Asia/Africa update: October 31 2018

Happy Halloween for anyone celebrating!



An Afghan army helicopter crashed on its way from Farah province to Herat province on Wednesday, killing 25 people including the head of the Farah provincial council and a western regional Afghan military commander. The Taliban claims to have shot the helicopter down but Afghan officials have disputed that. In Kabul, a suicide bomber killed at least six people on Wednesday near the Pul-e-Charkhi prison. There’s been no claim of responsibility for that attack. There have also been several days of violence in Uruzgan province, reportedly between the Taliban and a local warlord. At least 21 people have been killed there but an accurate casualty count is hard to come by.

The five Taliban who the US traded in return for Bowe Bergdahl back in 2014 have all reportedly been assigned to the group’s diplomatic office in Qatar. They were already living in Qatar under the terms of the prisoner exchange but their movements will be less restricted under the terms of their new posting. It’s very unclear whether the five have much sway anymore within the Taliban or what affect they might have in terms of boosting the chances for peace talks.


Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman who was convicted under Pakistan’s archaic and arbitrary blasphemy law back in 2010 and sentenced to death, had her conviction overturned on Wednesday by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which ordered her immediate release. The case against Bibi, based mostly on hearsay, was seen as an example of the way the blasphemy law can be used to persecute Pakistani minorities. The ruling promises to touch off a massive public outcry. Already there have been protests against it and Pakistani extremist groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik have made threats against the lives of the three judges who ordered Bibi’s release. Bibi is almost certainly at risk as well. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned that his government will respond to any disruptive behavior by extremists, but he owes his premiership to some degree to the support of Islamist voters. So he may be constrained in terms of what he can do.


Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena met in an emergency session with Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to try to resolve the ongoing crisis over Sirisena’s abrupt decision late last week to fire Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa. It doesn’t seem to have gone very well. Jayasuriya asked Sirisena to reconvene parliament, which the president suspended over the weekend, to let legislators vote on the rightful PM. Sirisena apparently listened politely and then asked Jayasuriya to recognize Rajapaksa as the rightful PM. Wickremesinghe maintains that his sacking was unconstitutional and is refusing to leave the prime minister’s official residence.

Maithripala Sirisena (Wikimedia Commons | Sudath Silva)


Officials from the Myanmar government have begun canvassing Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh to convince people to return to Myanmar. The deal Myanmar is offering seems unlikely to convince many refugees to go back, though Myanmar officials insist they plan to repatriate a first group of 2000 refugees by the middle of November. The refugees are being told they’ll have to live for a brief but conspicuously indeterminate period in camps that the Myanmar government has set up on its side of the border and that they’ll be given “national verification cards” as a “first step” toward citizenship. Rohingya leaders seem understandably concerned about being herded into camps and are demanding actual citizenship, not some dubious “first step” that could just as easily facilitate their further persecution as prevent it. They’re also insisting on reparations for the genocidal campaign that drove them into Bangladesh in the first place. The United Nations is heavily criticizing the proposed repatriation, arguing that conditions in Myanmar are still not safe for the Rohingya to return.


James Dorsey writes about the efforts of some members of the Indonesian organization Nahdlatul Islam to counter Wahhabism by proposing a more tolerant form of Islam:

The powerful Indonesian conservative and nationalist group that operates madrassahs or religious seminaries across the archipelago has taken on the ambitious task of reintroducing ijtihad or legal interpretation to Islam as it stands to enhance its political clout with its spiritual leader, Ma’ruf Amin, slated to become vice president as the running mate of incumbent President Joko Widodo in elections scheduled for next April.

In a 40-page document, argued in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence and scheduled for publication in the coming days, Nahdlatul Ulama’s powerful young adults wing, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, spells out a framework for what it sees as a humanitarian interpretation of Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic in nature.

The initiative is designed to counter what many in Nahdlatul Ulama, founded in 1926 in opposition to Wahhabism, see as Islam’s foremost challenge; the rise of radical Islam. The group that boasts a two million-strong private militia defines as radical not only militants and jihadists but any expression of political Islam and asserts that it is struggling against the weaponization of the faith.

While it stands a good chance of impacting Islamic discourse in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, it is likely to face an uphill battle in making substantial headway beyond Indonesia despite its links to major Muslim organizations in India, the United States and elsewhere. It also could encounter opposition from the group’s more conservative factions.


Mike Pompeo says the US just wants China to “behave like a normal nation on commerce,” hence all the sanctions and tariffs and the like. Without defending some of the things China does, it sure must be nice for Pompeo that he’s the chief diplomat for the country that gets to decide what “normal” is. I wonder how much longer we’ll be able to say that.

