April 16, 2021
CANVAS is pleased to bring you another weekly report! This week covers the U.S. withdrawl of troops from Afghanistan, the continued violence in Myanmar, and Cuba’s leader Castro stepping down.
Russia has been increasing its military presence on the border of Ukraine and in occupied Crimea in recent weeks. The Kremlin’s actions have prompted the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, France and the United States to release a statement demanding a withdrawal to de-escalate the situation.
The recent riots in Northern Ireland prompted the UK Brexit minister and his Brussels counterpart to release statements this week confirming their progress on a plan for making checks and controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
President Biden of the United States announced that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan would occur later than the original May 1 deadline negotiated last year. That announcement prompted the Taliban to issue a warning which has escalated fears about potential violence if foreign forces are withdrawn. Biden’s announcement also led the Taliban to cancel its attendance of the peace conference scheduled to take place in Turkey. The conference was supposed to promote talks between the Afghan government and the militants.
COVID-19 cases rose for a seventh consecutive week while deaths have increased for four weeks. In India, the number of daily infections hit a new high every day for 8 days while their vaccination campaign has slowed. In Vietnam, an acceleration of vaccine rollout is needed as the expiry date of the first batch of vaccines approaches. 16,000 expired AstraZeneca vaccines were destroyed in Malawi this week.
US federal health officials called for a suspension of the use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine over blood clot concerns. Sweden and South Africa were among the countries to follow the US’s lead, while the European Medicines Agency announced that it will review the vaccine.
The WHO announced that of 780 million vaccines distributed globally, low-income countries have received 0.2 percent while rich countries have received 87 percent. That disparity may increase as it was revealed this week that annual booster shots could become necessary. If that is true, rich countries could continue to pursue vaccine contracts while poorer countries are left to rely on the COVAX initiative.
The committee representing Myanmar’s dismissed parliament has announced the formation of a new “unity government” which includes removed lawmakers, members of ethnic groups, and figures in the anti-coup protest movement, saying their aim is to root out military rule. The inclusion of members of ethnic minority groups underlines the unity of purpose between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking minority communities, which have battled the central government for decades. The announcement was made by Dr Sasa, who has been designated as the unity government’s representative to the United Nations. The announcement also stated that Win Myint would serve as President and Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor.The news came in the midst of a “silent strike” in Yangon which left Myanmar’s old capital looking like a ghost town during the usually festive Buddhist New Year holiday, traditionally known as Thingyan.
Sasa told reporters the objective of the unity government was to end violence, restore democracy, and build a “federal democratic union.” Unity government leaders have said they plan to form a federal army and were in talks with ethnic minority forces.
A massacre by government forces and police in the city of Bago highlights the severity of the violence gripping Myanmar. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group based in Myanmar, at least 82 people were killed in the city that day, with the actual death toll likely being higher. Protesters say security forces used heavy weaponry such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), assault rifles, and hand grenades while activists only carry gas masks, helmets, and air guns. The violence has caused tens of thousands of people to flee the town, located in central Myanmar. Some residents have reported that security forces were demanding payments of 120,000 kyats ($84 USD) before releasing the bodies of the dead to their families.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned this week that Myanmar is heading toward a “full blown conflict” with “clear echoes” of Syria in 2011, unless the international community steps in to halt the violence. “There [in Syria] too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force.” As well as thousands who have been detained, Bachelet said there are reports that 23 people have been sentenced to death following secret trials, “including four protesters and 19 others who were accused of political and criminal offenses”.
This week has brought yet more controversial shootings to the news headlines. In Indianapolis, a mass shooting took place in a FedEx facility killing at least 8 people; the gunman, whose motive is unclear, took his own life. According to CNN, this is the 45th mass shooting in the US since the Atlanta shooting just last month. In other news, police violence against people of colour remains in the headlines as activists stage protests. In Chicago, footage of 13 year old Adam Toledo being shot by a police officer was released, causing outrage as both his hands were in the air. Moreover, the trial of Derek Chauvin is still ongoing. Finally, Republican legislators in Florida have passed an “anti-riot” bill which establishes new felonies for individuals involved in any ‘violent’ protest, violence includes, destroying historical images, paintings and structures. Many argue the bill is an attack on civil rights groups and the Black Lives Matter movement.
This week, China reported an 18.3% growth in the first quarter, it’s most impressive growth on record despite the Covid-19 pandemic. The growth is largely from retail sales and industrial production. This economic record may have significant impact on liberties, as the central bank (PBOC) has published a report advising a removal of the controversial 1-child policy. The bank states that “China should fully liberalize and encourage childbirth” to achieve the financial goals of 2035, as China suffers from a persistent drop in birth rates.
