CASS Weekly Update

30 April - 6 May 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

On 3 May the Brotherhood Alliance – consisting of the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – extended their unilateral ceasefire for the fifth time, up to 31 May 2020. Regardless, clashes have continued since. Both the Arakan Army and Myanmar security forces continue attacks on the other as armed conflict maintains a high intensity.

The Rakhine State government reports that as of 21 April 69,440 people were currently displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State, and humanitarian partner organisations report another 7,543 displaced in Paletwa Township as of 26 April. The latest figures from civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress note that 62,541 persons were displaced in Rakhine State on 1 May, and that another 101,670 were also affected by conflict.  Displaced persons also continue to move between townships. This week some 20 displaced persons from Paletwa Township arrived in the Sittwe urban area after initially being displaced into Kyauktaw Township. One IDP quoted in the media said Sittwe offered more protection during the rainy season while return to her home village was unlikely due to ongoing conflict.

As considered in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, authorities continue to block access to displacement sites amid concerns that aid is reaching the Arakan Army. Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay has alleged that food aid provided by the International Committee for the Red Cross was diverted by village leaders to the Arakan Army, and restating justifications for restricting aid. On 29 April, the Rakhine State government released a statement (signed by the security and border affairs minister on behalf of the Chief Minister) reiterating a 31 January 2020 directive that no new displacement sites would be permitted for construction. The statement noted that the state government had already constructed seven sites for displaced people and would construct more as necessary. The enforcement of the ban is already underway. Authorities forced a new displacement site hosted by a local parliamentarian and community groups to close last week. Rakhine State government spokesperson U Win Myint has said that new sites will be permitted if the location is selected in cooperation with the security and border affairs minister.

At the time of writing, there are 161 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Myanmar. A reported 8,460 tests had been done nationwide by 3 May – a small number relative to Myanmar’s population and testing in neighbouring countries (both Thailand and Vietnam have conducted more than 200,000 tests). Notably, the Tatmadaw reported the first case of a member of the defence services contracting the virus this week. The only testing facilities in the country are in Yangon and Naypyidaw. Communities in Rakhine State continue to report little awareness of the virus and a preoccupation with the immediate concerns of armed conflict and food insecurity. Civil society leaders in Sittwe and other urban areas perceive a limited and insufficient response from Naypyidaw amid intensifying conflict and an ongoing internet blackout. Perceptions of a Yangon and Mandalay-focused response will only drive further discontent with the Naypyidaw government among communities in Rakhine State, with implications for armed conflict and electoral positioning. Meanwhile, the economic aspects of the crisis currently constitutes the most immediate impact for communities in Rakhine State, as considered below.

As noted in this April Update to the Rakhine State and southern Chin State Scenario Plan, published by CASS this week, the escalation of armed conflict in Rakhine State follows the pattern of escalation identified in the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan. Armed conflict has increasingly entered urban areas, displacement has continued to rise, and there is no indication of a dialogue forming. Humanitarian access remains limited for international actors and, increasingly, also for informal local responders. The Arakan Army, however, has not attempted to open new fronts of conflict in the south of Rakhine State. There have also been few indications of the fragmentation of conflict in Paletwa Township – a potential trajectory in southern Chin State, which remains hotly contested.

Reflecting this, two security incidents were reported in Kyaukphyu Township this week. An explosion occurred after a Tatmadaw column left Ye Nan Dwein village on 4 May, while on 28 April a remote mine was reportedly found inside the Kyaukphyu Township General Administration Department compound. Earlier in April a Tatmadaw convoy was attacked in the same township. Additionally, local National League for Democracy party members from southern Rakhine State’s Taungup Township have gone into hiding after death threats and attempts at abduction from men impersonating police, indicating increased instability at the confluence of local politics and a civil war which threatens to move further south.

1. COVID Restrictions Impact the Most Vulnerable

Various locations

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting the most vulnerable communities in unpredictable and formidable ways. Boats carrying some 400 Rohingya refugees remain at sea. UNHCR, IOM and UNODC have released a 6 May joint statement urging states to uphold commitments made under the 2016 Bali Declaration and other agreements. Bangladeshi authorities continue to prohibit entry to boats carrying Rohingya refugees who have already been turned away from Malaysia due to COVID-19 concerns and the tightening of borders amid domestic anxieties. Rohingya living in Malaysia have also faced increasingly discriminatory policies and even arrests in a progressively xenophobic environment, illustrating the precarious conditions of their survival. A small number of passengers did manage to disembark in Bangladesh, where they were sent to Bhasan Char island for quarantine. The government of Bangladesh built facilities on the island last year to host a proportion of the refugees living in crowded conditions near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, but decided not to go ahead with relocations after heavy international criticism. The quarantined passengers are the first Rohingya refugees to be sent to the island, raising concerns about the establishment of a precedent in time of crisis. Families in Rakhine State who previously relied on remittances from migrants working overseas or elsewhere in Myanmar have reported financial difficulties as economies slow globally. Rohingya communities in particular have few safety nets, although families from all communities are affected by the economic slowdown.

