Weekly Report 25 October, 2019 — CANVAS

Myanmar 

Last Friday, Myanmar state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stated that, despite recent international attention, the Myanmar people will seek to resolve the Rakhine crisis on its own without foreign intervention. This remark from Myanmar’s de facto leader follows nearly a year of escalated conflict between the Tatmadaw and the predominantly Buddhist Arakan Army, which seeks more autonomy in Rakhine state. 

This week, Myanmar fisherman discovered approximately US$20 million of methamphetamine sacks floating off of Myanmar’s coast. One of the world’s largest producers of Crystal Meth, Myanmar’s drug industry is a significant contributor to Southeast Asia’s drug trade, netting more than US$60 billion a year according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Crystal Meth is often smuggled out of Myanmar to more lucrative markets such as Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea and Australia. The failed large-scale drug operation is the second of this year, with Myanmar authorities seizing over US$26 million in Crystal Meth in March.

Cambodia

Sam Rainsy, the former leader of the opposition party in Cambodia has recently announced a planned return to the country. The exiled politician’s plans may be in jeopardy, however, as his colleague from the opposition party was barred from entering Thailand this week. Despite the dwindling likelihood of Rainsy being able to return to Cambodia, officials in the country have started to train riot police to combat protests. Cambodian leaders have dubbed Rainsy and his followers traitors and Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised that Rainsy will be arrested should he return

Maldives

This Monday, Maldivian minister Ahmed Sameer was accused of intimidating Anti-Corruption Commission president Mariyam Shiuna, who is currently investigating a Maldivian state minister following a corruption complaint. Sameer denied the allegations of undue influence, and told media outlets that although he did call the ACC chief, it was a non-threatening call and did not interfere with the investigation. 

Later on Monday, the Maldivian Parliament approved the appointment of veteran journalist Hussain Fiyaz Moosa as the new information commissioner. Moosa was previously the CEO of Raajje TV, and was overwhelmingly elected from among nine individuals nominated by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. In years past, Moosa has faced several criminal charges as a journalist while covering events of significant public interest. Moosa has long been an advocate for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. 

Thailand 

Two small Thai parties have formed a coalition to increase influence; the Thai Forest Conservation Party and the Palang Thong Thin Thai Party have allied and have invited other small parties to join them. Together, the two parties have a combined 5 of 125 seats in the House; though their influence remains limited, the alliance indicates a shift in the dynamics of Thai politics. 

The Thai King has stripped his consort of all her titles and has fired six senior officials in the palace. The King has cited “evil actions” and disloyalty by the officials and consort, though no further details have been released. The royal family of Thailand is fully protected from defamation of any form in Thai media, though the current scandal has gained significant attention from domestic and international news outlets. 

Vietnam

Following several months of tension, a Chinese oil survey vessel named the “Haiyang Dizhi 8” left Vietnamese waters on Thursday morning, accompanied by a Chinese escort. The vessel’s presence in Vietnam’s region of the South China Sea represents China’s widespread attempt to delegitimize its neighbors’ claims to the territory. According to Ha Hoang Hop, a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it is likely that China will “send an oil rig to drill” in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the coming months, in partnership with Russian oil giant Rosneft. 

Malaysia

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir’s public criticism of India’s handling of the Kashmir region has resulted in a so called “trade war” between Malaysia and India. This week, India announced its boycott on Malaysian palm oil. India is Malaysia’s third largest exporter of palm oil and just last year India’s exports in palm oil and palm-based products amounted to 1.63 billion US dollars. In response to the palm oil boycott, Malaysia is seriously “considering raising imports of raw sugar and buffalo meat from India.” Despite the heightened tensions between Malaysia and India, Mahathir has defended his criticism of India’s handling of the Kashmir region, saying “We speak our minds, and we don’t retract or change.”  

North Korea

This week, North Korean leader Kim Jung-un visited the Mount Kumgang tourist zone. The Mount Kumgang tourist zone, which opened in 1998, was initially operated by both North and South Korea. The shared tourist zone was built in an effort to build trust between the two nations. Approximately one million South Koreans visited Mount Kumgang before all tourism halted in 2008. Tourism halted after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier because he had entered restricted territory. On his visit, Kim Jung-un called for the destruction of all South Korean built facilities in the tourist zone. He called these facilities “unpleasant looking” and wanted North Korean “modern service facilities” to be built in their place. The North Korean leader’s actions are believed to be retaliation against South Korea’s continued “refusal to break ranks with the United States.” South Korea has responded by voicing their commitment for peace between the North and the South.