A court in the Chinese-ruled city this week sentenced five leading pro-democracy activists, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, to up to 18 months in prison for organizing and participating in a march during 2019 anti-government protests. A total of nine individuals were sentenced to serve time in prison, but four of them, including 82-year-old lawyer and former lawmaker Martin Lee, had their sentences suspended due to their age and prior accomplishments. Jimmy Lai, the 73-year-old founder of the Apple Daily, a tabloid newspaper that frequently criticizes Beijing, faces another six charges in addition to the two announced Friday. Two of those charges, imposed under the new National Security Law, can carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Hong Kong marked its inaugural National Security Education Day this week, a celebration of the new National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing last summer. In a speech Thursday, Hong Kong police commissioner Chris Tang accused foreign entities of having tried to “plant anti-China ideas in Hong Kong people’s hearts for their own political gains” and “use social issues to ignite Hong Kong locals’ hatred for the government.” Schools across the city were mandated to hold events including singing the Chinese national anthem and raising flags.
In other news, the European Union dropped its plans to take new measures against China for Beijing’s forced electoral reform in Hong Kong. The E.U. had planned to issue a statement on Hong Kong at next week’s Foreign Affairs Council, but the text was withdrawn from the agenda of a planning meeting Friday, indicating that the bloc lacked the unanimous support required to issue a statement. It has been reported that Hungary, whose government is staunchly pro-China, opposed the measures, which included the suspension of extradition treaties between ten European Union member states and China.
This week, Amnesty International published a report on a statelessness crisis in which they claim “Zimbabwe’s discriminatory and arbitrary nationality laws have left generations of migrant workers and their families marginalized” and without access to citizenship. It is estimated 300,000 are vulnerable to statelessness according to the UNHCR. In other news, President Emmerson has threatened action against “sharks in the financial sector”, although it is unclear what course of action will be taken by the government, or who the targets are. Finally, Grace Mugabe, the wife of the former President, is in the center of a court case; following the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC), the validity of her PhD degree is being called into question, although the court is being told it is legitimate.
Long-term Cuban Communist Party leader, Raul Castro, has stepped down as the leader of Cuba. Him doing so ends the Castro rule on the island for the first time since 1959 when his brother took control of Cuba. He has yet to announce who he will support as his successor, but he has previously indicated that he would support 60-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel who would push for economic openings without changing the Cuban one party system. This transition is coming at an interesting time for Cuba as many are fearful of what is to come for the small island. Having a younger leader will be beneficial as the younger generations will hopefully be more supportive of government actions, but the older generations have said how they will always see Castro as their leader. The economy in Cuba is struggling massively after both the Coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s sanctions have impacted tourism and remittances, many have grown fearful of the internet and change. Hopefully though, a new leadership in the country will bring fresh new ideas and reinstall faith in the government for many.
Violence flared in Iraq this week, connected to both regional rivalries and domestic strife. U.S. and Iraqi officials said that a drone carrying explosives attacked a U.S. air base in northern Iraq on Wednesday. No casualties were reported in the attack. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the drone attack. The violence follows months of tensions between the United States and Iran, whose allied militias in Iraq have launched a series of attacks on U.S. installations in the country. An attack on the same location in February 2021 killed a contractor working for coalition forces. A separate rocket attack on a Turkish military base in northern Iraq the same day killed a Turkish soldier, according to Turkey’s Defence Ministry. Officials say the attacks are likely retaliation for a recent attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, widely believed to have been carried out by Israel.
Also last week, at least four people were killed and seventeen injured in a car bomb attack in the Sadr City neighborhood of the Iraq capital, Baghdad. The car was parked at a busy second-hand equipment market in the mainly Shia district, police said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. This was the second major bombing to hit Baghdad in 2021, after twin suicide attacks claimed by Islamic State fighters killed at least 32 in January.
Demonstrations against the construction of the Namakhvani Hydro Power Plant (HPP) by the Turkish company ENKA in the Rioni Gorge have been going on for 170 days. This week, six people were arrested for violence at one of the rallies and an iron wall was erected by Georgian police to prevent the movement of demonstratiors to the village of Namakhvani. Organizers of the protests presented their demands to a government representative on Thursday. They are requesting the removal of the iron wall, the suspension of preparatory works for the construction of the HPP and they want to be able to put up new tents, as the police removed theirs on April 11th “because of possible threats of flooding.” Also in Georgia, on Friday, the agreement proposed by the EU mediator was signed by the ruling party, Georgia Dream. The agreement offers judicial and electoral reform in addition to amnesty for suspects of the June 2019 protests, including the current head of the UNM opposition party, Nika Melia who was denied bail on Tuesday.
Nuclear talks with Iran and the United States continue as diplomats from other countries shuffle back and forth between two sides. Talks between the two main countries have been indirect, given the contrasting demands of the two sides. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an Iran scholar at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute said that there are signs of hope and development as groups started to look into the specifics of the deal. For instance, on Iran’s end, they must “revert to enriching uranium to no more than 3.67% purity, halt using advantaged centrifuges, and drastically reduce how much uranium it enriches”.
