CASS Weekly Update

26 March - 1 April 2020

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.

Overview

Myanmar continues to confirm more COVID-19 cases, and the first virus-related death was reported on 31 March. These developments have prompted a rapid response from government, communities and international agencies, in stark contrast to the more permissive approach that characterised previous weeks. Civilian and military authorities have come together to form a COVID-19 Control and Emergency Response Committee, led by the military-appointed Vice President U Myint Swe. The President’s Office has said that the new committee will take instructions from the Central Committee on Prevention, Control and Treatment for the Corona Virus Disease, which is led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and was formed on 13 March – putting the State Counsellor firmly above the Vice President.

While it is yet to be seen how the civilian-military task force will operate, concerns are spreading in some quarters about the possibility that the Tatmadaw may use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to declare a state of emergency and seize power from civilian authorities. While the possibility of a military seizure of power is always present, a coup appears unlikely at this time. The political and social impact of the COVID-19 virus and measures to contain it will remain mammoth. The Tatmadaw may just as likely prefer the National League for Democracy are left holding reins of government during this turbulent time, in the hopes inefficiencies and failures of the civilian government now will translate to USDP votes in the autumn general election. Furthermore, as discussed later in this CASS Weekly Update, the Tatmadaw is increasingly using the COVID-19 pandemic to execute its military goals, and a nationwide state of emergency would draw valuable resources away from the intense battlefields of Rakhine and southern Chin states.

As armed conflict continues in Rakhine State, civilians continue to feel the greatest impacts. This week, incidents of houses being burnt and destroyed in Rakhine villages continued to be reported. Villages from northern Kyauktaw Township travelled to Sittwe for a press conference with Radio Free Asia, in which they detailed how homes in Pyaing Taung and Tin Ma villages were set alight by airstrikes and by hand. Illustrating a pattern, a Tatmadaw column was reported to have set fire to houses in Hpar Pyo village, Minbya Township, on 25 March. Two elderly civilians were reported killed in the fires. Two civilians lost limbs in a suspected landmine explosion in Rathedaung Township on 28 March, while another two civilians died in an explosion in Minbya Township. Alarmingly, Tatmadaw troops reportedly entered Ta Yet Oke village at approximately 4am on 1 April, believing that AA members were present in the village. Initial and unconfirmed reports suggest the Tatmadaw shot and killed three men during their inspection of the village, all of whom were over 50 years of age. In Sa Hnyin displacement site, Myebon Township, residents are facing food insecurity, with just three bags of rice left to feed some 779 persons. Tatmadaw units camped near the site are reportedly blocking residents from exiting the site to work.

Displacement has continued to rise. On 1 April the Rakhine Ethnics Congress reported that 60,844 people are currently in displacement sites in Rakhine State, while another 96,447 persons are affected by conflict outside of displacement sites. This represents a significant increase from their previous figures (dated 29 February) of 44,761 people in displacement sites across Rakhine State, and 83,674 conflict-affected civilians outside of displacement sites. Most recently, as of 16 March, the Rakhine State Government reported 60,703 persons currently displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State. The escalation of conflict in Myanmar under the cover of the internet blackout and COVID-19 is beginning to draw some international attention. On 1 April a group of 18 ambassadors released a joint statement calling for a joint ceasefire to combat COVID-19, while UNHCR expressed concerns regarding mounting civilian casualties in Rakhine and southern Chin states. On 26 March, the Karen National Union also called for a cease in hostilities nationwide to tackle the threat of the virus.

1. COVID-19: Homegrown Initiatives and Foreign Assistance

Various locations

Concerns of a COVID-19 outbreak have increased significantly over the last week in Myanmar. The two confirmed cases reported on 23 March have risen quickly to 15 confirmed cases of the virus and one death reported by 31 March. Fears of an uncontrollable outbreak amidst extremely limited public healthcare facilities have driven the dramatic emergence of non-governmental initiatives, carried out by a diverse range of domestic actors. These range from grassroots community charity groups and organisations to well known public figures, national civil society bodies, private sector associations and massive conglomerates. Despite the quick mushrooming of such initiatives, the Myanmar government is also in great need of support from international actors both in terms of hardware support — such as testing kits, N95 masks, PPEs and ventilators — as well as softer support including operations management capacity for healthcare, and security personnel for civil society operating in risks not yet well understood. The Chinese government, a Singaporean foundation, two Chinese foundations and UN agencies have emerged among the first to provide assistance for the Myanmar government. However, the quality of testing kits and N95 masks provided by China have been viewed with suspicion after some social media influencers highlighted that Spain and the Netherlands both reported the Chinese coronavirus testing and protective products were of low quality, and ceased their use.

