According to recent reports, as many as 2,000 civilians from both Burma and China are trapped in Burma’s northeast due to ongoing fighting. The fighting erupted primarily around jade mines between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State. Further straining the relationship between Burma and China is the arrest of more than 100 Chinese citizens, also in Kachin State. Burmese officials believe that those arrested were planning to engage in illegal jade mining or logging. Chinese officials questioned the validity of the charges and are currently pursuing diplomatic channels to resolve the growing tensions between the two countries.
Burma’s Parliament is considering a 20% budget increase to boost educational, defence, and health initiatives for the next fiscal year’s budget, which would begin on April 1, 2015. How to allocate funding between military initiatives and social services is under debate. Burma is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, but according to Burma’s constitution, the military is guaranteed 25% of the seats in Parliament. Burma’s Parliament also heard debates on so-called “religious protection” bills that would put restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversions in an effort to strengthen the relative majority position of Buddhism in the predominantly Buddhist country. Many critics of the bill believe it will specifically target the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group in Burma’s west that are denied citizenship, used as force labor, made to live in camps, and denied other basic rights by the Burmese government, which is justified by a 1982 citizenship law.
Central African Republic
Séléka fighters attempted to kidnap two senior CAR government officials this week, highlighting the continued instability and the growing boldness of the Séléka rebel coalition. The CAR Minister for Youth and Sport, Armel Ningatoloum Sayo, was kidnapped on January 25th by a group of armed gunmen; his present fate remains unclear. In a separate incident, Séléka fighters also attempted to kidnap the CAR Minister of Education, Eloi Anguimate, as he was traveling through a northern market town. Anguimate managed to escape his captors; however, his accompanying assistants and several local officials were taken captive.
The United States issued a statement condemning the kidnappings and recent attacks against UN officials and humanitarian aid workers. The statement reaffirmed U.S. support for free and democratic elections, while condemning those “who would foment violence and disrupt the transition process.” Earlier in the week, two French aid workers working for a Catholic medical organization were also kidnapped—ironically by Christian anti-balaka fighters.
Leaders from the United Nations joined the U.S. in condemning the violent militia leaders, calling for the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The proposal stems from the findings of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, which issued a report in December of last year warning of ethnic cleansing and the growing risk of genocide.
In brighter news, the vice president of CAR’s Catholic bishop conference announced that Pope Francis intends to visit the war-torn country later in the year, in an effort to “bridge the gaps between [the Muslim and Christian populations] and direct them towards dialogue and reconciliation.”
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
On 19 January, protests erupted In Kinshasa and in other urban areas across the DRC-notably Goma and Bukavu in the east. Activists rallied against a proposed law that would tie 2016 presidential elections to a census, causing delays in the electoral process of up to several years and illegally extending current President Kabila’s tenure. In response to protests, Congolese police opened fire on demonstrators. Estimates put the total fatality count at 20-40 activists. The government also shut down mobile phone and internet-based communication for several days in an effort to curb the protests. Key Congolese opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi released a statement on the second day of the demonstrations, expressing solidarity and condolences for victims of police brutality. On 23 January, the Congolese Senate heeded the will of the public and decided to reject the census measure. For a visual representation of the demonstrations, amateur video from Congolese videographers may be accessed here (warning: includes several graphic images).
In August, the DRC and its regional partners set a repatriation deadline for the FDLR militia, requiring forces to surrender or face military action by 2 January 2015. Martin Kobler, civilian chief of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the DRC (MONUSCO) estimates that 1,400 to 2,000 FDLR militants remain active in eastern Congo — a reduction of about 90% from the group’s original strength in 1994. While Kobler states that UN forces are trained and pre-deployed to mount an offensive against the group, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Lasdous warns that any action must proceed cautiously in an effort to limit civilian casualties, given the militia’s immersion within Congolese communities. Some analysts believe that military action on the part of MONUSCO and the Congolese army (FARDC) is unlikely to yield success against the FDLR, chiefly because the militia is likely to simply flee under military pressure.
