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Myanmar Coup

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On February the first the ruling democratic government in Myanmar was overthrown by the country’s military. The National League for Democracy (NLD) had governed Myanmar since 2015 and were re-elected in November of 2020 with a landslide victory. This victory was so comprehensive, the military felt their political future was in threat and that the NLD may use their large parliamentary majority to ban the military’s involvement in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD party, and a number of other NLD politicians have been imprisoned as the coup began, military rule has been imposed and there have been widespread internet outages and press censorship.

Myanmar’s military ruled the country between 1962 and 2011. After many years of sanctions and internal unrest they began to move towards democracy with a series of reforms that culminated in the 2015 election of the NLD party. Since 2015 the military have retained an important role in political affairs by holding a minority number of seats in parliament as part of the initial agreement to hold democratic elections. Local analysts have cited that fears that this agreement would be changed were a major motivation behind the coup.

The public reaction to the coup has been one of shock and anger. Protests against the military regime are widespread and ongoing. The protest movement started slowly, with a “noise making” campaign that involved people banging on pots and pans at a certain time of day. But it has evolved over the month to include a general strike of civil servants and many other key workers. As the protests have increased in size the military’s response has increased in violence. Several protesters have been killed by government forces, some accidentally with rubber bullets, but others have been shot with live ammunition. At the time of writing, this increase in violence has not deterred those protesting and it seems highly likely protests will continue in March unless the military make concessions.

Local international reaction has been mixed. Given the authoritarian nature of many of the countries in ASEAN, and those bordering Myanmar, it is unlikely that any serious sanctions will be levied at the new regime locally. Thailand in particular are highly unlikely to want to be seen promoting the democratic process overseas while repressing their own pro-democracy protests. The same can be said of Cambodia, who have recently convicted in absentia the leader of their banned opposition party the CNRP. China referred to the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle”, and Malaysia took the opportunity to return 1,000 Myanmar refugees on boats arranged by the military. So, it is highly likely that if the military can suppress internal opposition without violence spilling over international borders, the status quo will be accepted by countries in the region.

International condemnation of the coup has been much stronger than local statements, but again it seems unlikely that any real pressure will be put on the military to step down beyond sanctions. As is often the case in Southeast Asia, China is a major consideration. China have developed relationships with Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Indonesia by turning a blind eye to how these countries are internally governed. This has allowed China to build good diplomatic and economic relationship with several ASEAN countries. While Biden’s presidency has yet to establish a clear policy for the region it seems unlikely that regime change in Myanmar will be seriously pushed by the international community because doing so may make a number of US allies (particularly Thailand and the Philippines) feel uncomfortable. But again, this is dependent on how quickly the military can suppress internal resistance. Since the recent protests have taken a more violent turn, the US have promised increased pressure on the military junta, but it is as yet unclear what shape that will take. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Myanmar was heavily sanctioned by the West, and while living standards fell considerably in the country for ordinary Myanmar citizens, there was little effect seen on the ruling elite.

What Are the Main Sources of Instability in Kuwait, and How Will They Be Addressed?

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The State of Kuwait is a tiny, oil rich country located at the top of the plentiful Gulf region. The tiny emirate is known for its very stable, commode way of life, and its liberal political system. However, in more recent times the small emirate has trended in the direction of instability. The most notable area Kuwaiti instability is the volatility of its politics. Kuwait is infamous for changing governments and politicians as regularly as one changes t-shirts. However, the past couple of months have been especially unstable. Firstly, two thirds of the National Assembly got replaced overnight in an election – a normal, routine part of any functioning democracy – or in Kuwait’s case, semi-democracy. The real problems however started once the Emir appointed the Prime Minister, who went on to appoint his government, the Council of Ministers.

The new parliamentarians disliked the Prime Minister for his actions and for his ministerial choices – the latter which they saw as not being representative of those elected by the people. This led to 60 percent of them backing a vote of no-confidence to question the Prime Minister on a number of issues and decisions. It should be noted the senior government positions in Kuwait are generally occupied by members of Kuwait’s ruling family. Many of the new parliamentarians are not fans of this system, and are seeking political reform of what they perceive to be corruption. This in itself is a risk – even if it might have positive consequence for Kuwaiti democracy – as the ruling family is well entrenched in Kuwaiti society.

However to make matters worse, last month the Council of Ministers collectively submitted their resignation to the Emir, and in response the Emir accepted them and acted to dissolve the government. Meanwhile a caretaker government led by the Deputy Prime Minster was in place, and in late February the Emir suspended the National Assembly for one month – a testament to the power of the Emir and the limitations of parliament. However, in the first few days of March the Emir has reappointed the Prime Minister (again), and the latter is now sanctioned to pick his cabinet – which he has done. That is where Kuwait is today.

