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.
On 9 May the Commander in Chief of the Tatmadaw announced a unilateral ceasefire between 10 May and 31 August, ostensibly to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The ceasefire, however, excludes areas in which groups declared ‘terrorist organisations’ by the government are active. In practice this means that Rakhine and southern Chin states will be excluded from the ceasefire, as the Arakan Army is one of only two groups designated as such. The other, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, is also increasingly active in northern Rakhine State but poses a relatively marginal threat. The Tatmadaw previously held a unilateral ceasefire in all areas barring the Western Command from December 2018 to 21 September 2019, when talks with the Brotherhood Alliance fell through. Rather than being seen as an olive branch and attempt to open negotiations, however, the Arakan Army in a 10 May statement dismissed the unilateral ceasefire as an attempt at ‘divide and rule’, while the Brotherhood Alliance asked the Tatmadaw to include the west of Myanmar in the ceasefire.
As such, armed conflict in Rakhine and southern Chin states continues and displacement has followed. The Rakhine State government has reported that as of 5 May, 69,975 people remained displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State. Humanitarian partner organisations report another 7,543 displaced in Paletwa Township as of 26 April. More recent reports suggest that 11,160 people are currently displaced in Paletwa Township after further clashes there, while OCHA notes an additional 4,000 people are estimated to be displaced in Minbya Township. The latest figures from civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress noted that 62,541 persons remained displaced in Rakhine State on 1 May, and that another 101,670 were also affected by conflict. Illustrating the often elastic nature of displacement, a temporary Tatmadaw presence prompted communities in northern Rathedaung Township to flee their villages before returning days later. In Ann Township, security forces prevented a group of 70 people from returning to their village after fleeing in early April. Amid concerns of aid diversion to armed actors, authorities continue to restrict humanitarian access. Camp leaders in Kyauktaw report that aid distributions from civil society now require a letter of approval from the Security and Border Affairs Minister. Displaced persons in Kyauktaw’s Nyaung Chaung, Buthidaung’s urban sites, and Mrauk U’s Tein Nyo and Pi Pin Yin displaced persons sites are facing food shortages, while annual water shortages are now widespread for displaced and non-displaced communities alike.
In a rare acknowledgement of guilt, a statement from the Tatmadaw’s Commander in Chief this week conceded that Tatmadaw soldiers used unlawful methods during the interrogation of five men accused of links to the Arakan Army. Social media users across the country expressed shock to a graphic and violent video showing Tatmadaw soldiers beating the men which went viral over the weekend. The men beaten in the video have been confirmed as among the 38 persons security forces arrested in Kyauk Seik village, Ponnagyun Township, on 19 April. Thirty-three of those detainees have since been released. Family members maintain that those still in detention are civilians with no affiliation to the Arakan Army, and that the accused were forced to admit guilt during violent beatings. The Tatmadaw’s statement says legal action will be taken against the soldiers involved.
At the time of writing there are 180 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Myanmar, after 11,822 tests. Official data also notes that some 57% of confirmed cases in Myanmar are asymptomatic, reflecting data reported globally. This is uncommon for a virus and makes tracking cases much more difficult. Testing in Myanmar remains low compared to international norms, meaning the problem may be compounded here. On 6 May a skirmish between the Karen National Liberation Army and Tatmadaw took place, while the Tatmadaw destroyed two medical screening huts set up by the Karen National Union to monitor the spread of COVID-19. The incidents raised questions about the efficiency of collaboration between the state, its armed forces and ethnic armed organisations for the prevention of COVID-19. No further clashes in that area have been reported since the Tatmadaw announced its ceasefire.
Taungup, Southern Rakhine State
On 11 May three community leaders in southern Rakhine State’s Taungup Township were arrested on suspicions of affiliation with the Arakan Army and charged under section 52 (a) of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism law. The arrested include the Arakan National Party vice-chairperson for Taungup Township, and the chair and former chair of the Taungup development affairs committee. The arrests follow allegations by Taungup National League for Democracy members that Arakan National Party members are affiliated with Arakan Army associates who reportedly threatened to kill a member of the National League for Democracy party and abducted another man close to the party. Following the abduction, Myanmar security forces quickly increased security in the township and inspections of all incoming and outgoing vehicles. National League for Democracy members have been targeted across Rakhine and southern Chin states in recent years and have been abducted in Paletwa, Buthidaung and Ramree. Not all instances were claimed by the Arakan Army. In a seperate case also in Taungup Township, on 5 May five persons from Sar Pyin village tract were charged under section 52 (a) of the Counter-Terrorism law in relation to a bomb explosion near Ma Ei town. According to local media, the five men had been released from detention ‘just minutes’ earlier – having previously been arrested on 5 April on suspicions of association with the Arakan Army but released after the township court found insufficient evidence on 5 May. The detained include the Arakan National Party chairperson for Sar Pyin village tract.
