April 2, 2021
CANVAS is pleased to bring you another weekly report! This week covers the continuing violence in Myanmar, negotiations between Iran and the U.S over a new nuclear agreement, and a resumption of conflict in eastern Ukraine
More than 5,000 Venezuelan civilians fled over the country’s border with Colombia after the Venezuelan government began targeting what it says is a criminal group operating within the border region. The assault, which began with several days of airstrikes that security experts have described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades, represents a significant shift in the largely hands-off strategy the government has taken in dealing with the illicit organizations that flourish along the Venezuela-Colombia border. For years, the Maduro government has tolerated and sometimes even cooperated with these armed groups. The reason for the change in strategy is unknown. The Venezuelan assault, centered around the town of La Victoria, has been focused on a faction of FARC dissidents known as the Tenth Front. A senior United Nations official told the Security Council last week that more than 500 Ethiopian women had formally reported sexual violence in Tigray, although the actual toll is likely much higher. Hundreds of accounts detail abused committed in Tigray, the mountainous region in northern Ethiopia where a grinding civil war has been accompanied by atrocities including widespread sexual assault targeting women. Addressing parliament on Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed publicly acknowledged that sexual assault had become an integral part of a war that he once promised would be swift and bloodless. “Anyone who raped our Tigrayan sisters, anybody who is involved in looting, will be held accountable in a court of law,” Ahmed told lawmakers.
Violence in eastern Ukraine has escalated in recent days, according to statements from the Russian and Ukranian governments. In the deadliest engagement so far this year, four Ukranian soldiers were killed and another seriously wounded in a battle against Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. The soldiers’ deaths, along with a build up of Russian forces on the Ukranian border, has seized the attention of senior officials in Europe and in Washington. The Ukranian Parliament this week approved a statement declaring an “escalation” along the front, essentially acknowledging that a cease-fire negotiated in July 2020 had broken down.
Three health workers, all women, were shot and killed in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan this week while working for the country’s polio vaccination program. The attack came only weeks after three women working in television were killed in a similar attack in Jalalabad. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the killings. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, rejected any involvement in the incident. Afghanistan, along with neighboring Pakistan, are the only two countries where polio has not yet been eradicated.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a days-long ambush of a port town in northern Mozambique last week that forced tens of thousands of people to flee the area and left dozens dead, including foreigners. The attack, which centered on the town of Palma, was an alarming escalation of the war in the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado, where insurgents with loose ties to the Islamic State have killed at least 2,000 people over the past three years. In recent months, the local insurgency has grown in strength and seized large swaths of territory, including the region’s other main port town. Last week’s attack demonstrated a new level of boldness for the insurgents and was the closest yet that militants have come to a multibillion-dollar gas project operated by international energy companies.
COVID-19 infections and deaths have continued to rise internationally. World leaders from 25 countries and the head of the WHO called for an international treaty to improve pandemic preparedness this week that would advance national, regional and global capacities and improve global resilience to future pandemics. While promised COVAX vaccines failed to make it to South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines this week due to Indian exportation restrictions, Yemen and Kosovo received their first vaccines through the program. In other vaccine news,
this week Canada and the Netherlands both suspended their use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 55 and 60, respectively. Suspensions of the vaccine have coincided with the WHO’s criticism of Europe’s vaccine rollout as “unacceptable slow,” as cases increase across the continent.
According to international humanitarian group Save the Children, at least 43 children have been killed by armed forces in Myanmar since the military junta seized power in February of this year. In a statement, the organization said that “it is clear that Myanmar is no longer a safe place for children.” Overall, at least 543 people have been killed since the coup, although the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher. The death toll for children has more than doubled in the past two weeks. A total of fifteen children under the age of 16 were killed, with the youngest being a six-year-old girl. Also among the casualties are a fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly died after being shot in the head in his own home. To commemorate the dead, protesters across the country have held flower strikes, placing floral tributes at locations where protesters have been killed by security forces. On Saturday, which saw security forces open fire on protesters in more than 40 locations in Myanmar, the military government held a luxurious gala to mark the annual Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the start of Myanmar’s military resistance against Japanese occupation in 1945. Images shared on social media showed military officials, including Myanmar’s leader Min Aung Hlaing, wearing white uniforms and bowties, walking along a red carpet, and seated at large tables for dinner.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader, was charged with violating the official secrets act this week, according to her lawyer. The charge is the fifth and most serious charge that has been leveled against Suu Kyi since her arrest following the February 1 coup; a conviction can carry a prison sentence of up to fourteen years. On Friday, the military junta ordered an internet shut down across the entire country. Local wireless broadband internet service providers said they were ordered to shut down until further notice by the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
In response to the escalating violence, opponents of Myanmar’s military government declared the country’s 2008 constitution void and put forward an interim replacement charter Wednesday. While more symbolic than practical, the moves could help to entice Myanmar’s armed ethnic militias to ally themselves with the mass protest movement. The actions were taken by the CRPH, an underground, self-styled alternative government established by elected lawmakers who were not allowed to take their seats when the military staged the coup and ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The CRPH also presented a Federal Democracy Charter as an interim constitution which seeks to end the military dictatorship and meet the longstanding demands of the country’s myriad ethnic groups and their demands for further autonomy. The proposals are politically significant because the protest movement has been seeking an alliance with the ethnic minority armed groups and would like them to form a federal army as a counterweight to the government armed forces.
