Over the past five weeks in Southeast Asia, demonstration activity and fighting between state forces and rebel groups featured prominently across the region. In Myanmar, clashes between state forces and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) decreased in the lead up to the Union Peace Conference, though fighting increased in the following weeks. In the Philippines, shortly after an uptick in fighting between Islamist groups and state forces, a rare and deadly suicide bombing was carried out by local Abu Sayyaf militants. Meanwhile, two prominent human rights activists who had been red-tagged by the administration were killed, allegedly by state forces. In Indonesia, increased violence by rebel groups was reported in Papua. Demonstration activity also increased in Papua last month, with a focus on the anniversary of the New York Agreement and the results of a civil servant qualification test. Anti-government demonstrations in Thailand continued to increase in early August but decreased after the government started arresting protest leaders. Cambodia also saw an increase in protest activity this month, in response to the arrest of prominent union leader Rong Chhun.
In Myanmar, the most significant development in the past five weeks was the Union Peace Conference, which took place from 19 to 21 August. In the weeks leading up to the conference, reports of fighting between EAOs and state forces decreased. The decrease in clashes came as six EAOs announced their decision not to attend the peace talks, in response to the government not extending an invitation to the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) (Radio Free Asia, 14 August 2020). The six EAOs, together with ULA/AA, make up the alliance known as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC).
Following the conclusion of the peace conference, which saw the signing of the Union Accord III that lays out a framework for the implementation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) (Myanmar Times, 21 August 2020), clashes between ULA/AA and the military intensified in Minbya, Kyauktaw, and Rathedaung townships of Rakhine state. Fighting was reported almost every day last week in Rakhine state, alongside heavy artillery fire by the military. In addition to the fighting, the burning down of hundreds of houses and the arrests of villagers by the Myanmar military in Kyauktaw township also prompted thousands of villagers to flee (BNI, 7 September 2020). The increased tensions in Rakhine state came after the military extended its unilateral ceasefire in response to an increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the country (The Irrawaddy, 25 August 2020). However, despite the fact that Rakhine state has been hardest hit by the pandemic and is currently in lockdown as a result (The ASEAN Post, 27 August 2020), the ceasefire continues to exclude Rakhine state—the ceasefire does not apply to areas where “terrorist groups” operate, and the government declared the ULA/AA such a group in March. Additionally, over the past two weeks in Shan state, the military also clashed with other FPNCC members, including the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA), Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA), and Kachin Independence Organization/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA).
In the Philippines, Islamist violence was muted at the beginning of August, but reports of violence increased after a clash that killed four militants broke out between state forces and Dawlah Islamiyah on 8 August. On 24 August, following a slight uptick in Islamist violence the week prior, two women suicide bombers—reportedly linked to Abu Sayyaf leaders—consecutively set off two bombs Jolo, Sulu. The attacks killed at least 14 people, including soldiers, police, and civilians, and wounded 75 others (Rappler, 24 August 2020). The Islamic State–East Asia Province has since claimed responsibility for the blasts (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 25 August 2020). It was also reported that one of the suicide bombers was a subject of the 29 June military intelligence mission that saw four soldiers being fatally shot by police (Rappler, 24 August 2020).
Meanwhile, red-tagging—or the labelling of individuals and organisations as “communists”—in the Philippines proved particularly deadly last month. Two prominent human rights activists were killed by suspected state forces within a week of each other. Randall “Randy” Echanis, a peace consultant and the national chairperson of left-wing party Anakpawis, was slain in his home in Quezon City on 10 August, while Zara Alvarez, a paralegal for human rights group Karapatan, was killed on 17 August. Both activists had been included in the Philippine Department of Justice’s 2018 “terror list”, although their names were removed later on (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 17 August 2020). Several demonstrations were held in response to these killings.
In Indonesia, there was an increase in Papua-related demonstrations and political violence events over the past five weeks. A spike in demonstrations was reported on 15 August, as Papuans across the country gathered to protest against the New York Agreement, which was signed on 15 August 1962. The agreement allowed the transfer of the territory of West Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia without consultation with the Papuan people (Jakarta Globe, 15 August 2020). Meanwhile, hundreds of Papuans also took to the streets after failing to pass a civil servant recruitment test (Antara News, 4 August 2020). They rejected the test results and also demanded that the government fulfil its promise of allocating 80 percent of civil servant positions in Papua to Papuans (Suara Papua, 26 August 2020). The position of a civil servant is one of the most coveted jobs in Indonesia for reasons such as prestige (The Diplomat, 4 October 2018).
Additionally, state forces clashed with the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) in Papua on two occasions, once in Dekai town, where two fatal attacks of non-Papuans by the TPNPB were also reported last month. Security forces have since carried out raids in Dekai town in response to the attacks (Human Rights Papua, 3 September 2020). Tensions in Papua have been rising amid increasing opposition to the extension of Papua’s special autonomy status—due to expire in 2021—and demands for a referendum for self-determination.
Anti-government protests in Thailand continued on an upward trend in early August, but things have taken a turn since authorities started cracking down on the demonstrations by arresting protest leaders (Channel News Asia, 26 Aug 2020). The arrests intensified after protesters made controversial speeches challenging the monarchy at a major demonstration held at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus on 10 Aug (Thai PBS, 20 August 2020). However, none of the arrested protest leaders have been charged under the lese majeste law so far. Thai authorities have dramatically reduced their implementation of the law since King Vajiralongkorn took over the throne in late 2016 (The Diplomat, 6 June 2020). Several protests have also been organised in opposition to the arrests of protest leaders.
In response to the ongoing anti-government movement, last month also saw an increase in demonstrations organised by royalists to show support for the establishment. A recently formed royalist group called Thai Pakdee led a number of demonstrations pledging their support for the monarchy. The biggest demonstration of its kind was held on 30 August, with more than 1000 participants (South China Morning Post, 30 August 2020). Royalist demonstrators have come up with their own set of demands to counter those of the anti-government movement: no dissolution of Parliament, maximum legal action against dissenters, and no changes to the constitution (Bangkok Post, 30 August 2020). While no violence between pro- and anti-government demonstrators have been reported so far, the increase in demonstrations by royalist groups signals increased tensions between the two groups.
Lastly, in Cambodia, demonstration activity also increased in the last month following the arrest of prominent union leader Rong Chhun, allegedly in relation to comments he had made regarding a land issue at the Cambodia-Vietnam border (Front Line Defenders, 6 August 2020). Union members and activists have held eight demonstrations, some with around 100 participants (Radio Free Asia, 26 August 2020), over the course of the last month demanding Rong Chhun’s release. In response to the protests, like their Thai counterparts, Cambodian authorities have carried out a series of arrests of protest leaders (VOD, 13 August 2020). The suppression of the demonstrations come in the wake of the European Union’s decision to suspend its Everything But Arms trade agreement with Cambodia—which proved highly lucrative for Cambodia—after carrying out an investigation into the country’s human rights practices (Cambodianess, 12 August 2020).
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