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ACLED Regional Overview – Southeast Asia (17 - 23 April 2021)

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Last week in Southeast Asia, anti-coup demonstrations continued in Myanmar, as demonstrators expressed their support for the newly-formed National Unity Government (NUG) composed of lawmakers elected in the November 2020 elections. Demonstrators also demanded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) invite NUG representatives to the ASEAN leaders’ meeting convened on 24 April. Meanwhile, the Myanmar military launched deadly offensives against anti-coup demonstrators in Sagaing and Mandalay regions. Fighting between the Myanmar military and Kachin and Kayin rebels also continued throughout the week. Elsewhere, in the Philippines, a diplomatic spat with China continued after Chinese vessels delayed their withdrawal from disputed areas in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In Thailand, anti-government demonstrations increased last week as members of the People’s Party rallied across the country. In Indonesia, labor unions held a protest ahead of the first hearing of the judicial review for the controversial Omnibus Law. Finally, in Malaysia, opposition parties led a protest calling for an end to the state of emergency, which has been in place since January 2021.

In Myanmar, anti-coup demonstrators took to the streets for the twelfth consecutive week to express their opposition to the military junta. Demonstrators also expressed their support for the newly-formed NUG and called on countries to recognize the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. The NUG, made up of elected lawmakers and prominent activists, was formed on 16 April. Ahead of the ASEAN leaders’ meeting on 24 April, the NUG issued a statement calling for international recognition and an invitation to the meeting (Channel News Asia, 18 April 2021). The bloc has been criticized for only extending an invitation to the leader of the military coup (Irrawaddy, 23 April 2021). On the day before the meeting, around 150 demonstrators held a protest march in downtown Yangon, stating that the military leader’s attendance would only serve to legitimize the unlawful takeover of power on 1 February (AP, 24 April 2021). The march also marks the first open demonstration in downtown Yangon in recent weeks after crackdowns and increased surveillance by security forces have quelled protest activities.

Meanwhile, clashes between the military and anti-coup demonstrators continued in Sagaing region, which has seen some of the most persistent armed resistance to military rule in the past few weeks. On 20 April, Myanmar military soldiers launched a deadly operation against demonstrators in Yinmarbin township, which resulted in the deaths of five demonstrators and two soldiers. During the offensive, drones and long-range artillery were reportedly used by the military to track and attack the positions of demonstrators (Myanmar Now, 21 April 2021). Elsewhere, in Mandalay region, a two-day battle between security forces and demonstrators defending themselves against the regime’s violence resulted in six members of the regime’s security forces being killed (Irrawaddy, 19 April 2021).

Separately, battles between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Organization/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA) continued as the Myanmar military sought to recapture bases that have recently been seized by the KIO/KIA. The Myanmar military has not been successful in reclaiming these bases (Myanmar Now, 23 April 2021). Elsewhere, in Mon state, clashes erupted between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) after the military attempted to crack down on demonstrators. The KNU/KNLA, which was providing security for anti-coup demonstrators in the area, reportedly intercepted the military, which prompted a battle between both sides (Irrawaddy, 24 April 2021).

In the Philippines, tension mounted over a diplomatic spat with China due to the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the Philippines’ EEZ. Despite diplomatic protests lodged by the Philippine government two weeks ago, a reported 160 Chinese vessels remain in the EEZ. In response, the Philippine government filed additional diplomatic protests on 21 April. This is in addition to the daily protests that it has been filing for “every day of delay” in which Chinese vessels remain in the disputed area (Philippine Star, 23 April 2021). The Philippine government alleges that hundreds of thousands of kilograms of fish are illegally taken from the area every day that the Chinese vessels remain in the disputed waters (Rappler, 23 April 2021).

In Thailand, there was a significant increase in anti-government demonstrations last week, with the majority of demonstrations led by the People’s Party. During the week, daily demonstrations were held by the People’s Party members who stood still for 112 minutes to denounce the use of Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code — or the lèse majesté law — to detain protest leaders. The series of demonstrations were held to express solidarity with protesters, who have been demonstrating daily for over a month in front of the Supreme Court in Bangkok. On 23 April, two prominent leaders of the anti-government movement were released on bail after two months of detention. Nineteen other protesters remain behind bars, including two leaders who have been on a hunger strike for over a month (Bangkok Post, 23 April 2021).

Elsewhere, in Indonesia, after months of inactivity, labor groups gathered once again in Jakarta to voice their opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation in Jakarta. The protest was held ahead of the first hearing of the judicial review for the Omnibus Law at the Constitutional Court (Tempo, 21 April 2021). Labor unions filed a judicial review to challenge the Omnibus Law last November, following weeks of nationwide demonstrations against the law. The Omnibus Law has been criticized by labor unions for being pro-business and for undermining labor rights (Channel News Asia, 24 September 2020).

Lastly, in a rare show of unity, members of several opposition parties in Malaysia submitted a memorandum to demand an end to the state of emergency (Malaysiakini, 21 April 2021). Following a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in January 2021, Malaysia has been placed under a state of emergency to tackle the third wave of the pandemic. Under the state of emergency, all parliament and state assembly sittings — and all national, state, or by-elections — have been suspended (The Straits Times, 12 January 2021).