With specific reference to Rakhine State, the CASS Myanmar Weekly Update is divided into three sections. The first section provides an overview of key dynamics and developments this week. The second section provides a detailed review of trends or incidents and analysis of their significance. The third highlights trends to watch, important upcoming events and key publications. Contributing information sources to this document include public and non-public humanitarian information provided by open traditional and social media sources, local partners, UN Agencies, INGOs, and sources on the ground. The content compiled by CASS is by no means exhaustive and does not necessarily reflect CASS’s position. The provided information, assessment, and analysis are designated for humanitarian purposes only.
Myanmar experienced its first rains of 2020 this week – a taste of the monsoon deluge to come. The downfall and formation of a storm in the Bay of Bengal also highlighted the challenges for displaced persons in the monsoon season, and the annual risk rains bring to the transmission of numerous diseases. Community groups continue to act to prevent and prepare for the spread of COVID-19, but face numerous challenges as the civil war continues unabated. Products imported from central Myanmar, including oil, garlic and onions, are also running short in Sittwe, due to continuing armed clashes on the Yangon-Sittwe main road. The UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar Ola Almgren has called for a ceasefire to battle the COVID-19 threat while reiterating that the UN remains a committed partner.
The government of Myanmar released its COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan this week, which introduces a range of measures to alleviate the negative economic impact of the virus and the worldwide economic slowdown. The measures include increasing access to credit for businesses, ‘labour intensive community infrastructure projects’ and cash transfers to vulnerable populations and IDPs. The plan ties in with the National League for Democracy’s long-standing rhetoric regarding the individuals’ self-reliance and the peoples’ duties to improve their own circumstances rather than relying on government. The plan, titled ‘Overcoming as One’, also reflects rhetoric of the ‘Whole of Nation’ approach to overcoming the crisis, which has recently been spruiked by state media and emphasises the need for unity and inclusiveness. The plan, however, features little of the bold response called for by public figures such as historian and Thant Myint U, and contains little detail to link the approach to conflict-affected areas. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries such as Thailand are spending up to 10% of GDP on a response, but business leaders note that the total expenditure of Myanmar’s plan equals some 0.1% of GDP.
A strong response is needed, as the economic impact of COVID-19 is set to rise following China’s decision to close its borders with Myanmar. The closure follows the confirmation of a COVID-19 case in the border town of Muse, Shan State, and an attack on a militia by an unknown armed group near the town on 24 April. Artillery shells landed on a kindergarten inside Chinese territory during the attack. While cross-border trade is ostensibly continuing – only the crossing of people is banned – there has nonetheless been a shock to the economy already. Many migrant workers cross the border daily and provide essential remittances to their families in Myanmar. Some 3,000 migrant workers have returned to Myanmar legally from China to date, while more than 1,000 others are estimated to have returned illegally. Additionally, Frontier Myanmar reports that tea farmers in Shan State are expecting little return on their crop this year from usual markets in China. On Myanmar’s eastern border, the Myanmar government will allow migrant workers to re-enter Myanmar from Thailand from 30 April. Those returning will have to spend 21 days in a quarantine facility before seven days in home quarantine. Whether all returnees will follow these procedures remains to be seen. Tens of thousands of people returned before Myanmar closed the border on 21 March, with many flouting quarantine. Quarantine facilities were not prepared for the influx, and awareness of prevention was low.
There remain no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rakhine State and 149 cases in total confirmed nationwide after only some 7,000 tests. Concerns have been growing locally about the state’s capacity to manage an outbreak. A medical officer in Sittwe told Frontier Myanmar that the Sittwe general hospital can only manage about 20 confirmed cases in its isolation ward, and that only about six patients could be held in its intensive care unit.
The President’s Office has announced an investigation into the 21 April incident in which a World Health Organisation vehicle was fired upon in Rakhine State. The incident resulted in the death of U Pyae Soe Win Aung, a World Health Organisation staff member. The incident temporarily put Myanmar’s western war in the national spotlight. Despite this, civilian casualties have continued at a high rate since. Similarly, armed clashes have increasingly taken place near urban areas. In just some of the instances this week, two restaurant staff were injured in shelling in the Mrauk U urban area following the abduction of a policeman by the Arakan Army on 26 April; while a young girl was injured in crossfire in Buthidaung Township the same day. Despite military denials of the destruction of houses in Tin Ma village, the Rakhine State government is reportedly financing the reconstruction of more than 500 houses there. There is a consistent upwards trend to civilian casualties and clashes near urban areas, as noted in last week’s CASS Weekly Update. The maps below illustrate the high frequency of both civilian casualties and of clashes near urban areas in two townships – Minbya (in April to date) and Paletwa (2020 to date). These are just two of the 12 townships affected by security incidents across southern Chin and Rakhine states this month.
