What you need to know from the past week in Burma, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Nigeria.
US President Barack Obama made his second official visit to Burma last week to attend the 25th annual Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional summit help for the first time in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw. There, Obama praised Burma’s President Thein Sein’s “real” efforts to democratize the country. However, many people, including opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have expressed concern over the United States’ positive perception of very limited reforms in the former military dictatorship. According to the White House, the United States has provided over $375 million to Burma since relieving economic sanctions in 2012 in targeting five key areas: national reconciliation, democratic institutions, economic development, health, resilient communities, and regional cooperation.
While in the country, both Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticized the Burmese government’s treatment of the Rohingya. The Burmese government refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Rohingya and instead refers to them as illegal Bengali migrants. Moreover, the Burmese government has also proposed sending Rohingya to detention camps if they refuse to officially identify themselves as Bengali. To read more about the Rohingya and the significance of official US and UN recognition, click here.
Finally, Burma and China signed a bilateral trade agreement on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit which aimed to increase rice exports from northeastern Burma to southwestern China.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The links between the conflict-minerals trade and profits for militia groups in eastern DRC are well-documented. However, in the face of reduced profits due in part to conflict-free mineral certification mechanisms, rebel militias in the Congo are increasingly turning to wildlife trafficking as a source of revenue. The Okapi Forest Reserve reports a 40% reduction in its elephant population from 2009-2014. In late October, the UN released an urgent appeal for resources to combat elephant poaching by militia groups in Garamba national park. During the past 3 years, rebel militias murdered 30 park rangers in Virunga national park alone. Rebel militias also reportedly attempt to undercut the local eco-tourism industry by offering wildlife tours at reduced rates, using revenue to continue the purchase of weapons.
In late October, military leaders ousted Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina Faso, from power. Coming after several years of democratic upheaval in many parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the coup raises questions about the durability of autocratic rule in sub-Saharan Africa. In an interview with Voice of America, Congolese information minister Lambert Mende rejects the idea that Congolese President Joseph Kabila will be subject to the same fate if he chooses to run for a third term in 2016. Mende said, “Nobody has heard President Kabila saying that he’s going to change the constitution. As a democratic country, we are having an intellectual and political debate about the changing or not changing the constitution…Burkina is Burkina and Congo is Congo.”
Members of the Congolese police force (PNC) arrested twenty protesters on 1 November. The protesters took to the streets outside the UN headquarters in Kinshasa to demand a national dialogue aimed at ending two decades of violence in eastern Congo. Activists also expressed frustration at the prospect of a proposed amendment to the Congolese constitution that would permit President Kabila to run for a third term. All detainees have since been released.
In the wake of a series of Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) attacks on civilian communities in the city of Beni, located in the Congo’s eastern North Kivu province, the UN Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) announced last week that the mission had arrested 200 individuals suspected of participation in the assaults. The mission also reported seizures of bombs, radios, weapons, and other military equipment from the ADF. Between 2 October and 17 October, ADF forces murdered nearly 120 civilians in North Kivu. Congolese Defense Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo spoke to civilians in the province on 5 November, urging community members not to form self-defense militias against the ADF. Ntambo said that reactionary defense militias would only “further complicate the already fragile situation” in Beni.
Two teams of Congolese military (FARDC) personnel received a 10-day training from the UN on detecting and disposing of arms caches. FARDC plans to launch an operation entitled “Weapons Free Masisi” this month to collect weapons from illegal armed groups operating in Masisi territory, including the M-23, Alliance of Patriots of Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) and local Mayi-Mayi militia groups.
After much delay, peace talks between government forces and rebel groups have resumed in Sudan. The chief of the African Union stated that he was hopeful that negotiations would be finalized between rebels and the government very soon. Fighting has broken out many times in the southern part of the country near the South Sudanese border. Negotiations on the issues in Darfur have been scheduled for later this month. The conflicts in the southern part of the country have already displaced tens of thousands of Sudanese.
Reports emerged on Wednesday of a Sudanese attack on South Sudan’s Upper Nile State. The strike follows a similar one two weeks earlier in which at least 35 people were killed. The newest raid killed seven and displaced many more. The South Sudanese army believes that the Sudanese government is behind the latest attack because they used warplanes, which the South Sudanese rebels do not have access to.
