Last week in Southeast Asia, the number of clashes between the military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) remained low in Myanmar as the country held general elections on 8 November. Nonetheless, civilian casualties from explosives continue to be reported in Rakhine state. In the Philippines, fighting between Islamist groups and state forces continued alongside an uptick in drug-related violence. Meanwhile, demonstration activity decreased in Thailand and Indonesia. Anti-government protests persisted in Thailand, albeit at a lower frequency. Meanwhile, the number of royalist demonstrations increased. In Indonesia, demonstrations against both the omnibus law on job creation and the French President’s “anti-Islam” comments dwindled this week.
In Myanmar, the number of clashes remained low for a second week in a row following the 8 November general election. As was widely anticipated, the election saw the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a landslide victory, securing even more parliamentary seats than it did when it first came to power in 2015 (Myanmar Times, 15 November 2020). Dissatisfied with the results of the polls, the main opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), called for the elections to be held again. The military-backed USDP demanded that the electoral commission cooperate with the military to secure “a free, unbiased and disciplined vote” (Irrawaddy, 11 November 2020). USDP and United Democratic Party (UDP) supporters echoed these demands during a protest at the Union Election Commission’s office in the capital Nay Pyi Taw last week.
Meanwhile, the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) also called for “by-elections” to be held in constituencies in Rakhine state where elections were cancelled due to security concerns (for more on this, see this recent ACLED CDT spotlight). More than a million voters from Rakhine state were disenfranchised because of the cancelation of polls by the electoral commission (RFA, 11 November 2020). While the military has distanced itself from the USDP’s demands for a rerun of the election, it has welcomed the ULA/AA’s request (Irrawaddy, 16 November 2020; Eleven Media Group, 13 November 2020). This comes on the heels of a 9 November announcement by the military that it has established a committee to work on a nationwide ceasefire with all EAOs, including those that have not signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (Irrawaddy, 10 November 2020). Meanwhile, the Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the ULA/AA, renewed its calls for the government to remove it from the list of terrorist groups. The alliance also extended its unilateral ceasefire – originally due to expire after the elections – until the end of the year (Development Media Group, 12 November 2020).
Notwithstanding hopes for a new peace deal as a result of these developments, alongside muted fighting over the last two weeks, civilian casualties in Rakhine state continue to be reported (for more on this, see this recent piece). Last week, shelling by the military and bombs left behind by armed groups killed at least one civilian and injured at least six others in Myebon and Ann townships. Meanwhile, villagers in Kyaukpyu district continue to flee from their homes amid increased military presence and arrests of civilians accused of having connections to the ULA/AA (Narinjara News, 11 November 2020).
In the Philippines, state forces continue to engage in deadly clashes with Islamist groups. Last week, at least six members of Dawlah Islamiyah were killed while fighting with police in South Cotabato. Fighting broke out when police attempted to serve an arrest warrant to a Dawlah Islamiyah member whom they suspected killed a police officer earlier this year. The suspect was killed in the shootout. The clash was notable in that it involved a faction of the Islamist group that allegedly has close ties with both the Islamic State and Ansar al-Khilafah.
Elsewhere in the Philippines, there was an uptick in drug-related violence, with at least seven drug suspects killed by both vigilantes and state forces. Separately, a journalist was shot dead by unidentified assailants outside his home. While a motive for the attack has yet to be established, he was known for his critical stance against local politicians allegedly involved in illegal gambling. A first attempt on his life was made in 2016, and his assailants tried to frame him as a drug suspect after the attack (Kodao, 10 November 2020). The increase in violence linked to the drug war comes as President Rodrigo Duterte appointed a new chief of the Philippine National Police on 9 November. Debold Sinas’ appointment as the new chief of police was met with strong negative reactions, especially from human rights groups such as Karapatan and Amnesty International, which issued statements voicing concern about Sinas’ record. They also stated that human rights violations in the country will likely increase during Sinas’ tenure (Rappler, 9 November 2020). As a first order, Duterte has tasked Sinas with intensifying the crackdown on drugs (ABS-CBN, 11 November 2020).
Meanwhile, in Thailand, the number of anti-government demonstrations continued to decline, with last week exhibiting one of the lowest numbers of weekly demonstrations recorded since the movement started in July of this year. The decrease in events comes after a mass rally held on 8 November, during which thousands of demonstrators marched to submit letters to the king (CNA, 8 November 2020). Demonstrators called for the king to heed their calls for monarchy reform and to support their demand that the military be removed from Thai politics. Brief scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators when police used water cannons to disperse the march, resulting in injuries on both sides. As anti-government demonstrators marched to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, royalists protested nearby to express their support for the king and to call for a coup (Khaosod, 12 November 2020).
The number of royalist demonstrations increased last week, marking the first week during which the number of royalist demonstrations surpassed that of anti-government demonstrations this year. The increase in support from royalists comes amidst more frequent public appearances by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, which have attracted large crowds of supporters (Reuters, 11 November 2020; Bangkok Post, 14 November 2020). This is in stark contrast to his rare participation in public events in past years. His increased intimacy with the people is viewed by some anti-government demonstrators as a bid to galvanize support for the monarchy, which could in turn lead to increased tensions between the royalist and anti-government camps.
In Indonesia last week, the number of demonstrations dwindled. This decrease follows weeks of ongoing demonstrations primarily against the controversial omnibus law on job creation, but more recently also against French President Emmanuel Macron’s “anti-Islam” remarks. The demonstrations calling for the revocation of the omnibus law — which critics say is detrimental to worker rights and environmental protection — have recently been accompanied by calls for the government to increase the minimum wage next year. The protest movement against the law has been driven primarily by students. However, unlike in previous weeks, students did not feature prominently in last week’s demonstrations as the focus of the movement shifts more towards the minimum wage issue. Rather, most protests were attended solely by workers or labor groups.
Meanwhile, the controversial founder and leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, returned to Indonesia on 10 November after spending three years in self-exile in Saudi Arabia (Benar News, 10 November 2020). His return — which was met with overwhelming support (The Diplomat, 11 November 2020) — amid the wave of anti-omnibus law and anti-Macron demonstrations, is viewed by some as a politically opportunistic move that could potentially reinvigorate the FPI and cause further unrest in the country (Benar News, 11 November 2020). The FPI, known for its penchant to harass and assault religious minorities (SCMP, 10 November 2020), was the main group responsible for the ousting of the ethnically Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, in 2016 (New Mandala, 16 November 2016). More recently, they participated in and led a number of demonstrations denouncing both the omnibus law — accompanied by calls for President Joko Widodo’s resignation — and French President Macron (The Jakarta Post, 13 October 2020).
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