The Arakan Army this week released a statement considering extending its unilateral ceasefire, which is set to expire on 30 April. Regardless, an expiry or extension of the unilateral ceasefire is unlikely to change the trajectory of the war as clashes have escalated in recent months despite the ceasefire. Furthermore, all indications are that the Tatmadaw remains committed to a military solution. Anger at security forces among communities in Rakhine State was pronounced this week when it was reported that five men arrested from Kyauk Seik village, Ponnagyun Township, on 19 April were taken into a public area and beaten. The Rakhine conflict is not the only hotspot which has seen an escalation during the COVID-19 crisis. Tensions have risen in Sagaing Region over the month, as the Tatmadaw has sent in reinforcements following clashes with the Shanni Nationalities Army on 17 and 18 April.
Nyaung Chaung, Kyauktaw Township
Since 2019, the Tatmadaw has periodically blocked the provision of rice and food relief from certain villages and displacement sites. There is no doubt that such blockades are strategic. The Tatmadaw suspects communities of supplying food and other relief to the Arakan Army. On 4 April, villagers delivering 190 bags of rice to the approximately 2,500 displaced persons at the Nyaung Chaung displacement site in Kyauktaw Township were interrogated by Tatmadaw soldiers on suspicion of affiliation with the Arakan Army. Ground sources also report the arrests of a number of people who attempted to transport rice to the camp. Food shortages are among the primary concerns of displaced persons, and non-displaced persons in conflict-affected areas. Diarrhea is also reported to be of concern in the Nyaung Chaung camp. Rice supplies are also being blocked to Sa Hnyin displacement site in Myebon Township, according to Ashin Araka who manages the site. The site has only enough rice to last until Friday this week. There have also been other efforts by the government and Tatmadaw to control the flow of aid from local community donors. In Mrauk U, it has been reported by CSO sources that some informal aid donors from the community have been barred by the local Tatmadaw presence from providing food relief to displacement sites. Other reports indicate that authorities are demanding relief groups deliver aid to local township administration offices, from where authorities will deliver to displacement sites. Similarly, vehicles report that Tatmadaw troops inspect any vehicle carrying rice past the Kan Sauk checkpoint, Kyauktaw Township, and in some cases turn vehicles around or confiscate the rice.
Patterns to blockades: Clearly, the Tatmadaw has blockaded areas on suspicions that communities have been supplying food, funds, intelligence or even recruits to the Arakan Army. In some cases, blockades may be designed to encourage people to move to other sites, thereby cutting contact or supply to the Arakan Army. The Tatmadaw sought to have the Sa Hnyin displacement site closed in January this year, although displaced persons have refused to move. In other cases, temporary blocks on food are likely designed to starve a suspected Arakan Army presence nearby. It is more difficult to identify patterns to such blockades. These locations are typically near sites of Arakan Army activity – such as the Rakhine Yoma mountain range, the hills of Ponnagyun, or the main road between the Mahamuni Pagoda and Mrauk U town. These blockades also typically follow inspections or arrests on the grounds of affiliation with the Arakan Army. This suggests that blockades may follow internal Tatmadaw intelligence reports of a specific Arakan Army presence in certain locations. Restrictions are impacting both national and international relief groups. As markets do remain accessible to individual IDPs, opportunities to support remotely with cash should be explored where possible by humanitarian responders. Building trusted relationships with civilian and military authorities while raising awareness of, and illustrating a commitment to, the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality may also support agencies to gain greater access.
Bay of Bengal
The first tropical storm of 2020 is forming in the Bay of Bengal. If the storm intensifies into a cyclone, it may be expected to make landfall between Yangon and southern India in the first week of May. This is the first tropical storm to form since the Very Severe Cyclonic Storm Bulbul of early November 2019, which made landfall in West Bengal, India, killing some 20 people. The storm season has two peaks, between April and June, and between September and December – the opening and close of the region’s monsoon season. As the storm formed his week, Myanmar experienced the first rains of the season, with thunderstorms, strong winds and hail reported across the country. Two deaths were reported and a number of structures destroyed by the unusual weather. Rakhine State is extremely vulnerable to tropical storms. In October 2010, Cyclone Giri made landfall near Kyaukphyu. Approximately 100,000 people were made homeless by the storm. While the death toll remains unknown, at least 100 people were thought to have been killed in Kyaukphyu, Pauktaw, Myebon and Minbya townships. More recently, in July 2015 Cyclone Komen landed in Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 people were affected. Myanmar was also affected by heavy rain and strong winds, prompting landslides and perhaps the worst flooding in a century. Approximately 130 people died as a result, most of them in Rakhine and Chin states.
