Nine soldiers from the Burmese Army and one from the Ta’and National Liberation Army or the TNLA] have died during clashes in Burma’s northern Shan State. The source of this clash is uncertain. The TNLA and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are the only two ethnic militias yet to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government. Talks were scheduled for February 12, but have since been postponed until later this month.
In their annual report on human rights, Human Rights Watch said that, “After two years of steady if uneven progress, Burma’s human rights situation was a car crash in 2014.” The report cited the country’s ongoing persecution of Muslim Rohingya, backtracking on media freedoms, continuing imprisonment of political prisoners, and maintenance of military personnel in the Parliament. Brad Adam, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The army is still calling the shots on major issues, while the government seems confident it has satisfied other countries to keep the aid and investment dollars flowing.”
In addition, a United Nations human rights envoy to Burma was criticized by the Burmese government in response to their recent visit. Burma claimed the visit infringed upon Burma’s sovereignty and further contributed to domestic tensions. Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, claimed she and her team acted in a “constructive manner” and well within their mandate and Burma’s obligations to various human rights treaties.
Burma has officially opened a deep-sea port for a Chinese oil pipeline off the country’s west coast, according the AP. The project is a joint enterprise between two state-run companies, one Burmese and the other Chinese.
Central African Republic (CAR)
An unconditional cease-fire was reached between the Séléka and the Anti-balaka factions on Thursday, 5 February in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Former Speaker of the Kenyan National Assembly, Kenneth Marende, served as a mediator between representatives of the two factions. Reportedly, the parties agreed to “a cessation of hostilities, and a DDRR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration) agreement.” The interim government of President Catherine Samba-Panza was not a party to the dialogue.
While this is a positive step towards peace and reconciliation, there is little to guarantee the success of this most recent cease-fire. Previous cease-fires have been ignored or reneged upon, either by the signatory parties or by the CAR government, which has struggled to assert authority over the peacemaking process. Less than one week ago, the CAR government challenged the legitimacy of a separate peace deal reached by Séléka and Anti-balaka leaders because it occurred outside of the official government-led peace dialogue.
In other news, the scale of weapons proliferation in CAR was highlighted this week by reports of Chinese-made hand grenades selling for less than the cost of a soft drink in Bangui. Locals can purchase grenades on the black market for less than a dollar, a worrying fact due to the potential risk of upsetting the uneasy cease-fire. The ease of access that any civilian with grievances against the Séléka or the Anti-balaka has to weapons in CAR may undermine the success of this and future cease-fire agreements.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The Congolese parliament convened in January to discuss a proposed electoral law, which would link upcoming 2016 presidential elections to a national census. A census provision, included in Article 8 of the law, would likely delay elections by up to three years and prolong current President Joseph Kabila’s tenure. In response to the proposal, a week of civil society protests and the corresponding law enforcement crackdown left 20 to 40 demonstrators dead. In the end, parliament rejected Article 8, exposing division in the political coalition of President Joseph Kabila. Opposition activists view the rejection of Article 8 as a partial victory. They are now calling for the Congolese electoral commission (CENI) to release an explicit timetable for the upcoming elections. In a press statement on 5 February, Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende announced that Kabila intends to step down after his term ends in 2016.
On 29 January, President Kabila announced the beginning of Congolese military (FARDC) operations against the FDLR, a rebel militia in eastern Congo with an estimated 1,400-2,000 remaining combatants. Kabila’s statement came as a surprise to UN officials, who threatened to withdraw support from the offensive after the DRC government appointed two generals accused of mass rape and summary executions as commanders of the operation. DRC information minister Lambert Mende stated on 5 February that the FARDC plans to move forward with military operations while retaining the accused, Generals Bruno Mandevu and Sikabwe Fall, as commanders. The FDLR expressed a commitment to disarmament once more on 30 January, while the U.S. Department of State expressed support for the offensive, provided that operations are “conducted in a way that protects and minimizes the impact on civilians, in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law, and in line with the UN’s human rights due diligence policy.”
Criticism continues to amass in opposition to Dodd-Frank Section 1502, a provision in a U.S. law intended to regulate trade in conflict minerals in the DRC. Critics assert that the law poses harmful consequences for the nearly ten million Congolese civilians who depend on mining to earn a living. Rather than freeing these miners from forced labor and human rights abuses, skeptics maintain that, in the absence of livelihood support programs, the law pushes newly unemployed miners deeper into poverty. Proponents of conflict minerals policy contest that in the months following Dodd-Frank’s enactment, two-thirds of surveyed mines in eastern Congo became certifiably conflict free. They also note a reduction in violence against civilians in many mining communities.
A British monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has released a report claiming that so far this year ISIS has killed 50 civilians accused of religious dissent, apostasy, or spying on behalf of enemy fighters. In November, SOHR released a report claiming that ISIS had killed 1,432 captives, civilians, and combatants since the Islamic State declared a caliphate in June 2014.
The Islamic State released a video depicting a man, identified as Jordanian military pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive. ISIS captured al-Kasasbeh in December after he ejected himself from his F-16 fighter jet. The video comes three days after the news of the second decapitation of a Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto, at the hands of ISIS. King Abdullah of Jordan responded to the news of al-Kasasbeh’s murder by cutting short his trip to Washington to return home. In an online video broadcast, King Abdullah voiced his solidarity with the pilot’s family, claiming that the event would “only make us stronger.” A Jordanian army spokesperson said that the nation’s reaction to the murder would “be proportional to this catastrophe that has struck all Jordanians.” Jordan’s immediate response has included the execution of Iraqi prisoner and failed suicide bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, whose release was demanded by ISIS in exchange for the life of Goto. As King Abdullah met with the pilot’s family, the Jordanian military carried out air strikes against an ISIS stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Commenting on the air strikes, a Jordanian army statement said it was “just the beginning.”
The Islamic State has retreated from the northern region of Kobani, admitting that repeated US airstrikes were the primary impetus. Kurdish forces, assisted by the US military, celebrated the victory as an important step toward expelling ISIS entirely from the region. In September 2014, ISIS captured over 300 towns in the region, forcing the exodus of 200,000 Kurdish residents. Although a few villages outside Kobani remain under ISIS control, Kurdish officials said that Kurdish YPG fighters have launched an offensive to reclaim the territories.
Emerging Conflicts: Ukraine
Ukraine is at a crossroads after heavy fighting in recent weeks. Despite the signing of the Minsk agreement, which called for an immediate ceasefire to the fighting, in September, conflict has continued in the Donbass region. Little progress has been made by pro-Russian rebels or Ukrainian forces. Although Russia maintains that it is not sending weapons or troops into Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly insisted that this is not the case.
Fighting has escalated in the last few weeks with shelling of civilian areas common. In the last three weeks of January at least 224 civilians were killed, according to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. The violence has been most severe in the Donetsk region, much of which has been proclaimed part of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The heaviest fighting in this area has taken place in Debaltseve, which is still controlled by Ukrainian troops but is nearly surrounded by rebel forces. Much of the town has been forced to evacuate. While the Ukrainian army has held its ground so far, it lacks resources and strong leadership and looks likely to lose the town. Additionally, Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the rebels, has called to increase his army to 100,000 troops. The city of Donetsk has also seen shelling in recent days.
Foreign nations are weighing decisions that look likely to change the course of the conflict. NATO has announced that it will be creating a 5,000 soldier rapid response force to support Ukraine. While the US has avoided arming Ukrainian forces throughout the conflict, it is considering sending arms. However, the news that President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will be meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin have raised some hope of an upcoming peace plan.
Ukraine has a number of worries besides the most recent fighting. The Ukrainian economy is in collapse and the hryvnia was the worst performing currency in the world last year. The IMF is currently negotiating a bailout with the Ukrainian government. Over 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began in early 2014.