Asia/Africa update: June 16 2017



Armenian separatists in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave say that three of their soldiers were killed in fighting with Azerbaijani forces on Friday. This region has been a lot quieter this year than I’d expected, but it’s still a brushfire waiting to break out given a big enough spark.


Six Indian soldiers were reportedly killed on Friday when their vehicle was ambushed by Kashmiri rebels. Earlier in the day there were heavy clashes between Indian forces, rebels, and rebel-sympathetic protesters in the southern Kashmiri village of Arwani, and at least two people were killed in that fighting. Two police officers were killed by rebels in the city of Srinagar on Thursday as well, so things are a bit volatile here at the moment.


A small improvised explosive went off in Bangkok on Friday, wounding a street cleaner. There’s been a bit of an epidemic of this sort of thing, which police seem to believe is being caused by opponents of the country’s military government. For example, the suspect in last month’s bombing of a Bangkok hospital, a much more serious incident but potentially still illustrative, does seem to have been motivated by a hostility toward military rule.

Speaking of the ruling junta, they’re pushing a new law to force the country’s Buddhist temples to reveal their finances. They say the intention is to root out corruption, which admittedly does seem to be a problem in Thailand’s Buddhist religious community, but there’s some understandable resistance to forcing religious institutions to turn their detailed financial records over to an autocratic military government.


The US Justice Department is trying to recover over half a billion dollars that it says has been embezzled from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, by people close to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Overall the DOJ says that around $4.5 billion has been stolen from the fund, but the Malaysia government–Razak’s government, obviously–is denying that anything was stolen at all.


Philippine officials are saying that their forces now control 90 percent of the city of Marawi, which is a full three weeks in to a siege caused when several hundred ISIS-aligned militants tried to take control of it back in late May. They estimate that about 150 fighters are left, but remain concerned that some of the militants may have been able to escape along with fleeing civilians and could be planning attacks in other towns and cities nearby.


It seems like to bloom on the Trump-Xi rose is starting to wear off:

There is no foreign leader on whom President Trump has placed a bigger bet than Xi Jinping of China.

Mr. Trump’s gamble was based on his calculation that Mr. Xi, the Chinese president, could put heavy pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons and missile programs. To secure Mr. Xi’s cooperation, the president soft-pedaled his harsh stance on China’s trade practices, and has said little about its adventurism in the South China Sea.

But a growing number of Mr. Trump’s aides fear that the bet is not paying off.

China has not significantly tightened the pressure on North Korea since Mr. Trump met with Mr. Xi in Palm Beach, Fla., in April. Its failure to do more has frustrated White House officials, who plan to raise the issue with their Chinese counterparts at a high-level meeting here on June 21.

China has taken some steps–capping coal imports, limiting commerce with North Korea, but these have been incremental rather than the big ticket moves the Trump administration seems to want. And, frankly, there’s no reason why Beijing would take those big steps, because what Beijing wants is talks between the US and North Korea that end with North Korea ending its nuclear program in exchange for the US drastically reducing is role and presence in South Korea. If they were to somehow leverage North Korea into capitulation, assuming that were even possible, then they wouldn’t potentially get America off of the Korean Peninsula.

Given China’s minimal usefulness on this issue, the administration may begin to explore more direct contact with Pyongyang, perhaps building on the recent release of American citizen Otto Warmbier, the grave condition Warmbier was in when he was released notwithstanding.


With 5000 people demonstrating against the measure outside the building, the Japanese parliament on Thursday passed a new broad anti-crime bill that, under the guise of combatting terrorism, takes aim at, among other things, peaceful protest:

But the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and other critics point out that offences covered by the law include those with no obvious connection to terrorism or organised crime, such as sit-ins to protest construction of apartment buildings or copying music.

Opponents see the legislation as part of Abe’s broader mission to increase state powers, and fear ordinary citizens could be targeted, despite government assurances to the contrary.

Renho Murata, leader of the opposition Democratic party, said Abe’s administration had pushed through a “brutal” law that would infringe on freedom of thought.

Critics fear that the law, combined with a widening of legal wiretapping and the reluctance of courts to limit police surveillance powers, could deter grassroots opposition to government policies.

Earlier this week David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, presented a report to the UN human rights council suggesting that press freedom in Japan is under serious attack. The Japanese government reacted angrily to the report, as one would expect, but Thursday’s bill suggests there may really be something problematic happening in Tokyo.

Within the last couple of hours, a story broke that a US naval destroyer, the Fitzgeraldcollided with a Philippine cargo ship off the Japanese coast. There’s no information as to how it happened and no word yet of any fatalities, but seven US crewmembers are missing as of the latest reports I’ve seen.



