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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. 

Street protests return to Hong Kong amid Beijing’s encroachment fears

Street protests once again gripped one of the world’s busiest financial hubs, Hong Kong in early June following the government’s attempt to pass a controversial extradition bill that has been regarded as part of Beijing’s ambition to grow its influence in the territory. In scenes reminiscent of the Occupy Movement protests back in 2014, protesters besieged government buildings including the Legislative Council Complex (LegCo) in Admiralty and their action eventually paralyzed the Central district, the heartbeat of the city. Businesses, banking services as well as public transportation were brought to a halt as defiant protesters, mostly youths launched sit-ins and clashed with police officers several times. At some point, the protests attracted at least two million people in a single day, making it the largest since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. While the territory’s chief executive Carrie Lam insisted that the bill is “necessary and sensible”, the latest round of protests have also threatened to further polarize the city’s society, especially among its middle class with some being less inclined in demanding for universal suffrage and independence. 

The protests over the extradition bill came at a time of increased anger over continuous encroachment of the semi-autonomous territory by the central government in China. Critics have argued that the “one country, two systems” principle since the handover in 1997 has been undermined as Beijing had in the past ignored the views of the territory’s citizens on multiple issues including the selection process of a chief executive among others. With the extradition bill, some citizens of the territory have certainly felt that they have been pushed to the edge and the street protests could be their last stand against their diminishing freedom. As described by a Democratic Party’s activists, Martin Lee, the bill has emerged as one of the most serious threats to their freedoms and way of life. 

The protests over the extradition bill came at a time of increased anger over continuous encroachment of the semi-autonomous territory by the central government in China. Critics have argued that the “one country, two systems” principle since the handover in 1997 has been undermined as Beijing had in the past ignored the views of the territory’s citizens on multiple issues including the selection process of a chief executive among others. With the extradition bill, some citizens of the territory have certainly felt that they have been pushed to the edge and the street protests could be their last stand against their diminishing freedom. As described by a Democratic Party’s activists, Martin Lee, the bill has emerged as one of the most serious threats to their freedoms and way of life. 

Lam’s claim that the bill will effectively curb criminals from China seeking safe haven in the territory was also rebuked by activists who argued that it will be used by the central government in Beijing to target political dissidents in which they will face trial under a justice system where torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions are not unheard of. In a wider perspective, the continuous erosion of the territory’s autonomy also put the reputation of the world’s financial centre at stake, making it “just like another Chinese city”. Apart from local activists, the protests also gained attention from foreign governments including the territory’s former colonial ruler, the United Kingdom as well as the United States. Both countries have spoken out against the violence that gripped the city with some lawmakers in the US urging Donald Trump’s administration to strip trade privileges for Hong Kong. In return, Chinese state-run media blamed the “west” for the chaos, alluding to US role in organizing the protests due to an ongoing trade war between the two giants. 

Although Lam’s government had backed down and suspended the bill for now, protest movement leaders remained wary and called for it to be scrapped altogether. They have also vowed to continue the protests until she steps down. The tenacity of the protesters will be tested in the days to come as the government’s attempt to tone down the bill instead of a full withdrawal could result in the current stand-off being dragged on. While massive one-off protests are still highly likely, the probability of sit-ins as seen during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution should also be taken into consideration as protest movements might change their tactics in pressuring the government to throw out the bill. Disruptions that may paralyze the Central district also cannot be ruled out and eventually, the government might once again employ similar tactics to disperse the protesters by force, making the scenes during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution all too similar. 

One country, two systems

As a constitutional principle laid down by Deng Xiaoping, the “one country, two systems” formula states that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and way of life will be guaranteed for at least 50 years after the 1997 handover. Under the principle, both Hong Kong and mainland China will have separate government systems as well as own say in legal, economic and financial affairs including trade relations. In recent years however, the principle has come under increased encroachment from the Chinese government with the demand for universal suffrage by pro-democracy movements being largely ignored. A series of sit-in protests over the issue gripped the territory’s Central district in 2014 in what was later being referred to as the “Umbrella Revolution”.

Chan Hoi Cheong
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur