What you need to know from the past week in Burma, CAR, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine.
Two years after his first visit, US president Barack Obama is due to arrive in Burma for two days next to attend Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional summit being hosted in the capital of Burma, Naypyidaw. Burma is hosting the ASEAN summit for the first time as part of the country’s growing effort to engage with its neighbors and region. Leaders from all Southeast Asian countries are expected to be in attendance. Critics say that Burma has remain stagnant, or even regressed, in its respect of human rights since Obama’s last visit. Obama has cited his renewed diplomatic engagement with Burma as one of his administration’s greatest achievements.
Prior to the ASEAN meeting, two new reports have been published accusing the Burmese government of thwarting refugee repatriation efforts and three of Burma’s important government officials of war crimes. The Border Consortium, a coalition of aid and human rights organizations situated near the Thai-Burma border, has claimed that increased militarization in that region has greatly hampered refugee repatriation. The other report published by Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic has accused three current Burmese government officials, including the current Minister of Home Affairs Maj-Gen Ko Ko, of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
One of Burma’s oldest and most significant rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU) has been showing signs of splintering since it signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 2012. The KNU is an organization claiming to represent the Karen people in a state in eastern Burma of the same name. The Karen are among the most oppressed ethnic groups by the current government (and under the former military dictatorship). Since signing the ceasefire with the government, numerous splinter factions and sub-organizations have emerged from the KNU.
Central African Republic (CAR)
As violence continues to accelerate in the Central African Republic (CAR), many are questioning the credibility of the UN peacekeeping force, known as MINUSCA, deployed to the country in September. Despite the efforts of MINUSCA, dozens of civilians have been killed and thousands have been displaced by interethnic violence in recent weeks. While much media attention has focused on the recent flare up of violence in the capital of Bangui, violence has also been severe in central areas of the country where CAR’s armed ethnic and religious groups are still vying for control. Towns in these contested areas, such as Dekoa and Bambari, have seen brutal attacks and counter-attacks by the majority Muslim Seleka group, Christian and animist anti-balaka rebel coalition, and a splinter-off group of the Seleka comprised of armed members of the Peulh ethnic group. Civilians have often bared the brunt of these attacks, in part due to the challenges of providing adequate civilian protection without a fully funded and staffed mission. MINUSCA has yet to see the deployment of a third of its mandated peacekeepers, and other divisions face even more severe shortages. Following a request from CAR’s transitional government, the European Union announced that it will extend its military mission in CAR, known as EUFOR RCA, until March 2015.
In addition to an overstretched peacekeeping mission, pressures on the transitional government from traditional political parties and the partitioning of the country into ‘zones of influence’ are further complicating efforts to restore peace to the Central African Republic. Transition President Samba-Panza has been accused of misdirecting funds and failing to adequately lead peace and reconciliation efforts. This has sparked competition among CAR’s political class, intensified as elections approach in the coming year. Meanwhile, the country has grown further fragmented as Seleka and anti-balaka warlords have begun to consolidate their individual power in their respective localities. These rebel coalitions and their respective armed leaders appear to be funding much of their power-consolidation through selling gold and diamonds, often through smuggling.
In more positive news, CAR recently acceded to the International Tropical Timber Agreement, or ITTA. The agreement strives “to promote the diversification of international trade in tropical timber from sustainably managed and legally harvested forests”. Timber is one of the country’s main exports, with a forest area of nearly 22.7 million hectares.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Investigations into the murder of Congolese Colonel Mamadou Ndala in January 2014 are still ongoing in the DRC. Recently, Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, the group allegedly responsible for Ndala’s death, brought forth evidence suggesting Congolese military (FARDC) complicity in the attacks. In the most recent allegations, ADF leaders claim that Lieutenant Colonel Nzanu Birosho of the FARDC accepted a bribe 27,000 USD to facilitate ADF attacks against Ndala.
On Friday, October 31, an African Union working group met to discuss the implementation of the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework (PSC) for the Great Lakes Region and UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2098 on the DR Congo. Both documents came into force in early 2013. The group also discussed allegations that Rwanda and Uganda continue to provide asylum for former M-23 combatants, threatening security in the DRC. The AU meeting also addressed approaches to disarmament for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). While the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) support military offensives against the ICGLR, the AU does not favor a military approach.
In late October, two young Congolese activists were shot and killed near a MONUSCO base in Beni, North Kivu. The activists were part of a group of Congolese civil society leaders protesting recent attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group operating in eastern DRC. The protesters blamed the UN for not doing more to prevent ADF attacks on civilians. In an effort to stop the protests, MONUSCO troops and FARDC soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing two youths and wounding others.
Congolese Joseph Kabila issued a statement on November 1 requesting additional UN troops to supplement existing MONUSCO forces in eastern Congo. The new troops would reinforce MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and form the backbone of a proactive strategy to combat the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia group responsible for a string of attacks on civilians near Beni, North Kivu. Martin Kobler, MONUSCO director, welcomed the President’s request, highlighting the need for the UN to take action against the ADF.
Sudan ** trigger warning: sexual violence **
Reports emerged last week that the infamous warlord Joseph Kony is hiding out on the Sudanese border. The fugitive Lord’s Resistance Army commander who is facing indictments of egregious human rights violations has been seen in a border town between Sudan and South Sudan called Kafia Kingi. Many human rights groups are calling on Sudanese and South Sudanese authorities to step up efforts to capture Kony and bring him to the appropriate authorities to face the charges against him.
The UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator recently expressed concern that children in the conflict-affected areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states are at high risk of contracting polio. Conflict between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) has prevented the administration of polio vaccines to children in these states.
Last week, UN and African Union representatives have been denied entry to the scene of an alleged mass rape of 200 women and girls in western Darfur. The joint mission, known as UNAMID, expressed its concern over the reports but has been unable to investigate the incident.
The United States announced last Tuesday that it will circulate a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council for establishing a sanctions regime on South Sudan. An anonymous US official said that the resolution “will establish a mechanism for targeting individuals undermining South Sudan’s political stability and abusing human rights”, but did not say when the draft resolution would be circulated and put to a vote.
Additionally, there are reports that another peace deal has been forged. This is the third peace deal since the country erupted into violent conflict in December 2013. The peace deal states that the two warring parties must cease fighting and that any violation would invite trade freezes and travel bans across East Africa. The peace deal comes after threats of sanctions from countries and international agencies.
Although a new peace deal has been reached, violence has flared in South Sudan over the past week. The UN issued a statement condemning the recent outburst of violence and urging peace.
This past week the United States has launched renewed air strikes on the Khorasan group, an Al-Qaeda linked militant faction based in Syria. The US has said that the group intends to launch terror attacks in the United States and Europe. According to U.S. Central Command, the latest series of air strikes against the Khorasan group took place near Sarmada in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Reuters reports that the target of the strikes is David Drugeon, a French-born militant who is reportedly the bomb maker for ISIS. However, his death as a consequence of the strikes has not been confirmed.
The US is facing accusation of having assisted Assad in his bid to reassert power. Critics of US policy have asserted that the US attacks on the Islamic State (ISIS) have allowed Assad to capitalize on the fragmentation of his opposition. Syrian air strikes on rebel held areas have increased dramatically in the last few weeks, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that the Assad regime has killed 221 civilians in the last two weeks alone, undertaking 800 aerial strikes and dropping no less than 401 barrel bombs. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights went on to say that the Assad regime was “taking advantage” of the world focus on the fight against ISIS centred in Kobane, using it as a diversion to intensify attacks on rebel held areas.
The Turkish government has accused the Syrian government of committing massacres in and around Aleppo. According to Reuters, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has warned that Turkey could see a second massive influx of Syrian refugees if the Assad regime succeeds in taking the city. Davutoglu used the warnings to reassert the Turkish desire for a no-fly zone in Syrian territory that could be used to cater for Syrian refugees and equip and train Syrian fighters against ISIS. “If Aleppo were to fall, we in Turkey would really be confronted with a large, very serious, worrisome refugee crisis. This is why we want a safe zone.” Turkey already hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The US is reluctant, however, to create a no-fly zone, as such an area would require patrol by foreign jets. Aleppo, once Syria most populous city, has now been divided in two, between Assad’s regime and opposition forces. Davutloglu has accused the Assad regime of “large massacres” through their barrel bombing the northeast and western areas of the city, areas held by the Free Syrian Army.
Mortar fire on a Syrian school in Damascus has killed 13 children. The attack took place in Qaboun, a rebel held suburb of Damascus. Activists have blamed Assad for the attack, though the details remain unclear. AP writes: “Wednesday’s attack marked the most serious violence against Syrian minors since a twin suicide bombing killed at least 25 children in a government-controlled neighborhood in the central city of Homs in October.”
According to The Guardian, ISIS fighters in Syria have reportedly wrested control of a gas field in the central province of Homs from government forces, making this the second such capture in a week for ISIS.
Emerging Conflicts: Ukraine
The conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated with renewed shelling and disputes over attempted elections. The conflict reignited after pro-Russian separatists held elections which made Alexander Zacharchecko and Igor Plotnitsky leaders of the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The two people’s republics together form New Russia. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko decried the results and argued that it violated the Minsk agreement signed in September. He also said that in response to the elections he wanted Parliament to not pass a law that would grant special status to eastern parts of the country. This would have allowed greater autonomy for the regions and protected separatist fighters from prosecution. The rebels in returned argued that Poroshenko’s action would constitute a violation of the Minsk agreement.
Although Russia has annexed Crimea, the eastern parts of Ukraine are still in question. Russia has not formally backed the recent elections and has also denied sending troops to help the separatist forces. The United States and its allies have criticized the recent elections. While the Ukrainian government strongly opposes the separatists, it does not seem to have the strength to take back the disputed regions. The government has effectively ceded control of the regions in order to focus on securing the rest of the country. Government forces have set up passport control between separatist areas and the rest of Ukraine and the government has stopped subsidies and pensions to the regions. Many analysts believe the regions are becoming “frozen conflicts” similar to Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, both regions where Russia has large influence but not official control.
The recent escalation in conflict has also seen renewed violence. There was heavy shelling in Donetsk despite September’s ceasefire still officially being in place. Two teenagers were killed and four were wounded by a shell while playing soccer at a school on Wednesday, 5 November. Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Thursday, 6 November. Over 4,000 people have been killed since the conflict began early this year.