Conflict Weekly 72

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Conflict Weekly 72
Ceasefire in Israel, NLD ban in Myanmar and a new Belarus crisis

  IPRI Team

Conflict Weekly #72, 26 May 2021, Vol.2, No.8 
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI & KAS-India Office 

Lakshmi V Menon. Aparupa Bhattacherjee and Sourina Bej 

Israel-Hamas ceasefire: The long road to peace 
In the news 
On 21 May, Israel's Cabinet voted to approve Egypt-mediated ceasefire with the Hamas in the Gaza strip, following 11 days of airstrikes and rocket attacks. Palestinians conducted celebratory gatherings in the occupied territories, and Israel removed emergency restrictions in rocket-hit areas. While both parties have claimed victory, they also maintained that the holding of the ceasefire would depend on ground circumstances.  

During 25-27 May, Antony Blinken, as a part of his first visit as the US Secretary of State to the Middle East, met the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan. On 25 May, in a statement in Jerusalem, he said: "I traveled here at the request of President Biden, who asked me to come to pursue four basic objectives. First, to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to Israel's security. Second, to start to work toward greater stability and reduce tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Third, to support urgent humanitarian and reconstruction assistance for Gaza to benefit the Palestinian people. And fourth, to continue to rebuild our relationship with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority."

In Jordan, he said: "We see the cease-fire not as an end, but as a beginning - something to build on." In a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas announced that the US plans to reopen the Jerusalem consulate "to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people." 

Issues at large 
First, the international pressure on Israel and Hamas to declare a ceasefire. Israel and Hamas engaged in a series of airstrikes and rocket attacks against each other. The strikes that continued for 11 days resulted in asymmetric casualties, with Gaza suffering the most. Initial statements and requests from the rest of the world went unheeded. Finally, Egypt used its influence on Hamas to agree to a ceasefire, which was accepted by Israel.

Second, the differing stances by Israel and Hamas on ceasefire. According to Hamas, the maintenance of the truce is conditional on Israel "lift(ing) their hands-off Sheikh Jarrah (where Palestinians face eviction from their houses) and Al-Aqsa Mosque." However, Israel denies making such a promise and calls the ceasefire unconditional. 

Third, the role of Egypt. The truce was mediated by Egypt, the only state having open communication lines with Hamas and Israel and sharing borders with both Israel and the Gaza strip. Despite an Egyptian blockade devastating the Gazan economy, Hamas being the Muslim Brotherhood's (a political movement banned in Egypt) militant Palestinian branch and the pro-government media of Egypt portraying Hamas as a threat, Egypt, was able to broker the cease-fire successfully. 

Fourth, the call for a two-state solution. On 19 May, US President Biden called for de-escalation and reiterated the two-state solution as the only way ahead to end the conflict. The idea of a two-state solution is decades old and has been there since the 1940s. Multiple discussions have been held on the idea, and there has been a considerable change in the position of multiple actors that include the Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and rest of the world.

In perspective 
The recent Israeli-Palestinian violence was the worst since 2014. Regardless of Israel's narrative, the reality is that Israel is the only sovereign authority in the conflict. Both sides have claimed victory over the eleven days of violence. The ceasefire's longevity also heavily depends on the ruling of Israel's Supreme Court on Palestinian eviction. A verdict in the eviction's favour could spur further protests and violence. Moreover, tensions post the ceasefire's announcement shows that the truce is not reflected at the popular level. Although Israel has "temporarily" lifted certain restrictions on the Al Aqsa, Sheikh Jarra persists as a complication. 

Blinken's announcement reflects a commitment to the two-state solution and status-quo on the Haram al-sharif. He also promised aid to the Gazans but maintained that it would be kept out of Hamas' hands. The latter has been accused of siphoning international aid for procuring weapons, thus complicating international aid distribution among Gazans. The US is trying to bolster the internationally backed Palestinian Authority under Abbas and ensure the ceasefire holds. However, the ceasefire could crumble, as it did in 2014 when Israel attempted to execute Hamas's military commander Mohammed Deif. 

Myanmar: The military to ban its biggest rival - the National League of Democracy (NLD) 
In the news 
On 21 May, the military government-appointed election commission chair said that the NLD party should be disbanded. The regime accused the NLD of fraudulent behaviour in the 2020 election. He also suggested NLD leaders should be prosecuted as "traitors." 

On 24 May, the defence lawyer of Aung San Suu Kyi quoted her saying: "… the NLD party was founded for the people and it will continue to exist as long as the people are there." This was said during her first in-person meeting since the coup that took place ahead of a court hearing. On the same day, the hearing for the former President and Naypyitaw Council Chair was also held.  

