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August in review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of August:

Fires at Amazon forest trigger global calls for greater environmental protection

Massive fires erupted in the Amazon forest in Brazil in late August, triggering outcry as well as calls for better protection of the “lungs of the earth” across the globe. The latest wildfires contained at least thousands of hotspots spanning several states in the country namely Amazonas, Rondonia, Para and Mato Grosso. In addition to Brazil, the fires have also spread to forests in the neighbouring Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. As efforts to contain the blaze were launched, there have also been criticisms against the Brazillian government’s handling of the situation. Human acts were thought to be blamed as fire is often used to clear out lands for farming and ranching. Amid allegations of being complicit, the Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro had instead accused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for the fire, resulting in a barrage of outcry domestically and abroad.  One of the strongest criticisms came from the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who suggested to use the G7 summit to discuss the matter. His call received backing from the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Brazillian government however retaliated, saying that the Macron was using the “internal issue of Brazil and other Amazonian countries” for his personal political gain. Elsewhere, protests also erupted in front of the diplomatic missions of Brazil around the world over the fires.

Communications blackout imposed in Kashmir following revocation of special status

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status granted for Muslim-majority Kashmir in mid-August following a landslide election victory few months earlier. Though the revocation of Article 370 has been stated clearly in his manifesto, there were still fears that the move would heighten the already tense situation in one of the militarized regions in the world. As a result, the Indian government poured in thousands of troops into major cities and towns of the state including Srinagar as well as imposed a total communication blackout in order to maintain calm and stability among its populace. As part of his nationalistic agenda, Modi also used the Independence Day anniversary to rally support for his move, citing that the article has long been a stumbling block in the development of the state. While some opposition parties expressed dissatisfaction, their responses were largely subdued due to the stronger majority possessed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the parliament, Lok Sabha. Internationally, Modi’s move received the strongest backlashes from India’s regional neighbours namely Pakistan and China. Both of the countries claimed that Delhi’s unilateral move would threaten regional peace. Being the archrival of India in South Asia, Pakistan also partially closed its airspace while downgrading diplomatic ties with India in response to the revocation.

Sudan protest leaders, military ink transitional government deal

After months of unrest following the fall of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese protest leaders and military finally inked a power-sharing deal, paving way for the transition toward a civilian-led government. The agreement was being hailed as a key turning point after months of stalemate between both sides that saw violent clashes and deaths among the protesters. Under the agreement, a joint military and civilian council will be established to rule the country for at least three years, after which elections will follow. A cabinet appointed by the activists as well as a legislative would also be formed during this period to ensure administrative functionality. Despite this, some quarters have greeted the agreement with cautious optimism amid worries that the military might renege on their promises by delaying certain clauses thus allowing them to rule longer. Additionally, some also added that a number of challenges await the transitional government as the country has been battered by post-coup chaos for several months, resulting in erosion of the economy as well as institutional capacities among others. On the other hand, the international community including the African Union and Ethiopia that brokered the agreement have welcomed the development with relief after months of deadly violence.

Unrest in Papua following arrest of students

The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua suffered from waves of unrest as tension simmered over the arrest of a group of Papuan students in mid-August. Riots erupted in a number of cities in the provinces including Nabire, Jayapura, Sorong, Fakfak, Timika as well as Manokwari in which demonstrators, mostly Papuans called for independence and equal treatment by the Indonesian government. At some point of the protests, some demonstrators also displayed the banned Morning Star flag, which symbolized independence resulting in scores of arrests. In a bid to quell the unrest, thousands of troops were deployed into the region and a communication blackout was also imposed to prevent spread of rumours at a sensitive time when Indonesia marked its 74th anniversary of independence. President Joko Widodo had also appealed for calm as the biggest riots in decades spread in both provinces. The latest bout of clashes has been regarded as a culmination of frustration among the Papuans who often felt they are being treated as “second-class” citizens in the country. Despite this, it has been hoped that the reconciliatory tone struck by the Indonesian government will be able to mitigate the ongoing violence in the region, which has already been plagued by a low-level insurgency.  

