Weekly Report: 13 July 2018 — CANVAS

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone speaks to the media while leaving Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar July 9, 2018. Reuters, Ann Wang

 

Syria

Forced by weeks of Assad’s brutal offensives and Russian military involvement, opposition fighters in the Deraa province have agreed to hand over their heavy weaponry. The Assad government has also seized control of the strategic Nasib crossing, which will allow for the reestablishment of a key trade route between Syria and Jordan. In return, the government has agreed to leave four villages—Kahil, al-Sahwa, al-Jiza, and al-Misaifra—undisturbed. Furthermore, rebels who do not wish to live under government rule will be granted safe passage to the northern province of Idlib. However, the details of this passage have not yet been discussed. Perhaps the raising of the government’s flag in Deraa, home to the graffiti that sparked the Syrian war in 2011, could signify the end to seven years of displacement, death, and devastation.

More than 320,000 displaced Syrians from the Deraa province have sought refuge from the brutal fighting for years, unable to return to their home region despite its being a “de-escalation zone.” Currently, an estimated 189,000 are seeking shelter along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, although Israel has announced that it would not let Syrians through its borders. Others have been struggling to financially afford living in Jordan or to live under the appalling refugee camp conditions along the Jordanian border. Despite international pressures, the Jordanian government has refused to take in more refugees, citing security concerns linked to ISIL and Jordan’s limited capacity to accommodate more people. However, Jordan has continued to provide aid and medical assistance along the border.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel will not act against Assad’s forces in exchange for Russia’s help in kicking Iran out of the region. The US is likely to take a similar stance in the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit. Iranian forces have been approaching Golan Heights, an occupied territory illegitimately taken from Syria in 1967. Israel has been conducting airstrikes against Iranian forces, and Russia has been largely silent on the issue. Also, Russia has not given any confirmation on whether it is interested in accepting Israel’s proposal.

 

Nicaragua

Now in its 11th week of civil unrest, the continuing human rights abuse and corruption in Nicaragua have lead to the imposition of sanctions from the United States on three Nicaraguan officials: Francisco Javier Diaz Madriz, Nicaragua’s police commissioner; Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, the secretary of the Managua mayor’s office; and Jose Francisco Lopez Centeno, president of the state-owned oil company Petronic and vice-president of Albanisa, a private company that imports and sells Venezuelan petroleum products.

Peaceful demonstrations in Masaya continued this Saturday and reports show no casualties were incurred. President Ortega gave a speech on Sunday at a pro-government rally in which he blamed the unrest on “criminals, murderers, torturers, and terrorists” he accused of conspiring to seize power. Most importantly, Ortega ruled out the possibility of early elections in 2019, the current goal of the opposition.

On Sunday, pro-government paramilitary efforts to take down roadblocks in Diriamba and Jinotepe resulted in 34 deaths. A group that included medical volunteers and members of the clergy was trapped in a basilica in Diriamba and surrounded by paramilitary forces that tried to prevent them from leaving, ensuing in a violent confrontation that ended in the assault of the clergy and 14 dead civilians.

New reports from the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) document that 198 deaths from the recent violence have been caused by a single bullet and 70 of those being direct headshots, suggesting the use of sniper rifles to target civilian protesters and shoot-to-kill tactics. Evidence of the use of Catatumbo rifles, high power .50 caliber sniper rifles produced by the Venezuelan government has also been found.

 

North & South Korea

Over 210,000 South Koreans have signed a petition in favor of banning Seoul’s Queer Culture Festival. While homosexuality is not illegal in the country, many anti-LGBTQ attitudes persist, as a 2017 poll found that 52% of South Koreans are opposed to same-sex marriage.

Newly released documents show that the South Korean Army’s Defense Security Command (DSC) had discussed declaring martial law and forcefully dismantling protestors last year if rallies regarding President Park Geun-hye were held after the court ruled on her impeachment scandal. Current President Moon Jae-in has ordered a special investigation on the subject.

NATO has called on its leaders and allies to maintain “decisive pressure” on North Korea and to continue implementing UN sanctions until the country has completely denuclearized. This call to action occurred in the midst of North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear facilities despite last month’s summit and the US’ continued diplomatic efforts in the region. Additionally, North Korean officials did not show up for a meeting with US officials regarding the remains of America’s dead soldiers who remain in North Korea’s territory.

 

Myanmar

In refugee camps, each baby born is a painful reminder of the sexual violence women suffered last year during the military raid in Rakhine state. Because of the high birth rates, camps have become targets for human traffickers. Many victims of last year’s sexual violence do not receive help because of social discrimination, shame, and discomfort with medical care (Myanmar’s apartheid policies that blocked Rohingya from accessing medical care in their native Rakhine).