Finally, 1.2 million Sudanese have been registered to vote for Sudan’s 2015 elections. Sudan’s National Election Commission (NEC) has reported that 1.2 million new voters have been registered for the 2015 Sudanese election cycle. However, opposition parties are refusing to participate in the elections, calling instead for a transitional government and a national conference to resolve the long-standing conflicts in the South Kordofan and Darfur regions. The NEC, however, has rejected any postponement of the electoral process, claiming that delaying elections would cause a “constitutional vacuum”.
Last week in South Sudan, several polio cases were confirmed by the World Health Organization. The WHO stated that these cases are most likely because of the lack of vaccination programs in South Sudan. The organization stated that it is difficult to maintain high rates of vaccinations in conflict zones, and that it is extremely dangerous to have a few cases because they can spread very quickly.
Additionally, there have been reports that the conflict has now hit three different states in South Sudan. Both the rebels and the government have blamed each other for the continued fighting as it continues to spread to more and more regions. As the fighting escalates, the amount of killed and displaced Sudanese continues to rise.
The Guardian reports that the upcoming generation of South Sudanese boys are eager to fight in the civil war. Many young men have expressed their hope that they would soon be old enough to fight alongside the rebels or the government.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has rejected the possibility of a UN-mandated Aleppo truce with the Assad regime. According to Al Jazeera, the FSA’s rejection of the plan to suspend fighting in Syria’s second largest city, and its most populous prior to the civil war, stems from concerns that such a plan will only help the Assad regime. Zaher al-Saket, FSA military commander in Aleppo, explained their logic: “We [the Free Syrian Army] learned not to trust the Assad regime because they are cunning and only want to buy time. We saw what happened in Homs and we will never accept the same scenario in Aleppo.” The Syrian government had allegedly responded differently towards overtures regarding an Aleppo truce, with Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy to Syria, saying on Tuesday the government had responded with “constructive interest” to the UN proposal. However, activists claimed that Assad’s forces resumed launching barrel bombs on Aleppo’s al-Marjeh neighbourhood just a day later.
Syrian authorities have reportedly detained Louday Hussein, leader of Building the Syrian State party and longtime opposition activist, who has been detained twice before, and this time faces a number of what his party calls a number of “ready made charges”, including “weakening national sentiment and weakening the morale of the nation.” The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that up to 85,000 people are currently being held by the Syrian regime without any just cause. In captivity, prisoners face numerous human rights abuses, including torture and the continual threat of death. The Assad regime’s use of arbitrary and inhumane imprisonment tactics is well noted, and a UN panel last year accused the Assad regime of committing a crime against humanity by making people “systematically vanish.”
Emerging Conflicts: Nigeria
Violence has continued to wrack Nigeria, with radical Islamist group Boko Haram the main instigator. On 10 November, a suicide attack outside a school killed at least 48 people and wounded at least 79. Students were gathered for an assembly at a government boarding school in Potiskum when an attacker, disguised as a student, launched a suicide bombing. How many of the dead were students has not yet been determined. Although Boko Haram is widely suspected, they have not claimed responsibility for the attack. This follows an attack on 3 November in Potiskum when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of Shi’ite Muslims at a religious ceremony. The bombing killed 15 people and afterwards Nigerian soldiers killed six people in their response to the attack.
On 12 November, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a college in Kontagora. At least three people were killed. Although Kontagora is far from the northeastern part of the country where Boko Haram usually operates, it is still suspected to be the perpetrator.
The government has suffered a number of embarrassing defeats in its fight against Boko Haram. It announced a ceasefire with Boko Haram on 17 October. This would have ended fighting and led to the release of over 200 girls kidnapped earlier this year. However, there were a number of Boko Haram attacks in the days following the announcement. Nigerian officials continued to maintain that there was a ceasefire, but two weeks after the announcement of the ceasefire Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced that there had been no ceasefire and the girls would not be released. Then, on 14 November, Boko Haram took control of the town of Chibok, where they kidnapped the girls in April. The US has, however, refused to sell arms to the Nigerian military because of its history of human rights abuses. Still, there was some good news for the military as they re-took the town of Mubi from Boko Haram.