Earlier, on 17 May, new sanctions were levied by the US, the UK and Canada against the military leaders and the economic conglomerates associated with them. According to the Association of Political Prisoners, more than 800 are killed, and approximately 4300 are detained, of which more than 73 are journalists.  

Issues at large 
First, the political significance of Suu Kyi's NLD vis-a-vis the military supported USDP. The NLD - National League for Democracy, founded in 1988, is the most prominent political party of Myanmar, with Suu Kyi, as its chairperson. In the 1990 elections, it won more than 55 per cent of the vote and a majority of the seats. In the 2015 and 2020 elections, the NLD secured 80 per cent and 83 per cent of votes respectively. On the contrary, the Union Solidarity and Development Party established in 2010 with the military's support could only secure 30 and 26 seats out of the total 440 seats respectively in these two elections. With the NLD contesting, the UPDP's chance of securing reasonable seats in any forthcoming election is remote. Hence, the regime wants to keep the NLD away.

Second, the political significance of Aung San Suu Kyi, as the symbol of democracy for the masses. Suu Kyi is referred to as 'amay' (mother) and has always been people's hope for change. She is the daughter of the father of the Myanmar nation - Aung San, and has been revered by multiple ethnic groups despite differences. She has a popularity that the regime cannot match, hence want to keep her away from politics.

Third, the role of external sanctions in pressurizing the regime. As mentioned by the governmental spokesperson to CNN, sanctions do not impact the regime as its leaders have learned to live with it. The sanctions imposed on Myanmar until 2012 were ineffective to deter the ruling elite; instead it negatively impacted the people and Myanmar's economic development.   

In perspective 
First, the change in regime's strategy and its fallout. It has shifted from killing on the streets to detentions since April. This could be an outcome of the ASEAN summit on 24 April. This highlights the regime's intent to hold on to power.  

Second, none of the international sanctions and appeal will impact this government's resolution. The businesses of these leaders or their families are not dependent on the western countries, and they have their allies to support them.  

Belarus: Lukashenko remains stubborn, despite sanctions post-flight diversion
In the news
On 23 May, citing a security threat onboard, Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk to detain Roman Protasevich, a journalist and vocal critique of President Lukashenko. On 24 May, a video clip of Protasevich was shown on Belarusian state television. The journalist was seen sitting at a table with folded hands and saying he was in satisfactory health and that his treatment in custody was "maximally correct and according to law." He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.  

On 25 May, the European Union agreed on fresh sanctions against Belarus, promising to bar the country's airline Belavia from its airspace. "This is an attack on democracy," said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. "This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer." 

Amid the outrage from Western Europe, Moscow responded in support of the Belarusian President. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the 'episode needs to be investigated — but that it couldn't be rushed.'  

On 26 May, President Lukashenko, in an address said: "I acted lawfully to protect our people..Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state...They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality." 

Issues at large
First, the unfolding situation. While flying over the Belarusian airspace, pilots onboard Ryanair Flight 4978 had received a warning on potential security threat, and a MiG-29 was sent to escort the Boeing 737-800 to Minsk. The emergency landing took place minutes before the plane was meant to cross into Lithuanian airspace. While no security threat was found onboard upon searching the plane, passengers, and their luggage as the plane took off, Roman Protasevich was not on board. The Belarus Transport Ministry had later clarified the emergency turn saying it received an email from Hamas, claiming it had put a bomb on board the plane. 

Second, Lukashenko's firm hold since 2020 protests. For the past 26 years, Lukashenko often referred to as Europe's last dictator has maintained a tight grip on power by retaining much from the country's Soviet past. His position has dwindled after the presidential election results in 2020 triggered a country-wide protest. Further, since September 2020, more than 34,000 people have been arrested and any domestic journalists who reported the protests are facing up to 12 years of jail term. Protasevich had been one such opposition activist, living in exile in Lithuania. In a country where the media remains muzzled, his Telegram channel Nexta brought to the fore the police violence against protesters.  

Third, Europe's sanctions. The current sanctions by the EU add the most recent set of sanctions that were imposed after Lukashenko started armed arrests and crackdown on the protestors. Von der Leyen had put on hold a €3 billion EU investment and the economic package until Belarus "turns democratic." Lithuania has shut its airspace and the UK Foreign Secretary said Britain was suspending the operating permit of Belarus's national airline. The sanctions since last year had little impact, as Lukashenko with continued Russian support has been able to stifle the opposition movement and the protests have largely fizzled out.  