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Commerce Ministry and the China International Trust and Investment Corporation is negotiating the construction of a strategic deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu, western Rakhine state. A final agreement is imminent, and this will precipitate around 20 years of construction. Myanmar’s parliament claimed that this Special Economic Zone project (part of China’s Best and Road Initiative) would bring economic growth to the country, particularly in the Rakhine state. It is clear that the parties involved are not concerned about the ethnic cleansing and repressive violence that is implicated in this project.

To the international community’s dismay, Myanmar’s courts have officially charged Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Act. They will now face trial for investigating the massacre of ten Rohingya men on September 2nd in Rakhine state. If found guilty, the two will face a maximum of 14 years in prison. This comes after almost seven months of hearings and their detention in Yangon’s Insein prison.

Amidst undeterred violence against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, the third session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference between the government and ethnic minorities commenced. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on all armed groups to sign the ceasefire agreement—non-signatories are allowed to attend but are prohibited from speaking.

On Thursday, the regional head of the UN development agency formally announced that the UN will send a team of experts to Rakhine state to assess the needs of people in the region and create safe conditions for the repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya people who have fled. The path to citizenship and freedom of movement within Myanmar for the Rohingya people, however, have been under-discussed.

The violence against Rohingya has brought international attention to Facebook, which became the key platform for the spread of ethnic hatred that spurred genocide.

Myanmar declined to accept nationals deported from the U.S. On Tuesday, the Trump administration retaliated with visa sanctions. Since the Trump administration’s first push to expel immigrants with criminal records, more than 16,000 Southeast Asian people, many of whom arrived in the US as refugees, have received orders for deportation.

 

USA

President Trump held meetings with NATO leaders on Tuesday and urged the other countries in the alliance to contribute 4% of their GDPs to military spending. Though he initially berated the other countries for not having strong enough positions against Russia, Trump ended the meeting on a surprisingly conciliatory note, saying that the U.S commitment to NATO “remains very strong.”

Maintaining his provocative style of diplomacy, Trump lashed out at British Prime Minister Theresa May for promoting a soft Brexit and threatening no special privileges or trade deals with the United States if she maintains her current trajectory. Trump went on to praise Boris Johnson-Foreign Secretary who recently resigned from May’s cabinet-and said that “he would make a great prime minister.” President Trump is set to meet protests at every turn of his four-day trip to England as hundreds have gathered saying “No to Racism, No to Trump.” These protests have been peaceful and organizers hope to mount the biggest weekday demonstration in Britain since protests against the Iraq War.

Eager to provide results from his summit with North-Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, President Trump released a letter he received from the dictator on July 6th and praised the “great success” in talks with Pyongyang. This letter, however, includes no details about denuclearization and the United States submitted a report to the United Nations Security Council charging North Korea with evading UN sanctions through illegal transfers of refined petroleum.

The trade war with China is only getting worse and President Trump has threatened an additional $200 billion in Chinese goods, including refrigerators, electronics, cotton and other goods. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell suggested that he wasn’t sure how the trade battles were going to play out and business contacts across the US have raised alarm about Trump’s trade policy to 12 Federal Reserve branches.

In an effort to strengthen the country’s relationship with the President-elect of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner will be meeting with Mexican leaders on Friday. These talks will discuss the opioid epidemic, trade, “curbing irregular immigration” and ways of combating “transnational criminal organizations.” The United States has also imposed visa sanctions on Myanmar and Laos over their refusal to take back immigrants Washington seeks to deport. The White House’s policy to expel immigrants with criminal records has seen Southeast Asians deported in record numbers, and until Myanmar and Laos cooperate the State Department has stopped issuing certain visas to high-level officials of the countries.

Cambodia

Campaigning for Cambodia’s July 29 general election has begun, and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is almost guaranteed to win after the dissolution of the only credible opposition party last year. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985 under the façade of a multiparty system—his authoritarian rule has silenced media and political opposition. Even military officials, who are supposed to be politically neutral, are campaigning for Hun Sen. Nonetheless, opposition groups are calling for people to boycott the elections and refuse to take part in the non-democratic process. The National Election Committee, however, has stated that people who call for the boycott could face criminal charges.

