CASS Weekly Update

9 - 22 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

As most of Myanmar and the world watch the Coronavirus crisis unfold, armed conflict in Rakhine State continues to escalate. Civilian casualties have risen at alarming rates since early February, as clashes intensify before the rainy season is expected for June. The Rakhine State Government reports that 69,186 people were displaced in Rakhine State as of 6 April; an increase of 8,483 people since the middle of March. Humanitarian partners also report that as of 10 April, 8,196 people were displaced in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State; an increase of 4,525 people since mid-March.

Ponnagyun Township has been heavily affected by armed clashes during the reporting period. On 13 April artillery strikes hit the village of Kyauk Seik, near the urban area, where eight civilians were reportedly killed. In the same village 39 men including a village administrator were detained on 19 April. Thirty-three were later released. Reports of arrests of Rakhine civilians on charges of affiliation with the Arakan Army continue to emerge. The designation of the armed group as a ‘terrorist organisation’ on 23 March indicates that arrests will continue, while prosecutors now have a broader range of changes to bring forward under the Counter Terror law.

Following the shelling in downtown Kyauktaw in early April as reported in the previous CASS Weekly Update, shelling again occurred near the Kyauktaw downtown area on 16 April, causing the death of 1 civilian and injuries to 10 others. It was also reported that three civilians who reportedly went missing during the violence were later found dead. As noted in the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan published by CASS earlier this month, escalation of conflict before the 2020 elections is likely to prompt more clashes in urban areas, with associated impacts for civilians.

Security forces have been increasingly active in urban areas of the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, reflecting concerns among authorities of an Arakan Army presence in the town. On 13 April, security forces inspected displaced peoples’ documents in a monastery in the downtown area. The sounds of shelling in Ponnagyun continue to be heard periodically from the township, while military helicopters are often seen above town. Additional checkpoints have also been put in place in the township. The existing checkpoint near the town entrance has been reinforced, and others set up near Kyauk Tan bridge and Par Da Leik village, both on the road to Ponnagyun. A DMG report of an 18 April assault on a Buddhist monk at the latter checkpoint, in which the 81 year old monk was allegedly beaten unconscious, robbed of 200,000 kyat and forced to wear civilian clothes, was later removed by the news agency who cited the need for further clarification. The initial report of the incident sparked outrage among social media users from Rakhine State. Tensions continue to rise in the state capital.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to be reported across the country. At the time of writing, there were 123 confirmed cases across Myanmar, and 5 COVID-related deaths. In total, 5,198 people have been tested nationwide. However, the number of tests taken to date remains insufficient to determine the actual presence of the virus in Myanmar. Facilities to test more than 1,000 cases per day reportedly arrived in Yangon on 22 April. Additionally, over the last fortnight, far greater measures have been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Many state and regional authorities have mandated 21-day quarantine periods for travellers from other states and regions. National authorities have limited gatherings to only five persons. That directive was widely mocked by social media users, however, as it coincided with the release of nearly 2,5000 inmates from prison under a New Year amnesty also aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons. The release drew uncontrolled gatherings of large numbers of people outside prisons.

As in other locations of Myanmar, celebrations of the New Year festival in Rakhine State were extremely limited due to COVID-related restrictions. In Sittwe, authorities blocked access to the beach area – a popular hangout for families and young people – over the Thingyan water festival holiday period. In 2019, celebrations were also limited although to a lesser extent – out of respect for those impacted by armed conflict.

Hate speech, stigmatization and targeting of any religious group should continue to be closely monitored by relevant agencies, and humanitarian agencies should consider these evolving dynamics in everyday programming. In Yangon, 52 of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 are related to a Christian congregation which took place despite directions to avoid mass gatherings. Myo Gyi, a rock star popular across generations for his catchy covers of foreign hits, is among those with confirmed cases. Video footage of the pastor who led the congregation suggesting that Christians who truly believed in God would be protected from the virus was widely circulated on social media. This prompted the emergence of other comments made by the preacher in which he disparaged Muslims and Buddhists. In neighbouring countries the spread of the COVID virus has come to be associated with certain religious communities, such as in India where a large number of Muslims transmitted the virus at a mass religious gathering.