Fourth, Russia's support. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic, and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on Russian support amid Western sanctions. For Belarus, Russia is an economic and political partner sustaining Lukashenko's leadership. For Russia, Belarus forms an economic and political influence in the region and is a 'convenient bulwark against what it sees as the European encroachment.'  

In perspective
First, the sanction will have little impact as it looks to punish the hijacking rather than attacking the regime. A senior advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, rightly said the EU's attention span was "very, very short."  

Second, the sanctions could push Belarus closer to Russia but Putin and Lukashenko have been known to be uncomfortable allies with a fragile allegiance, born out of necessity. Lastly, the leadership's extent of insecurity in detaining an onboard exiled journalist risking an emergency landing of an international flight. 

Also from around the World 
By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez 
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia 
China: PLA conducts live-fire exercise in South China Sea 
On 24 May, the People's Liberation Army said it carried out a live-fire exercise in the South China Sea. Global Times reported that thousands of munitions were fired at maritime targets, thereby improving the precision strike capabilities of the personnel deployed. According to Global Times, the announcement came after a US warship "trespassed into Chinese territorial waters" in the South China Sea on 20 May. However, a military expert claimed that the live-fire exercise was a regular exercise.  
Hong Kong: Government accuses Taiwan of gross interference in internal matters 
On 21 May, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said: "In recent years, Taiwan has grossly interfered in Hong Kong's affairs on repeated occasions and created irretrievable damage to Hong Kong-Taiwan relations." The spokesperson, particularly, alleged that Taiwan was helping exiled protesters. Previously, on 18 May, Hong Kong suspended operations of the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei. Meanwhile, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said: "Based on universal values, Taiwan and major democratic countries around the world have vocally supported Hong Kong people in their fight for freedom." 
Indonesia: Human Rights Watch raises concerns over MR5 
On 21 May, Human Rights Watch published a letter dated 17 May 2021, calling the Indonesian government to "suspend and substantially revise a regulation on online content to meet international human rights standards." The letter was addressed to the Minister of Communication and Information Technology; HRW outlined that Ministerial Regulation 5 (MR5), which came into effect in November 2020, violates the freedom of expression in Indonesia. HRW highlights that the MR5 does not define several terms and requires various platforms to filter their content. The Asia Legal Director at HRW said: "It poses serious risks to the privacy, freedom of speech, and access to information of Indonesian internet users." 
Indonesia: Police intelligence chief justifies deployment of extra troops in Papua 
On 21 May, Reuters published an interview with the head of the National Police Intelligence and Security Agency on the deployment of 400 extra troops in Papua after a senior intelligence officer was assassinated there. The police intelligence chief said: "The objective is to wipe out those behind these horrible acts of violence. This operation will go on until we get the maximum result. As long as they have not been arrested, we will do our utmost to incapacitate them and catch them." Previously, in April, Papuan separatists were designated as terrorists.  
South Korea: Minister hints at AI and drone system to track Chinese trawlers 
On 21 May, the Minister of Oceans and Fisheries told Bloomberg that Chinese fishing is increasingly putting South Korea's nautical border at risk. He said South Korea would use artificial intelligence and drone systems next year to enhance maritime surveillance. He said: "When it comes to illegal fishing, whether it be foreign or domestic vessels, we will crackdown" and added, "No country thinks favorably of illegal fishing, and that includes China."  
South Korea: Seoul and Washington announce scrapping of Revised Missile Guidelines 
On 21 May, the South Korean President and his US counterpart released a joint statement reiterating their commitment to Seoul's defence. In the statement, South Korea announced the termination of the Revised Missile Guidelines. The South Korean President said: "The signing of ROK-U.S. Special Measures Agreement on burden-sharing in the early days of the Biden administration displays for the world the robustness of our alliance as a symbolic and practical measure." 
China: Detained Australian writer to face trials 
On 21 May, The Guardian reported that Australian writer Yang Hengjun who had been detained on charges of espionage, will face trial in a Chinese court on 27 May. A statement from the Foreign Minister's office read: "Despite repeated requests by Australian officials, Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang." Further, her statement outlined that the Australian side had conveyed concerns over the lack of procedural fairness from the Chinese. Yang was detained in January 2019 at Guangzhou Airport.  
Peace and Conflict from South Asia 
India: Discontent in Lakshadweep over regulations introduced by the new administrator 
On 24 May, The Hindu reported that discontent has been increasing in Lakshadweep over several regulations introduced by the new administrator, Praful Khoda Patel in the last five months of his rule. The proposals range from a ban on beef to disqualification of panchayat poll aspirants with more than two children, which form part of draft regulations for Lakshadweep cleared by its Administrator. Critical of the development, the Chief Minister of Kerala said: "Such acts cannot be accepted. Kerala has long-standing ties with Lakshadweep. There is a bid to destroy that. Persons concerned should keep away from such a narrow-minded approach." 