Support needed for most vulnerable: The shock to Rakhine State’s economy is driven by both ongoing armed conflict and the local impacts of the global COVID-19 virus. Last week, traffic across the Rar Maung bridge was stalled by armed clashes. Concerned about their supplies, commercial transporters destined for Sittwe instead loaded goods onto boats at Kyaukphyu and shipped the goods to Sittwe. Despite these creative methods, small and medium businesses in urban areas like Sittwe will continue to feel a shock which is passed onto daily labourers. Demand for diverse goods such as gold have dropped, affecting small business owners including jewelry producers and distributors. Some metal workers report a loss of almost all income due to reduced demand, driven by both armed conflict and COVID-induced economic slowdown. In kind or cash support to affected populations in both the urban and rural areas of Rakhine State would alleviate suffering, and illustrate humanitarian agencies’ commitment to supporting where needs are greatest. Furthermore, access to vulnerable populations in urban areas remains far easier than those in rural areas. Compensation for lost remittances will also follow the usual channels to families in remote areas.

2. Motives Aside, Internet Opens Opportunity

Maungdaw Township

On 1 May Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay stated the mobile internet lines would be reopened in one township of Rakhine State due to stabilized conditions there. On 2 May it became clear that mobile internet lines had been restored in Maungdaw Township, on the border of Bangladesh. Some areas of Buthidaung Township can also access the internet due to the close proximity to Maungdaw Township. Mobile internet access has been restricted in northern Rakhine State and southern Chin for nearly one year. On 21 June 2019 Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications directed telecommunication operators to disable mobile internet lines in eight townships of central and northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township of southern Chin State. On 31 August 2019 lines were permitted to open in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Myebon and Paletwa townships, but were disabled again on 3 February 2020.

Poor reception: While authorities may have expected a positive response to the reopening of telecommunication lines in Maungdaw Township, Rakhine communities in the state have instead been suspicious of the new directive. Increasing Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activity in Maungdaw Township is cited by online communities who question why authorities may want to make it easier for that outfit to access information, or to communicate with their perceived constituency and an international audience. While Zaw Htay stated the situation had stabilized in the township, there have actually been an increasing number of security incidents in Maungdaw Township since the beginning of 2020. There are likely three reasons why authorities chose to open the lines now in Maungdaw. First, expanding populations’ access to the internet may be used in reporting to the International Court of Justice to illustrate improved conditions in Rakhine State. Reporting is due on or before 23 May 2020. Second, Maungdaw Township has seen very limited Arakan Army activity to date and the number of security incidents do remain low when compared to neighbouring townships. Finally, the lack of internet in all townships has also affected the operations of government and slowed communication to and from Naypyidaw. As the COVID-19 crisis has motivated many governments to increase border security, Myanmar will also be concerned of a COVID-19 outbreak in Bangladesh pushing Rohingya into Myanmar. Despite concerns that internet accessibility may allow international actors to access further evidence of crimes against the Rohingya, the urgency in Naypyidaw may have been raised this week when COVID-19 claimed its first victim in Cox’s Bazaar and a UN medic tested positive in Teknaf. There are now more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases confirmed and 182 deaths in Bangladesh, although no cases have been identified in the sprawling camps hosting Rohingya refugees. Regardless, this is an opportunity for all actors to support better awareness raising regarding COVID-19 among communities in remote areas and to resume pre-existing programming through remote means.

Other developments

More reports of Tatmadaw burning villages in Rakhine State emerged this week. Local civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress reported on 4 May that the Tatmadaw had burnt eight houses in Nga Tauk Du Chay (old village) and Nga Tauk Du Chay (new village) – just one mile north of the Rathedaung urban area. Another report of the same incident was then posted by member of state parliament Kyaw Zaw Oo before being confirmed by local media. Notably, hundreds of houses in Tin Ma village were destroyed by fire on 22 March. Reports also emerged this week that houses had been set alight in Pyaing Taing village, Kyauktaw, but this could not be confirmed at the time of writing. The pattern of Tatmadaw brigades burning down villages and forcing displacement is concerning and has escalated in recent months. Concerns regarding the targeting of civilians should continue to be raised with civilian government and military interlocutors at the highest levels.