1. Myanmar’s Western Conflict: Return to the Spotlight?

Minbya Township, Rakhine State

On 20 April, a World Health Organisation vehicle came under fire in Minbya Township while transporting COVID-19 tests to Yangon. One staff member, U Pyae Sone Win Maung, died of injuries sustained and another staff member from the Ministry of Health and Sports was injured. The incident drew nationwide attention and reports were shared widely with many social posts praising the deceased for his bravery and commitment to helping those affected by the virus and conflict. While armed conflict in Rakhine and southern Chin states has recently been overshadowed by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the convergence of the two crises brought Myanmar’s western war squarely back into the news cycle. Statements soon followed from 16 international agencies calling for a ceasefire and humanitarian access to vulnerable populations; while the European Ambassador to Myanmar called for the government to allow a UN investigation into the incident. Predictably, a war of words between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw followed, with each blaming the other for the incident.  Aung San Suu Kyi also appeared to enter the fray. In a statement released on the evening of 21 April which did not mention the WHO incident, she paid tribute to “members of the Tatmadaw who have discharged their duty with courage and dedication” to defend against the “ULA/AA terrorist group”, and noted sympathy for civilians suffering in the conflict. An English translation of the statement appeared in state media, alongside other articles blaming the Arakan Army for the incident. Another civilian was killed when another civilian vehicle was also hit by live fire in a nearby location on the same Yangon-Sittwe road the following day.

COVID blackout: For weeks, there has been little attention paid to armed conflict in Rakhine and Chin state as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread through Myanmar. This is despite the fact that civilian casualties continue to rise as conflict intensifies. Clashes between the Tatmadaw and other ethnic armed groups have also flown beneath the radar. Continued Tatmadaw shelling in Karen State up to 9 April garnered little media attention. It is not yet clear whether attention on the Rakhine conflict will be sustained, and indications to date are instead that this development will be used to legitimise further offensives against the Arakan Army. In this vein, Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement drew ire from Rakhine communities online, where it was received as giving license to the Tatmadaw’s abuses against civilians. Earlier on the day of the incident, 20 April, the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw reportedly clashed in the same location where the car was struck along the Yangon-Sittwe road in Minbya Township. One civilian was killed and another seven were injured by the earlier shelling. This highlights the need for effective real-time information sharing between all humanitarian agencies in Rakhine State. The incident also should draw attention to agencies’ safety procedures. As the conflict intensifies, new protocol may be required to match developing risks. The increasing incidence of humanitarian responders being directly affected by security incidents should prompt agencies to review security policies and ensure all staff follow relevant procedures.

2. The Epicentre of Dirty Political Warfare

Paletwa Township, Southern Chin State

Despite recent aid transportation attempts being disrupted due to an alleged attack by the Arakan Army troops, the ‘first Tatmadaw-escorted shipment’ of urgently needed rice, around 800 bags in total, were transported from Sami town successfully to Paletwa town by government and civil society actors on 20 April. This news has been shared widely through traditional and social media, along with the Tatmadaw’s desired narrative which depicts the Tatmadaw as a saviour and/or the Arakan Army as an inconsiderate ‘terrorist’ group which threatens the transportation of now desperately needed rice and other essential items. Despite being just a 40-mile journey between Sami and Paletwa, the shipment took four days to reach its destination, reportedly due to the presence of the Arakan Army troops on the way and the apparent need to use both road and waterways. Government officials, politicians and Chin civil society leaders echoed the narrative of the government and the Tatmadaw, stating that the Arakan Army lacks consideration for starving IDPs and that the Arakan Army planned to loot the aid, themselves allegedly facing shortages of food. In response, Arakan Army statements released on 19 and 20 April stated that it does allow genuine and non-political transportation of food and essential items via the Kyauktaw-Paletwa water and land route if permission letters are granted by village administrators after the administrators verify the purpose of food and other essential items. Paletwa Township is perhaps the township hardest hit by ongoing fighting, which started in 2015. The township has hosted many widely-reported incidents based around ethnic-based narratives. Compared to other contested areas in northern and central Rakhine State, Paletwa residents have had to face additional logistical challenges and the resulting severe food insecurity risks due to its almost complete inaccessibility to neighbouring towns, from which it has traditionally relied on supplies transported via road and waterway. Disruption to agricultural production, a multitude of armed clashes, strict curfews and checkpoints on those routes have all contributed to acute food needs, compounded by months-long internet shutdown, and occasional blackout of mobile and landline phone networks.

