Last week in Southeast Asia, clashes between the Myanmar military and Ta’ang rebels increased in Mandalay region, Myanmar, while no clashes were reported between the military and Rakhine rebels in Rakhine state. The lull in fighting in Rakhine state has allowed thousands of IDPs to return home. Meanwhile, mass anti-government rallies continue to be held in Thailand, though the number of demonstrations decreased from the previous week. As protesters continue to assert pressure on the monarchy, Thai authorities have started using the severe royal defamation law against protesters. In Indonesia, ongoing demonstrations against the recently-returned leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) became violent as FPI members attempted to disperse gatherings. Lastly, violence involving Islamist groups was recorded in both Indonesia and the Philippines. Four civilians were killed by Islamist militants in Indonesia, while three militants were killed during a clash with police in the Philippines.
In Myanmar, there was an uptick in clashes between the military and the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA) in Mogoke township, Mandalay region. The fighting has caused more than 1,000 villagers to flee their homes (Irrawaddy, 26 November 2020). Earlier in the month, hundreds of civilians in Mogoke township had already fled from their villages after TNLA troops started recruiting new members in the area (Myanmar Times, 11 November 2020). Meanwhile, in Rakhine state, more than 3,000 IDPs have returned to their homes permanently, while tens of thousands more returned temporarily for the harvest season (Mizzima, 24 November 2020). IDPs have been returning to their homes as fighting in Rakhine state has not been reported for almost three consecutive weeks. This marks the longest lull in fighting in Rakhine state since the conflict between the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) and the military broke out in late 2018. The decrease in clashes comes amid mediated talks between the military and the ULA/AA over a possible ceasefire (RFA, 30 November 2020). The ULA/AA has instructed its troops to avoid fighting with the military as negotiations proceed (Myanmar Times, 27 November 2020).
In Thailand, there was a decrease in the overall number of demonstrations last week, though several large anti-government rallies were held in Bangkok. On 25 November, thousands of protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok (Guardian, 25 November 2020). King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the biggest single shareholder of the bank, which is the oldest and largest commercial bank in Thailand (Prachatai, 27 November 2020). Protesters reiterated their demand for monarchy reform alongside calls for a probe into the king’s wealth and for the reclamation of “assets that should belong to the people and the nation” (The Straits Times, 26 November 2020). The protest was originally meant to be held at the Crown Property Bureau – the entity in charge of managing the monarchy’s assets – but organizers announced a change in venue at the last minute to avoid a potential clash with royalists. Ahead of the rally, police had also issued a ban on gatherings near the Crown Property Bureau and set up barricades around the bureau using shipping containers and barbed wire (Channel News Asia, 25 November 2020).
On 27 November, an estimated 5,000 anti-government protesters took to the streets of Bangkok once more in what they called a “coup prevention” rally (Bangkok Post, 27 November 2020). Protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha while expressing opposition to any coups that might take place. The large turnout at the rally comes amid increasing rumors of a potential coup (Free Malaysia Today, 27 November 2020), despite the military chief’s dismissal of such speculation (Bangkok Post, 9 November 2020). Given Thailand’s coup-ridden history – the country has undergone more than 20 coups and coup attempts in the last century alone (CNBC, 20 August 2020) – protesters do not feel confident in the military brass’ reassurances about there being “below zero” chances for a coup to take place (Bangkok Post, 10 November 2020).
The large protests have persisted even after authorities filed lèse majesté charges against 12 protest leaders last week (Prachatai, 25 November 2020). If found guilty, they could face up to 15 years in jail. Thailand’s royal defamation law, which has not been used in over two years (The Straits Times, 30 November 2020), is among the strictest of its kind in the world (BBC, 6 October 2017). The renewed and liberal use of the law by police ahead of last week’s mass demonstrations signals an escalation in tensions between the demonstrators and authorities. It also marks an about-turn in Thai authorities’ approach to criticism of the monarchy. Earlier this year, Prayut announced that the king had requested that Thai authorities refrain from using the law against civilians (Khaosod, 15 June 2020).
In Indonesia, demonstration activity continued unabated last week, with an increase in violent demonstrations. Nearly a third of demonstration events comprised gatherings of citizens rejecting the visit of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the controversial leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), to their cities. Several of these demonstrations turned violent when FPI members attempted to disperse demonstrators. Demonstrators also continued to call for authorities to take action against Rizieq for violating coronavirus restrictions during a public event he had hosted on 14 November (The Jakarta Post, 15 November 2020). Meanwhile, in West Papua province, demonstrations were held calling for a referendum for Papuan independence ahead of the province’s self-proclaimed independence day on 1 December, when Papuans declared independence from Dutch rulers in 1961.
Finally, several deadly events involving Islamist groups linked to the Islamic State were reported in Indonesia and the Philippines last week. In Central Sulawesi province, Indonesia, the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) allegedly killed four Christian civilians and burned a Salvation Army church along with six homes. The attack – which saw one victim beheaded and another burned – comes after police killed two MIT members during a shootout the previous week when MIT members resisted arrest. Experts believe that last week’s attack by the MIT is an attempt by the Islamist group to demonstrate that it has not been weakened by state forces (Al Jazeera, 28 November 2020).
In the Philippines, three members of the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) were killed during a clash with police off the coast of Zamboanga City. Police have been pursuing ASG members linked to the prominent ASG bomb maker, Mundi Sawadjaan, who allegedly masterminded the bombings in Jolo, Sulu in August of this year. The slain ASG members were believed to have been “on a bombing mission” when killed (CNN, 25 November 2020).
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