G7 summit in Biarritz skips joint communique

The Group of Seven summit was held in late August in which leaders of some of the most powerful economies in the world descended into the French city of Biarritz to discuss several issues including trade, the wildfires in Amazon as well as global security challenges. On top of the usual members of the G7, the summit was also attended by leaders non-member states including India, Egypt and Chile among others for the group’s outreach session. One of the most notable attendees of the summit was the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif who held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sideline amid an ongoing nuclear stalemate with the US. Although there were no direct talks with any officials of the President Donald Trump’s administration, there have been speculations that Macron was using the summit in an attempt to broker talks between Washington and Tehran. Besides Iran, the summit also became a turf for a war of words between the French and Brazilian governments amid the fires in the Amazon forest. While G7 members pledged to provide US$ 20 million in aid for Brazil to combat the blaze, the chief of staff for President Jair Bolsonaro rejected the offer and labelled Macron’s move as “colonialist” and mocking the latter for failing to stop the “avoidable” Notre Dame blaze. The summit also ended without a joint communique as the host nation sought to avoid a repeat of a 2018 row between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

July in Review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of July:

Leaked private chats of Puerto Rican governor trigger massive street protests

The streets of Puerto Rico were hit by massive protests amid leaked chats from the messaging app, Telegram that showed the territory’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló and his inner circle making inappropriate remarks against the victims of Hurricane Maria. The 889-page document that was released by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) also contained vulgar, homophobic, and sexist languages that were used by Rosselló to disparage his opponents and it came just days after two top officials of his government were arrested as part of a corruption probe. As anger boiled over the scandals, many people took to the streets, resulting in largest protests seen in the territory in decades. While these events were the triggering factors, the protests were also the culmination of public disdain over the continuous exploitation of the political and economic elites and a lackluster disaster response amidst the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. Despite this, Rosselló has remained defiant by refusing to step down and instead offered not to seek another term in office. As the protests refused to let up, Rosselló eventually announced his resignation that will take effect on 2 August.

Boris Johnson takes over as British PM after winning Conservative leadership race

Leading Brexiteer and the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson became the British Prime Minister after winning the Conservatives Party leadership race, against his rival Jeremy Hunt. Johnson succeeded Theresa May who resigned after failing to secure a parliamentary for her deal on Britain’s exit from the European Union. While the Conservatives have been bitterly divided over the issue, one of Johnson’s first move upon the assumption of the post has also proven to be controversial. Besides axing many ministers from May’s cabinet in his reshuffles, some of the key posts were also given to candidates with doubtful credentials namely Education to Gavin Williamson, who was fired for leaking confidential information to Chinese phonemaker, Huawei and Home Affairs to Priti Patel who held meetings in Israel without the knowledge of the Foreign Office. The reshuffle was dubbed the “biggest overhaul” in decades while some calling it “a summer’s day massacre”. Regardless, Johnson’s move to stuff his cabinet with several controversial candidates is highly unlikely to end the division among the Tory ranks as his own goals of delivering Brexit by 31 October among others superseded the party interest.

Tropical Storm Danas wreaks havoc in East Asia

The Pacific Typhoon Season continued to cause disruptions in parts of East Asia as well as the Philippines in July amid the passage of Tropical Storm Danas (Falcon). The tropical storm made landfall in Cagayan, causing at least four deaths as well as some damage in Apayao and Negros Occidental. The storm that later moved on to South Korea also caused multiple transport disruptions in the country, especially around the island of Jeju, one of the top tourist spots in the southern region. Heavy rains and flooding were reported in some towns. In Japan, similar situation was also reported in Kyushu and Chugoku region with record-breaking rain forcing the evacuations of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Landslides warnings were also issued while the high-speed bullet train services were disrupted. Despite this, there were no casualties in Japan and South Korea due to the adverse weather. The typhoon season is expected to continue into August and further travel disruptions should be anticipated. 