As it stands, with the new government the Prime Minister has in part picked safe, popular appointments to the cabinet, appeasing parliamentarians. This should go some of the way towards repairing the rift between the executive and legislative branches of Kuwaiti politics, but is seemingly a temporary fix. This is evident in the presence of some former cabinet members in the new government – call it a dash of nepotism in the new government’s ranks. With the latter, parliamentarians are likely not thrilled with the lacklustre changes to government. Therefore the challenge of the Prime Minister is to keep his cabinet together first and foremost, and then he has to work on maintaining a working relationship with parliamentarians by being professional and as transparent as can be, attending to their concerns as representatives of the people…So as to ensure the same situation does not play out.

Another manifestation of instability is the debt situation and liquidity crisis. The state has experienced serious economic problems due to both the oil crisis and the impact on the global Coronavirus pandemic. Lower oil prices in the region have meant Kuwait’s oil revenue has significantly decreased. Kuwait’s economy is dependent on oil, and uses such revenue to do such things as pay the salaries of working Kuwaitis and as long-term assets. Additionally, the global pandemic has negatively affected oil production and exports – mainly due to the virus’s impact on global supply chains, as well as the labour markets. Other oil economies in the Gulf region have chosen to borrow money in order to boost economy, as opposed to be reliant on the sector.

 

Meanwhile, Kuwait has been looking for a way to plug its deficit. The National Assembly has sought to pass legislation to allow the government to borrow money from its Future Generations Fund to offset the deficit. However, the legislation has stalled due to the rift between legislative and executive – leaving this option off the table, whilst the general reserve fund to pay the deficit grows smaller. It is possible though that should Kuwait be allowed to borrow, this would only buy Kuwait’s economy time – not permanently fix Kuwait’s long-term problems – and at worse, it will happen too late, once a financial crisis hits. Therefore, Kuwait might have to consider implementing structural reforms for the long-term health of the economy.

Meanwhile, if the crisis deepens past the point of no return, Kuwaitis would see their lifestyles drastically change overnight – with lower salaries for the foreseeable future, and their once assets secure now disposable. As with the liberal-democratic character of Kuwait’s parliament, Kuwaitis would likely take a stand to express their discontent with living under such conditions – with civil unrest on the cards, in protest against the government. This would neither be good for Kuwaiti society, nor the ruling family. The latter’s position would be insecure, and they would likely seek to enforce stability and secure their rule through greater authoritarianism.

Kuwait’s other options are: to transition to non-oil sectors; reduce government spending, and as a last resort to tap into the Future fund – should the deficit still stand, which it likely will. Of these options, altering government spending seems most achievable in the short term – albeit at the expense of wages and lavish lifestyles. However, transitioning to non-oil sectors would be more beneficial in the long-term and has great potential during the pandemic. Innovation in the global economy has been widespread across the world, as people seek to find new ways consuming and maximising their economic gains. As the oil sector wanes, Kuwaitis might seek to venture into newer sectors. The government would need to contribute to such endeavours through funding research and development – so as to drive innovation and make it more lucrative. Other GCC partners have invested in e-commerce, and therefore Kuwait might want to focus on acquiring or developing such assets in order to generate revenue and stabilise its economy.

There has also been some instability in the Kuwaiti ruling family. Kuwait last year experienced the loss of its ruling emir, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – who had been suffering from long-term health issues. The late emir had been flown to the United States to receive treatment from the Mayo Clinic, before he eventually passed away. He was then replaced by his brother, the Crown Prince of Kuwait Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. The new emir has been ruling the country since September 2020, and thus is 5 months into his emirate. The transition of power has seemingly been smooth, however it is unclear how his rule will be if crises deepen. How the Emir handles himself will likely impact the national sentiment of Kuwaitis. The Emir has to lead by example and champion stability, otherwise his nation will grow more unstable. For this reason, it seems likely the Emir will continue to have dialogue with the executive and legislative branches, and will encourage them to work together – so as to steer Kuwait through difficult times.

One interesting development with the Emir though, is his recent trip to the United States for medical treatment. The 86-year-old is not a young man, and therefore there is a worry that the he is flying to the United States for health reasons, and no less at such a precarious time. However, Kuwait has insisted the Emir is merely travelling to the U.S. for “the usual check-ups,” without providing any more details on the matter. It could very well be the case that he is merely receiving a check-up, as over the years many Kuwaiti rulers have routinely flown there for treatment. The Emir himself has in the past reportedly been abroad for treatment before – once in Germany in 2013 for back surgery, and on at least one other occasion to the U.S. for medical tests.