In November, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) over allegations of treason—party officials were stripped of their positions and 118 lawmakers were banned from politics for five years. Such anti-democratic crackdowns have garnered international attention, especially given the upcoming general elections, through which current Prime Minister Hun Sen will extend his so-far-33-year rule. As a result, the US and EU have withdrawn donor support from Cambodia’s 2018 elections and NGOs have been pressuring the EU to place economic sanctions on Cambodia. Japan has also expressed concerns over the dissolution of the CNRP last year, although it remains one of the largest funders of the elections along with China. On the other hand, hackers suspected of being associated with the Chinese government have infiltrated the systems of Cambodia’s election commission and several ministries to influence the elections. Jailed CNRP leader Kem Sokha stated that this political crisis will not be resolved unless the CNRP is reinstated and allowed to run against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party.

Thirty-three pregnant Cambodian women have been charged with surrogacy and human trafficking. Although there are laws that try to prevent it, Cambodian surrogacy has boomed because of cheaper services and tighter restrictions in Thailand.

The railway system connecting Cambodia and Thailand has been unofficially connected. Cambodia is now waiting for Thailand’s final confirmation before a final agreement on the cross-border rail can be signed. Establishing this connection will allow goods and people to move freely across the Cambodia-Thailand border.

 

Mexico

On Wednesday, a drone attached to two grenades was flown to the doorstep of a government official’s house in Mexico’s Baja California State. The devices did not detonate, and security forces later found that the attached-grenades had been deactivated; thus, the event was likely aimed to intimidate the subject rather than cause physical harm. The official in question, Gerardo Sosa Olachea, is the state’s public security minister. Baja California has long had difficulties with regional drug and arms trafficking.

As summer temperatures are projected to rise in the coming months, the risk of migrants suffering heat stroke near the US-Mexico border is growing. The number of fatalities for this summer is expected to reach into the hundreds, especially given that the number of heat-related deaths rose by 55% in 2017.

Mexico and the United States are discussing a new immigration proposal entitled a “safe third country agreement.” This policy would require asylum seekers from South and Central America passing through Mexico to apply for Mexican asylum rather than American. Critics argue that the move is detrimental to human rights as it puts those fleeing Mexican-gang related violence at risk.

Singapore

Minister of Singapore, Ng Eng Hen, told reporters last Friday that the nation faces high terrorism threat levels stemming from radicalized, returning ISIL fighters and citizens radicalizing at home via the internet. Ng postulated that the recently increased number of threats and attacks in surrounding Southeast Asian countries is cause for structural changes in Singapore’s military as well as the need for stronger regional alliances to help combat transnational terrorist threats.

South Korean President Moon has announced plans to meet with Singaporean President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an effort to assess bilateral relations and discuss further cooperation. Presidential office spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom also said President Moon plans to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

A new surveillance system for capturing smokers in Singapore will implement 140 cameras per year to capture the date, time, and person who smokes in non-smoking areas in the city. People caught smoking in any prohibited area may be fined $200, or up to $1,000 if convicted in court.

 

The Maldives

The European Union has threatened President Yameen with impending sanctions due to the gradual erosion of human rights and a crackdown on political opposition. Referring to a call from many European countries to remove a constitutional requirement for all Maldivian citizens to be Muslims, President Yameen has stated that “no religion other than Islam will be allowed in the Maldives.”

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has posited a “three-pronged approach” to deal with China’s expanding presence in the Maldives. This approach would include tracking Beijing’s activities carefully, pursuing India’s own projects and commitments, and educating and advising neighboring countries on the consequences of engaging with China. President Yameen, however, is skeptical of India’s intentions and has consistently used the country as a scapegoat as the Maldives gets closer to its elections in September this year.

Continuing the government’s crackdown on the opposition, councils in the districts of Addu and Fuvahmulah have had their core functions taken away. Even the Malé city council lost its mandate over birth and death records, the registry of permanent residents, unregistered residents and the foreigners’ registry. Addu’s City’s Deputy Mayor Mohammed Yasraf has claimed that the registries of the most populated islands in the Maldives were being handed to the ministry for political reasons.

On a more progressive note, Maldives’ parliament has appointed its first female Secretary General Fathmath Niusha. She is the first woman to lead the activities of the Majlis-parliament since its formation in 1971. Despite this appointment, women in the Maldives are still underrepresented in the political sphere.

 

Zimbabwe

Incumbent presidential candidate and frontrunner Emmerson Mnangagwa’s campaign is under scrutiny for sending a mass text message to thousands of prospective voters. Opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa criticized his opponent’s Zanu-PF party for using connections in the electoral commission to collect phone numbers from the voter files.

Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa accused President Emmerson Mnangagwa of sowing political instability in the country through manipulating the Electoral Commission and rigging the upcoming election. Mnangagwa is a longtime ally of former President Mugabe and welcomed foreign election observers into the country after two decades of their disallowance.

The government has raised salaries for soldiers and police by a reported 20%. This move, closely preceding the country’s election, is likely an attempt to centralize government control in the case of political and social instability.

Zimbabwe has announced plans to launch a space agency in order to revitalize and modernize its economy. The incoming National Geospatial and Space Agency will work in agriculture, disease surveillance and infrastructure management, in addition to its space-centered programs.

Meanwhile, the country continues to suffer from drastic inflationsugar prices increased by 18% over the past few days.

 

Poland

Poland’s judicial crisis continues as Chief Justice Malgorzata Gelsdorf allowed Justice Jozef Iwulski to fulfill the role of chief justice while she focuses on combating a law passed by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) requiring judges over 65 to retire. The law is seen as a move by the PiS to consolidate power within the judiciary and expand its executive mandate. Protests related to the enactment of the law fizzled out earlier this week.

In this week’s NATO summit, Poland reaffirmed its commitment to the organization and its spending goals, asking the United States to expand its presence in the country to safeguard against Russian expansion. President Andrzej Duda also emphasized the need for European Union states to have alternative energy providers so as to distance themselves from Russia.

Police officers issued fewer tickets on Tuesday as part of a union-led protest over pay, holidays, and sick leave.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has claimed that reconciliation with Ukraine is dependent on the country’s apology of the genocide committed against the Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during World War Two. While Ukraine has insisted that large-scale killings took place on both sides, the relationship between these countries remains strained.

Nationwide police protests for a 150 EUR monthly pay increase have led to law enforcement officials giving out warnings instead of tickets for misdemeanor offenses.

 

Laos

Vietnam’s and Laos’s justice bodies came together this past week to implement border security measures and to streamline dealing with undocumented immigration and marriage. This bilateral collaboration resulted in new laws which will grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants so long as both countries hold up all parts of the new agreement.

Two Vietnamese drug kingpins were killed this week while in Laos after a two-day standoff, highlighting continued problems with the illicit drug trade in the “Golden Triangle” Region of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar.

On Tuesday, the U.S. implemented visa restrictions on Laos for refusing to provide the proper documentation to ICE for repatriated Laotian nationals who were deported from the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will lift the sanctions upon cooperation.

A law signed in August 2017 requiring all religious meetings to receive government approval from multiple offices continues to target Christian practitioners.

 

Vietnam

On Tuesday, a Vietnamese Court upheld jail terms for three human rights activists found guilty of anti-state activities after producing and disseminating videos which criticized the communist party and its senior officials. The three activists–Vu Quang Thuan, Nguyen Van Dien, and Tran Hoang Phuc–were convicted of anti-state propaganda under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the case of imprisoned American, William Nguyen, with Vietnamese leaders and pushed for a “speedy resolution” to the issue. William Nguyen is scheduled to go to court in South Vietnam next week where he may face up to seven years in prison for participating in protests against the new law on special economic zones last month.

Vietnam has also updated its national defense legislation in an effort to modernize the state-run defense industrial base. These efforts d seek to shield the government from threats of cyber and information warfare.

 

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Catholic Church continues to mediate the tense political climate in DRC leading up to December’s elections. While a date has been set and current President Kabila has stated he will not run for an unconstitutional third term, Kabila maintains considerable influence over the government and a dubious commitment to free and fair elections. In fact, Kabila has moved towards using his exit from the presidency as a bargaining chip for constitutional clemency, assuring his pardon for the number of atrocities he committed while in office. The Church has voiced considerable disturbance over Kabila’s lack of commitment to democracy and has scheduled three days of nationwide protest in August intended to force him to resign. August’s resistance efforts are set to include “peaceful marches, sit-in demos, ‘dead city’ operations, general strikes and acts of civil disobedience.” Other concerns about December’s elections include the usage of new electronic voting machines. Initially seen as a positive step towards hosting transparent elections, the voting machines have been dubbed “electronic fraud machines” and all of DRC’s opposition parties have declared concerns about their usage in December.

Kabila slighted multiple foreign diplomats this week, refusing to see US UN envoy Nikki Halley at her upcoming visit to Kinshasa and canceling a meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

11 people have been killed and seven have gone missing in the Eastern DRC as militias from local provinces, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda engage in armed conflict over DRC’s natural resources. 10 of the 11 dead were burned in an ethnically motivated attack, one of many in the North and South Kivu provinces.