No end in sight for Hong Kong protests amid periodical outbreak of violence

Street protests continued to grip Hong Kong throughout much of July with some of the most serious violence breaking out between police and pro-democracy supporters. The stand-off that initially started as a protest movement against a controversial extradition bill looked set to become protracted battle by many of the younger population against what was being regarded as a growing encroachment of the territory’s affairs by the Chinese government in Beijing. Pressure has also been piling on the territory’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam who was demanded by the pro-democracy movements to resign though she has remained defiant, and instead slammed the protesters for the violence that saw the Beijing’s liaison office being vandalized while the Legislative Complex being stormed upon. As the government blamed the so-called “rioters” for the unrest, a group of thugs that terrorized passengers at a transit station in Yuen Long also sent shockwaves with some suspecting that they were triads who were colluding with the police to break up the protesters. The events for the past month have clearly demonstrated that the latest waves of protests were unlikely to end soon as pro-democracy activists remained adamant to achieve their goals of ousting Lam and a complete revocation of the bill. However, there have also been fears that patience is wearing thin in Beijing and eventually stronger measures might be used to quell the protests. 

Landslide victory for centre-right party following election in Greece

An election in Greece saw the leftist party under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras being voted out after holding on to power for four years. The Syriza party was defeated by the centre-right New Democracy that managed to secure an outright majority in the parliament with 158 seats. The defeat of Syriza was already in the horizon when it went against the main election promise of stopping austerity measure after forming the government in 2015. As years passed, Tsipras’ government was not only unable to put the Greek economy back on track, but it also somewhat diverted from what it originally intended to do, that is to challenge Brussels’ tough bailout package and the establishment as a whole. Instead, the vicious cycle of austerity continued for many ordinary Greeks. Evictions of struggling families and the sale of vast areas of land and sea to corporations were not uncommon while the economy stagnated with high unemployment rate. The first sign of Syriza’s impending defeat was in June when it suffered a harsh defeat in local elections while the New Democracy won in nearly all regions and cities. Upon his victory, the leader of the New Democracy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis had vowed to re-establish stability and pledging to re-energise the economy by attracting foreign investment and creating jobs.

June in Review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of June:

Increased tension in Middle East following US-Iran dispute 

Tension in the Middle East ratcheted up by a notch throughout June following the downing of a US drone by Iranian forces. While US President Donald J. Trump has always been critical of Iran including its nuclear ambitions, the escalation marked a sharp decline as Tehran was being accused of flexing its arms in the Persian Gulf. Prior to the downing of the drone, the US also blamed Iran for attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Although evidence was inconclusive, there have been suggestions that the latest situation might be a signal for Iran to the world, particularly the West that it is capable of disrupting one of the world’s most important shipping lines should situation worsens, and an armed conflict becomes unavoidable. This is as the country began to feel the pinch of heavy US sanctions following the collapse of a nuclear deal in 2018. Trump has also imposed more sanctions that targeted the Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the so-called “hostile conduct” of the regime. As Iran rejected the sanctions, the window to revive the collapsed nuclear also became smaller amid fears that hardliners might strengthen their position in the regime, ultimately pushing the country on a brink of war with the US. 

Large protests grip Hong Kong amid controversial extradition bill

Street protests made a return to Hong Kong after a controversial extradition bill that sparked fears of growing encroachment of the former British colony by China. Pro-democracy and human rights activists said the bill could be used by Beijing to target those dissenting with views for trial in the mainland, where torture and forced confessions among others are not unheard of. In recent years, there have been accusations that the territory’s autonomy is being gradually taken away while the voices of its people on several major issues including universal suffrage being ignored by Beijing. As the government initially refused to back down from the bill, millions of protesters poured to the streets of the world’s financial hubs, paralyzing movements in the Central district while forcing a number of departments to close. Clashes broke out occasionally between the police and protesters and after days of pressure, the Chief Executive of the territory, Carrie Lam announced that the bill was to be suspended, blaming the lack of explanation and communication by her government for the anger. While the move appeared to have appeased some protesters, it was unlikely to completely end the stalemate as activists have called for the bill to be scrapped altogether as well as Lam’s resignation. As such, a prolonged stand-off between the protesters and government is still highly likely with the former launching sit-ins at various locations in the city, similar to those seen during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Ex-Egyptian president Morsi dies during court trial