Political targets:  In all contested locations, the warfare strategies of both the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army involve a two-pronged psychological tactic: to directly or indirectly contribute to an increased impact of civilians, then to present the enemy as responsible. This is particularly visible in Paletwa Township. Impacts have ranged between communication and transportation difficulties, resultant food insecurity and direct casualties. Responses on both sides have attacked the other’s legitimacy. In the context of Paletwa, not belonging to the Bamar nor Rakhine ethnic groups, the Khumi Chin people – who make up the majority of the local Paletwa township population – can be seen as either a neutral or threatening party to both the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army. As such, the massively negative impact of the conflict on the Khumi population has influenced the legitimacy of both the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in the eyes of domestic and international observers, especially other ethnic armed organisations and international human rights advocacy organisations. For the Tatmadaw, influencing the Paletwa populations’ perception of the Arakan Army serves to influence other non-Rakhine stakeholders’ perception of the same group. This is an important attempt to regain control of the highly strategic tri-border territory. Impacts to civilians can only be expected to increase as the Tatmadaw prioritizes a military solution, and the Arakan Army has little room to instigate dialogue.

The rainy season will bring further logistical and political challenges to the inflow of goods to Paletwa Township. Humanitarians must take this into consideration in advance. As the monsoon is expected to kickstart in June, the Matupi-Sami-Paletwa road will become increasingly inaccessible for food and essential items, something exacerbated by the presence of armed actors. The only alternative logistical route is the Kyauktaw-Paletwa river route. There is a high chance that the Arakan Army will continue to control many areas on the hills and along the Kaladan river in southern Chin State and northern Kyauktaw Township, and may act as a governance stakeholder there. As such, the group will be able to exert some level of control on the movement of goods between Kyauktaw and Paletwa. The international humanitarian actors are likely to be put in an extremely difficult situation when responding to urgent and large-scale humanitarian needs in these areas. Access to provide assistance will present challenges for international agencies and local partners alike. Risks that aid items can be accessed by the Arakan Army are, as always, paid strong caution by the Tatmadaw and the civilian government. The Tatmadaw has repeatedly accused the Arakan Army of dressing troops in civilian clothing, making them hard to differentiate from civilians. Humanitarians should begin planning now to prepare for unavoidable needs in this highly complex and sensitive context. The previous CASS Weekly Update also considered how procurement in Paletwa Township is complicated by local economic interests, and raised considerations for how humanitarians can respond to best support IDPs and non-displaced conflict-affected populations there or in other similar contexts in Rakhine State.

3. ARSA Raises Profile Among COVID Concerns

Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State

On 9 April the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army released a statement claiming to have clashed with the Tatmadaw twice with outcomes favourable to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The statement is the first written statement released by the group since September 2019. The statement follows several security incidents in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in recent months which have been attributed to the armed group. Neither of the events cited in the statement could be confirmed as described. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army statement described a 30 March incident in very different terms to media and Tatmadaw reports. Separately, in the early morning of 12 April the Border Guard Bangladesh reportedly fired blank rounds at a group of some 50 Rohingya attempting to cross into Bangladesh This followed days of reports in Bangladesh media of Rohingya allegedly trying to enter Bangladesh. Reports included rumours that the Rohingya were infected with the COVID-19 virus and wanted to access healthcare in Bangladesh. The origins of these reports are unclear, as there is no indication of another exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh at this time. Rather, it appears Rohingya have been travelling in the opposite direction. At least two groups of Rohingya entering Myanmar from Bangladesh, including traders, have been held in 21-day quarantine in schools or in centres designed for returning refugees. Meanwhile, a group of some 10 people were reportedly detained by the Tatmadaw near Kyein Chaung, Maungdaw Township, and have been handed over to police. They reportedly have been detained for returning from Bangladesh informally, and no charges have been laid.

