This Scenario Plan considers possible developments in Rakhine State and southern Chin State up to November 2020. It is based upon informal consultations with international and national humanitarian responders working in Rakhine State. Recognising the limitations of forecasting scenarios in an election year while facing an unprecedented global health crisis, this scenario plan should be taken as indicative.
Armed conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) escalated in late 2018 and has continued at high intensity since. The conflict in Rakhine State is the greatest military challenge faced by the Tatmadaw in at least a decade, and one of the greatest political challenges faced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government since they took power in 2015. The armed conflict presents a challenge to the peace process that her government has framed as one of its key priorities.
The conflict to date has had a mammoth impact on civilians. According to the Rakhine State government, 60,703 civilians are currently displaced by fighting in Rakhine State. Tracking of open sources shows that in 2020 to date, 66 civilians were killed by landmines, IEDs, unexploded ordnance, shelling or crossfire, while another 267 were injured. Rohingya civilians face particular vulnerabilities, as they continue to face restrictions on movement, and little access to healthcare. A government-imposed internet blackout has limited communities’ access to information about conflict dynamics, service availability and healthcare since June 2019 – a development particularly concerning in the context of the spread of COVID-19 and its unknown impacts.
The scenario deemed most likely in this paper carries a high humanitarian impact. Under the most-likely scenario, armed conflict in Rakhine State and southern Chin State expands in intensity and geographic scope. There is also the risk of this conflict fragmenting if another armed ethnic group challenges the AA or Tatmadaw in these geographic regions. Displacement is likely to increase, along with abuses of all civilians. The AA will likely expand its influence and administrative reach into villages. Food insecurity can be expected to continue into the long-term. Humanitarian responders will face Do No Harm considerations if approached by government officials to support displaced populations sheltering in government-constructed sites. Meanwhile, government issued travel authorisations for humanitarian responders will likely become further restricted, while national responders will maintain greater ability to access communities through both official and unofficial paths. The impact of COVID-19 and attempts to halt its spread are not yet fully understood. However, considerations on the likely impact of that virus for Myanmar and the response in Rakhine have been included in this plan to the fullest extent possible.
Two issues will inform the trajectory of the Rakhine State crisis into 2020: the continuation of armed conflict between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA)1, and nation-wide elections expected for November this year. These issues are intimately intertwined. The ways in which the AA, the Tatmadaw and the civilian government approach the elections will set the trajectory for the Rakhine conflict, its impact on populations, and the humanitarian response.2
This is not a conflict with a well-defined front line. The AA practices guerrilla warfare: striking security forces then disappearing into villages or the jungle. The AA seeks the support of the local population and thereby the ability to freely move in rural areas. On the other hand, the trend since late 2018 to date has been the diminishing capacity of the Tatmadaw and civilian government to access rural areas and accompanying reliance on airpower to strike the AA – a tactic with dire consequences for civilians. Elements of this conflict are also very modern, including the important role of information and disinformation.3 Finally, legal frameworks remain significant. On 23 March Myanmar’s Anti-Terrorist Central Committee designated the AA as a ‘Terrorist Organisation’ under the 2014 Counter-Terror law. Previous to this, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was the only group designated under the law, reflecting attempts by the civilian and military authorities to discredit the AA in the eyes of the Myanmar public, and control the conflict narrative.
Nationwide general elections are expected for November 2020, although no date has been officially announced. Many observers and communities on the ground in Rakhine State, however, expect polls to be cancelled in many areas of Rakhine State following precedents set in 2010 and 2015, when polls were cancelled in several townships or village tract administrative units due to security concerns.
The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March 2020. On 23 March, the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Myanmar. The full impact of the virus for Myanmar – and for the humanitarian response in Myanmar – remains unclear, but will certainly be substantial. As such, despite the escalation in conflict and apparent political gridlock, the need for information sharing and coordination (if not collaboration) has never been greater. The response of authorities to the crisis will have repercussions beyond the immediate impact of the virus on Myanmar’s population and its underdeveloped health system. At the present time, the government faces two stark choices: a) to lock down the country, disproportionately affecting Myanmar’s urban and rural poor who rely on daily wages, and thereby face a severe economic, and potentially political, shock; or b) to take some preventative measures,4 but avoid a complete lockdown and accept a higher infection and death rate.
The Rakhine State Government reports that as of 16 March there are 60,703 persons currently displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State. Humanitarian responders in Chin State report another 1,823 others displaced in southern Chin State. Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a Sittwe-based civil society organisation, reports that a total of 60,844 conflict-affected people are currently in displacement sites across Rakhine State, and that another 96,447 conflict-affected civilians remain outside of displacement sites.