Thefirst democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi collapsed and died later during a court a trial in mid-June. As one of the key leaders in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, Morsi has been charged with unlawful detention of protesters as well as torture after being overthrown in a military in a 2013 coup. Since then, he had appeared periodically in court though activists have constantly criticised the military government under Abdul Fattah al-Sisi for depriving the former of family visits and basic needs including medicines, which eventually led to his death. There have been calls for an independent inquiry into Morsi’s demise by the United Nations as well as countries such as Qatar and Malaysia though they are unlikely to be heeded. Cairo had instead accused the UN of politicizing Morsi’s death. While Morsi may have been quietly buried, the uptick in violence by Islamist militants ever since his removal is likely to continue with this latest development. 

Erdogan suffers setback following Istanbul election loss

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered a setback at the Istanbul mayoral election re-run in June following the victory of opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu. The loss of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party was a huge blow to Erdogan who has been leading the country as a strongman since 2003. While the jubilant crowds cheered on the streets of Istanbul, the mood was more subdued in Ankara as Erdogan moved to contain the fallout from the loss with his top circles. Once being credited for lifting Turkish economy, Erdogan’s support has been eroding in recent years as he moved toward the conservative path to stay in power. An economic recession and financial crisis also made matters worse while his dictatorial tendencies have also alarmed some voters. For many voters in Istanbul, the victory of the opposition has been regarded as the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s politics where the AK party has maintained a strong grip in the past. Attention will also be focused on Erdogan’s next move amid the election losses. A cabinet reshuffle has been tipped as a possibility though it is unlikely to trigger broad-based reforms in the short-term.

Regional leader killed in attempted coup in Ethiopia

A coup attempt was reported in one of Ethiopia’s nine regions. The President of the Amhara Region, Ambachew Mekonnen was killed in Bahir Dar after a nationalist element of the local security forces went rogue. As the situation unfolded, the country’s army chief, Se‘are Mekonnenin was also killed by one of his bodyguards in Addis Ababa. The two events were later found to be related and linked to the Amhara nationalist factions. The latest killings continued to underscore the fragility of the country’s ethnic federalism system despite the new leadership of reformist president, Abiy Ahmed. While Abiy has been credited for embracing democratic and economic reforms, his move has also proven to be divisive as various ethnic groups jockeyed for power and resources. As the Tigrayans that had long been a dominating voice in the country continue to be in decline, many Amhara nationalists are in the view that this could be the time for them to reclaim the so-called “lost territories” due to the adoption of the new constitution of 1995. With ethno-nationalistic sentiment on the rise, Abiy will now have the unenviable task of maintaining unity ahead of a critical election in 2020. 

May in Review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of May:

Cyclone Fani wreaks havoc in Bangladesh and India

 The first cyclonic storm of the season lashed through Bangladesh and India in early May, causing severe damage along its path. Dubbed as “Fani”, the cyclone made landfall in the India state of Odisha, cutting power to thousands of residents while flooding a number of towns and villages. At least 1.2 million people were evacuated in anticipation of its arrival and the efforts were thought to have minimized the number of casualties to just 64 in the state. Relief efforts were launched in light of the material damage caused by the cyclone while Prime Minister Narendra Modi also pledged financial aid to rebuild destroyed infrastructures including homes. In Bangladesh, the cyclone also made its way through Khulna, Chittagong and Barisal divisions. The most affected districts were Lakshmipur, Bhola and Noakhali where a total of 14 deaths was recorded. Power supply was also disrupted while trees were uprooted in many areas. At least 500 houses were damaged due to the powerful cyclone. As the cyclone moved further inland into Bhutan, it also weakened significantly. 