Beijing, meanwhile, has apparently been buying up privatized assets in southern Europe in an effort to gain political leverage:

China’s deep pockets and generous investments are turning to Southern Europe—the latest target   in its influence campaign to establish Chinese business, cultural, and diplomatic presence around the world. Chinese state-owned companies are using their financial leverage to build strongholds in Portugal, Greece and Italy.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, China has become a significant creditor to many severely indebted European Union nations. Portugal, Greece, and Italy were all forced to privatize some of their state assets following the euro-debt crisis, making their economies partly dependent on Chinese investors. Private acquisitions also multiplied.

Back in China, meanwhile, the Uyghur reeducation program is continuing. American University professor Justin Jacobs suspects this effort is going to be more effective than previous Chinese efforts at assimilating the Uyghur people:

Chinese policymakers and scholars are again promoting the ideal of a single Zhonghua minzu, the desirability of “transformation” and the necessity of Chinese language instruction. Beijing is now rolling back the policy of accommodation that has existed, for the most part, for ethnic minorities in Xinjiang in recent decades, in response to the perception of a geopolitical threat.

Here’s what changed: Over the past five years, a small number of suspected Uighur terrorists have managed to organize a suicide car crash in Tiananmen Square and a mass knifing attack in the city of Kunming, among other incidents.

Unlike their Qing and Nationalist predecessors, China’s Communist Party leaders in 2018 face few geopolitical or financial handicaps. Foreign imperialists no longer threaten China’s borders, and China is no longer in debt to Western powers. The specter of domestic political instability is significantly diminished.

This means Beijing can act with relative impunity in Xinjiang, without fear of retribution or intervention. This may be China’s worst human rights crisis since the days of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, but even most Muslim countries have kept their silence.


Thursday morning on the Korean peninsula brought with it the imposition of a no-fly zone and a ban on certain kinds of military drills near the Korean border, the latest in a series of steps North and South Korea are taking to demilitarize the border and reduce longstanding tensions. The United States has expressed some resistance to these measures but has not attempted to stop them from coming into effect.


South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation must pay reparations to four South Koreans for forced labor during World War II. The ruling has kicked up a hornet’s nest of lingering wartime bad blood between the two countries at a time when they need to be collaborating on North Korea and on economic issues. Both governments have said they don’t intend to let the ruling affect relations, but they may find themselves hemmed in by the prevailing public opinion–in South Korea, that Japan hasn’t done nearly enough to make reparations for what it did during the war, and in Japan, that South Korea needs to get over it.



The UN Security Council passed a resolution 12-0 (Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Russia abstained) on Wednesday welcoming a new effort at resolving the Western Sahara situation. The UN is hosting a meeting in Geneva in early December for representatives of Morocco, the Sahrawi people, Mauritania, and Algeria to try to restart negotiations over a final status for the territory, which is claimed by Morocco but has been mired in conflict between the Moroccans and the Sahrawi Polisario Front since the 1970s. The measure also extended the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara through the end of April. The UN negotiated a ceasefire to the conflict in 1991 but it has remained frozen ever since, with plans to hold a referendum on the region’s status still in the works over 27 years later.


The Islamic Movement of Nigeria, the country’s largest Shiʿa organization, now says that 42 of its members were killed by government forces in Abuja over the past two days. It says that 35 were killed on Monday and seven more on Tuesday. The IMN marched in Abuja this week both to commemorate the Shiʿa religious festival of Arbaeen and to demand the release of the group’s leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been imprisoned since 2015.


The South Sudanese government held a ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate its August peace agreement with rebels that may have a chance of ending that country’s civil war provided it can survive long enough. President Salva Kiir actually went so far as to apologize to the South Sudanese people for the war and its effects, while rebel leader Riek Machar actually returned to the country for the first time in two years. Machar is supposed to return to his old job as vice president under the agreement, so his return to the country is kind of a big deal, but it’s unclear whether he plans on sticking around. Kiir released a close Machar adviser and a rebel spokesperson from prison on Wednesday as a goodwill gesture and perhaps as part of the larger prisoner release that is also supposed to be one of the main components of the peace deal.


The governor of Dar es Salaam has formed a team to track down LGBT persons in what sure looks like the first step of something very ugly. Homosexuality and transgenderism are both illegal in Tanzania and the risk to anyone discovered in this way would be immense.


The US missionary killed in Bamenda on Tuesday was, according to the Cameroonian government via the State Department, “caught in a cross fire” between government and anglophone separatist forces and was not intentionally killed.

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