Last week in Southeast Asia, clashes between the military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) remained muted in Rakhine state, while fresh clashes were reported in Shan state and Mandalay region. Meanwhile, there was an increase in demonstration activity across the Southeast Asia region. In Myanmar, protests denouncing alleged electoral fraud were reported. In Thailand, the violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations led to a subsequent spike in demonstration events. In Indonesia, demonstrations were held in several cities in opposition to the leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who had recently returned to Indonesia. Lastly, in the Philippines, students protested against the negligence of the Duterte administration in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and recent natural disasters.
In Myanmar, fighting has decreased notably in Rakhine state, where battles between the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) and state forces had taken place frequently before the 8 November election. However, clashes were reported in Shan state and Mandalay region. The Kachin Independence Organization/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA) clashed with the military in Muse township, Shan state. Clashes between the two groups have been rare this year. In Mandalay region, a clash between the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA) and the military was reported in Mogoke. The new clashes come as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) – which the ULA/AA, the KIO/KIA, and the PSLF/TNLA are all part of – issued a statement on 18 November congratulating the National League for Democracy (NLD) on winning the election. The group pledged their cooperation in seeking national reconciliation (RFA, 24 November 2020). None of the seven EAOs that make up the FPNCC are signatories to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
Meanwhile, there was a spike in demonstration events in Myanmar as the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) organized demonstrations over alleged election fraud. Several protests calling for an investigation into election fraud and denouncing the electoral commission were held across multiple states and regions. These protests come as the USDP continues its efforts to dispute the results of the election which the NLD won decisively. The USDP has reportedly submitted more than 860 complaints to the Union Election Commission (UEC) over this year’s elections (Myanmar Times, 22 November 2020). This is by far the highest number of electoral disputes submitted to the UEC compared to the 2010 and 2015 elections (Mizzima, 21 November 2020).
In Thailand, there was a surge in the number of anti-government demonstrations following a major rally outside the Thai parliament on 17 November as lawmakers met to discuss proposed amendments to the constitution. On the same day, thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched to the parliament in Bangkok to demand constitutional reforms (The Guardian, 17 November 2020). As they marched, police repeatedly fired tear gas and water cannons laced with chemicals to prevent them from gathering outside the parliament. A standoff that lasted for several hours ensued as demonstrators tried to break through police barricades. Royalist groups later entered the fray and got into a confrontation with some demonstrators. Gunshots and explosions were then heard. A total of 55 people were injured, including five or six demonstrators who sustained gunshot wounds (Prachatai, 18 November 2020). This was the most violent confrontation that the student-led anti-government movement has endured since demonstrations erupted in July of this year.
The response to the 17 November demonstration sparked protests across multiple provinces. Protesters decried the violence against the anti-government demonstrators, including the use of force by police. On 18 November, at least 10,000 protesters marched to the police headquarters in Bangkok to denounce the police’s actions the previous day (The Guardian, 18 November 2020). Protesters wore protective gear in anticipation of another violent crackdown by police. However, police did not intervene even as protesters covered the premises with paint. Some protesters also expressed dissatisfaction about the double standards of the police force, which they perceive as being much more lenient towards royalist groups than anti-government groups (The Nation Thailand, 18 November 2020). As the authorities continue to press charges against anti-government demonstrators, including school students (Matichon, 18 November 2020), Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha threatened to use “all laws” against protesters (Bangkok Post, 20 November 2020). This contradicts a statement Prayut made earlier in June in which he stated that the lèse-majesté law would not be used against civilians, in accordance with the king’s request (Thai Enquirer, 15 June 2020). It also signals an escalation in the authorities’ attempts to suppress the protest movement.
Meanwhile, the proposed draft of constitutional amendments backed by anti-government demonstrators was rejected by parliament (Prachatai, 19 November 2020). The draft – also referred to as the “people’s draft” – was submitted by a civil society group called Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). iLaw’s draft garnered more than 100,000 signatures from Thai citizens and is the first charter amendment draft from civil society to be tabled in parliament (Thai PBS World, 17 November 2020). The main changes proposed in iLaw’s draft concern limiting the powers of the senate. Unsurprisingly, the draft did not receive sufficient support from senators for a second reading (Bangkok Post, 19 November 2020). The rejection of iLaw’s draft has sparked further dissatisfaction among anti-government protesters, who viewed the amendments proposed in the draft as a path towards reconciliation with the government. They expressed their intention to continue demonstrating, with the next major rally scheduled for 25 November (The Thaiger, 19 November 2020).
In Indonesia, last week saw an increase in protest activity triggered by the return of the controversial leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the previous week. People staged protests in several cities to express their disapproval of the FPI leader and ask that he does not visit their cities. Protesters also asserted that they lived harmoniously with one another regardless of race, religion, or class. Members of the FPI – which strives for the nationwide implementation of Shariah law – are notorious for harassing and assaulting religious and other minorities in Indonesia (RFA, 11 November 2020). Protesters feared that a visit by the FPI leader to their cities would spark social unrest. Additionally, protests were also held to demand that the government prosecute Rizieq for violating coronavirus restrictions. Rizieq had hosted an event on 14 November to celebrate his daughter’s wedding and to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Thousands of people turned up for the event and social distancing measures were not implemented (The Jakarta Post, 15 November 2020). The police have since issued a fine to the cleric, and two police chiefs were demoted for allowing the event to take place (Tempo, 19 November 2020).
Notwithstanding the backlash from its recent mass gatherings, the FPI is insisting that it will go ahead with its annual mass gathering on 2 December despite coronavirus concerns—unless the government calls off regional elections that are scheduled for 9 December as a quid pro quo (Coconuts, 18 November 2020). The annual event was first held in 2016 by the umbrella group known as Alumni 212 – which the FPI is part of – to demand the resignation of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Alumni 212 accused Ahok, who is ethnically Chinese and Christian, of blasphemy. He was eventually jailed on the same charges. The group has since held annual gatherings on the same date as part of its efforts for a “moral revolution.” In response to FPI’s threats, the military threatened to disband the group to protect the country’s “unity and integrity” (Asia Times, 22 November 2020).
Finally, in the Philippines, students protested in Quezon City against the alleged “criminal negligence” of the Duterte administration in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent typhoons that have plagued the country (Bulatlat, 17 November 2020). Many more students and faculty members across the country expressed their dissatisfaction with the Duterte administration by calling for an academic strike (Philstar, 21 November 2020). In response to the calls to strike, the president is threatening to defund the universities (Rappler, 18 November 2020). Meanwhile, anti-communist pro-government groups also held demonstrations at several universities to rally support for the government and condemn the alleged recruitment of university students by the communist New People’s Army (NPA).
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