Riots engulf Jakarta amid declaration of final election results

Violence erupted on the streets of Jakarta as Indonesia’s election commission announced the final results of the presidential election that gave the incumbent leader, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) a victory. Although unofficial results since the conclusion of the elections in April have pointed to a win for Jokowi, his closest rival, Prabowo Subianto’s continuous refusal to admit defeat by claiming irregularities was thought to have sparked the riots. Tension that has been building up in the country for weeks finally came to a blow despite the commission’s unusual move to announce the results in the early hours, at about 02:00 (local time). Supporters of Subianto massed near the commission’s headquarters in Jakarta and unrest continued throughout the night and the days that followed. At least eight deaths were recorded with more than 700 others injured as security forces deployed rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the rioters. Parts of Jakarta were also brought to a standstill while social media access were limited to prevent spread of misinformation. Jokowi has appealed for calm but also warned those who used violence will be dealt with severely by the security forces. Prabowo also made similar appeal but stopped short of accepting the legitimacy of Jokowi, in a move that was likely to do very little in abating the anger among his supporters. 

Landslide victory for Narendra Modi following marathon India election

Narendra Modi secured a second term as the Prime Minister of India following a landslide victory in the country’s marathon election that lasted for a more than a month since April. Modi’s resounding victory was greeted with cheers among members of his party, Bharatiya Janata (BJP) as it was expected to gain a larger share of seats compared to the 2014 election. His victory also appeared to indicate that his strongman image was still vital in cultivating voters’ support for the BJP despite the setbacks his government faced in managing the world’s sixth largest economy. Joblessness, plummeting farm incomes and a slump in industrial production that were thought to have generated a certain level of anti-incumbent feeling did very little to dent Modi’s chance as he successfully made the election all about himself. The rhetorical statements combined with nationalistic sentiments as well as welfare programme announcements in the run-up to the voting also augured well with the voters who clearly had yet to blame him for the various shortfalls. His second term is likely to see more focus on reducing unemployment, especially among youths as well as efforts to narrow down income inequality. While it was all about celebrations for the BJP, its closest rival, the National Congress (INC) will likely to continue do some soul-searching after failing to improve on its continuous dismal performance this time around. 

End of the road for UK PM Theresa May amid Brexit impasse 

The premiership of embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May finally came to an end following the announcement that she will step down as Conservative Party leader on 7 June. In an emotional speech, May said she had done her “best” to deliver Brexit though she acknowledged that her efforts have failed, and it will always be a matter of “deep regret” to her. A Conservative leadership contest will start shortly after her tenure as party leader ends though she will most likely be the caretaker prime minister until the process is completed. May would also be welcoming US President Donald Trump during his state visit in early June. Few names have been tipped to take over the helm with ex-foreign secretary, Boris Johnson among the favourites. Regardless of the person who succeeds May, the road ahead is nothing but easy as he or she will have the unenviable task of reaching out to a deeply divided British parliament to avoid the country crashing out of the European Union (EU) on 31 October without a deal. For May, taking the UK out of the EU is perhaps one of the most overwhelming tasks she did not see it coming when taking over from David Cameron in 2016. Despite this, her determination in hammering out a deal despite continuous setbacks has also earned praises from some Conservative colleagues upon her resignation.