Breaching divisions: Taungup Township is a unique context which nonetheless provides insights to how politics work in Rakhine State. There is a commonly perceived division between the southern townships of Rakhine State and those further north. While ethnic Rakhine political parties won most seats in northern and central Rakhine State in the 2010 and 2015 elections, Rakhine parties lost out to the union-level Union Solidarity and Development Party and National League for Democracy in southern Rakhine State in both those elections. This is despite the fact that a form of Rakhine nationalism clearly has a strong influence in Taungup. The town has been declared a ‘Muslim free’ area, and in June 2012 a crowd in Taungup killed a group of 10 Muslim pilgrims from central Myanmar – a watershed moment in the years-long spread of violence targeting Muslims. While the 2012 violence was expected to polarise the community and push voters towards the Arakan National Party or Union Solidarity and Development Party – both campaigning on strong nationalist platforms – the constituency instead leant towards Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the 2015 elections. However, as shown on the map below which considers results in the Rakhine State Hluttaw (parliament), results were closer than often represented. While the National League for Democracy did win all seats in Taungup Township, the party failed to get more than 50% of votes in any Taungup constituency (including the upper house district seat of Thandwe). It is also notable that the Arakan National Party and Union Solidarity and Development Party consistently had comparable shares of the vote in southern Rakhine State. Polarisation and the widening of political space in Taungup this week will push stakeholders and voters alike to commit to one side, with implications both for 2020 elections and the spread of armed conflict. A heavy-handed reaction and arrests of locally-popular community leaders is unlikely to buy any sympathy for Naypyidaw and union-level political parties. As borderland communities across Myanmar appear to be drifting away from the National League for Democracy, competition for votes in southern Rakhine State this year will surely be strong despite indications that voters in Rakhine State are increasingly disillusioned with the democratic process.
Pauktaw Township, Central Rakhine State
There is no active armed conflict in central Rakhine State’s coastal Pauktaw Township. However, communities are indirectly affected by armed conflict elsewhere in the state, yet are often overlooked as attention is directed toward displaced communities or those in contested areas. Pauktaw Township shares a border with Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Minbya and Myebon townships, where the Arakan Army and Tatmdaw have fought intensely for some 18 months. As such, Pauktaw-based traders and producers face higher costs, losses and risks of detention or interrogation when transporting fishery or agriculture goods over land to nearby townships or elsewhere in the country. The most sensitive food products – amid the strict implementation of the Tatmadaw’s four cuts strategy – are rice, salt, fish paste and dried fishery products. The Tatmadaw aims to minimise the Arakan Army’s access to those essential food items. At times, bribes have to be paid at checkpoints to avoid the destruction or confiscation of even less sensitive goods such as fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables by security personnel. Trading routes can be unusable for hours or days when armed clashes take place – with serious implications for perishable goods such as non-processed fishery products. Economic impacts due to these conflict dynamics are now further compounded by a dramatically reduced demand from global export markets, particularly in the case of the fishery and aquaculture sector due to COVID-19. The sudden reduction in export demand has driven prices down severely, leaving the export-oriented fishery sector with only the domestic market – where domestic purchasing power likewise has also shrunk amid economic slowdown. Remittances from family members who work in Kachin State, Thailand, China and Malaysia are another important income source for both urban and rural residents of Pauktaw Township (and indeed all of Rakhine State). These have also stopped coming or have suddenly dropped dramatically due to mass layoffs or significant reductions in salaries.
Conflict sensitivity for ‘aid-operations marathon’: Organisations providing development and humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State should maintain attention on townships and villages outside of conflict-zones. The focus on communities directly affected by armed conflict presents a perception that those not directly affected are deemed less qualified to receive assistance from UN agencies or international, national and local NGOs. Meanwhile, non-displaced rural and urban communities are severely impacted by the ongoing economic slowdown but receive little support from either government agencies and non-governmental organisations. Similarly, non-Muslim populations in Rakhine State have had a chronic perception – whether real or imagined – that UN agencies and NGOs have historically favoured Muslim communities. It is undeniable that Muslim communities – whose movement and access to basic services and livelihood options are highly restricted and controlled – are more vulnerable than others in the context of conflict and economic shock. Yet support to this community needs to be cautiously designed and delivered so as to ensure more good than harm. Perceptions among communities and elites of unfair aid distribution can reinforce existing marginalisation, discrimination and exclusion towards already marginalised communities. Conflict-sensitivity and Do No Harm considerations are of the utmost importance as impacts of armed conflict and consequences of a global pandemic are indiscriminately affecting everyone in Rakhine State.
