Thirteen Ukrainians have taken a trip to Kosovo to train with experienced mine clearers. The intensive advanced four-week training course will allow them to return to Ukraine that is now littered with unexploded ordnances left behind by the Russian invaders.
The 13 people, a mix of civilian and military personnel, are being trained by Kosovo locals who have experience in clearing thousands of mines and cluster bombs left behind by Serb forces in the 1990s. This experience will be vitally important given the similar circumstances in which they will be working.
Russia has mined much of eastern Ukraine and as the frontlines ebb and flow it is essential that Ukraine doesn’t lose the limited supplies and personnel to mines or unexploded bombs.
Army and government officials say all areas retaken after Russian occupation will have been planted with mines with estimates that more than 300,000 sq km of territory will have to be cleared.
The task of training these Ukrainian deminers is the Mines Awareness Trust (MAT), a school that trains hundreds of people in the discipline. The school has trained and sent advisors to many war-affected areas such as Iraq, Mozambique and Libya.
Luckily for the trainers, the mines that the Russians are using are very similar to those used by forces in the former Yugoslavia allowing the trainers perfect base from which to teach.
Even as Russia takes territory it will be essential to have trained personnel who are able to make safe areas for returning Ukrainians, civilian and military. After wars end and bullets stop flying, the danger of unexploded ordnance and undiscovered mines can still kill and maim future generations.
In places like Cambodia and Vietnam there are still problems with innocent civilians suffering from the thousands of mines planted by US forces, Viet Cong forces and others in the wars through the mid-1900s.
Unfortunately, there is no incentive for forces to clear up the mines they have laid and so if Russia or Ukraine are forced out of the country, and people are able to return, there will still be thousands of unexploded ordnance that can cause major problems for the population.
Hopefully, the training will succeed in allowing these brave people to save as many lives as possible and help reduce the risk of mines to the civilian population.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has received international attention after visiting Kiev and Moscow in late June. During his visit, Widodo offered himself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine to reach a point of agreement between the parties regarding the war in Eastern Europe. On top of that, Widodo, who is the president of the next G20 summit, has decided to use his role as host this year of the G20, the group of industrial powers and emerging countries, to build bridges between Russia and Ukraine from the classic Indonesian “non-alignment”, a position without much support between European nations and the USA. These moves by Indonesia could be interpreted from a domestic and international point of view. Jokowi, who came to power in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019, has seen a decrease in his domestic approval ratings. This visit (to Ukraine and Russia), made in tandem with the G7 agenda, was seen as an opportunity to increase popular support in Indonesia. Internationally, this visit allowed him to improve his image with the United States and the West.” Regardless of the motives, the fact is that this trip by Widodo is just the last proof that Indonesia is rising both as a regional and international power.
Regionally, Indonesia is a key player in the Asia-Pacific area. With a population of more than 250 million, Indonesia is today the largest Islamic democracy in the world and the largest economy in Southeast Asia.
Its strategic relevance in energy and economic terms, combined with its demographic and geopolitical weight, has consolidated this country as one of the main Asian markets and tigers. This dominant position will moreover be consolidated in the next decades by the construction of a new capital (called Nusantara) in the island of Borneo, which will substitute Jakarta as the political centre of the country. An example that shows Indonesia’s importance regionally was the visit of Australian Prime Minister Albanese to the country. During that visit, Australia praised Indonesia’s active support for bilateral strategic and economic interests, including ‘green’ investment and trade.
With these regional ties, Widodo aims at attracting foreign investments and industries with a high technological load. Jokowi has maintained the priority of relaunching economic growth up to 7% of GDP with measures aimed at facilitating investment and entrepreneurship. Indonesia has experienced a significant economic expansion in recent years, with a notable flow of investment received and an outstanding dynamism of internal demand with a growing consumer class. The economic development of Indonesia has taken place in its most immediate environment, and that is why ASEAN has become the cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy. In 2023 Indonesia will hold the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During Indonesia’s chairmanship of the organization, the country is expected to promote the ASEAN’s influence in the region vis-à-vis the traditional powers (China and the United States). The role of ASEAN has become a regular point of conversation between Jokowi and his interlocutors in the region, especially with Australia, India and Japan.