Returns in the time of Corona: Any large-scale return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh remains unlikely. Increased Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activity in northern Rakhine State remains, and is set alongside the ongoing Tatmadaw-Arakan Army active conflict and little improvement in conditions for the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State. All indications are that the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army remains low. While the group may launch small-scale attacks, there is no suggestion that the group has achieved greater resources or capacity. There is also little sign that the Tatmadaw is planning operations against the group at this point, suggesting an assessment of low risk. Rohingya communities in Bangladesh and elsewhere report more immediate concerns regarding the threat of COVID-19. While no cases have been confirmed in Rakhine State, Bangladesh now has approximately 3,000 confirmed cases, although no cases are known to be among Rohingya refugees. Throughout the last month, fears have been widespread amongst communities in Maungdaw regarding the risks of Rohingya returning from Bangladesh with the COVID-19 virus. Similarly, sentiments among Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh should be monitored closely. Preparations for the political, social and economic implications of the spread of the virus on teh camps should be considered by humanitarian actors in the north of the state. Finally, informal border crossings, the presence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and continued border trade all suggests that the illicit economy and cross-border smuggling continues across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. In the time of Coronavirus, this poses a great challenge to those seeking to contain the pandemic.

Other developments

A boat carrying nearly 400 people, landed back in Bangladesh on 15 April after spending two months at sea. Over 60 people reportedly passed away during the unsuccessful attempt to reach foreign shores. Human Rights Watch has accused Malaysian authorities of pushing two boats full of Rohingya refugees away from its coasts, including the aforementioned vessel. Malaysia has reportedly strengthened border patrols to prevent informal arrivals amidst fears of the spread of COVID-19. Two Rohingya men who landed one vessel full of refugees on Malaysia’s Langkawi Island in early April have been charged with human trafficking.

Approximately 800 Rohingya prisoners released from Myanmar’s jails have reportedly returned to Rakhine State with assistance from authorities. The inmates were released in Myanmar’s traditional New Year amnesty. Six hundred of the group were sent to camps in Sittwe, while another two hundred arrived in destinations further north. It is likely that many of the released were detained on charges of illegal movement through the country. Earlier this month authorities dropped charges against at least two other groups of Rohingya detained for travelling outside of Rakhine State without proper paperwork. Those returned to Rakhine State will again be subject to strict limitations on freedom of movement, as all Rohingya in Rakhine State are. Attempts by Rohingya to leave both Rakhine State and the camp locations in Bangladesh can be expected to continue before the monsoon season begins in June. Under the current COVID-induced lockdown, they are more likely to be met with closed borders than welcoming hands.

During the reporting period, Myanmar’s President’s Office released a statement requesting the preservation of evidence of genocide in northern Rakhine State and another directing authorities to avoid violating the genocide convention. Myanmar is due next month to report to the International Court of Justice in accordance with the January ruling on provisional measures by the court.

Finally, electricity provision was cut in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung Townships from  late March, reportedly due to damage to power lines in Ponnagyun caused by shelling. Repairs to the electrical network were reportedly delayed by Myanmar security forces due to ongoing operations in that township. On the evening of 22 April unconfirmed reports suggested electricity had been restored to some locations.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • In The New Humanitarian, Esther Htusan reviews the risks of COVID-19 in IDP camps in Myanmar’s north, where armed ethnic groups are taking preventative measures and preparing for potential outbreaks. 
  • The Economist considers the future trajectory of conflict in Rakhine and southern Chin states, the impact it has had on civilians – and the possibilities of dialogue between warring parties.
  • A four-part commentary on David Brenner’s new book Rebel Politics is now available on Oxford University’s Tea Circle blog, where four authors reflect on war and peace in Myanmar’s borderlands from academic and activist perspectives.
  • The death of World Health Organisation staff member Pyae Soe Win Maung drew national attention to the Rakhine conflict this week. Whether this will remain over the coming week or prompt discussion between warring parties remains to be seen.
  • Reports of shelling in urban Paletwa, in which three civilians were killed, emerged late in the evening of 22 April. While security incidents in urban Paletwa have been rare, the Tatmadaw regularly launches shells over the downtown area. Simultaneously, new reports of civilian casualties caused by security incidents in urban Minbya were reported on 22 April.  Will the high cost in civilian lives bring armed groups to the negotiating table, or prompt fiercer fighting?