Table 1: Current displacement figures
|Township||No. Displaced (RSG)5||No. Displaced (REC)6|
Armed conflict has had an immense impact on agriculture and livelihoods in Rakhine State, and acute food needs can be expected to continue for years after any peace settlement. A significant decrease in rice yields was noted across Rakhine State, and particularly in its northern and central townships in 2019-2020, largely attributable to inaccessibility of fields for both planting and harvest. The shortfall will mean farmers will face capital constraints to planting next seasons’ crops, and the financial difficulties will also be felt elsewhere. School attendance rates can be expected to fall as families struggle to pay fees. Compounding these difficulties, the presence of landmines, IEDs or unexploded ordnance in and around villages means that many villagers are still unable to access fields, suggesting the 2020-2021 growing season and harvest will similarly be affected. Landmine clearance activities are not yet possible in Myanmar.
Beyond agriculture, tourism has in recent years created work opportunities in the service industry. However, both domestic and international tourism to the ancient city of Mrauk U in central Rakhine State has disappeared almost completely. The future of these sites is further threatened by the continual damage done by stray shells and bullets, some of which are fired above temples sheltering IDPs. In Mrauk U, IDPs have settled on land previously designated for a new airport, designed to boost a now dead tourism industry.
While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rakhine State or southern Chin State at the time of writing, Myanmar continues to confirm more cases in different states and regions following first confirmation of the presence of the virus on 23 March. Many of the 23,000 migrant workers who returned from Thailand in late March will return to villages in Rakhine State, risking the transfer of the virus to conflict-affected areas. An outbreak would have a huge humanitarian impact on both displaced and non-displaced communities in Rakhine State.8
Civilian casualties in Rakhine and southern Chin states have been high, but escalated especially in 2020. By 24 March 2020, some 66 civilians were killed by landmines, IEDs, unexploded ordnance, shelling or crossfire, while another 270 were injured. A rapid increase in the use of landmines, previously rare in Rakhine State, means many communities are unable to return home, and displacement can be expected to be long term. The presence of armed groups inevitably results in a range of human rights abuses and protection concerns: forced portoring, abductions, mass arrests or detentions, sexual violence and extortion.
Rohingya communities are extremely vulnerable. Facing discrimination and harsh restrictions on movement and access to healthcare, education and livelihoods, they are unable to flee sites of active conflict. Of the 336 civilian casualties documented by CASS in 2020 up to 24 March, 86 have been Rohingya.
The following section details the three most likely scenarios to occur in Rakhine State leading up to nationwide elections expected in November 2020. This scenario plan comes with the disclaimer that the Rakhine State crisis represents a complex set of rapidly evolving variables. The unpredictability of the 2020 elections make planning in this year particularly difficult. Additionally, the World Health Organisation’s declaration of the COVID-19 virus as a ‘pandemic’ and the spread of the virus across the world makes scenario planning all the more challenging.
This scenario plan is built upon informal consultations with observers, and national and international humanitarian workers in Yangon, Rakhine State, Bangladesh and elsewhere, and with the writers’ combined 20 years of experience with Rakhine State and other humanitarian emergencies. This scenario plan is designed to assist humanitarian responders to forecast and plan for potential future impacts to existing programmes and to plan for future interventions.
It is important to note that these scenarios do not exist in isolation; indeed, elements of different scenarios are likely to occur in tandem with elements of others. For each scenario below, the general trajectory of events is followed by a description of well-informed assumptions. Scenarios are further informed by practical analysis based on the current context in Rakhine State, key actor incentives and disincentives, and lessons from Myanmar’s other internal conflicts. Each scenario is accompanied by a set of indicators which signal that the scenario is increasingly likely to take place.9 Importantly, the humanitarian impact relevant to each scenario is also assessed.
The likelihood of scenarios is judged through a series of consultations with analysts, response actors and other observers who have a deep familiarity with the context. Impact is calculated by considering the likely ramifications for populations including displacement, human rights abuses, and impact to livelihoods, and the impact to the humanitarian response, including on existing capacity, resource availability and access of responders.