Hong Kong

Authorities in Hong Kong have formally withdrawn the extradition bill that sparked city-wide protests in March. The withdrawal is unlikely to alter the course of ongoing demonstrations, as protestors have emphasized that officials must meet all 5 demands to quell discontent. Hong Kongers have come out in support of the Catalonian people, who are fighting for independence from Spain; many Hong Kong protesters see Catalonian demonstrators as fighting for similar ideals. The sentiment was mirrored in Barcelona when 100 Catalonians gathered outside the Chinese consulate to voice support for Hong Kong. 

Libya

This week, survivors of an airstrike on a Tripoli migrant detention center spoke with BBC correspondent Orla Guerin. The survivors of the airstrike, which killed “53 migrants and refugees”, shared that they are still trapped in Tripoli four months after the attack. They believe the United Nations to have failed and abandoned them. The UN has rejected “scores of refugee relocation requests, including women and children previously held in Libyan government-run detention centers where they were allegedly subject to abuse.” Also, the UN has rejected asylum seekers who were originally hosted in a transit center in Tripoli by the UN refugee agency. These rejected asylum seekers were then asked to leave the facility. 

On Thursday, in reaction to the UN’s rejection of refugee relocation requests 40 people came to protest at the UNHCR’s Gathering and Departure Facility. These protesters held signs that read, “Refugees want peace not rejection” and “We need a system of appeal.” Protesters who spoke with Al Jazeera shared that just last week, 87 applications for refugee relocation requests were rejected. The UNHCR has responded to the protest via an emailed statement, which read there are “simply not enough evacuation and resettlement places available.” 

Sudan

Thousands of peaceful protesters have taken to the streets of Khartoum to call for the dissolution of former leader Omar al-Bashir’s political party. The demonstrations additionally called for justice concerning the killings of protesters by the Transitional Military Council (TMC) earlier this year. Many members of the TMC have been integrated into the current transitional government, as part of a deal struck between military leader and activist groups. As the road towards democracy continues for Sudan, many are looking to the United States to remove the country from its terrorist list. Once this is done, there will be heightened prospects for trade between the US and Sudan; though the US has not voiced the intention of removing Sudan from the list in the near future, Sudanese policy-makers remain optimistic due to recent friendly talks with the country.  

Iran

Reports surfaced this week describing the amputation of a man’s fingers on Wednesday by Iranian authorities after he was convicted of 28 counts of theft. Though such reports are rare, they spurred intense responses from human rights activists, criticizing the allowance of amputation under Iran’s penal code. Despite protests from human rights groups, Iranian authorities defended the practice, stating that amputation is the most effective way to deter theft and other crimes. 

Experts predict an imminent escalation of violence between Iran and Israel in the coming weeks, following clashes in August and September. Iran, which attempted to smuggle precision weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and deploy advanced weapons systems in Syria and Iraq, faced targeted strikes from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Iranian government is reportedly not deterred by the strikes, and allegedly plans to respond to every Israeli attack with a “swift military response”.

Iraq

Iraqi protesters were met with live ammunition and tear gas by police this Friday, causing the death of two civilians and injuring over two hundred. The protests come after a three-week hiatus in demonstrations; the Iraqi people started to organize protests in response to high rates of employment, corruption in the government and low quality of life. Past demonstrations have also turned deadly, as police forces have employed the use of live ammunition on multiple occasions.  

Syria

On Thursday, Russian forces deployed in northeastern Syria to help facilitate the removal of Kurdish fighters from the Turkish-Syrian border, with nearly 300 officers still to arrive. The joint goal of Russian and Syrian forces in the operation is to push Kurdish fighters 30 km into Syria, as outlined by a deal  between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Brokered on Tuesday, the deal sealed the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces along the northeastern border for the first time in several years. The deal also marked Moscow’s deepening influence in the region, just two weeks following the United States’ withdrawal from northeastern Syria. Over the last two weeks, at least 120 Syrians have died in the clashes, 176,000 people have been displaced, 20 Turkish civilians have died, and at least 100 ISIS fighters have escaped from captivity in Syria. 

Zimbabwe

The power cuts in Zimbabwe have continued to spread and have been increased to up to 18 hours a day without power. The state-owned electricity plant has announced that it will be cutting power to mines, farms and civilians while it attempts to collect payment; the electricity company is reportedly owed $77 million by the people of Zimbabwe, though it appears the state-controlled apparatus will not take into account the 320% increase in electricity tariffs, the crippled economy, lowered wages and severe drought when seeking payment. 

Wildlife activists in Zimbabwe have responded to the deaths of 70 elephants within the national parks. The elephants have been starving to death due to the drought affecting the region. Activists brought 9,000 bales of hay to the elephant habitats in aims of keeping the animals alive. 

