On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.
Indonesia: Student Protests Raise Concerns Over the Erosion of Civil Rights and Democratic Accountability
In September 2019, the largest student demonstrations in the last two decades in Indonesia exposed social and political fault lines in the country. The immediate trigger was the passage of the Anti-Corruption Bill (KPK Bill) that sought to reduce the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), as well as efforts to change the penal code to criminalize extramarital sex, abortions, and “insults” to leaders. However, other fault lines related to the erosion of civil liberties, environment issues, and privileging of the economic agenda over social cohesion, have also given an impetus to the protests. The government response has been a combination of a delay in the passage of some bills, inept police action to control the protestors, and blame on extremist elements. However, President Jokowi continues to privilege economic agenda over political reform issues, rendering it likely that discontent will continue in the form of protests and civil unrest.
During the protests that erupted in late September, tens of thousands of students clashed with police on the streets of Jakarta and other major cities in almost every province. The first protest in the university town of Yogyakarta saw a turnout of 15,000 students, despite a rally call at short notice. In Jakarta, students gathered around the parliament building and shut down all major roads in the city. Students have been a potent political force in Indonesian politics, especially with their role in the overthrow of Indonesia’s last dictator, Suharto. From opposition to some government bills, the current protests evolved to include the spirit of Reformasi: a term that expressed a desire for general reform and social progress in 1998. In recent years, concerns have also been raised about the increasing role of hardline Islamist groups in Indonesian politics. For example, the evolving criminal code is seen to be influenced by Islamist group demands. Further, the erosion of civil liberties and the spread of misinformation campaigns and fake news creating social disharmony are also points of concern.
The major demands of the protestors included:
- Rejection of the Criminal Code Bill and KPK bill
- Ban Indonesian military and national police from holding civilian posts
- End militarism in Papua and free Papuan political prisoners
- End burning of forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra and punish corporations responsible for forest fires
- Resolve human rights violations and punish those responsible
To these have been added action against the excesses of the security forces that used tear gas and water cannons to break up the protests, resulting in injuries to students. Three students were also allegedly shot dead.
President Jokowi’s response is unlikely to address the underlying causes in order to help control the youth discontent. While the bill related to the change in the criminal code has been delayed, the KPK law came into effect on October 17 without the revisions the PM had promised to consider. His critics have also accused him of filling government posts with ex-military generals, including those with Suharto era allegations of human rights abuses. Recently he appointed his rival in Presidential elections, Subianto, as a defense minister. Subianto is a controversial military figure who has been accused of human rights violations in the past. Jokowi is also seen to prioritize economic reform and infrastructure, and has seemingly made harsh political compromises for this, including selecting a conservative cleric as his VP candidate to win the support of hardline Islamist groups.
Middle East and North Africa
Iraq: Violent Anti-Government Protests Continue in Major Cities and Provinces
October protests in Iraq have once again revealed the deep-rooted and multi-layered issues existing in the country at three levels:
- At the local level, periodic demonstrations have highlighted the state’s inadequacy in ending corruption, nepotism, addressing issues of unemployment, provision of essential services, etc. Nearly three-fifths of Iraq’s 40-million people live on less than USD six dollars a day, according to the World Bank.
- A political system that runs on sectarian and ethnic quotas and has led to leaders abusing public funds for the betterment of their groups.
- At the regional level, the perceived subservience of Iraq’s political elite to one or other of Iraq’s two main allies – U.S. and Iran – and the interference in internal affairs.The recent round of protests in Iraq began on October 1, triggered by two main events – the dismissal of the popular military commander, Abd al Wahab al Saadi, by the Abdel Mahdi government, and the dismissal of the general who led the fight against ISIS in Mosul (and was perceived to be countering the political class corruption angered many Iraqis). It was also motivated by the brutal suppression of protests by a group of higher degree holders in Baghdad for better employment avenues, including violence against women protestors.
Many experts believe that this latest round of unrest, which began in the first week of October and was re-kindled on October 24, could mark a dangerous turning point. This recent wave of protests differs from the previous demonstrations in 2011, 2018, and others in crucial ways – the scale, magnitude, and the way they spread across the country has been unprecedented. While Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and the ‘Green Zone’ that houses government complexes has seen massive demonstrations, cities in the oil-rich southern Iraq have also been widely affected with a curfew imposed in cities like Basra and Nasiriyah. The use of violence by the government has been unprecedented. The government has used tactics such as sniper fires and shutting down the internet as attempts to contain protests. As Renad Monsour, a Chatham House Director, points out – this time, the Iraqis are not merely calling for the downfall of a leader or a political party, or an addressing of grievances within the existing system. They want an end to the quota-based system (muhassasa) that has existed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The October protests have also been more spontaneous, decentralized, and led by young people not having any civic or political affiliations.
The protests are challenging the systemic nature of the Iraqi political economy since the U.S. invasion and this is evident in the political fallouts. PM Mahdi has sought to take immediate steps to prove his government is responsive to the grievances of the protestors. Based on the report of a special investigative committee, the government has taken steps to hold senior military and police commanders accountable by removing them from their posts and ordering trials. Mahdi has also announced a reshuffle of his cabinet and a package of reforms, including a hiring drive, increased pensions, land distributions, and a promise to tackle corruption.
However, these measures have failed to quell the popular discontent despite containing first of its kind measures – such as the public rebuke of commanders who lost control of their troops during the protests. Critics have pointed to the failure to hold to account the government’s role as well as that of the popular mobilization units, some backed by Iran. Security units linked to the groups were believed to be responsible for some of the deadliest excesses. In the last few days, key factions/power brokers have also endorsed the protests and called on the government to resign. These include the Shiite cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose supporters have the largest number of seats in the parliament. Despite these developments, it is unlikely the protests will lead to any substantive political change, as PM Mahdi is a compromise candidate supported by entrenched patronage networks that are likely to push back against the protests with new suppression tactics. He lacks the power to allow for genuine political reforms, and is expected to attempt to appease the protestors with short-term measures. As the underlying discontent and inability to address its causes will continue, so will the civil unrest in Iraq.