Another takeaway for humanitarians is that the ‘uncontested’ status of certain areas does not necessarily mean that those areas are isolated from armed conflict. Armed actors’ military decisions are highly dependent upon the geographical characteristics of an area. This is especially important in guerrilla warfare which relies on jungles and mountains for cover in addition to access to essential food and non-food items through villages nearby or connectivity with strategic logistical routes. The coastal Pauktaw and Sittwe townships, for instance, lack mountains and jungles connected with other parts of the state, while the Myanmar navy controls the sea. However, sources report that youth from all townships in Rakhine State, rumoured to include also the smaller ethnic groups, have been joining the Arakan Army. Meanwhile, there is a proportion of the population – the size and degree of which may be evolving over time – who prefer a ‘non-violent political movement path’, but who remain largely silent due to social pressures amid current vocal enthusiasm for the Arakan Army. Regardless, it is clear that the appetite for change in Rakhine State is immense. As such, the expansion of the conflict and its impacts to different communities – both geographically and virtually – are expected to continue at least in the short-term at least before the election currently scheduled to be held in November.
The Arakan Army continues to further its involvement in administration in areas under its influence. Notably, local Arakan Army forces on the border of Minbya and Mrauk U townships have continually become involved in a form of policing. Concerningly, this has often been directed towards Rohingya. Allegations have emerged that a Rohingya man was abducted earlier this month by the Arakan Army after being accused of stealing a motorcycle. This follows a similar case in early February, when the Arakan Army reportedly abducted a group of Rohingya men suspected of involvement in a string of thefts. Many Rohingya communities have little protection in rural areas and are extremely vulnerable to abuses from both the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw. Protection actors should ensure remote capabilities to monitor abuses are in place. Such instances also elicit social cohesion concerns. Mediation and conflict resolution skills among community leaders who are already taking these roles should be strengthened where possible.
Civilian casualties have continued into May and spiked on 11 and 12 May, although the trend in May thus far is towards fewer casualties than the previous two months. Five Rohingya civilians were injured on 11 May when Tatmadaw troops reportedly fired into a residential area of urban Kyauktaw following a remote IED/landmine attack on their convoy. Independent media and ground sources contradicted a state media report that no one was injured in the attack. Separately, on 12 May an unknown explosion killed two Rohingya children and injured another while they were searching for firewood and mangos near Thayet Pyin village, Buthidaung Township. The third child reportedly later passed away in hospital. Both these incidents highlight the extreme vulnerabilities of Rohingya communities in conflict-affected areas. Under strict restrictions, Rohingya often cannot flee conflict zones and face numerous barriers to accessing basic health or education services. Advocacy for the protection of civilians, and especially children, should continue to be raised at the highest levels.
Tatmadaw True News Team spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Htun has warned that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army may be planning a large attack to coincide with Myanmar’s reporting to the International Court of Justice – due on or before 23 May. The warning follows reports of increased Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activity in northern Maungdaw Township, although observers suspect that the military is exaggerating the threat posed by the group to emphasise insecurity in Rakhine State. The real threat is the possibility that an Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attack will prompt a Tatmadaw crackdown against Rohingya civilians, as it did in 2016 and 2017 – although there has been no indication of mobilisation for this and the Tatmadaw remains largely preoccupied with the Arakan Army threat.
The Tatmadaw has reported that the Arakan Army destroyed a temporary building used for road construction near Ku Lar Bar village on the Kyaukphyu-Yangon main road. This incident follows an explosion in another Kyaukphyu village earlier this month, and the discovery of an explosive device in Kyaukphyu town’s General Administration Department compound in late April. While the Arakan Army has not attempted to open a new front of conflict in the south of the state, continuing activity illustrates the ongoing capacity and influence of the group in southern townships.
Finally, another group of Rohingya have been taken to facilities on Bhasan Char island for quarantine after spending weeks at sea. Boats remain at sea with hundreds of passengers. While there is some speculation that the passengers boarded in Myanmar and seek to enter Bangladesh, sources familiar with smuggling networks in Rakhine State report that the boats did not leave Myanmar or pick up any passengers.