Fifteen years ago, the United Nations (UN) passed UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325, calling on women to actively participate in international peacebuilding processes. In eastern Congo, while awareness of Resolution 1325 continues to grow, women still experience significant barriers to participation in the peace process. Women in prominent political and civic roles often face accusations of promiscuity from their male peers, to the effect that many remain pressured into silence. Women activists lament that where peacekeeping organizations may have gender quotas to ensure female representation, the females in these organizations are often forced to accept marginal roles.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international non-governmental organization dedicated to providing medical aid to those in need, stated late last week that the Sudanese government is systematically blocking aid from reaching civilians. Because of the government’s continued interference in aid delivery, the organization has stopped its mission in Sudan. After repeated government interference and the bombing of an MSF hospital, the organization has decided it is too risky to stay in a country where the government does not want them. Although some factions of MSF will stay behind in less hostile areas of Sudan, the majority of MSF work in the country will stop.
Additionally, there have been reports that Sudanese rebels in Sudan’s South Kordofan province have detained six Bulgarians working for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). The flight, which was scheduled to fly from South Sudan to Khartoum, had to land in an area determined an active war zone. The rebels suspected the helicopter of being a government army helicopter, and those aboard were removed from the aircraft for questioning. The rebels have stated that they will release the Bulgarian workers as soon as they confirm that they are with the WFP and “not for the benefit of the Sudanese government”.
Finally, reports have emerged that Sudan’s army has faced severe losses at the hands of the rebel forces. The government defeat reportedly came after local militias loyal to the Sudanese government known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) mutinied in a garrison in South Kordofan. The leader of the rebel faction, Yasser Arman stated that, “Bashir knows he cannot crush what he calls rebellion.” He also claimed that this was the largest attack on government forces since the outbreak of the war in 2011.
The African Union (AU) issued a statement on 31 January in Addis Abba, Ethiopia threatening potential sanctions on South Sudan. The proposed sanctions will be imposed on all warring parties in South Sudan who continue to violate the cessation of hostilities agreement. The United Nations Security Council and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African regional bloc, have also threatened to impose sanctions.
The African Union is currently under heat from many human rights organizations for deferring the publishing of its official report on the atrocities committed in South Sudan. According to Amnesty International, the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry has filed a report on the atrocities committed in South Sudan, but refuses to publish it. The commission’s job in South Sudan was to investigate human rights abuses committed by both sides of the conflict and offer recommendations for accountability. Amnesty accused the AU of failing “the thousands of South Sudanese victims who are waiting for truth and justice”.
Finally, President Salva Kiir and rebel rival, Riek Machar have been in peace talks in Addis Ababa since Wednesday. There were rumors that President Kiir was not healthy enough to attend talks, but these rumors were deemed untrue by doctors and the talks have resumed. WHile President Kiir and former Vice President Machar have agreed to form a unity government, they remain deadlocked over the powers of the future prime minister.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), as of December 2014, 200,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war that grew out of the Arab Spring in 2011. Director Rami Abdul Rahman of the British-based monitor claims that these numbers underestimate a much greater death toll, though this has yet to be confirmed by organizations such as the United Nations, which last updated its figure in August 2014.
After insufficient funding forced the suspension of a food assistance program to Syrian refugees, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) launched a successful 72-hour fundraising campaign that exceeded the $68 million needed to continue the program. Thanks to donors and continued cooperation between the WFP and host country governments, the United Nations resumed providing food vouchers to the 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.
New cases of foreign hostages by the Islamic State have surfaced, most notably the kidnapping of Japanese reporter Kenji Goto and military contractor Haruna Yukawa. In a video released to YouTube, their captors threatened the two Japanese citizens with murder, demanding $200 million (the same amount that Japanese President Shinzo Abe pledged in non-military aid to Middle Eastern countries combating the Islamic State) from Japan before the expiration of a 72-hour deadline. After failing to respond to the ransom, Islamic State released a photograph of Yukawa beheaded, and demanded the release of Jordanian militant, Sajida al-Rishawi, in order to spare Goto’s life.