Further, the U.S. State Department has ordered all non-essential personnel and their family members to leave Myanmar as the junta’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters continues. The order updates an advisory issued by the State Department last month that allowed non-emergency U.S. personnel to leave the country if they wanted.
The U.S. also has many big financial headlines this week after Biden held his first cabinet meeting. Firstly, the government has announced a massive $2trillion infrastructure project led by 5 cabinet members, however, Senate minority leader McConnell claims Republicans will oppose the plans on the grounds that it will raise corporate taxes to fund the project. Secondly, $5bn is planned to be allocated to tackling gun violence through community-based prevention schemes. Finally, the economy saw an increase of 916,000 jobs in the month of March, owing to businesses reopening, the stimulus check and the progress of the vaccine rollout.
The media globally has been following the trial of ex-police officer Derek Chavin for the death of George Floyd which sparked massive Black Lives Matter protests last summer. The trial started on Monday, and witnesses have emotionally testified, and notably, a police lieutenant testified that the use of force was “totally unnecessary”. In other news, on Friday, a car drove into two police officers and wielded a knife outside the White House, killing one officer and crashing the vehicle into a barricade. As of yet, there is no claim to terrorist motive or any connection to the Capitol riots in January. Meanwhile, it has been reported that in March, migrant border crossings into the US from Mexico is the highest recorded monthly figure since 2006. Finally, transgender rights are being threatened as 28 states across the U.S. consider anti-trans legislation, with bills already passed in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.
A long-awaited World Health Organization (WHO) report investigating the origins of the Coronavirus was released this week, putting China in the headlines around the world. The report claims the disease originated in wildlife farms, rather than the wet market as initially believed, however, it has also drawn criticism from scientists for its inaccuracy, insufficiency and the power China retained over information access for investigators. Meanwhile, experts are claiming Russia and China are excelling in global vaccine diplomacy by selling or donating Coronavirus vaccines to economically weaker states in return for allyship in other international political developments. According to one source, China has already sent 118 million doses of its Sinopharm vaccine to 49 countries. Moreover, a study conducted by US-based AidData claims that China’s loan deals with low and middle-income countries have unusual terms which favour China, including confidentiality clauses. These clauses mean little is known about the conditions attached to China’s lending despite them supplying 65% of bilateral debt globally.
A court in Hong Kong this week convicted seven veteran pro-democracy activists for unauthorized assembly associated with a protest march in 2019. Martin Lee, an 82-year-old lawyer known as the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and Margaret Ng, a lawyer and columnist, along with four others, were convicted of participating and organizing the unauthorized march. They each face up to five years in prison; sentences will be handed down April 16. The gathering which the case centered on took place on August 18, 2019, when hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens gathered for an anti-government protest.
A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry accused the American envoy to Hong Kong of “blatantly supporting anti-China troublemakers,” and making threats a day after he said the overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system would produce neither “meaningful democratic results” nor credibly represent the will of the people. The statement did not name U.S. Consul General Hanscom Smith, but a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry’s office in Hong Kong said “He [Smith] made much effort to support and cheer for anti-China troublemakers who mess up Hong Kong, and threatened us with so-called sanctions.” Smith has called the overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system “an enormous step backwards,” and said the U.S.’s concern was that the system “has been essentially rigged.”
In other news, Hong Kong has an abundant supply of Covid-19 vaccines available to all adults above age 30 and is offering a choice between Western-produced and Chinese-produced shots. However, many in Hong Kong are not in a rush to get immunized and many of the city’s vaccination centers are running at below capacity. Sign-ups for the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine have been slow after many residents were spooked by several deaths among the thousands vaccinated; experts said the deaths weren’t related to the vaccine. On March 24, the Hong Kong government suspended injections of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine after small flaws, such as defects in some vial caps, were detected. Local experts have calculated that it will take until the end of 2021 to vaccinate all Hong Kong residents at the current vaccination rate.
A “2020 Human Rights Report”, which details a number of abuses in Zimbabwe, was released by the U.S. Embassy. The report highlights issues of transparency, intimidation, biased media, excessive force, and disenfranchisement in Zimbabwe’s electoral processes. Moreover, it claims serious human rights violations by security forces, notably, arbitrary killings and detention, the use of torture and inhumane treatment, poor prison conditions, threats toward media and censorship and lack of independence for the judiciary. Meanwhile, a report produced by the government titled the “Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment”, claims that 2.4 million Zimbabweans live with food insecurity and are struggling to meet basic needs, and the World Food Program claims the issue predominantly impacts unemployed people in urban settings. The issue of food insecurity has been exacerbated by Coronavirus lockdowns. Finally, the Coronavirus vaccine rollout, using the Sinopharm donations from China, has been slow as even health workers remain wary.