Internationally, Indonesia has for years been considered an emerging economy; a country that was “punching below its weight” in every sense. In 2022 however, Indonesia has proved its global influence in two ways: its role as president of the G20 (already explained), and the coal export ban. At the beginning of the year Indonesia was in the spotlight because of the coal ban that was imposed from 1st to 31st of January. Despite the ease of the ban on 15 January, Japan, South Korea, China, Malaysia and the Philippines asked Jakarta to lift the export ban, which immediately caused a global spike in coal prices and left China, the world’s largest coal importer, temporarily reeling.
Since the war in Ukraine started in February, Indonesia’s abundance of natural resources (such as coal, iron, nickel and palm oil) has placed the country in a privileged position. The disruption of supply chains and the rising commodity prices contrast with Indonesia’s record-high exports, which have allowed the country to shore up its economic resilience. Apart from the record-high exports, Indonesia has enjoyed modest inflation and a strong currency (the rupiah), which could also help in the long run in Widodo’s ambitions to make Indonesia a rich nation by 2045. In order to consolidate this economic resilience, President Widodo has proposed a plan to promote industrial “downstreaming” – moving up the commodity processing chain to the country, rather than just exporting raw materials. With this move, which is being pursued through law, Widodo plans to diversify Indonesia’s exports and to further strengthen capital flows with foreign direct investment. Parallel to these economic developments, Indonesia’s international influence could increase if the country becomes a member of the BRICS group. This organization, composed by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, is looking for other major developing countries to join as full members.
Despite these optimist outlooks for Indonesia, the country’s influence in the region is still limited by a political, territorial, and ethnic-religious structure marked by profound divisions and nuances. Apart from that, Indonesia still must solve its massive infrastructure gap to guarantee the adequate connection between its 17,000 islands, especially in the underdeveloped (and secessionist) Papua province.
Indonesia’s rise has not been meteoric, but it has been steady and is likely to continue despite its internal challenges. The economic, demographic and predictably strategic importance of this sleeping power suggests that its role in the region and internationally will increase in the coming years.
On 24 May, at least 23 people were killed and 5 injured in a raid on the Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro. The operation allowed police to successfully capture the leaders of the city’s largest organized crime gang, and to seize an array of vehicles and weapons, according to local officials. The deaths included a woman who was hit by a stray bullet in the exchange of gunfire between members of the Comando Vermelho and police. According to residents’ posts on social media, heavy shooting began around 4am in a wooded area next to Vila Cruzeiro. Then, according to a Reuters photographer, it started up again in the afternoon. Colonel Ivan Blaz described the incident as “a very intense confrontation.” Rio state public prosecutors said they have opened a criminal investigation into the operation, allowing police 10 days to provide further details, including who was responsible for each death and the reasons for use of lethal force. The deaths in the 24 May raid mark it as the second deadliest police operation in the city’s history, after the May 2021 raid in Jacarezinho, which left 28 people dead.
The raid is one of the latest events to highlight the problem of police violence in Brazil. In another tragic incident last month, police killed mentally ill Black man Genivaldo de Jesus Santos. Santos was stopped by federal highway police and officers released a gas grenade inside his vehicle. Police violence in Brazil has an enormous death toll. In 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that over the last 5 years, Brazilian police killed 22,000 people. These killings largely affect Black Brazilians living in low-income neighbourhoods, such as the Vila Cruzeiro favela. According to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, police killed 6,416 people in Brazil in 2020. 80% of victims were Black.
Since the election of right-wing politicians such as President Jair Bolsonaro, the country has seen a large increase in violence and police killings. Rather than focus on community-oriented policing as Brazil has done in the past, Bolsonaro describes police as “warriors” and celebrates operations such as the one which took place on 24 May. Authorities are attempting to put in place measures to address this. On 3 February 2022, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered Rio de Janeiro to draft a plan to curb police killings that includes concrete measures, a timeline, and a budget. The court also affirmed much of an earlier opinion by Justice Edson Fachin, that measures be put in place such as: forbidding police to use homes as bases of operations (a common practice); requiring them to have ambulances on standby during operations; and the creation of a permanent working group to monitor police work with the participation of civil society.
This need for societal participation to bring about change has been highlighted in the past by analysts as well. Beatriz Magaloni, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, commented in 2020 that there will not be a solution to the problem of police violence if society at large does not demand a change in the way the police behave. Given the public’s strong reactions to the death of Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, it looks like there is significant concern for change from the Brazilian people. Perhaps this societal demand coupled with developments in Brazil’s political landscape offers hope for improvement in the situation. Former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is currently leading in the polls ahead of October’s presidential election. His rhetoric differs significantly from Boslonaro’s regarding security. Lula said after Jacarezinho that an operation that produces two dozen deaths doesn’t qualify as public security. He also says regarding the situation in the favelas, “that is the absence of the government that offers education and jobs, the cause of a great deal of violence.” Though it is not yet clear what Lula’s specific plans are to address the problem, it seems from his comments that he may bring back more of a focus on community-oriented policing and addressing the issues which cause the favelas to become hubs of violence in the first place.
The Balkans have a rich history of conflict. Starting in 1804 when Serbs revolted against the Ottomans with support from their ancient ally Russia, the Serbian Revolution kicked off almost 200 years of sporadic conflict. Borders have moved considerably since those early years but what has remained is pockets of ethnicities being ruled over by others all of whom want their own slice of the region. All of these actors also have their more powerful friends who try to keep the peace and if necessary, apply pressure to those in the region who might undermine the fragile harmony.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put yet more pressure on maintaining peace in the region as a spill-over war would have terrible consequences for everyone involved. With such high tensions between ethnicities and a history of racially motivated genocides, a war returning to the Balkans would have disastrous consequences. Therefore, it is in the best interests of all to maintain peace. However, the Balkan states aren’t the only actors involved in the region.
Tensions between NATO and Russia are evident, and this is seen very clearly in the Balkans. Russia supplies weapons and other military equipment to Serbia and both Russia and Serbia have close ties to Milorad Dodik’s secessionist government in Bosnia. On the other hand, the US supplies weapons and military equipment to Croatia to directly counteract any disparity in military power in the region. NATO also use military bases in the region to maintain military presence. Albania and North Macedonia are also part of NATO’s membership action plan with Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro aspiring to join NATO’s partnership for peace program.
One notable difference on each sides’ view of the region is their individual stance on Kosovo. Russia and Serbia do not recognise the breakaway ethnic Albanian state and in doing so have caused reasons for tension and violence. The US and their allies, mostly, recognise Kosovo as an independent sovereign state, which, while it remains independent of Serbia, is a success for NATO.
However, while NATO is trying to grip onto peace in the Balkans, Russia’s war in Ukraine aims to undermine that peace. Russian president Vladimir Putin has proclaimed his desire to see Kosovo fail, and if it does fail, it will undermine NATO’s power to protect the sovereignty of vulnerable states against Russian foreign tactics. Should Russia manage to take the whole of Ukraine and set up a friendly government, their eyes would no doubt look to more locations in which friendly administrations could be planted to undermine NATO support in Europe.
Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, has spoken about his desires for Kosovo to join NATO as soon as possible with it being in NATO’s best interest to accommodate this desire for peace in the region. However, Russia’s threatening stance on Sweden and Finland’s recent statement of intent to join NATO only adds danger to Kosovo should they follow suit. Not only does Russia have reason to want Kosovo to remain out of NATO but Serbia stands to lose the most as Serbian rhetoric against Kosovo independence remains strong. Add to this Milorad Dodik’s Republika Srpska trying to secede the institutions of Bosnia and the region becomes a more dangerous place as factions begin to form and groups try to regain their lost territories or seek out their own chunk of land.
NATO must show that they can withstand external pressures from Russia to undermine their past treaties created to keep peace. The Balkan states must see that NATO bears the power to fend off threats in the region and protect Balkan sovereignties from foreign aggression in order to maintain NATO’s strong position in Europe against Russia and her allies.
Thailand is experiencing a new political turmoil. The victory of the independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt as governor of Bangkok on 22 May has raised many questions on the future political trends in the country. The coincidence of political instability with the world economic crisis and pandemic places Thailand in a dangerous drift that also harbours other social and territorial conflicts, mainly in the three southern provinces bordering Malaysia that have a majority Muslim population and speak Malay (the 80%). Thailand, with a population of 69 million and a GDP of 543 million dollars, is the second largest economy in ASEAN. In 2022 it was considered in the latest report published by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit a “flawed democracy”.
