Everything you need to know from the week ending with 11/3
In Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, thousands marched in support of a controversial so-called interfaith bill that puts restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversions in an effort to strengthen the relative majority position of Buddhism. Many critics believe this bill, which is currently in legal limbo within the Burmese parliament, is specifically designed to target the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group in Burma’s west. The Rohingya are denied citizenship, used as force labor, made to live in camps, and denied other basic rights by the Burmese government because of a 1982 citizenship law. Some report that over 100,000 Rohingya have now fled Burma.
Last week, the death of a journalist while in police custody has sparked criticism from the American and British Embassies in Yangon. The journalist, Aung Kyaw Naing, was a reporter and human rights activist covering recent clashes between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Burmese military in the east of Burma. The Burmese military claimed in a letter that it detained Aung Kyaw Naing because he was a member of an armed rebel group and was subsequently shot when he reached for the gun of a soldier. Journalists and those close to Aung Kyaw Naing are suspicious of the official accounts of his death.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the United States government each expressed concern over the Congolese government’s expulsion of Scott Campbell earlier this month. Campbell was the highest-ranking UN human rights officer in the DRC. His expulsion follows a UN report condemning 9 summary executions and 32 disappearances, for which the Congolese police force (PNC) allegedly bears responsibility. Congolese information minister Lambert Mende responded to international criticism by defending the DRC’s right to expel Campbell for what he describes as “spreading lies” and attempting to discredit the Congolese government.
Dr. Denis Mukwege of the DRC’s Bukavu province received the 2014 Shakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the highest human rights award from the European Parliament. The Parliament recognized Mukwege for his relentless activism to end the use of rape as a weapon of war and his tireless physical, social, and economic support of sexual violence survivors in eastern Congo. Mukwege said, “It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it. It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”
Three months away from the UN’s repatriation deadline for Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebel fighters, analysts believe that regional tensions between the DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa may complicate the disarmament process. While the UN and Rwandan authorities are eager to pursue military action against the FDLR, South Africa and Tanzania advocate political dialogue as the most viable solution. FDLR fighters, for their part, refuse to take part in the UN disarmament process in the absence of political negotiations with Rwandan authorities.
MONUSCO bases in North Kivu are stepping up security in response to a recent string of attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF-NALU) in Beni, North Kivu, DRC. The attacks come after the UN and the Congolese military (FARDC) effectively neutralized the ADF rebels earlier this year. “If you want to stay in peace, you must not send us your soldiers,” one ADF fighter told a Beni resident in the midst of the attacks.
Last week in Sudan, President al-Bashir said that his army is going to launch a decisive attack against rebels in the region. After calling attention to recent military victories against rebel groups, Bashir ordered the army to prepare for a battle to end rebellion in Sudan this coming summer. The president claimed that many of the political issues in Sudan have stemmed from the rebellions throughout the country and the only way to protect Sudan is to quell these rebellions by force.
At the same time, President Al Bashir urged constitutional reforms to “streamline the process of government decentralization.” While Bashir has called on MPs to amend the national charter so that “the Sudanese people to have a say in managing their own affairs”, critics say that Bashir is seeking constitutional authority to appoint Sudan’s governors who have been chosen by elections since Sudan’s transitional constitution was adopted in 2005.
This week in South Sudan, rebel forces have continued to advance despite international pressures to negotiate peace. The rebels have captured a critical oil hub in Bentiu, raising concern about the potential progress of peace talks, which have been ongoing since the beginning of the conflict. The United Nations and the United States have both called for an immediate cease of violence and for the government to show restraint so that peace can have a chance to thrive. The two sides are facing a United Nations ultimatum that the two sides must form a power-sharing agreement or the country will face harsh sanctions that will continue to affect the already weary population. Both the United Nations and the United States have condemned these new acts of violence calling the conflict, “senseless” and “appalling”.
With this new offensive, there is also fear that the population surrounding Bentiu will be displaced and unable to access resources. The international community continues to express concern about the ramifications of the renewed violence on the population at large. International NGOs fear that as the violence continues, so will the risk of famine and the displacement of the population to refugee camps, where they face poor living conditions. International Crisis Group stated that greater coordination between regional and international actors is desperately needed in order to create high level peace talks with the potential to ensure a sustainable peace agreement.
Additionally, there have been reports that South Sudanese refugees are choosing floods over war. In a report in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, refugee Martha Nyakuk claimed that she preferred her flooded refugee camp to returning to South Sudan, showing that the situation for South Sudanese civilians is rapidly declining.