Monsoon caution: The beginning of the storm season raises three considerations for humanitarians working in Rakhine State. First, the early rains and storm development should be a reminder that Rakhine State and Myanmar are among the most vulnerable regions of the world to extreme weather events. Rakhine State faces not only a security, development and human right’s crisis, but also an environmental one. Myanmar is expected to be among the five countries most impacted by climate change. Second, The dual impact of the monsoon – impediments to supply lines and transportation as well as the risks of disaster – should prompt early preparedness. The means preparedness for accessing vulnerable communities in monsoon conditions, whether affected by conflict, COVID-19 or otherwise, but also preparedness for a potential environmental disaster. Shelters and hygiene in displacement sites will be adversely affected by the monsoon, with an impact to health for all communities. Finally, a storm comparative to Cyclones Giri and Komen would potentially be a game-changer for armed conflict in Rakhine State. Armed actors could be expected to allow immediate relief for affected communities. However, armed actors could also be expected to politicise such disaster quickly, while the Arakan Army would maintain a presence in many rural areas – where they would have some influence over the direction of relief.
Muslims across the world marked the beginning of Ramadan this week. The economic impact of COVID-19 however, has placed further barriers to livelihoods during this religious period. For instance, in Kyaukphyu Township’s Kyauk Ta Lone IDP camp, further restrictions on movement out of the camp have been put in place due to COVID-19. Authorities have also continued landscaping work on a proposed relocation site for the residents of the camp – despite objections to the location from camp residents as discussed in a previous CASS Weekly Update.
Following the rejection of up to five Rohingya vessels from Malaysian coastlines, as reported in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, Malaysian public opinion has been split over their responsibility to shelter the refugees amid anxiety regarding COVID-19, with some advocates for closed borders turning to hate speech. There are currently at least two boats of refugees at sea, carrying some 500 people, who are now being prevented from landing in Bangladesh despite calls from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bangladesh’s foreign minister, AK Abdul Momen, has said the boats will not be accepted by Bangladesh.
The above map takes a closer look at arrests of Rohingya travelling outside of Rakhine State for domestic destinations. Rohingya and other Muslims from Rakhine State face numerous informal and legal barriers to movement, and face arrest for travelling without proper documentation. While the map above is imperfect and only shows the arrests of Rohingya which were reported in the media, there is a clear pattern of movement. While between 2011 and 2018, Rohingya leaving Rakhine State were arrested in almost all corners of the country, by 2019 and particularly 2020, clear movement routes were established. These are the overland route through Magway Region, and the sea route to Ayeyarwady Region then overland to Yangon. Many of those who arrive in Yangon then continue to border crossings into Thailand. Since armed conflict began to spread from early 2019, smugglers’ operations have been impacted by new checkpoints and the internet blackout. This has resulted in more arrests, particularly over the land route to Magway Region. Taking into consideration these diverse travel routes, humanitarian actors should continue safe migration awareness training for all communities in Rakhine. While Rohingya remain most at risk of unsafe migration and exploitation by traffickers, all communities in Rakhine State are vulnerable to exploitation when seeking migration opportunities for employment overseas.
In the Rakhine State capital Sittwe, the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team, a coalition of CSOs, have set up Community Based Quarantine Centres (pictures) for people returning to Sittwe from other states or regions of the country. There is a mandated quarantine period of 21 days. The centres were established in schools after coordination with the Rakhine State government. This is an example of how the response to COVID has facilitated new cooperation between local organisations, and between these organisations and authorities. It should be noted that while monks and religious organisations are typically among the first responders to environmental disasters or communities affected by armed conflict, this has not been the case with COVID-19 and international responders should not assume that religious networks will respond. This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the fact that monks and other religious leaders are typically older, and in the case of monks, living communally – two factors greatly increasing their own vulnerability to the virus. These dynamics and more around parahita and other grassroots community’ responses to COVID-19 are considered in a forthcoming CASS paper, expected to be released in early May.
An imaginative article published by Indian news agency Northeast Now this week alleged this week that the Arakan Army had received a shipment of arms from China – delivered by ship to Bangladesh then transported overland by porters to an Arakan Army base near the Myanmar border. The article stressed links between the Arakan Army and China, and highlighted the disruption to the Indian Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. The article gained traction on social media, where it was shared by pages across the political spectrum. While some social media users were impressed at the alleged brazenness of the arms transportation, other readers were outraged at the suggestion that China and Bangladesh were actively facilitating the war in Rakhine. The alleged Chinese-funded disruption to India’s investments in Myanmar also clearly made a political point to an Indian audience. The article’s weaknesses are readily apparent, not least the suggestion that Bangladesh has little at stake in Rakhine State. While the Arakan Army may acquire arms from China, it is very unlikely to do so directly, given the risk to Beijing (particularly after the issue was raised in person by the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to Chinese President Xi Jinping in January). It is also not clear how the delivery could enter the Naf river, unload then pass overland by foot without detection.