On 29 April, a World Food Programme convoy came under fire in Paletwa Township while attempting to reach Paletwa town. This incident follows the death of a World Health Organisation staff member when his vehicle faced fire in Minbya Township last month. That humanitarian vehicles should come under fire is of high concern. At this point in time, there is no indication that either vehicle was targeted, or that humanitarian actors are a target in this conflict. Both incidents occurred in contested locations where armed conflict had recently taken place. As the conflict in Rakhine State escalates and civilian casualties follow, humanitarian responders should ensure their security procedures are updated as necessary.

The Arakan Army this week attacked a group of Border Guard Police who were reportedly drinking in a beachside Rathedaung village. Many villages have established alcohol-free policies in recent years, and these are sometimes enforced by the Arakan Army. The armed group’s continued attempts to take more of an administrative role in rural areas reflect its expanded influence, and the difficulties that civilian authorities continue to have in their reach.

The two maps below show the distribution of security incidents in the first four months of 2020 and in the month of April respectively. Security incidents have been distributed across all areas of central and northern Rakhine and southern Chin states to date in 2020, with occasional incidents in townships further south. In April, incidents were concentrated in Minbya, between Rathedaung and Buthidaung urban areas, near the Kyauktaw urban area and near Paletwa town – illustrating a pattern of clashes increasingly occurring near relatively densely populated urban areas.

Rakhine-State-and-Southern-Chin-State-Scenario-Plan_-April-Update_WebMaps2-scaled.jpg
Rakhine-State-and-Southern-Chin-State-Scenario-Plan_-April-Update_WebMaps-scaled.jpg

Due to a gasoline shortage, since 1 May electricity provision to Paletwa has been reduced to only two hours a day, a reduction from the previous seven hours. While some food aid has reached the Paletwa town in recent weeks, other essential items remain in short supply. The Arakan Army has reportedly all but surrounded the town and continues to demand that all transportation in, out, and through receives its permission. So long as the Arakan Army is deemed a ‘terrorist organisation’ under law, communication with the armed group carries harsh penalties, creating dire risks for local humanitarian responders and the private sector, as well as local community leaders.

Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activities continue to be reported near the Bangladeshi border in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township. The Tatmadaw reported that the armed group attacked Border Guard Police on 2 May during a patrol; and that on 29 April Myanmar security forces had ‘found dead’ the bodies of two Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army members together with drugs and explosives. While there is certainly increased activity from the armed group on both sides of the border, it is impossible to know whether all incidents reported by the Tatmadaw are attributable to the armed group. Many criminal gangs, not limited to the smuggling of drugs, operate on the border. The border furthermore remains porous, with at least six people returning to Rakhine State outside of official channels even in the last week under COVID conditions. The Myanmar government also has some political interest in hyping the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army threat before reporting to the International Court of Justice.

Renovations have continued to improve drainage on the proposed resettlement site for persons in the Kyauk Ta Lone camp in Kyaukphyu Township. The communities living in the camp remain opposed to the proposed resettlement site and have submitted to authorities a list of signatures expressing this opposition. 

Finally, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission has said that national general elections will go ahead later this year, despite the COVID-19 crisis. No date has officially been set, although polls are widely expected to take place in November following precedents in 2010 and 2015. Hate speech and the use of social media remain concerns in this election year. This week, Facebook removed three pages, 18 accounts and one group for violating its policy controlling ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’. Facebook reported that the pages, which spread anti-Rohingya sentiment and criticism of the Arakan Army, were linked to members of the Myanmar Police Force. Previous investigations have found other links between members of Myanmar’s security forces and the spread of fake news and anti-Rohingya sentiment online, including this New York Times investigation from 2018.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • Restrictions in place country-wide to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are due to expire on 15 May. These restrictions may be expected to be extended, but will likely depend on the number of confirmed cases of the virus over the next week as reported by the government.
  • Kyaw San Wai presents in The Diplomat a comprehensive overview of the challenges Myanmar faces in responding to the COVID-19 crisis amid a delicate balance between civilian and military authorities. 
  • Restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are having an impact on farmers and food security in diverse areas of Myanmar, according to the Myanmar Times. As markets are closing, farmers are unable to access the capital for planting monsoon rice crops, and support is badly needed.