India: Six DNLA cadres killed in Assam 
On 23 May, six cadres of the outlawed Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) were killed in clashes with security forces near Dhansiri in Karbi Anglong district along the Assam-Nagaland border. A senior Karbi Anglong police officer said: "About 15 members of the group were there. While six of them, some of them fled to Nagaland," adding that the investigation is still ongoing. Meanwhile, on 22 May, a trooper of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force was killed in an encounter with alleged members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang-Yung Aung) in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. 
Sri Lanka: Government replaces plaque over the omission of Tamil script 
On 22 May, the Attorney General's Department removed a plaque that was placed at a newly opened library following an outburst in Twitter over the omission of Tamil, while including Mandarin in the text. The spokesperson said: "The plaque made to declare open the Smart Library of the AG's Department, by an inadvertent omission did not contain the script in the Tamil language, has been removed now and is being replaced with a new plaque." Many in Sri Lanka view the omission of Tamil as a reflection of the discrimination against the minority community. 
Bangladesh: The new passports drop 'except Israel' tag
On 23 May, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that new passports will no longer include the words 'valid in all countries except Israel' to encourage visits to the West Asian country. However, the Ministry maintained that Dhaka's position on the Israel-Palestine issue remains unchanged. Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said that the move to remove the words comes in a bid to "maintain global standards," adding, "There has been no change in Bangladesh's position on Israel as it still does not recognize the country. Removing the words' except Israel' in the new passport does not mean that there has been a change in Bangladesh's position." 
Pakistan: FO denies the presence of US military or airbase in the country 
On 24 May, the Foreign Office (FO) denied any US military or airbase in Pakistan, labelling such speculations as "baseless and irresponsible." The FO spokesperson said, "There is no US military or air base in Pakistan, nor was any such proposal envisaged. Any speculation on this account is baseless and irresponsible and should be avoided." This statement came after a Pentagon official announced that Pakistan had allowed the US military to use its airspace and given ground access so that it can support its presence in Afghanistan. 
Afghanistan: Negotiators meet for the second time in Doha 
On 23 May, some negotiators of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban met in Doha, the latest since 13 May. This meeting comes amid the stalled peace efforts that have not seen any progress over the last two months since the announcement of US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Shaikh Abdul Hakim Haqqani, the head of the Taliban's negotiating team who attended the meeting, said: "Brief discussions were made on the start of the negotiations and the details of the negotiations." Additionally, confirming the meeting, the Republic's negotiators said they discussed the resumption of the negotiations and the details of continuing the talks. 
Afghanistan: NATO to provide training and financial support post-withdrawal 
On 21 May, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the alliance would continue to provide support and funding to certain areas after its withdrawal from the country. He said: "NATO's future support will have three main pillars. First, we plan to provide advice and capacity support to Afghan security institutions, as well as continued financial support to the Afghan security forces," adding, "Second, we are planning to provide military education and training outside Afghanistan, focusing on Special Operations Forces. And third, we are planning to fund the provision of services, including support for the functioning of Kabul airport." Further, Stoltenberg said the alliance's revised role would "enable NATO Allies and the broader international community to continue to help the Afghan people and contribute to the peace efforts," adding, "as we end our military presence, we are opening a new chapter." 
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa 
Azerbaijan-Armenia: Yerevan claims soldier killed in a shootout with Azerbaijani forces 
On 25 May, the Ministry of Defence of Armenia claimed that a soldier was killed in a border shootout with Azerbaijani forces at the Verin Shorzha border point in Armenia's Gegharkunik district. The Ministry stated that the situation was now "calm" after the shootout at the border. However, the Ministry of Defence of Azerbaijan denied accusations stating that the soldier had died in an accident that had nothing to do with the Azeri side. 
Iraq: Al-Asad airbase attacked; Iraqi armed factions declare the end of truce  
On 24 May, a US-led anti-ISIS coalition said that the Ain Al-Asad Air Base was attacked by a missile. The military spokesperson said that no injuries were recorded, and no group had claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, on the same day, the Middle East Eye said that a commander of one of the Iraqi armed factions backed by Iran declared the end of a truce with the US. He reportedly said they ended the truce because of "the lack of seriousness of the Iraqi and US governments in scheduling the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq."  
Yemen: The US sanctions two Houthi commanders 
