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Battles for freedom

Cases of insurgency and protests continued in 2020 despite the pandemic


Protesters in Bangkok, Thailand, in November Associated Press/Photo by Sakchai Lalit (file)

Battles for freedom

This year, countries around the world grappled to rein in COVID-19. But the deadly virus didn’t claim complete dominance of the headlines. Ongoing struggles for peace continued. Persistent insurgency plagued many countries, while others saw new outbreaks of civil unrest. But 2020 also ushered in some welcome changes. Here are the top five World Tour stories of the year:

A wave of protests

In August, thousands of young protesters flooded the streets of Thailand in an unprecedented challenge to the monarchy. Students lifted three fingers in a Hunger Games–style salute and borrowed other imageries from pop culture to demand a new election, constitutional reform, and an end to the crackdown on government critics. The country’s leadership clamped down on the protesters and charged at least 12 of them with royal defamation, employing lese majeste laws for the first time in nearly three years. In June, the government suspended the controversial laws.

Belarus also faced widespread protests this year. Decades-long President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a contested electoral victory in August, sparking fierce dissent. Police officers confronted the demonstrations with violence and detained thousands, but many more people continued to show up at weekly rallies.

Young Nigerians who turned out across the nation in October to oppose police brutality also met with violence from security forces. The governmental response drew international attention and rebuke when military forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Lagos state.

China intensified its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong this year after the unprecedented protests across the territory in 2019. In June, China approved a sweeping national security law banning sedition, foreign interference, and secessionist activities. Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers staged a mass resignation from the Legislative Council in November after Beijing passed a resolution to bar lawmakers who support independence or refuse to recognize its sovereignty. In December, a court in Hong Kong sentenced prominent activist Joshua Wong and two other activists to prison over their involvement in last year’s demonstrations.

A rekindled conflict

On Sept. 27, renewed fighting broke out between the majority Christian Armenia and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Each side blamed the other for starting the conflict that left Christians stranded in the middle. Nagorno-Karabakh is in Azerbaijan but is inhabited primarily by Armenian Christians.

The six weeks of fighting left more than 2,700 Azerbaijani soldiers dead and a similar death toll among Armenian troops. Between the two countries, more than 100 civilians are reported dead. The conflict ignited fears of a larger regional war as Russia pushed for peace and Turkey backed Azerbaijan.

After several failed truce attempts, the two sides signed a Russia-backed deal that offered territorial concessions to Azerbaijan in exchange for peace. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian called the truce “extremely painful” but necessary.

Rising insurgency

The Islamic State affiliates and branches continued to spread across Africa this year, causing concern among global counterterror groups. U.S. Ambassador Nathan Sales—the newly appointed special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS—in November pledged to use lessons learned in Iraq and Syria to quell the group’s growing influence on the continent. Islamic State affiliates have killed dozens of civilians in Mozambique, and other groups remain active in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Somalia, and Mali, among other nations.

France also faced Islamist attacks this year. An 18-year-old Chechen refugee killed a school teacher who discussed caricatures of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, with his students. France protects religious satire, but many Muslims view such depiction of Muhammad as a serious offense. After French President Emmanuel Macron refused to renounce the cartoons during a tribute for the teacher, Muslim nations like Bangladesh, Kuwait, and Qatar boycotted the country.

An internal battle

The Ethiopian government in November launched an offensive against the semiautonomous state of Tigray after accusing the regional leaders of attacking a military base. The fighting escalated quickly as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed turned down international calls for peace talks. Federal troops blocked off access to the region, leaving stranded civilians with limited acess to food and medicine. More than 50,000 Ethiopians fled to neighboring Sudan, and aid agencies said the conflict displaced about 1 million people. The Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee confirmed staffers working in the region died. Aid groups called for an immediate cease-fire and the protection of civilians as the violence continues.

Setting captives free

In one positive side-effect of the pandemic, many nations rushed to decongest their prisons in an effort to avoid an outbreak—including freeing political and religious prisoners. Myanmar President Win Myint released more than 24,000 inmates in April. Iran freed more than 85,000 inmates, including seven Christians. Penal Reform International warned that prisons in more than 124 countries have exceeded maximum occupancy and called for more emergency releases of nonviolent offenders. The outbreak put pressure on reluctant nations like China, which is currently detaining several Christians and more than 1 million Uighur Muslims.


Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.

@onize_ohiks

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