But, the secretiveness of the matter could very well indicate Kuwait is trying to censor the real reason for seeking treatment in the U.S.: that the Emir has a pressing health concern best warrants an investigation, and at worst requires special treatment unavailable in his home country. It would also make sense why Kuwait would be reluctant to reveal if the Emir was ill, as the health of Kuwaiti rulers is a sensitive subject – especially considering the circumstances surrounding the death of the last emir.  Therefore, if the Emir is ill expect Kuwait to control how much information it will give about this issue over time, or perhaps they will categorically deny it is the case. However, if the Emir is not ill, expect more transparency from the ruling family – so as to overtly reassure the public that his health is fine.

Western Europe’s Division on adopting a Vaccine Passport

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As vaccination rollouts continue across western Europe attention is now turning to vaccine passports. A vaccine passport is a digital documentation for an individual who has been vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus. Stored on a phone or digital wallet, the data is typically presented as a QR code and would allow for individuals to travel more freely. Although this is a fairly new idea in regard to the coronavirus, vaccine documentation is not unprecedented. In the past people have had to show “yellow cards” as proof of vaccination against diseases like cholera, yellow fever, and rubella. However, the idea of a digital passport is not without controversy, particularly among activists.

There is a division among western European nations on whether the EU should implement a vaccine passport. Spain, Denmark, and Greece support the vaccine passport because the economies, particularly Spain and Greece, rely heavily on tourism. With travel being restricted for the past year economies that rely heavily on tourism in the summer months have taken a hit. Tourism-dependent economies desperately need a strong summer travel season. With the vaccine rollout there is hope that summer travel can resume, and a vaccine passport can jumpstart tourism and allow governments to feel more secure on bringing people into the country. The cause of such strict travel restrictions is to stop the spread of the virus and the vaccine passport will provide a level of security for governments knowing the virus is significantly less likely to spread among individuals who have gotten the vaccine. The tourism industry is the most eager to put the idea into practice. Airlines such as Qantas are already requiring proof of vaccination for international flights. There are other reasons governments are wanting to establish a vaccine passport beyond travel. Universities could open up with the confidence of knowing that the students are vaccinated, along with employees going back into work, and entertainment venues like movie theaters and restaurants opening up.

On the other side of the argument are countries like France and Germany, who say the vaccine passport will increase inequality until everyone has the opportunity to get vaccinated. There is a fear that the vaccine requirement for travel will lead to discrimination among age groups, ethnicities, and those not wanting to get vaccinated. Across the region, vaccinations were first given to elderly people and the most vulnerable. It is expected that the younger generations will not receive a vaccination until early summer. It would also affect those with vaccine hesitancy. The most common reasons for hesitancy are concerns about the side effects and long-term effects of the vaccine. Travel being permitted for those with a vaccine passport can be perceived as a mandatory vaccination, which would impose on the civil liberties of individuals.

Currently, there is no international agreement on vaccine passports. Instead, countries are coming up with options they hope to see imposed. A decision will need to be made at some point but there continues to be a deep divide between those for and against it. A British petition has surpassed 260,000 signatures for the UK government to not rollout out a COVID-19 vaccine passport. Due to the high level of signatures, Parliament will now debate this petition on March 15, 2021. The European Commission proposed a ‘digital green pass’ that would provide proof that a person has been vaccinated, as well as test results for those not yet vaccinated. This proposed pass can be seen as a “happy medium” because it allows individuals to travel if they have had a recent negative COVID-19 test and will respect data protection, security, and privacy. The draft for the legislation is expected to be published on March 17, 2021.

While the debate continues, governments are under pressure to find a balance between travel restrictions and the need for summer travel to start up economies reliant on tourism and individual’s rights. A vaccine passport will not bring things back to normal but is it a small step towards healing economies. Despite the back and forth within governments and the worry among citizens, a vaccine passport scheme is still months away. There is plenty of uncertainty around vaccine passports, but it seems those who receive vaccinations will have an easier time traveling in the coming months.

Putin Facing Serious Challenges in 2021

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to face some serious challenges in 2021 but it won’t be enough for a change of guards to take place. If Navalny wants to seize control of the country through a revolution of the street, he needs allies within the circles of the elite. Russian history and the successful “colour revolutions” in neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine illustrate this starkly. Considering the two most recent examples from Russia’s neighbours: Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. In both cases, though street protests played a big role in pressuring the change in regime, the protesters were abetted by the internal weakness of the regimes they were confronting. The same correlation is inexistant in Russia today. The security apparatus and the elite are firmly behind Putin.