Europe and the Central Independent States
Continued Protests Create Uncertainty in Barcelona
Following the protests staged by over 350,000 Catalan separatists on October 26, tens of thousands of people have organized a counter-rally in Barcelona, championing the cause of Spanish unity. Notably, the Catalan separatists protested over the arrest of nine regional leaders. According to police estimates, more than 80,000 people marched through Barcelona’s central Gracia, waving Catalan flags.
Catalonia is home to more than seven-million people and is considered to be a wealthy northeastern region. The region has been mired in political turmoil for the past few years, ever since it started demanding independence from the Spanish government. The current situation of unrest has further deepened after the October 14 Spanish Supreme Court verdict that gave jail terms to regional leaders for demanding the independence of Catalonia. What ensued can be considered one of the worst political crises witnessed by the country in decades.
Another significant issue is that neither camps have a visible majority. July’s opinion poll conducted by the Catalan regional government showed 44% wanted independence, whereas 48.3% opposed the decision. However, the rally conducted on October 27 by Catalan Civil Society Association (SCC), which followed the October 26 protests, aimed at showing the government of Spain that those opposing secession comprised a silent majority. Additionally, several members of the socialist government and leaders of the conservative parties, also joined the rally – this is a major political indicator since the country is just a few weeks away from the fourth general election. With the rising levels of violence in these protests, it remains to be seen how the country is going to address the escalating Catalan situation.
The government had already made it clear that it will not back down regarding the issue – this indicates there is a possibility of the protests continuing with the government attempting to mitigate the issue. With the upcoming elections, the issue has the potential of escalating further, and impacting the overall security of the region. Some leaders also view this as more of a ‘crisis of public order’ rather than a political crisis. The coming weeks will prove to be crucial in determining the stance of the government, and how the issue will get resolved.
A Wave of Brazen Shootings Affects Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is undergoing a crisis that is the result of a deteriorating economy, political turmoil, and natural hazards. Additionally, Puerto Rico is currently facing another emerging risk – increasing crime rates. On October 15, Governor Wanda Vazquez called for an emergency meeting of its security council after six people were murdered in San Juan. According to government sources, recent incidents of brazen murders are increasingly tarnishing the image of the territory, dampening tourism prospects. Notably, tourism is one of the big economic drivers of the island. Several incidents, such as mass shootings in a housing complex, the gunning down of two men on one of the busiest highways, and execution of a just released convict in front of the central government office, are all indicators of the aggravating crime rates. The October 14 mass killing is the fifth incident to hit Puerto Rico in 2019.
In July, the island witnessed a political upheaval leading to the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosello on accounts of corruption and a scandal involving inappropriate text messages regarding women. Additionally, the island has also been reeling under a decade long recession and a very slow economic revival after the deadly 2017 Hurricane season. With all these factors impacting Puerto Rico adversely, increasing crime rates is the last thing the new Governor (who has only been in office for three months) would like to deal with.
Puerto Rico is also a transshipment point for narcotics that are transported from South America to the United States and Europe. Most of the murders committed are related to drug trafficking. The economic downturn is also fueling the crime, and this, in turn, is impacting tourism. With the island grappling with a multitude of risks, the onus lies with the new Governor to prioritize the developmental goals and slowly lead the economy back on a growth trajectory.
Deadly Attacks in Rwanda Reawaken Memories of Genocide
In mid-October, Rwanda saw one of the deadliest attacks in two decades when rebels raided a town called Kinigi on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border. This attack awakened deadly memories of the Rwandan genocide that happened in the 1990s. The area, famous for tourism, is located near the famed Mountain of Volcanoes known to be the abode of mountain gorillas. According to sources, the rebel group came from the DRC, and belonged to another militia group called RUD-Uranana. Notably, the group is a fraction of the even more notorious Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, also called FDLR. FDLR was founded by Hutu extremists, and was also responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Currently, FDLR is also responsible for human rights violations and conducting atrocities in the DRC as well.
In 1994, about 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists in just three months. The Hutu extremists targeted members of the Tutsi community, which was the minority in Rwanda. Incidentally, during the attacks, the Hutu extremists targeted members of the Tutsi community, and political opponents of Hutus, irrespective of political affiliation and religion. Hutus are a majority in Rwanda; however, Tutsis dominated the country until the former overthrew the Tutsi monarchy in 1959. This led to thousands of Tutsis fleeing to neighboring countries. Eventually, exiled Tutsis formed a rebel group called Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which occupied Rwanda in 1990. This further resulted in fighting, and finally, a peace accord was signed in 1993. However, the genocide was triggered in 1994 when a plane carrying the then Rwandan President, Juvénal Habyarimana, and his counterpart was shot down. Immediately blaming the RPF, the Hutu extremists meticulously went about conducting the genocide – cited as one of the worst massacres in the country’s history.
As a retaliatory attack to the latest October rebel action, Rwandan security forces claimed to have killed nineteen terrorists who were responsible for the death of fourteen civilians. According to the forces, the rebels carried out the killings while searching for food and attacked with machetes, stones, and knives.
In the absence of a clear strategy of the rebels, the attacks stirred panic amongst the locals. The action of the Rwandan government has restored normalcy for now. However, going forward, the government started investigations to identify the attackers; clearly, their motivations and capabilities and efforts are being made to resume tourism. In the short term, the authorities are looking to normalize the situation in the area while keeping a watchful eye on the DRC border.