Table 2: Likelihood and Impact
|Very Low (1) The chance of this scenario occurring before November is remote.||Negligible (1) There are a small number of people affected by disaster. Emergency responders’ face no difficulties in responding.|
|Low (2) In the absence of a major shift in national or geopolitical dynamics, this scenario is unlikely before November.||Low (2) Emergency responders’ are able to support vulnerable populations to a large extent. There are few adverse impacts on the response.|
|Moderate (3) There is a viable chance that this scenario will occur before November.||Moderate (3) Emergency responders’ capabilities are partially sufficient to respond to affected populations. Responders face challenges to serving populations.|
|High (4) Under current conditions, there is a significant chance that this scenario will occur before November.||Severe (4) Emergency responders’ are unprepared to respond to an emergency on this scale. The scenario results in additional barriers to a response.|
|Very High (5) In the absence of major contextual changes, this scenario has a very high chance of occurring before November.||Critical (5) Emergency responders’ capabilities are highly insufficient to deal with the scenario. Responders face significant barriers to providing support to affected populations.|
* ‘Emergency responders’ refers to government, UN Agencies, NGOs and host communities.
Likelihood: 4/5     |    Impact: 3/5
In this scenario, the AA continues to posture as if seeking a dialogue with the Tatmadaw and civilian government for a bilateral settlement, to allow polls to take place, to contain COVID-19 or for other stated motivations. The Tatmadaw rejects this advance. The scale and geographic scope of conflict widen and fighting continues through the rainy season, if slightly reduced in intensity.
The AA escalates attacks on Tatmadaw positions and movements. There is an increase in abductions and targeted killings of security forces, and administrators and civilians deemed a threat. The nature of strikes on the Tatmadaw are likely to be similar to attacks to date: ‘hit and run attacks’ on the Tatmadaw while maintaining efforts to set up a base on the Paletwa-Buthidaung-Kyauktaw-Bangladesh border. The Tatmadaw refrain as much as possible from travelling through destabilized rural areas, instead opting to shell suspected AA locations from land, air and naval positions.
As the AA seeks to consolidate their control of administrative areas in Paletwa Township and rural central and northern Rakhine State, they increasingly strike the Tatmadaw in urban areas, including Kyauktaw, Mrauk U and perhaps even the state capital Sittwe.
The AA simultaneously steps up attacks on the Tatmadaw in southern townships of Rakhine State, including Ramree, Kyaukphyu and Taungup.10 The modality is IED attacks on Tatmadaw movements and raids on police stations. Tatmadaw strikes back at the AA in southern Rakhine with the usual modality of airstrikes. The Tatmadaw continues its ‘four cuts’ strategy11 against the AA, attempting to cut the AA’s supply of information and food by forcing displacement of villagers deemed sympathetic to insurgents.
The conflict in southern Chin State’s Paletwa Township may fragment as an armed group claiming to represent Chin communities mobilises to confront the AA.12 This group may ally, at least temporarily, with the Tatmadaw. Heavy fighting continues in Paletwa where the AA is increasingly distrusted by villagers. Regardless, the AA maintains a strong presence in the hilly border regions.
Arrests of ethnic Rakhine people accused of association with the AA increase, with prosecutions under the Unlawful Associations Act and Counter-Terror Act. This, along with the Tatmadaw and Union civilian government’s refusal to talk with the AA, prompt a further deterioration in relations between the Rakhine State parliament (dominated by Arakan National Party MPs) and both the NLD-led Union government and Rakhine State government (led by NLD MP U Nyi Pu).
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) may seek to capitalise on the Tatmadaw’s preoccupation with the AA to strike Myanmar security forces – whether Tatmadaw or Border Guard Police. However, ARSA is likely to continue to face resource challenges and is unlikely to be able to execute sophisticated attacks. Any successful, large-scale, attack by the ARSA on Myanmar security forces resulting in a significant loss of life would likely prompt a Tatmadaw reprisal attack on Rohingya civilians in Maungdaw. This would involve mass arrests and other human rights violations, especially in villages suspected of hosting ARSA fighters. However, the reaction would unlikely be on the scale of the 2017 violence against Rohingya communities due to the international backlash and international accountability mechanisms which followed the 2016 and 2017 violence, as well as the lowered threat perception given the mass exodus of Rohingya at that time.
Meanwhile, confirmation of COVID-19 cases in conflict-affected areas emerge. Cases, and deaths, may not interact with Myanmar’s healthcare system, particularly in rural areas. The full extent of the virus’ presence remains unknown, doing little to encourage the belligerents to talk.
Elections are held in urban Sittwe, areas of rural Sittwe Township, but are not held in rural areas of central and northern Rakhine State or many areas of Paletwa Township. Polls are held in some urban areas (township capital towns) outside of Sittwe, but others remain beyond the control of Naypyidaw and polls are cancelled. Rakhine ethnonationalism, already at a high level, may be mobilised in a movement to boycott elections. However, on election day a turnout remains likely, as Rakhine political parties and the voting public recognise that a boycott will allow non-Rakhine parties to take a greater share of seats in parliament.
Table 4: Forecasted Additional Displacement (Scenario 1)18
|Displaced From (Township)||No. Displaced|
|Ponnagyun||5,000 to 7,000|
|Kyauktaw||5,000 to 7,000|
|Mrauk U||4,000 to 5,000|
|Minbya||4,000 to 5,000|
|Sittwe||1,000 to 1,500|
|Myebon||2,000 to 3,000|
|Ann||4,000 to 6,000|
|Taungup||1,000 to 2,000|
|Rathedaung||5,000 to 10,000|
|Buthidaung||3,000 to 4,000|
|Maungdaw||500 to 1,000|
|Paletwa||3,000 to 5,000|
|Total||37,500 to 56,500|
Likelihood: 2/5     |    Impact: 2/5
In this scenario, the AA, Tatmadaw and civilian government open a dialogue and agree to cease fighting. This may be motivated by a desire to allow polls to take place, or to stop the spread of COVID-19.
If the ceasefire if motivated by elections, any agreement between the belligerents to allow access for the UEC into rural Rakhine State would have to be in place by August at the latest. Fighting stops gradually as discussions take place, and stops to a large extent after an agreement is formed. The AA’s effective control of some rural areas means that elections are only permitted to occur in an approximate 80% of village tracts, as well as all urban areas.
However, there will remain large numbers of AA and Tatmadaw on the ground, together with an increased quantity of landmine and unexploded ordnance. There will remain a risk of small skirmishes leading to larger clashes, which would threaten any agreement.
Likelihood: 3/5     |    Impact: 2/5
Under this scenario, the intensity and geographic spread of armed conflict remains at approximate current levels through Rakhine State and Paletwa, southern Chin State. This scenario may occur regardless of attempts by either the AA or civilian or military authorities to encourage a cessation in hostilities.
The AA continues to strike Tatmadaw and other Myanmar security forces. Tatmadaw ground forces, aware of their vulnerabilities, remain largely stationary. Following trends of early 2019, the Tatmadaw will continue to use attack helicopters and navy vessels to shell areas near villages, cutting the AA’s access to food and other supplies by forcing villagers to displace.
The AA continues occasional strikes against moving Tatmadaw targets in southern Rakhine State – Kyaukphyu, Ramree and Taungup – but does not attempt to open a new front of conflict there. Instead, the AA attempts to hold influence over its existing areas of semi-control in order to illustrate that the Tatmadaw can do little to force a retreat.
Elections are held in urban areas in most townships, but are cancelled in rural areas of most conflict-affected townships: Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk U, Minbya, Myebon, Ann, Rathedaung and Buthidaung.
Table 5: Forecasted Additional Displacement (Scenario 3)23
|Displaced From (Township)||No. Displaced|
|Ponnagyun||3,000 to 4,500|
|Kyauktaw||3,000 to 4,500|
|Mrauk U||2,500 to 4,000|
|Minbya||2,000 to 3,000|
|Sittwe||0 to 500|
|Myebon||1,500 to 2,000|
|Ann||2,000 to 3,000|
|Rathedaung||2,000 to 4,000|
|Buthidaung||2,000 to 4,000|
|Maungdaw||0 to 500|
|Paletwa||1,500 to 3,000|
|Total||19,500 to 33,000|
Different aspects of the above scenarios may occur. The following table outlines possible mutually non-exclusive developments in Rakhine State, and rates the likelihood and humanitarian impact of each.
Table 6: Likelihood Table
Humanitarian Impact (1-5)
Armed Clashes between the AA and Tatmadaw occur in Sittwe Township, in or near the urban area
Effective ARSA attack and Tatmadaw reprisal on Rohingya villages
Armed Clashes between the AA and Tatmadaw occur further south, particularly Taungup Township
Return of 200,000 to 400,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’. On 23 March, the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Myanmar. On 23 March, United Nations’ Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a ‘global ceasefire’ to protect civilians amid the threat of COVID-19.24 That same day, the AA was designated as a ‘Terrorist Organisation’ under the 2014 Counter-Terror law, suggesting that negotiation is off the table at least until after elections in November. While the impact of the virus for Myanmar – and for humanitarian response in Myanmar – remains unclear, there are a number of considerations for humanitarian responders.