Well, this is awkward. It seems Saudi Arabia sent 200 metric tons of dates to Nigeria for Ramadan to be given as gifts to people who have lost their homes in the Boko Haram insurgency. Dates, you see, are the traditional fast-breaking food as it is said Muhammad himself ate them at sundown during Ramadan to break his fast, so while the Saudis may have ulterior motives for doing something like this, it’s still a decent small gesture for people who have lost everything. Unfortunately, those Saudi dates seem to have wound up for sale in local markets in Borno state, the central hub of the Boko Haram conflict, and Riyadh, understandably, would like to find out why. The Nigerian government says it’s investigating.


Say, this didn’t take long. Just a few days after Qatar pulled its peacekeepers off of the Eritrea-Djibouti border, after both countries opted to side with Saudi Arabia in the intra-Gulf diplomatic spat, the Djibouti government accused Eritrean troops of moving in to occupy disputed border territory. If true this puts Eritrea in violation of a 2009 UN Security Council resolution that was supposed to prevent another outbreak of the border clashes the two countries fought in 2008. Qatar had been mediating the dispute since 2010, but clearly they hadn’t gotten close to a real resolution given how quickly the situation seems to have deteriorated in Qatar’s absence.


Four people were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in northeastern Kenya on Friday. The bomb was likely planted by Somalia’s al-Shabab terror group.


I highly recommend Anjan Sundaram’s piece on Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who promised in 2010 that he would not seek election to a third term in 2017 and now has changed Rwandan law so that he can theoretically remain in office through 2034:

Rwanda’s constitution was changed last year to allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034. Like many authoritarian leaders – in Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as the Rwandan regimeleading up to the 1994 genocide – Kagame justifies his rule with statistics about how many schools and hospitals his government has built and the pace of his country’s economic growth. Like many of those dictators, Kagame is praised for maintaining stability in Rwanda.

But each year that Kagame stays in power more Rwandan politicians are killed, jailed or forced into exile. Journalists are murdered and imprisoned. And institutions essential for long-term peace, such as an independent parliament and judiciary, are corrupted. His political party all but controls the economy, seizing businesses at will and monopolizing sectors. Kagame allows no rivals to his power. He has not even engineered a “Putin”, by installing a puppet president at this year’s election. And as he clings to power he raises the likelihood of violence in Rwanda.

Kagame is still feted in some circles in the West as the man who ended the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and, in fairness, he deserves that credit. But he’s run the country unchallenged ever since, first de facto as head of the military and then de jure as president. Nobody remains in unchecked power over a nation for three decades without abusing power along the way, Kagame certainly included.


Remember how the US and Uganda ended their support for the mission to take down the Lord’s Resistance Army and kill or capture Joseph Kony a couple of months ago? Well it seems the LRA has been having a bit of a resurgence since then:

The outlawed Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has stepped up attacks in Democratic Republic of Congo close to the South Sudanese border as a U.S.-supported regional task force pulls out, the U.N. humanitarian office said in a report on Friday.

Forty rebels from the group, which is led by Joseph Kony, kidnapped 61 civilians in a June 7 raid in the Tanganyika mining area near the Garamba National Park in Haut-Uele province, the report said, citing local civil society and aid workers.

The civilians were released after being forced to move goods and food looted by the LRA, and an unknown number of villagers subsequently fled to the nearby town of Gangala Nabodio.

There had been no LRA-related displacement for more than five years in the province, the U.N. said. But aid workers were now worried about the safety of people across a vast area.

“Since the end of the mission of the Regional Task Force (RTF), which was mandated to eliminate the LRA, the security situation has seriously deteriorated in the Garamba National Park,” the U.N. report said.

The LRA has been poaching elephants, kidnapping children, and engaging in occasional skirmishes with DRC forces in recent months. Nobody knows where Kony is and it’s quite possible he’s out of contact with his fighters, but it seems the organization isn’t as eroded as the US and Uganda suggested when they ended their participation in the anti-LRA operation.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley is calling for the UN human rights council to undertake a thorough investigation into new reports that DRC soldiers have been engaging in war crimes in the Kasai region. The Kamwina Nsapu rebellion has been ongoing in that region since last summer, and there have been consistent reports of government abuses during the fighting.


Tom Thabane (Wikimedia)

Lesotho has a new prime minister, but he’s a familiar face. Tom Thabane was sworn in on Friday after his party won a snap election on June 3. Thabane was previously PM  from 2012-2014 and again from late 2014 through early 2015, but he fled the country after losing a snap election in 2015 citing instability. It’s hoped that he’ll be able to tamp down on political violence and military intervention in civilian politics, but things are already off to a grim start–Thabane’s estranged wife was murdered on Wednesday in what may have been an attempt to intimidate the new government.

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