The Assad regime dropped barrel bombs on a displaced persons camp in a northern province of Idlib on Wednesday, killing dozens. Certainty regarding numbers of dead varied, with camp residents claiming that up to 75 people had died as a result of the attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, claimed ten civilians had died, while the Syrian State media neglected any mention of the attack. The US condemned the attack, noting that although that they could not be certain of the attack’s perpetrators, the overwhelming evidence was against the Assad government. Human rights groups claimed that the Assad regime has repeatedly dropped barrel bombs, “containers filled with nails, metal shrapnel and explosive material that are dropped from helicopters”, on densely populated neighbourhoods.
Lebanon has closed its borders to all Syrian refugees, with the exception of “extreme humanitarian cases”. According to Syria Deeply, Lebanon is currently home to more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, meaning that more than a quarter of the country’s 4 million residents are now Syrians. The burden has posed tremendous strain on the Lebanese government, but the decision to begin rejecting refugees has great implications for Syrians, currently seeking refuge in Lebanon at the rate of 10,000 a week. Jordan’s foreign minister Nasser Judeh warned that Syria’s neighbours are beginning to suffer what he termed “host-country fatigue”, putting it down to the “huge demand from refugees for housing, schools, jobs, and healthcare and scant resources like water.”
After being allowed passage by the Turkish government, 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reached Turkey on Wednesday, en route to join Kurds fighting off the Islamic State (ISIS) in Kobani. The Turkish government’s allowance for the passage of Iraqi Peshmerga is unprecedented, especially considering the political sensitivities of the region. The Turkish government considers the Syrian Kurds fighting in Kobani – the very same the Peshmerga sent by the Iraqi Kurdish government are going to help – to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The Turkish government designates the PKK as a terrorist group, and the PKK and have been locked in conflict with the group for the past thirty years.
Emerging Conflicts: Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is seeing massive protests as the future of its government is decided. The President of the West African country of 10 million, Blaise Compaoré, had held that title for over 27 years. Terms limits were supposed to prevent him from running for re-election in 2015. However, his party, Congress for Democracy and Progress, controlled two-thirds of the legislature, and MPs were set to vote on changing the constitution to allow Compaoré to stay in power. However, the protests that began on 21 October escalated on 30 October, the proposed day of the vote. Around 1,500 protesters broke a security cordon and stormed parliament despite tear gas and live bullets fired by soldiers. Protestors set fire to Parliament and the ruling party headquarters, took over the state television station, and marched towards the Presidential Palace.
The vote to extend Compaoré’s rule was cancelled, yet his future remained uncertain. Earlier in the day Compaoré announced a state of emergency and said that the head of the armed forces, General Honoré Traoré, would preside over it. Traoré then announced that Parliament was dissolved, a curfew was being implemented, and there would be a transitional government lasting a maximum of twelve months. Later that night Compaoré announced that he was still President and would hand over power at the end of the transitional government. Zéphirin Diabré, the main opposition leader, called the state of emergency unacceptable and called for the resignation of Compaoré. Opposition leaders also held talks with retired general Kouamé Lougué. He later marched to the Presidential Palace with supporters and was allowed in, raising fears of a military coup. A number of soldiers have also defected and joined the protests. This is not the first time Compaoré has had his rule challenged. He has extended term limits multiple times and withstood popular protests and mutinies in 2011.
On Friday, in reversal of his announcement the night before, Compaoré announced that he would be stepping down. He then fled in an armed convoy for the Ivory Coast, where he is now. General Honoré Traoré initially said he would lead the government after Compaoré, but it quickly became clear that the army preferred Lieutenant Colonel Issac Zida and he would hold power during the transition period. It appears that Traoré was seen as too close to Compaoré and Zida was more popular with the younger generation. After Zida’s appointment Burkina Faso largely returned to calm. The organizers of the protests called for protesters to help clean up the capital Ouagadougou. However, there were still some protests from those who saw Zida’s ascent to power as a military coup. On Sunday there were shots fired at the state TV station after opposition leader Saran Sereme and Kwamé Lougué showed up. It appears that they were warning shots and no one was killed.
The events have large implications beyond Burkina Faso. Compaoré was a major ally of the US and France and has allowed Burkina Faso to serve as a base for counterterrorism operations. Additionally, his fate may set a precedent for other African leaders. José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, and Joseph Kabila in the DR Congo are all facing term limits and have not confirmed that they will stand down. Compaoré’s loss of power may help determine their decisions on whether or not to try to hold onto office.