The West has already started pressuring Kremlin to release Alexey Navalny who was jailed for 3 years after missing his probation, whilst ironically was in a coma recovering in Germany from a conspiracy to assassinate him by the Russian Security Services. Substantial evidence indicated that an FSB hit squad attempted to silence him. The same team was involved, according to Bellingcat, an open-source investigative platform, in 2020, in an attempt to assassinate Vladimir Kara-Murza, an outspoken politician against the Kremlin.

In the past, Kremlin opponents have been gunned down, poisoned or discredited in a bid to silence them. The Kremlin has always denied involvement, like in the case of Boris Nemtov (2015), Anna Politkovsakaya (2006), Alexander Litvinenko (2006), to name only a few from a long list of Kremlin opponents.

Navalny’s incarceration galvanized the biggest popular protests in Russia in nearly a decade. His supporters were joined across the country by average Russians upset with falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms. In response the Kremlin cracked down with brute force and more than 10,000 people were arrested across Russia.

For many years, Russia has been an unusual place for opposition politics. Despite dominating the messaging on traditional TV and (most) print media, the Kremlin has allowed a degree of free speech online. Navalny has taken advantage of this freedom, exposing high-level corruption first as a blogger and now as head of Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF). He and his team have produced voluminous reports and slickly produced viral videos detailing corruption at the highest levels of Russian politics. These videos have generated millions of clicks. But last year it appeared this uneasy truce between the Kremlin and its online opponents was breaking down. Putin’s approval ratings fell to historic lows amid a stagnating economy and the government’s dysfunctional response to COVID.

In addition, the Kremlin has ramped up its targeting of government critics and human rights groups by pushing its claims they are “foreign agents” and restricting their operations. Navalny and his ACF team have also faced growing harassment, and most are now in home arrests pending trials. With Navalny now facing a lengthy prison time, only one narrative is likely to emerge.

The narrative will be driven by the government which will seek to downplay Navalny’s symbolic importance. For his part, Putin still refuses to call Navalny by name and has recently referred to him as “the Berlin patient”. The official state media do mention Navalny, but they are increasingly characterising him as a Western agent intent on weakening Russia and unleashing revolutionary chaos. This image of Navalny fits with the Kremlin’s overall narrative that Russia is under threat from a hostile West seeking to undermine its stable development. If the Kremlin successfully paints Navalny as a foreign agent who will only bring instability to Russia, the jailed activist may retreat from public view. But if Navalny comes to symbolise unjust oppression in the face of an increasingly corrupt, unaccountable and incompetent political elite, popular pressure will only increase on the Russian government. All things considered it could take years for this alternative narrative to gather steam.

Navalny’s protests were not wholly in vain. His actions undermined an already unpopular regime heading into parliamentary elections in September and continue to mobilize a new generation of young Russians who have only ever known Putin and now are imagining a world without him. Perhaps gradually a new opposition will grow from these seeds. Yet this will take years, and there is no imminent colour revolution at hand.  The current regime is too resilient, protected by layers of security forces and aligned interests. Unlike its Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, the increasingly professional Russian army has a history of crushing rebellions and in all likelihood will obey whatever orders it is given. Unless substantial figures within the current regime begin to defect to Navalny’s cause, the chance of street protest alone provoking a change of government is minimal. The day may come that the conditions are ripe for a change in regime, but there are no indications that time is here yet.

 

Neighbourly Quarrels: Somalia and Kenya

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Ties between Somalia and Kenya hit a new low in December 2020 when the Mogadishu government cut ties with Nairobi due to “constant political violation and Kenya’s open interference in Somalia’s independence”. The dispute between the two nations carried on into the new year with the Somali government accusing the Kenyan military of supporting the Jubbaland militia that fought Somali government forces in the town of Balad Hawa in late January.

What is this conflict rooted in?

There have been numerous issues in the past few months that have worsened the diplomatic ties. In December, the Somali government cuts ties with Kenya after it accused Kenya of political interference in relation to the electoral process of the region of Jubbaland. Somalia has also accused Kenya, in several statements, of supplementing armed fighters who engaged Somali forces in the border town of Balad Hawa on 25 January, a bout that cost 11 lives. Earlier signs of tensions building up can be traced back to December, when the president of Somaliland – the breakaway region which is not recognised by Somalia and internationally – was hosted in Nairobi. Somalia had also cut ties with Guinea after it received the Somaliland president. More recently, the two countries have been at odds over a maritime dispute, with Indian Ocean oil and gas reserves at stake. Somalia brought its case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2014, and last week (w/c 8 February) Somalia rejected Kenya’s fourth request to the ICJ to postpone the two countries’ maritime case.

