The STAND Education Team hopes you had a great break! Our news brief is a bit longer this week due to the holiday hiatus. Please also take a look at our latest post on the Banyamulenge of Eastern Congo in our Stateless People series.
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Over the past two weeks, the Free Syrian Army has made several significant advances. The rebel forces captured the Tishrin Dam, which supplies several areas in Syria with electricity, and briefly captured a regime helicopter base outside Damascus before retreating out of fear of retaliatory airstrikes. According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, the Syrian regime airstrikes wounded and killed several people in the border town of Atmeh on Monday. Rebel-bound aid and arms have been smuggled through Atmeh, and the town has served as a rebel base for those fighting in the south. Airstrikes have been reported in the northern towns of Maaret al-Numan, Kfar Rouma, and Harem. Fighting has also continued in and near Damascus, where an activist reports several children were killed by cluster bombs.
The attack on Atmeh came a day before Turkish and NATO officials were to begin assessing where to station surface-to-air missiles near the Syrian border. The Syrian regime has called Turkey’s move for these Patriot missiles a “new act of provocation.” Russia has also spoken out against the missiles, warning that deployment of the missiles could lead to a regional crisis. Meanwhile, NATO sought to reassure Moscow, saying that the Turkish government will deploy the missiles in a defensive manner only, and will not support a no-fly zone or an offensive operation.
On Friday, leaders from the Syria National Coalition, the newly formed opposition, met with the UK government in London. While Britain welcomed the group’s establishment, UK officials say they will only recognize the opposition if certain conditions are met, such as respecting minority rights, a commitment to ethnic, political, and religious inclusiveness, and a commitment to democracy.
Recent developments with Kurdish populations in Syria also highlight the ethnic and religious complexity of the rebellion. In Derik, Syria, Kurds celebrated as Assad’s overstretched forces retreated, allowing the Kurdish political parties and People’s Defense Units (YPG) to fill the power vacuum. In the town of Ras al-Ayn, rebels and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, reached a peace agreement on Saturday. After Assad’s forces retreated from the region in July, PYD-loyal fighters took over. The PYD forces clashed with rebel forces, which rely heavily on Islamic militants, as they made their way into the region. The opposition in Syria is split on Islamic militants, with some groups strongly opposing their influence.
On Monday, November 19, 2012, US President Barack Obama became the first serving US president to visit Burma. Although his visit was short, lasting only six hours, he met with Myanmar President Thein Sein and pro-deomcracy advocate and Myanmar Parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi and also made a speech at the University of Yangon.
This speech (a transcript of which can be found here) extended a “hand of friendship” to the Myanmar government, but also condemned ongoing human rights violations in the country and the Myanmar government’s inactivity in addressing the increasingly devastating conflict in Rakhine State. Obama spoke on, “freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” He emphasized Burma’s need to listen to the will of its people, erase media censorship, release political prisoners (dozensof which were released later that day), and avoid corruption in both the government and economy. Obama also pressed the Myanmar government to push for peace with the country’s various ethnic nationalities, including halting hostilities in Kachin State and granting citizenship to the Rohingya. Additionally, Obama consistently referred to the potential of economic prosperity between the US and Burma, but only in a Burma that respects human rights and international law.
Myanmar President Thein Sein will receive International Crisis Group’s top honor for overseeing Burma’s recent democratic reforms. He, in conjunction with Aung San Suu Kyi, was also ranked a top global thinker by Foreign Policy magazine for 2012.
In other news, one million Burmese migrant workers in neighboring Thailand may face deportation unless they complete a verification process by December 14. The Myanmar government has asked for an extension to the deadline, but Thai officials are reluctant to do so having already extended the dead twice before.
Myanmar government officials pledged to arrest those inciting violence in Burma’s western Rakhine State, which has seen conflict and mass displacement for much of the past several months between the mostly Buddhist Rakhine and mostly Muslim, and stateless, Rohingya. However, organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have expressed concern about the potential for lack of due process for those arrested.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Democratic Republic of Congo has has made front pages of newspapers around the world in the last two weeks. On November 20, M23 captured the provincial capital of North Kivu, Goma, after Congolese soldiers withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers gave up defense of the city. This unprecedented move has placed Congo at the center of many international discussions and debates as articles circulate about M23, the Congolese government, and the involvement of Rwanda and Uganda in the violence unfolding in the east.
The military leader of the M23, Sultani Makenga, traveled to Kampala at the invitation of the head of the Ugandan military this week. Following this meeting on Wednesday, Makenga stated that M23 troops will begin withdrawing from Goma and other captured cities in North Kivu, leaving 100 men stationed at the Goma airport. However, Jean Marie Runiga, M23’s political leader, stated that this pull-out was contingent on a list of demands. These demands, which include the release of political prisoners and the disarmament of Congolese troops in rebel-controlled regions, seem impossible for the Congolese government to meet, according to analysts. DRC analyst Jason Stearns claims that these competing messages could be a sign of serious internal divisions within the M23 movement. “This is a military movement with a political wing created post facto … it’s undermined internal cohesion.” Despite any claims made of the M23 rebels leaving Goma, various sources report that there seems to be no sign on the ground of the M23 rebels leaving the city anytime soon. However, the citizens of Goma have no desire for the Congolese troops to return to the city. About 100 people gathered in the rain on Wednesday to deliver a memo to the U.N. offices protesting the possible return of government troops.
To complicate matters, the Congolese government stated that they would refuse to negotiate with the M23 rebels until they left Goma. On Saturday, at an emergency summit in Kampala, eleven regional heads of state met and issued a demand that the M23 “withdraw from current positions to not less than 20 km from Goma town within two days,” but did not say what the consequences would be if the rebels did not comply.
On Friday, the Congolese health minister declared the Ebola epidemic that broke out in mid-August in the DRC officially over. The epidemic infected 62 people and claimed 34 lives.
Regional Concerns to be Aware of:
Ugandan legislators are poised to pass the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill within the next few days. The bill would increase criminal penalties on homosexual acts and further exclude LGBT individuals from society. It is unclear if the death penalty will still be included in the bill. LGBT rights in Uganda have seen international attention for years. In 2009 a similar bill was proposed, but failed to pass. Discrimination and violence against members in the LGBT community in Uganda has been a common occurrence for years. This violence was epitomized in the devastating murder of David Kato, an “outspoken gay rights activist in Uganda.” Many people trace this government sponsored hatred to the teachings of an American Evangelical pastor. Ironically, the Ugandan government is now claiming that Western countries, including the United States, are pushing Westernized liberal ideals that are “not welcome in Africa” by protesting the law.