Gaps in COVID initiatives?: There are a few things to consider when looking at Myanmar’s COVID-19 updates and/or when trying to identify needs to address. First, the actual outbreak figures in the country may be much higher than the tested and confirmed figures announced by the Ministry of Health and Sports. Private clinics and hospitals may be disinclined from reporting suspected COVID-19 patients to the authorities in order to avoid the resulting 14-day forced quarantine during which they have to stop their business. Second, domestic and international initiatives to control the coronavirus may begin to overlap, presenting an abundance of some materials and a shortage of others. Most of the domestic and international contributions to date have been donations of masks, personal protective equipment, virus test kits and only very few ventilators. Other urgently needed support absent from recent assistance include: strengthening of epidemic management capacity to relevant Myanmar stakeholders; urgent expansion of intensive care beds and ventilators (both in in terms of expanding equipment and in finding strategies to deal with the shortage of such equipment); and facilitating cooperation strategies between the public, private and Tatmadaw healthcare systems. Third, eight townships in Rakhine State, and Paletwa township in southern Chin State, are all currently facing the internet shut down imposed by the authorities. International organisations with expertise and resources should extend urgent support to local organisations for offline coronavirus awareness raising activities. Local organisations, who have access to the communities, can then work with local populations who currently have limited access to information regarding COVID-19 and its prevention. Finally, most domestic and international initiatives, so far, are aimed only to control the potential outbreak of the virus. Less attention has been paid to the preparations needed to alleviate the impacts of the incoming economic crisis and its subsequent food security implications for vulnerable populations. Short to medium term unemployment of a significant population is likely, but the degree of its severity depends on the impact felt globally, and how long and serious the expected post-COVID-19 global economic recession will be.

2. Disruption to Rakhine Information Availability

Various Locations

Last week, the Ministry of Transport and Communications directed Myanmar’s four mobile operators to block access to 207 websites. On 23 March, another directive was issued to block a further 14 websites alleged to be disseminating misinformation. Notably, the directive was issued the same day that authorities designated the Arakan Army a terrorist organisation, and the 14 websites include local Rakhine media outlets DMG and Narinjara (together with Karen News, Voice of Myanmar, Mandalay Indepth News, Mekong News, and the Arakan Army’s website). State-owned MPT, military-affiliated MyTel and Qatar’s Oreedoo subsequently blocked all the listed websites (although Oredeoo subsequently lifted the block to some sites). Telenor, according to a statement, initially blocked 154 of the websites evidently deemed to be carrying explict content or child sexual abuse content, but did not block the 14 websites alleged to be disseminating misinformation as it was unable to establish sufficient legal basis. However, after further communication with government, “Telenor has assessed that the risk involved in not following the directive as regards fake news is likely to have wider implications in terms of servicing the public”. Telenor then blocked all 221 websites. Subsequently, on 30 March in Mandalay, the editor of Voice of Myanmar news outlet Nay Myo Lin was detained on charges under the Counter-Terror law, related to an interview his outlet did with the Arakan Army spokesperson. On 31 March, charges were filed in Sittwe against Khaing Mrat Kyaw, editor of Narinjara news, before plain-cloth police raided the Narinjara office and temporarily detained three journalists. Khaing Mrat Kyaw remains at large.

War on Information: The efforts by civilian and military authorities to cut communities’ abilities to access information fall squarely into the long-standing ‘four-cuts’ strategy – which seeks to cut insurgent’s access to information, funds, food and recruits. The Arakan Army has a sophisticated online presence across various platforms, from where it pumps propaganda to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people daily. The ongoing internet shutdown in eight Rakhine State townships and southern Chin State’s Paletwa Township, and the blocking of the Arakan Army’s website are designed in part to limit the Arakan Army’s ability to communicate with communities, and thereby limiting its ability to function effectively. Meanwhile, under the guise of ‘combating fake news’, authorities have taken aim at the only two functioning media outlets which are able to report from the ground in central and northern Rakhine State. While the fact that the ban only targeted Burmese-language content – leaving English-language content untouched – suggests that the function of the ban is to restrict the sharing of information inside the country, the charges against both Narinjara editor Khaing Mrat Kyaw and longstanding charges against DMG editor Maung Marm Oo under the Unlawful Association act, suggest that attempts are underway to restrict the freedom of the press in Rakhine State and reporting on the Rakhine conflict across the country. These developments should be highly alarming for humanitarian organisations. Measures taken to restrict communications and freedom of expression in Rakhine State to this extent have not been seen since Myanmar’s transition away from a totalitarian military regime in 2011.

3. COVID-19 No Reprieve from Threat of Conflict

Laiza, Kachin State

On 20 March, the Tatmadaw’s Northern Command reportedly gave an ultimatum to the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army: move all Arakan Army troops out of Kachin Independence Organisation areas or face a Tatmadaw offensive. The demand was made via the Peace-talk Creation Group, a mediation actor consisting of Kachin businesspeople, who pointed out that most Arakan Army troops are now in areas controlled by the powerful United Wa State Army.