In May 2022, the independent candidate and former Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt won by a landslide victory in the elections for the Governor of Bangkok, the capital of the country. He obtained around 1,300,000 votes compared to 250,000 for his immediate rival. Chadchart Sittipunt took the time to greet those present in his victory rally, many of them young participants in the protests against the monarchy in 2020. The elected governor, who was arrested during the military coup d’état of May 2014, promised to work to “overcome all the conflicts of the past”, in reference to the political division that Thailand has suffered for more than 15 years. These were the first elections held after the massive student protests demanding a deep democratic reform in the country, including in the almighty monarchy. His landslide victory has drawn the attention of analysts for three reasons.
First of all, his election has evidenced Thailand’s leadership crisis, and has been considered as a sign of the public’s discontent with the main party of the coalition. The fact that he won in 50/50 districts of the capital shows the sinking public support for the governing coalition, since Bangkok’s constituency supported Prayuth, the leader of the coalition, in 2019. Prayut, the general who led the coup d’état and became a politician in 2019, is suffering from loss of public support ahead of the general elections that must be held before the end of March 2023. This could be explained due to numerous economic and societal problems, topped by sexual scandals of coalition members (politician Prinn Panitchpakdi) and a bungled vaccine rollout. The loss of support of the main party of the coalition in Bangkok, even if it could reflect the public mood in a future general election and a desire for leadership change, should not be extrapolated to the whole of Thailand. Other factors apart from ideology also play a role in Thai politics, such as the rural-urban division and the role of the monarchy.
Secondly, the sweeping victory of an independent candidate and the decreased support for traditional parties has raised questions about the end of the so-called colour politics. In Thailand, yellow and red have been used to refer to the conservative/royalist vs anti-establishment political division, respectively. Chadchart Sittipunt’s sweeping victory might be a sign that the general public is ready to move beyond the traditional political division. Some analysts have created parallelisms with the politics dynamics of other countries in south-east Asia such as the Philippines, where voters decide their vote not on ideology or parties, but on specific personalities and programs. His victory showed that, regardless of Chadchart’s background, voters identified with him and voted for him. This is especially the case with many first-time-voters (16% of the total voters in this election), who showed support for Chadchart’s environmental policies for the city. Most importantly, he managed to gather support from across the political spectrum and defy traditional division. Another factor that explains his victory is that he had been doing informal political campaign for these elections for the last two years with the support of 10,000 volunteers, portraying himself “as a truly independent candidate with integrity”.
Finally, a surprising thing about Chadchart’s victory was precisely the percentage of support he received. With 4,4 million eligible voters, and a 60% of participation registered (around 2,64 million people voted), the 1.39 million votes he gathered means that he had a support of 52% of the voters. In previous years, different surveys have shown that popular support for the main politicians such as Prayuth had never exceeded 30%. The popular discontent with the main politicians in the country is evidenced by a survey that was conducted in December 2021, where 36,54% of respondents said that “there was no suitable individual for the role of prime minister”. Chadchart’s landslide victory was thus an unexpected and rare event in Thailand’s political landscape. This is especially rare taking into account that there were 31 candidates running for this local election, which consequently caused a division of the vote among many candidates.
The evolution of the leadership crisis in Thailand ahead of the general elections of March 2023 could have consequences both in its domestic and international spheres. Domestically, the lack of cohesion of political forces means that, right after the pandemic, Thailand lacks reconciliation and consensus among its institutions to ensure the country’s governance. A stronger cooperation and consensus among political groups would help the economic revival of the country, deeply affected by the pandemic due to its significant reliance on the tourism sector. Internationally, the leadership crisis, if not tackled, would harm the country’s image, especially ahead of Thailand’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on 18 and 19 November 2022 and ahead of the general elections in March 2023. The emergence of a successful independent candidate as governor of Bangkok could be the beginning of a new political dynamic in Thailand, which could eventually lead to fresh solutions to the country’s problems.