The Saudi Arabian-backed Islamist armed opposition group, Islam Army, fired between 50 and 150 rockets on Damascus in one of the city’s largest attacks in a year, killing at least seven people. With the passing of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah and subsequent appointment of King Salman, it remains to be seen how the Kingdom will proceed in its commitment to fighting the Islamic State. Near Aleppo, the Al-Qaeda-supported Nusra Front attacked and killed four members of the western-backed Free Syrian Army group’s Hazm Movement. The Free Syrian Army’s Hazm Movement is supported by the United States and is among the few non-Islamist rebel groups that oppose Assad. Near the border between Turkey and Syria, Kurdish fighters backed by the United States have nearly reclaimed the town of Kobani from Islamic State militants who seized the territory in July of 2014. United States-backed forces have bombed Islamic State holdings in Kobani, and are aided by Syrian Kurdish YPG and Iraqi Kurdish groups in their efforts to expel Islamic State militants.
On the international front, results of a four-day consultation of Russian diplomats and experts by Syrian delegates were inconclusive, largely due to the absence of the Syrian National Coalition and other key stakeholders in the conflict. Russia continues to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian and Russian delegations focused on the importance of fighting terrorism, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offering to facilitate local cease-fires in Syria between the government and opposition forces.
In the United States, the Republican-led House Committee on Homeland Security, responsible for granting the admission of refugees to the US, questioned the Obama administration’s plan to resettle greater numbers of Syrian refugees. Congressional representatives sent a letter to the White House citing national security and terrorism concerns about the plan. The State Department’s expects to admit between 1000 and 2000 Syrian refugees this year, and is currently reviewing around 4000 applications for resettlement.
Emerging Conflicts: Yemen
Yemen’s state is on the verge of collapse after Houthi forces took over the capital of Sana’a on 20 January. The rebels beat back government forces and surrounded the capitol. After the rebels offered a number of demands to President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, the President, his cabinet, and the Prime Minister chose to resign. The move seems to have caught the Houthis by surprise and it is not clear who is actually in charge of the country. While normally power would be transferred to the vice president, Hadi had still not named a vice president after three years in office. The next in line is the speaker of Parliament, Yahya al-Rai’i, but Yemen has not had parliamentary elections since 2003 and al-Rai’i only became speaker after his predecessor died in 2007.
The Houthis seem to have wanted large influence over the government but not to formally take it over. However, they have suggested that they will name a Presidential Council to rule the government. If the Houthis do take power, they will likely struggle to control the country. The rebel group, which is from the north of the country, has little control over the South. There have been reports that southern parts of the country will push for secession, but al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is also strong in that part of the country. Yemen is also heavily reliant on Saudi aid, and this would likely be withdrawn if the Houthis take power. Another complication is that the Houthis rise to power was facilitated by an alliance with their long-term enemy, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it is unclear how long that alliance will last. Saleh was forced to leave office in 2012 after major protests, but he seems to have worked with the Houthis to remove power from President Hadi. There is also the possibility that Hadi’s resignation will be rejected.
The conflict is shaped by religious affiliations and international political alliances, but these defy easy categorizations. Hadi’s government was Sunni and backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is also Sunni but strongly opposed the ruling government and the Houthis. AQAP has been a major target of US drone strikes, making Yemen a key area of the United States’ counterterror strategy. The Houthis seem to have support from Iran but are acting independently. Both Iran and the Houthis are Shia, although they come from different sects, Twelver and Zaydi, respectively. While the Houthis are a Shia rebel group, they have also worked with Sunni groups in the past. They have tried to address many popular grievances with the government and have participated in nonviolent actions against the government. Still, the often aggressive methods of the Houthis have caused them to be distrusted by many Sunni groups.