DRC’s government has announced their intent to open parts of Virunga and Salonga National Parks to drilling, placing local wildlife at severe risk and significantly increasing the country’s carbon emissions. The parks, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are widely known as safe havens for gorillas, bonobos, and other rare animals.

 

Colombia

On Monday, President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law that will allow organized crime and paramilitary groups to get reduced sentences if they turn themselves in. This law has been presented as an effort to curb the escalating violence and murders of social leaders since the peace deal with FARC was signed in 2016. A group of social organizations has also released a report which identifies 123 Colombian leaders murdered this year; 80% of the assassinated were members of Campesino or Indigenous organizations.

On Tuesday, General Henry Torres appeared before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a war crimes tribunal created as part of a peace process that seeks to end decades of armed conflict. Torres apologized to the victims for his role in the mass execution of civilians under President Alvaro Uribe. However, he denied responsibility for the two murders he was charged with, and his attorney Jaime Granados stressed that truth “does not mean accepting responsibility.” Human Rights Watch has condemned the more lenient treatment of government soldiers and FARC fighters. The new bill detailing a “special and differentiated process” for the armed forces is seen against the ethos of the peace deal.

Facing the pressure of the increasing number of refugees from the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, the United States, Colombia, Mexico and Panama agreed to cooperate in combating illegal networks in crisis-torn Venezuela. Shared information would include data on Venezuelan government officials suspected of corruption and their support networks.

 

Venezuela

In response to reports stating US President Donald Trump considered invading Venezuela, a member of Venezuela’s constituent assembly and a government allied lawmaker stated that any such invasion would result in Venezuela’s bombing of key infrastructure in Colombia. However, the risk of such an invasion remains low, and political and economic sanctions on the country by the US and its allies are in place to continue.

An outbreak of measles on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border has placed more than 23 members of the indigenous Yanomami Amazon tribe in the hospital. The World Health Organization declared South America measles free in 2016. However, Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis and subsequent lack of vaccines have resulted in 2,150 measles cases since July of 2017. Isolated indigenous communities are especially at risk of becoming sick and health workers are hoping to contain the spread of the disease before it affects hundreds more.  

 

Malaysia

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is striking a delicate balance between maintaining diplomatic relations with China while also suspending expensive Beijing-linked infrastructure projects. Last week, Mahathir suspended the East Coast Rail Link (being constructed by the Chinese Communications Construction Company) and three pipeline projects (being built by China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau). This is part of Mahathir’s plan to cut public spending and enforce better corporate governance; recently, his reevaluation of such projects succeeded in cutting the costs of the Light Rail Transit 3 in half. At the same time, Mahathir plans to visit Beijing in August to strengthen ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His approach stands in contrast to the stance of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was a large proponent of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Also, his major push-back against Chinese expansionism could galvanize others in the region to do the same.

1MDB investigators believe Rosmah Mansor (Former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s wife) and Riza Aziz (Rosmah’s son/Najib’s stepson) are closely involved in the theft of approximately $4.5 billion of 1MDB funds. Najib denies any wrongdoing, and Low Taek Jho, the suspected “mastermind” behind the looting, has fled to an unknown location. However, the prolonged investigation of Mr. Riza Aziz’s involvement in the 1MDB case is raising eyebrows in the legal community; Riza faced 22 hours of intense interrogation over four days. Also, as part of the investigation, 408 bank accounts suspected to have been involved in the extensive money laundering have been frozen.

 

Other news:

Thailand – All 12 boys from a Thai soccer team and their coach have been rescued after spending three weeks in a cave. The rescue effort involved experts from multiple countries and Thailand’s SEAL divers. – TIME

Cuba – Cuba is tightening regulations on privately held businesses, stifling small business owners and endangering foreign investments. This is an attempt to address rising inequality and stagnant wages in the country. It also comes amid fears that a growing private sector could threaten Cuba’s repressive, socialist, cash-strapped state. – Reuters  

Bolivia A new report from the Munasim Kullakita Foundation, a Catholic NGO that supports victims of sexual violence and human trafficking, shows that sex trafficking of underage girls is on the rise in Bolivia. – NewsDeeply

Iran Online Protests have spurred across Iran after a teenage girl, Maedeh Hojabri, was arrested for uploading videos of her dancing to Western and Iranian music on Instagram. – NationalPublicRadio

Haiti After 3 days of violent protests against the removal of fuel subsidies, protestors have gone on strike and shut down Port-au-Prince. – NBC

Palestine – Israeli forces raided the Khan al-Ahmar community in the east of Jerusalem and held activists captive. Israel wants to build a settlement after expelling residents from the region. WAFA