Cuba

Last Friday, the US once again imposed new sanctions on Cuba. The sanctions were imposed because of  Cuba’s continued support for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. Licenses for aircraft leases have been canceled and future applications will no longer be considered for all Cuban state-owned airlines. Sanctions on foreign goods with US content have also been broadened.  US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross shared that “this action by the Commerce Department sends another clear message to the Cuban regime.” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canal responded to the increased sanctions on Twitter, commenting that the harshened sanctions were “inhuman, cruel, unfair and genocidal.” 

Venezuela

On Thursday, Venezuela was elected to one of two seats allotted for Latin America on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Despite Venezuela’s lengthy record of human rights abuses, the country was elected to the prestigious council with 105 votes out of the 193 member body. As of 2019, approximately  4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country due to economic and social collapse, as President Nicolás Maduro has deployed the military to snuff out dissent, opposition activists and  journalists. Human rights defenders are often jailed, while security forces loyal to Maduro commit abuses while enjoying impunity. According to Rodolfo Montes de Oca, a lawyer at Provea, a Venezuelan rights group, the inclusion of Venezuela on the Council “marks a backwards step in the advancement of human rights in the region”.  

Nicaragua 

President Daniel Ortega was recently found to have topped 2019’s global list of deadliest active administrations against social activism; thus far, 328 civilian protestors have died this year in direct relation to crackdowns by the Nicaraguan dictator. Ortega’s actions have pushed organizations like Human Rights Watch to lobby for increased international pressure; the NGO recently appealed to the European Union to reiterate a proposed outline for pressing sanctions against the Ortega regime. The sanctions aim to immobilize key figures and cripple the financial support structure of the administration. In an effort to secure the standing of the regime, Ortega has put a significant portion of national funds towards security of the regime’s elite. Police budgeting shows that roughly 10 million USD will be dedicated to protecting senior political leaders while 1.5 million USD has been given to road safety. 

Russia

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an accord concerning the Turkish offensive in Northeastern Syria. The accord stipulates that the Kurds in Northeastern Syria be pushed back 19 miles from the Turkish-Syrian border. It also called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to be placed alongside the Northeastern Syrian border. This is the first time in many years that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have entered the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in Northeastern Syria. Russia has also deployed troops in the northeastern border town of Kobane, in an effort to “drive out Kurdish fighters”. In all, the accord strengthens Russia’s influence in the Middle East in the wake of US absence.  

United States 

Despite the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Northeastern Syria two weeks ago, the Pentagon announced on Friday that troops and heavily armored tanks will be deployed to northeastern Syria in order to secure oil fields from ISIS fighters. The planned reinforcement will take place in coordination with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), contrasting the alleged severed alliance between the U.S. and the SDF. Specific details were not provided on how many or what kind of forces would be sent. The policy reversal comes as a shock to the public, seeing as President Trump has adamantly defended his decision to withdraw from Syria, stating on Wednesday that the U.S. should not fight over the “long blood-stained sand” of the Middle East. 

Other News: 

Lebanon

Following a televised address to the public on Thursday, Lebanon’s President Michael Aoun said that he was willing to meet demonstrators calling for Lebanon’s post-civil war leadership to be held accountable for years of corruption and economic mismanagement. However, protesters have rejected both the peace talks and the recently unveiled reform package. Both were found to be unsatisfactory to demonstrators seeing as neither “fulfill the needs of the people”. Despite fears of economic collapse, the protests have crossed sectarian lines and are projected to continue until the government and political elite formally address their role in weak economic growth, high unemployment and gross mismanagement of national funds. 

Ecuador 

On Wednesday, Ecuador’s indigenous movement said that it paused talks with President Lenin Moreno because of the government’s “persecution” of the group’s leaders since a halt to violent anti-austerity protests. The negotiations, which proceeded after President Moreno abandoned an IMF-backed plan to terminate fuel subsidies last week, quickly soured as the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) members felt persecuted. According to Ecuadorian authorities, seven people died, several hundred suffered injuries and more than 1,000 people were arrested during the protests, which began on October 3. The government has expressed concern about a return to violence after the deterioration of the negotiations. 

Chile

This week, protests have broken out in Santiago, Chile centering around raises in the cost of living. The largest chant heard from the protesters and written on protesters’ signs is: “Chile has woken up”. Many protesters also criticize the growing inequality in Chile. One shared, “We need to share a piece of the pie with everyone and have a better Chile.” 

So far, 18 Chileans have died from the protests and a state of emergency has been declared. On Tuesday, Chilean President Pinera publicly apologized on national television and “announced some concessions including higher wages and an increase in pensions, as well as higher taxes for the rich.” In the Global News Podcast by the BBC World Service these concessions were considered to be achievements of “people power”. Despite the reforms, protests have continued and calls for the President’s resignation have been issued. For a state in which military rule ended just 30 years ago, many worry about its possible return in the wake of a state of emergency and increased military presence.