European Parliament elections see mainstream parties losing out to smaller counterparts

People in the European Union went for the polls in May for the bloc’s parliamentary elections. While traditional mainstream parties dominated by centre-left or centre-right groups saw their influence diminished, the surge of smaller but passionate parties including populist ones has emerged as one of the key takeaways of the elections. Share of votes of Eurosceptics and populist parties saw an increase of about 5% compared to the previous time though it stopped short of creating the so-called “wave” touted by Matteo Salvini of Italy and Marine Le Pen of France. The populist parties appeared to do well in Poland, Hungary and Italy where they are in power. The elections also saw the rise of liberals in which there is a likelihood that they will co-operate with centrist parties such as the European People’s Party group, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, to create a working majority. Another grouping that saw a gain in seats was the Green Party, which is likely to make climate change the top priority of the EU.

Carnage in Sri Lanka displays continuous influence of IS amid Middle East setback

The relative peace enjoyed by Sri Lanka since the end of a civil war a decade ago was shattered when Islamist militants targeted churches and luxury hotels in several cities on Easter Sunday, one of the biggest religious celebrations for Christians. The attacks that shook the capital Colombo and the adjacent city of Negombo as well as Batticaloa in the east left at least 250 deaths and hundreds more injured. There was a period of immense grief as the attacks came at a time when most Sri Lankans thought that they had left behind their violent past following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers” in 2009. The government on the other hand was scrambling to find the culprit only to learn that it was perpetrated by a little-known extremist group, backed by the notorious Islamic State (IS) based in the Middle East.

With the high likelihood of IS’ involvement, it has also confirmed one of the worst fears for many i.e. the group is very much alive and influential despite suffering so many setbacks in the Middle East particularly in Iraq and Syria in recent years. The investigation by authorities that pointed out a link between the local group known as National Thowheeth Jama’ath’s (NTJ) that had in the past carried out vandalism against mainly Buddhist statues is a further affirmation that IS has intensified its efforts to court local groups regardless of their size or capability to help achieving its cause. There have been doubts that the NTJ on its own would be able to carry out such attacks as they required great precision as well as certain level of sophistication for them to be successful. Adding IS to the equation however could put an entirely different complexion on the matter.

Teaming up with local radical groups is not something new for IS as it had embarked on similar practice during the church attacks in the Indonesia and Philippines in 2018 and early 2019 respectively. Likewise, it will always be difficult to determine how much involvement the group was in the entire process though it is safe to say that its ability to influence jihadist movements elsewhere remains pretty much intact amid the innovative ways of dispersing information via the internet. Those inspired by its propaganda could be lone wolves or groups scattered across the globe in which the latter would evolve into IS cells that launched terror acts such as the one in Sri Lanka. Bearing the hallmarks of IS, such attacks will usually be carried out against soft targets such as places of worship (churches, temples and synagogues), hotels, educational institutions or even tourist spots to maximize the body count as well as inflicting trauma for viewers on television and social media sites.

Despite this, the decision to target Sri Lanka is a rather perplexing one as it is a Buddhist-majority country and there has not been any serious tension between Muslims and Christians in the country. Some analysts have pointed out that Islamic radicalism is slowly seeping into Sri Lanka and targeting these locations will fit IS’ purpose of spreading its wings as well as recruiting more fighters in the South Asian region as a whole. Attacking targets that are considered as “western way of living” could also be one of the many ways to strengthen its support amidst the losses of physical territories in the Middle East. Although it is too early to tell if the continuous shift of IS into a more virtual-based organization will work, governments across the world will need to take heed on the latest episode in Sri Lanka by preparing for more attacks that seem to happen out of the blue in the future.

In the Sri Lanka context, the terror attacks have also raised many questions on the intelligence lapse and how the bitter division between the President Maitripala Sirisen and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could have resulted in the failure of respective agencies to come together and act against such threats. The revelation by government officials that the country’s intelligence was being warned about the attacks has clearly shown the political division that overshadows issues of national importance would be detrimental in the fight against terrorism. While the president has asked several top officials to step aside in the aftermath of the attacks, the perceived lack of communication is also something that needs to be taken into serious consideration among those in power going forward.

Chan Hoi Cheong
Safeture Analyst
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur