Asia/Africa update: April 24-25 2018



It appears Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation was not enough to satisfy the Armenian protesters who forced it earlier this week. Talks between interim Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan and opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on What Happens Next broke down on Wednesday after Pashinyan made it clear publicly that the entire Republican Party of Armenia must be removed from power. Pashinyan’s rationale, sensibly enough, was that Sargsyan, who is still party leader, could in practice still run the country in that post from behind the scenes. Well, that was part of his rationale. The other part is that Pashinyan wants parliament to elect a “people’s candidate” as prime minster, and while he wouldn’t name any names it’s clear that Pashinyan would, you know, graciously accept the job if The People twisted his arm enough.

The upshot is that the tens of thousands of people who came out on Tuesday to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and celebrate Sargsyan’s resignation came out again on Wednesday to renew their protests against the Republican Party establishment. Karapetyan, who seemed like somebody who could appeal to the protesters while also keeping everything on an even keel in terms of Armenia’s relationship with Russia, now seems like he may not be able to fulfill at least the first half of that dual mandate. And Armenia’s political future remains uncertain.

There’s a danger in these kinds of protests of overestimating the degree to which the protesters represent the will of the general public, but so far there’s been no indication that the general public is that fond of the Republican Party either. There’s also a danger of misinterpreting the cause of the protests, and Pashinyan seems like he might be on the verge of making this mistake. These protesters oppose Sargsyan and the stifling Armenian establishment he led. It’s not clear yet that they actually support Pashinyan or the disorganized opposition he now claims to lead. If that opposition really wants a crack at running the country, they’re going to need to start explaining what they’d like to do if they get it.


The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has produced a new report that says some damning things about the Aliyev family:

Azerbaijan’s most powerful families have been using offshore networks to make investments across Europe and the Middle East, a new report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reveals. The revelations are another in a long line of damning recent investigations digging up unsavory dirt on the Caspian state’s financial dealings.


The illicit networks, connected through Malta’s Pilatus Bank, are run by the children of President Ilham Aliyev and the country’s Minister of Emergencies Kamaladdin Heydarov, the OCCRP reported.


The previously unreported assets include one of Azerbaijan’s largest conglomerates, luxury properties in Dubai, and a hotel development in Georgia, among others.


The Pilatus accounts held by the Aliyev family were under investigation by Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. She was murdered by a car bomb in October last year.


Ilham Aliyev’s two daughters were Pilatus’ biggest clients.


The Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive on Wednesday. This is an annual event that has held less significance in recent years, as the Taliban’s increasing territorial presence and military capability has allowed them to maintain their military activities year round. But it is another indication that the group is not prepared to negotiate with Kabul. The day before, the Taliban killed at least 11 Afghan police officers and soldiers in three attacks in Farah, Ghazni, and Baghdis provinces. On Wednesday, at least three people were killed in Kabul in twin explosions caused either by grenades or magnetic bombs. It’s unclear who was behind that attack.


At least six Pakistani police officers were killed on Tuesday by a suicide bomber who targeted their vehicle in Quetta. Separately, two suicide bombers attempted to attack a checkpoint outside the city and wounded eight Pakistani paramilitaries. It’s unclear who was behind the attacks.


Two Indian security personnel and four separatist fighters were killed on Tuesday in fighting in the Tral region of Kashmir.


Indian security forces killed at least 37 Naxalite insurgents in central India between Sunday and Monday. An ambush on Sunday in which initial reports said that at least 14 rebels were killed now seems to have been much more decisive, with at least 30 rebel bodies having been identified in total after Indian forces searched a river near the site of the battle. Another battle on Monday left at least six more insurgents dead.


Reuters is reporting that a US State Department investigative team has gone to Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees about their claims of atrocities by the Myanmar government. The investigation could result in penalties against the Myanmar government and potentially serve as evidence in an international prosecution.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar military’s ongoing war against Kachin rebels, though less noticed than its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya, is intensifying and may be heading in a similar direction:

While the world is focused on the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, a civil war is raging here, pitting government forces against another of the country’s minorities — the Kachins, mostly Christian. It’s one of the longest-running wars on Earth, and it has intensified dramatically in recent months, with at least 10,000 people displaced since January alone, according to the United Nations.


The crisis, though, is also one of the world’s most forgotten, overshadowed even in Myanmar by violence against Rohingya in the west, nearly 700,000 of whom have been driven into exile by the military. While the conflicts differ, they share a tragic theme, said Zau Raw, who heads a rebel committee overseeing humanitarian aid in the mountainous sliver of territory the militants control along the Chinese frontier.


Just like the Rohingya, the Kachin have begun to realize that “the army wants to wipe us out,” he said. “This is a war to cleanse us.”


The Indonesian government says it’s investigating reports that Bahrum Syah, the man alleged to be ISIS’s most senior Indonesian leader, was killed last week in an airstrike in Syria. Bahrum Syah is believed to be the leader of Katibah Nusantara as well as one of the organizers of the Abu Sayyaf/Maute Group seizure of Marawi in the Philippines last year. His death would be a blow to ISIS’s Southeast Asian presence but could in the short term inspire reprisal attacks.


Since 2016, prosecutors in New York have reportedly been investigating China’s Huawei telecommunications giant for possible violations of sanctions against Iran. Huawei is suspected of having shipped US-made products to Iran. A similar investigation into Chinese smartphone maker ZTE Corp has cost that company at least $890 million in fines and US companies are now banned from selling hardware or software to ZTE for the next seven years.


It’s possible that North Korea’s decision to close its Punggye-ri nuclear test site wasn’t quite as magnanimous as it may have seemed at first blush. Some observers have suggested that last year’s (likely) hydrogen bomb test rendered the site too unstable to use anymore anyway, meaning that its very public closure was a convenient way to earn some goodwill with Donald Trump while not actually giving up a nuclear asset. Closer analysis, however, suggests that this is not an accurate conclusion. While the test does seem to have rendered part of the site unusable for future testing, prior to the announced closure the North Koreans appear to have been developing other areas of the site for future testing:

North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, where North Korea has conducted six acknowledged underground detonations is still, as far as we can tell, fully operational. Following Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, one area at the site—the North Portal, located at Mount Mantap where the last five underground nuclear tests had been conducted—was apparently abandoned. However, significant new tunneling was noted at the West Portal, another area of the site, up through early March 2018. That renewed tunneling was curtailed by mid-March, but not entirely stopped through early April, suggesting that either the tunnel was complete and ready for future renewed testing or that the slowdown simply mirrored the ongoing political changes underway.

It would seem that Kim Jong-un’s decision to close the site is legitimately about building goodwill for his meeting with Trump. But it’s also a decision he can reverse very quickly.

There are legitimate concerns that the collapse of the site’s north chamber may be releasing fallout into the air, but at this point those concerns seem to be mostly hypothetical and, well, maybe overhyped too:



The question of whether or not the corpse of Abdelaziz Bouteflika will run in next year’s presidential election is the question currently consuming Algerian politics. This is not accidental–as Al Jazeera’s report suggests, splashy rumors about Bouteflika running next year have been leaked recently by people around him in order to sideline potential successors:

No sooner had the declarations been made, than key figures – seen as contenders for the top post – fell in line and accepted the dictum.


“Bouteflika and those around him are flying the proverbial kite to see in which direction the wind is blowing, to see how people react,” Jeremy Keenan, an anthropology professor at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, told Al Jazeera.


“They have an advantage both in declaring and in not declaring his candidacy. By not declaring it, it means that nobody else can jump in. The longer the ambiguity remains, the more difficult it is for [Prime Minister] Ahmed Ouyahia or anybody else to start putting forward their names.”


According to Keenan, nobody would dare declare their intention to run against Bouteflika because they would immediately be seen as disloyal and be “crucified by the state media”.

Regardless of what he does next year, Bouteflika’s incapacity has meant that the contest over who gets to run Algeria when he’s gone has already been going on for a few years now. But his eventual death, or retirement, will likely lift the curtain on a lot of hitherto behind the scenes tension.

Meanwhile, Algeria is grappling with the rapid growth of Salafism in the country and the impact that’s having on Algerian society. Some elements within the Algerian government are scrambling to counter this growth, but that’s complicated by the fact that other elements within the Algerian government have been cultivating Salafism to counter other potential threats against the state:

The steady expansion of Salafism in Algeria, particularly “quietist” Salafism that eschews political activism, is a manifestation of the decay of state religious institutions and political parties, especially Islamist ones. Neighborhood imams, who once played an important role in molding the worldviews of ordinary Algerians, have been increasingly contested by Salafi preachers. Algerian Islamists have sunk into a form of intellectual lethargy and are largely disconnected from their constituencies. The same fate has befallen Sufi organizations, whose practices are viewed by an appreciable number of Algerians as being beyond acceptable Islamic jurisprudence.


The state has played a non-negligible role in the surge of quietist Salafism. Given the quietists’ loyalty to the regime and staunch opposition to politicized and violent Salafism, it is not surprising that the regime has allowed apolitical Salafists to operate their own private schools and businesses. Several Salafists who renounced violent extremism have become actors in the informal economic sector. The Algerian press has extensively covered former jihadists who have thrived thanks to the facilities awarded to them by the authorities and the connections they have established with business counterparts in the Gulf.


Gunmen attacked a Catholic church and killed at least 19 people in Nigeria’s Benue state on Tuesday. It’s not clear who was responsible, but that area is plagued by clashes between herders (who tend to be Muslim) and farmers (who tend to be Christian). Ten people in the same region were killed a few days ago, probably by herders.

As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I came across a report in Nigerian media that “scores” of people were killed in another attack in Benue early Wednesday morning, but I haven’t seen anything more specific than that.


Not long after the UAE announced that it was ending its program to train units within the Somali military, one of those units apparently quit en masse and stole 600 assault rifles from their training center in Mogadishu. The weapons are now reportedly available for sale from sellers in the city.

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