Last Monday, April 12, Indonesian Muslims began celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. For the second year in a row, they are celebrating this month with restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While places of worship are now open in some areas, there is a policy on limited attendance that enforces a 50% maximum capacity. The Jakarta administration, district officials, and residents made it a point to disinfect the mosques to make way for the religious celebration without a huge spike in cases. In other news, two Indonesian hackers have been arrested who have been involved in a scam in the United States. According to authorities, text messages were sent to 20 million Americans which directed them to a falsified US government website. Victims gave out personal information such as their social security numbers and addresses, under the assumption that they would be able to claim the false $2000 assistance program for the unemployed. The East Java Police Chief Inspector said that the loss is up to $60 million and the pair could face up to nine years in prison under Indonesia’s electronic information law.
A new NGO bill called The Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations written by the Office of the Council of State have critics arguing that it targets anti-government activists. This bill has been up for debate since March and could be passed into law soon. Human rights groups have raised their concerns, one of which being the vague definition of what qualifies as an NGO. This is one of the provisions that leads human rights groups to believe the broad language of the bill could be used to regulate activists as they could potentially be classified as NGOs. A cabinet review is set to take place later this month, and groups continue to question its contents.
In a press conference this week, Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former-President Chamorro and Presidential aspirant, claimed that the Nicaraguan elections due to be held in November this year, have “de facto” been cancelled. Chamorro asserts that President Ortega’s Electoral Law reforms mean that without observers and with inhibited candidates, the outcome is in Ortga’s control. In other news, journalist Kalua Salazar has reported that her house, with her 2year old daughter home, is subject to police harassment, with riot police surrounding it, patrols on her street, and threats of insults and brandishing weapons. Salazar works for the radio station La Costeñisima and has previously been found guilty in court for slander; she believes the harassment aims to stop her criticism of police inaction towards local crime.
Reports indicate that Belarus is increasing its military presence on its southern border with Ukraine. On April 1, photos appeared on social media of BTR-80 armored vehicles, military trucks, and other Belarusian hardware traveling south approximately 60 kilometers from the border. Russia and Belarus have scheduled a record number of military exercises this year, culminating with the Zapad-21, which is set to take place in September 2021. The exercises have resulted in a constant rotation of military forces between Russia and Belarus, effectively establishing a de facto permanent Russian military presence in the country.
Poland has deployed its own troops to its eastern border with Belarus as Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko continues his crackdown on the ethnic Polish minority in the country. Belarusian Poles have faced increasing repression after actively supporting the Belarusian opposition movement, threatening to pull the Polish government, already deeply opposed to the Lukashenko regime, closer to the conflict.
In other news, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin are set to meet in Moscow next week. Belarusian state news agency BelTa quoted Lukashenko as telling visiting Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin that he would meet with Putin to discuss “certain problems.” Russia has pressured Belarus in recent years to take steps towards integration in order to complete a 20-year-old agreement to form a union state, only to be rebuffed by Lukashenko’s defense of Belarus’s sovereignty.
Last Monday, the Sudanese leader visited West Darfur after extreme tribal violence that occurred earlier in the year. At least 144 people were killed in attacks which has made the democratic transition in the country more difficult. The head of the ruling sovereign party has met with leaders from both sides as he vowed to make “decisive decisions” about the fate of the region. There needs to be a fostering of security and stability in the region, which he hopes to achieve. After more violence on the 3rd of April, there has been a state of emergency in the region and more troops have been sent in an effort to slow and stop the violence. In other news, Sudan has denied that it would be sending a delegation to Israel. The trip would come after the two countries had brokered peace deals for more peaceful ties, that had been encouraged by former US President, Donald Trump, last year. The issue is very divisive in Sudan and despite sources saying a trip would take place next week, they are not ready for that step.
Bolivia is set to receive 200,000 Sputnik V vaccines next week to help in their fight against Covid-19. The vaccines are coming from Russia in the middle of a “global shortage” of the drug. This is going to be part of the 2 million doses that have been promised to but have been delayed in getting to Bolivia. The doses will help vaccinate 2% of the vulnerable population and will allow the country to continue with their vaccination plan. As he realized that attempts to remove him from power may continue, President Luis Arce has encouraged workers to defend the intercultural democracy in their nation. He has affirmed that the workers union is essential to their nation and there is a historical responsibility to protect them.
The United States this week imposed visa restrictions on “those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda,” including during the election in January and the campaign period. American Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Ugandan government’s actions “represent a continued downward trajectory for the country’s democracy and respect for human rights.” The statement did not say who would be affected by the new restrictions. There was no immediate reaction from the Ugandan government. Uganda has accused the United States of trying to “subvert” the election after the U.S. Ambassador, Natalie E Brown, attempted to visit opposition leader Bobi Wine.
In other news, American rap artist and singer Akon is drawing criticism from rights activists over his meetings with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as he pursues the development of a futuristic city in the country. U.S.-based groups Human Rights Foundation and Vanguard Africa said that Akon is helping to rehabilitate Uganda’s long-time leader’s reputation after an election earlier this year that was marred by violence, an internet shutdown, and accusations of vote rigging. Ugandan activists say Akon’s meetings with Museveni hurt pro-democracy efforts in the country and that the square mile of land being donated to Akon should instead be awarded to local investors desperate for such an opportunity.