COVID-19 Ceasefire Remains Distant: Clashes between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army have been few over the past year or more, and many observers see a bilateral ceasefire with the government as a growing possibility. The Kachin Independence Organisation/Army’s fostering of the Arakan Army since it’s formation in Laiza in 2009, and its partnership with that group in the four-member Northern Alliance and seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, remain a key sticking point in negotiations. This matter has come to the forefront after authorities designated the Arakan Army a terrorist organisation on 23 March. The threat of infection and the measures in place to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus make any discussion between parties very unlikely before at least May. While the Tatmadaw has consistently called for the Arakan Army to return to Laiza, the Tatmadaw’s demands for the Arakan Army may now be called into question. The lack of clarity only indicates that the Tatmadaw continues to seek a military solution in Rakhine State. All indications are that the Tatmadaw will continue to escalate its attacks on the Arakan Army, while the attention of most of the world, and indeed of Myanmar’s population, is firmly fixated on the threat of COVID-19. Observers and advocacy units, both national and international, should ensure that rising displacement and abuses against civilians continue to be highlighted and raised with the highest levels of civilian and military authorities.

Other developments

Twenty-nine Rohingya arrested while crossing into Myanmar outside the formal returns process have been quarantined in the Hla Pho Kaung transit camp to safeguard against the spread of COVID-19. The 13 men and 16 women show no symptoms of the virus, but concerns of the spread of the virus are high in Maungdaw Township, as noted in last week’s CASS Weekly Update. To date in Bangladesh 51 cases of the virus have been confirmed, with five deaths reported. This represents a rare confirmation by authorities of recent informal return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. As such, there are questions as to how the returnees will be treated after the 14-day quarantine period.

In Maungdaw Township, a suspected IED exploded on the road between Ka Maung Seit and Aung Zu villages on 30 March, reportedly followed by light fire. Two civilians were killed and another three injured, all from the Dinet minority group. This location is in the northmost parts of Maungdaw Township, right next to Bangladesh. State media reported that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army carried responsibility. Rumours of a reorganisation of that Rohingya armed group are now circulating in Maungdaw, although there remain doubts about the organisation’s capacity to launch effective attacks on Myanmar security forces. The incident follows a string of incidents in Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships in recent months, including an attack last week which killed three border guard policemen, also suspected locally to be committed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. No group has claimed responsibility for any of these attacks.

A fire, reportedly accidental, occurred in the market of Nga Ku Ya new town, Maungdaw Township, on 31 March. More than 140 market stalls were destroyed, along with 3 residential houses. Many of the destroyed shops were empty and closed, having previously been operated by Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in 2017.

A coalition of six civil society organisations active in Rakhine State have formed the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team. The group is conducting a COVID-19 awareness campaign in central Rakhine State, setting up handwashing facilities, and distributing masks and hygiene kits to displaced communities. Separately, on the advocacy front, 200 civil society organisations issued a statement of concern regarding the virus on 28 March.

On 24 March, the Tatmataw detained the top leaders of its allied 3,000-strong Kaung Kha militia and raided its headquarters after a series of large drug raids conducted from 28 February to 26 March. The value of drugs, production materials and equipment seized during this period is estimated around 345 billion Myanmar kyats. Seized materials were reportedly found with strong links to the militia. Before the forced disarmament, the Tatmadaw had continually defended the Kaung Kha militia against the latter’s alleged involvement in drug production and trade – well known long before the recent drug raids. However, it was only recently that the Tatmadaw forced the militia to completely disarm and return all military assets. On 30 March, the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief announced, via his webpage, that the Kaung Kha militia had returned all weapons. This dramatic forced disarmament of 3,000 troops — many estimate even higher strength — may induce instability in the territory which the militia used to control — around Kaung Kha and Lwekham villages of Kutkai Township, Northern Shan State.

Finally, in Yangon on 29 March, seven university students were sentenced to one month of hard labour for a public demonstration against the internet shutdown held in February without permission.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • On 1 April, the Brotherhood Alliance announced another extension of its ceasefire - from 1 to 30 April, citing the need to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic was also cited in the Brotherhood Alliance’s previous ceasefire extension. A halt in fighting in Rakhine and southern Chin states depends on the will of both the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw. While all indicators suggest the Tatmadaw will continue its offensives, these are unprecedented times. 
  • The internet connection in camps hosting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh was reportedly temporarily restored in the morning of 1 April, sparking hope that authorities were allowing connectivity to support better awareness of the risks of COVID-19. Subsequent reports suggested that this connection was again limited later in the day. Restoration of the connection will assist in combating rumours and misinformation regarding the virus in the camps, as cases continue to be reported in Bangladesh, and in Cox’s Bazaar.
  • In the evening of 1 April, reports emerged that the Tatmadaw was staging an offensive on the Kyauktaw urban area, with the use of ground and naval resources. Kyauktaw town has been increasingly under the influence of the Arakan Army in recent months, and that township as a whole has seen some of the heaviest fighting in 2020. There are also an estimated 6,000 displaced persons currently residing in the town. Clashes in urban areas have been rare throughout this conflict. The reported incident is likely to have a substantial impact for civilians, and may prompt secondary displacement to Sittwe or other more secure urban centres. More details of the incident are likely to emerge in the coming days.