On 20 May, a US special envoy for Yemen said Washington had sanctioned two Houthi commanders at the forefront of the conflict in Marib. He said: "If there were no offensive, if there were commitment to peace, if the parties are all showing up to deal constructively with the UN envoy there would be no need for designations." He said the Houthis fail to cooperate on several issues thereby putting the lives of more than a million internally displaced people at risk.  
The Democratic Republic of the Congo: UNICEF raises concerns over children from family after volcanic eruption  
On 23 May, UNICEF said that "more than 150 children have been separated from their families and more than 170 children are feared to be missing" following the volcanic eruption at Mount Nyiragongo. UNICEF's statement comes in the backdrop of more than 5,000 people crossing over to Rwanda from Goma and nearly 25,000 were displaced in another town; however, the lava stopped short of entering Goma. Meanwhile, on 25 May, CGTN reported that the death toll linked to the eruption stood at 32; of this, some died due to the lava and other toxic gases while some died trying to escape from Goma.  
Ethiopia: The US announces visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials  
On 23 May, the US announced visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials; the US Secretary of State said that officials from neither side had initiated measures to address the situation in Tigray. He said: "Despite significant diplomatic engagement, the parties to the conflict in Tigray have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis." He stated that the restrictions would extend to "current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals – to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) – responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray." Further, he mentioned that the US would curb its economic and security assistance to Ethiopia.   
Ethiopia: Foreign Ministry announces plans to generate electricity from GERD 
On 20 May, the Foreign Ministry announced that Ethiopia plans to generate electricity from the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) during the upcoming monsoons between June and August. The Ministry said: "Ethiopia will not tolerate any move that's aimed at disrupting the water filling process, its operation and water releasing scheme." Meanwhile, on 24 May, the US President spoke with his Egyptian counterpart wherein the former pushed for a diplomatic solution on the GERD between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan that would address the "legitimate needs" of the three countries.  
Mali: Soldiers detain interim President and PM 
On 24 May, soldiers detained the interim President and Prime Minister following a cabinet reshuffle wherein two soldiers were left out. The UN and AU released a joint statement condemned the move and called for "immediate and unconditional release" of the leaders, adding that "the international community rejects in advance any act of coercion, including forced resignations." The ECOWAS, US, UK, Germany, France also signed the joint statement. The military and the government have not commented so far.  
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas 
Russia: Arctic heatwave breaks records 
On 24 May, The Independent reported that a "mind-boggling" heatwave in the Arctic had broken temperature records in northwest Russia. It stated that the mercury rose above 30 degree Celsius in parts of the Arctic which is significantly above the average for the time of year. According to the news report, a meteorologist described the conditions as "truly exceptional for any time of the year but mind-boggling for May," adding that because the Arctic is warming so fast, "profound heatwaves" are more likely to occur in the future. 
Russia: Archaeologists find 47 additional pits at the site of the Kommunarka firing range 
On 20 May, the Kommersant business daily reported that archaeologists have discovered new shooting pits at the Kommunarka special training ground of the NKVD, where the victims of Soviet repression are buried. A total of 47 additional pits were discovered, bringing the total to 134. It is estimated that up to 14,000 people were shot and thrown into mass graves at the Kommunarka firing range between 1937-1941. The site is going to be turned into a full-fledged memorial space. 
Russia: Google given 24 hours to take down unwanted content 
On 24 May, Roskomnadzor, Russia's communications watchdog, gave Google 24 hours to delete what it termed as prohibited content, failing which it would fine the company. The watchdog said: "If (Google) does not restrict access to the banned information within 24 hours, it will be fined between 800,000 roubles and 4 million roubles." Additionally, they warned that Moscow could eventually slow down the company's traffic in the country. Previously, Russia has placed a punitive slowdown on Twitter for not deleting banned content, in an attempt to rein in Western tech giants and ensure what it call internet sovereignty. 
Colombia: Government and national strike committee reach 'pre-agreement' 
On 24 May, the government and national strike committee reached "pre-agreements." The government expressed hope that this will lead to talks to end almost a month of widespread protests. This comes after more than a week of talks between the government and protest leaders. The pre-agreements will be examined by the strike committee's assembly as well as other government representatives. The protests in Colombia began in late April in opposition to a now-cancelled tax plan.  

About the authors 
Lakshmi V Menon is a PhD student at the Gulf Studies Center under the International Affairs Department, Qatar University. Sourina Bej is a doctoral candidate at the University of Bonn, Germany. Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS. Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Research Associates at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS. 

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