In an attempt to ameliorate the relations between the two countries, during a meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional body in December, representatives from the two nations arranged to restore their diplomatic relations. However, Somalia had one condition, and this was for an IGAD mission to be dispatched to investigate its claims of political meddling by Kenya, which Djibouti was mandated with. Kenya has always denied political interference, as well as, any violation of airspace and territories of Somalia. At the end of January, the IGAD fact-finding team found that, as claimed by Kenya, there was no proof that Kenya was interfering in Somalia’s affairs. However, there was evidence that Kenya has violated Somalia’s airspace. On this point, it was suggested that Kenya and Somalia use diplomatic efforts to resolve matters – in order to exercise restraint, and de-escalate tensions along their borders.

However, very shortly after, Somalia disapproved of the findings by the fact-finding commission that asserted that it found zero evidence indicating Kenya’s political interference. Osman Dubbe, the Somali Information Minister, labelled the report “biased,” and “one-sided” saying:

 “The outcome of their report came as a shock to us…They [investigators] refused to go to the Somali territory. They went to Kenya twice, they went to Mandera. We wanted them to visit the Gedo region, but they refused to cross the border.”

Impact on security

A lot is at stake when two neighbouring countries have a tense relationship. It is highly likely the insurgents Al-Shabaab are keenly observing the diplomatic fallout between the neighbours and weighing their options to see how they can take advantage of security lapses resulting from these shattered relations. In this, both countries stand to lose, with the ultimate champions being the militants.

Al Shabaab has recently been increasing their activities in northern Kenya – where in Mandera the governor, Ali Roba, of the county has said that the militants now control and occupy more than 50% of the county. Therefore, it is not only Somalia that will be impacted by the group when they try to take advantage of the diplomatic scuffle. Al Shabaab has been carrying out attacks in Kenya for over a decade, ever since Kenya sent troops into Somalia as assistance in the African Union mission directed to protect the Somali government and its people from the insurgent threat. Taking the example of what is happening in Mandera, there is the likelihood Al Shabaab will seek to expand the areas and people which they control and occupy while the two countries are embroiled in maritime and diplomatic tensions.

If there is no change to diplomatic relations, there is a likelihood that Somalia will call for a prompt withdrawal of Kenya’s 3,600 troops from Somalia – a key contributor to the African Union mission. Many Somali people seem to be eager for Kenyans to withdraw from their country, in spite of the impending security risks from Al Shabaab if this were to occur. If Kenya were to withdraw their troops as well, the forces countering the militant group would significantly decrease and give the militants the opportunity to expand their influence over areas and people.  Al Shabaab, which over the past decade has materialised into a very resilient force, could quickly overrun many regions in southern Somalia, where it still maintains some control. This dispute would need to be quickly and amicably resolved in order for it to not threaten, thwart and interrupt key security efforts in East Africa.

Moreover, the African Union’ AMISOM mission is set to end its mission and fully withdraw from Somalia by December 2021. However, the Al Shabaab rebels are still potent and pose a threat to both countries. Coupled with the US withdrawing their 700 troops on 15 January, it seems imperative for Somalia to rekindle relations with Kenya so that there is a more concerted effort against Al Shabaab. If the diplomatic spat between the countries continues, Somalia could see themselves less prepared in the fight against Al Shabaab and the Islamist group could take up the opportunity of recapturing lost territory, and further general attacks and disruption.

Is the election to blame for this diplomatic spat?

It is also important to look at this conflict in context. Somalia’s incumbent president, Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ Abdullahi, is currently running for re-election, and has taken a nationalist standpoint out on the campaign trail. It might be argued that this escalation in diplomatic tensions with Kenya is little more than a political move by the incumbent President Farmaajo to stir up quarrels, unite Somalis against the spectre of meddling foreigners, and to rally up the electorate behind him in the hope of securing him a second term. We seem to be seeing a repeat of events as preceding the election of 2016, where Farmaajo pushed the narrative of Ethiopia as the enemy that only he can successfully oppose, and this narrative aided in his election win. Currently, we see the same trend occurring but this time with Kenya. Farmaajo, his government and his supporters are also trying to showcase opposition groups in the country who contest his bid as traitors and pro-Kenya.