights group and Palestinian officials who said that Israeli settlers had attacked a Palestinian village in West Bank. The incident took place after three Israelis sustained injuries in a drive-by shooting on 2 May. The rights group later informed that "Israeli security forces arrested 11 Palestinians and four people were wounded by rubber-coated bullets." The attack comes after a UN report released in April outlined that violence against Palestinians by the settlers had increased in recent times. 

Lebanon: Maritime border talks resume with Israel
On 4 May, Lebanon resumed US-mediated talks over a maritime border dispute with Israel. The latest round of talks is being held after several negotiations in October 2020 failed to conclude. Following the failure of talks, Lebanese caretaker PM and other ministers approved a draft decree enabling the country to expand its exclusive economic zone by 1430 sq km. 

Turkey: Seven more alleged PKK terrorists killed by Turkish Forces
On 3 May, the Turkish Defence Minister said the country's military had eliminated seven alleged PKK terrorists in "counterterrorism operations" in northern Iraq, thereby bringing the total casualties of the PKK to more than 50. He also said that the Turkish forces had confiscated sixteen weapons, two remote-controlled DShK's, and 3,000 ammunitions during the operations, which began on 23 April. 

Libya: Foreign Minister urges Turkey to withdraw troops 
On 3 May, the Libyan Foreign Minister of the interim government called on Turkey to implement the UNSC resolutions and withdraw its mercenaries from Libyan territories. He was addressing a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, who reasoned that the mercenaries were present in Libya due to a training agreement signed with the previous Libyan government. The development comes after the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Libya met with Libyan officials and other actors in the Libyan conflict and pushed for the implementation of the UNSC resolutions on 2 May.

Ethiopia: Ministers approve the decision to designate TPLF, OLF-Shene as terrorist organizations 
On 1 May, the council of ministers approved a move to designate the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the OLF-Shene as terrorist organizations. This decision would also apply to individuals and organizations having links with the two groups. Aljazeera quoted a statement from the Prime Minister's Office which said the above groups "operate as terrorists and their management or decision-makers have acknowledged or are leading destructive activities on the nation." The decision is pending to be approved by lawmakers. The move also marks six months since the conflict in Tigray began on 4 November 2020. 

Central Asian Republic: UNICEF says the rate of displacement among children highest since 2014
On 27 April, a UNICEF press release said around "738,000 people, half of whom are children, are now internally displaced across the Central African Republic (CAR)" owing to the instability. It said that at least "168,000 children had no choice but to flee their homes due to widespread violence" building up to the December 2020 presidential elections, and this figure reflects "the highest level of child displacement in the country since 2014." Therefore, UNICEF warned of the risks ahead for children, including sexual and physical violence, recruitment by armed groups, malnutrition etc. 
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
Europe: May Day protests across Berlin, Paris and Brussels
On 1 May, protesters took to the streets at May Day rallies across Berlin, Paris and Brussels. After clashes broke out between police and radical leftists in Berlin, 354 arrests on charges of physical assault and trespassing were made. Similarly, in Paris, 46 people were arrested after demonstrators clashed with the police. In Brussels, police fired water cannon and tear gas to break up the demonstrations. 
Russia: Navalny's political network added to 'Terrorist and Extremist' list
On 30 April, Rosfinmonitoring, Russia's state financial watchdog, blacklisted Alexey Navalny's political network as a "terrorist-linked" organization. Meanwhile, a Russian court is also to pronounce that the political offices and Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation are extremist organizations. If approved, Navalny's groups will then be placed alongside other terrorist organizations. Additionally, the designation would also allow authorities to freeze Navalny's bank accounts and expose members, thus hampering their efforts against Putin.

The US: Derek Chauvin's lawyer files for a new trial citing 'pervasive' prosecutorial misconduct
On 4 May, Derek Chauvin's lawyer filed a request for a new trial before the Hennepin County Court in Minnesota, citing "pervasive" misconduct in how the state prosecuted its case. The lawyer said that his client had not received a fair trial for several reasons, including the judge's decisions not to isolate the jury during the trial, not to change the location of the proceedings and not to grant a new trial because of publicity. The motion was filed on the same day as one of the jurors came under scrutiny for his participation in March. 

Canada: Proud Boys Canada dissolves 
On 2 May, Proud Boys Canada, a far-right group that was enlisted by Ottawa as a terrorist entity, has dissolved. According to statements, the group claimed that it has done nothing wrong, adding, "The truth is, we were never terrorists or a white supremacy group...We are electricians, carpenters, financial advisers, mechanics, etc. More than that, we are fathers, brothers, uncles and sons." However, experts have warned that claiming the Proud Boys Canada had "officially dissolved" might not mean the end of the group.

Cuba: Dissident ends hunger strike after being hospitalized
On 2 May, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, artist and protest movement leader was taken to the hospital by Cuban authorities as he entered the eighth day of his hunger strike. According to Havana's public health department, Alcantara was taken to the hospital emergency unit with symptoms of "voluntary starvation." However, the San Isidro protest movement (MSI) said that Alcantara had been taken by force and that the official medical report from the hospital was "confusing and contradictory." Alcantara had begun his hunger strike when government authorities seized some of his artwork after arresting him during a protest in April.
Brazil: Senate to probe into Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic
On 30 April, as the number of COVID-19 deaths surpassed 400,000, the Brazilian Senate launched an inquiry into President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic. Bolsonaro has rejected any criticism, however, and said that his government would not "accept this politics of stay home and shut everything down." On 2 May, thousands of people rallied across Brazil in support of Bolsonaro, who has been criticized for downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.
The US: Biden increases the annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500
On 3 May, President Joe Biden announced that he was revising the United States' annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year. He said: "This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees," adding, "It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin." Meanwhile, the Biden administration is also set to begin reunifying families separated by Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy.
The US: Washington denies claims of a prisoner swap with Tehran
On 2 May, the US denied a report by Iran's state-run broadcaster over claims that deals were between Tehran and Washington on a prisoner swap in exchange for the release of USD 7 billion frozen Iranian oil funds under Us sanctions in other countries. The US State Department spokesman said: "Reports that a prisoner swap deal has been reached are not we have said, we always raise the cases of Americans detained or missing in Iran. We will not stop until we are able to reunite them with their families."

About the authors
Lokendra Sharma is a Phd Scholar; Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Research Associates at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS. Jeshil Samuel J is a postgraduate scholar from the Department of International Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be University) currently enrolled at the NIAS Online Certificate Course on Contemporary Peace Processes, Thinkers and Theories.

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