Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan:
April Update

4 May 2020

This April Update tracks a set of indicators drawn from the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan, published by CASS on 9 April, to document updates and consider implications for the humanitarian response. That scenario plan considered the trajectory of armed conflict in Rakhine State before nationwide elections expected for November 2020, and anticipated the impact of armed conflict for communities and the humanitarian response in western Myanmar, with the objective of facilitating forward-looking programming for humanitarian responders. Please see the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan for the full consideration of scenarios, conflict trajectories and humanitarian impacts.

Summary

The escalation of armed conflict in Rakhine State and southern Chin State aligns with the first scenario outlined in the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan. Armed conflict has frequently entered urban areas, while Myanmar security forces have further securitised the state capital Sittwe. Displacement has continued to rise, there is no dialogue forming between belligerents, and humanitarian access remains limited for international actors and increasingly so for informal local responders also. The Arakan Army, however, has not attempted to open new fronts of conflict in the south of Rakhine State. While occasional attacks on Tatmadaw targets have continued in the south of Rakhine State (an attack in the southernmost township of Gwa was reported, though denied by the Arakan Army), large-scale clashes as seen further north have not been seen in the south of the state. There have also been few indications of the fragmentation of conflict in Paletwa Township. However, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has increased its activity in Maungdaw Township in the north of Rakhine State – sparking concerns of a response from security forces.

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Indicators

Displacement

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. Rakhine Ethnic Congress figures published on 1 May also indicate an increased number of displaced persons in Ponnagyun Township, following heavy clashes there in early April.

  • On 29 April, the Rakhine State government announced that no new displacement sites would be permitted. A notice released by the state government stated it had already constructed seven sites and would construct more as necessary. 
  • Humanitarian agencies’ engagement in government-constructed sites remains controversial given the standards of the shelters, concerns over land ownership and the propensity for armed actors to access or control the flow of aid to conflict-affected communities.

Table 1: Rakhine State government displacement figures

Township 16 March1 6 April2
Ponnagyun 1,779 2,315
Kyauktaw 4,188 11,212
Mrauk U 16,089 16,344
Minbya 4,024 4,024
Pauktaw 365 433
Sittwe 1,641 2,422
Myebon 3,914 4,267
Ann 578 578
Rathedaung 15,061 15,061
Buthidaung 13,064 12,530
Total 60,703 69,186

Table 1: Rakhine State government displacement figures

17 March 10 April 
Paletwa3 1,823 8,196

Table 3. Rakhine Ethnic Congress displacement figures

Township 1 April4 1 May5
Ponnagyun 1,842 4,760
Kyauktaw 11,584 12,250
Mrauk U 16,415 17,027
Minbya 4,111 2,720
Pauktaw 410 698
Sittwe 3,454 3,548
Myebon 4,742 3,673
Ann 326 802
Rathedaung 8,732 8,486
Buthidaung 8,606 7,955
Maungdaw 622 622
Total 60,844 62,541

Humanitarian Access

Humanitarian access remains heavily restricted in Rakhine and southern Chin states. This month, new blockades of the transportation of food to certain areas emerged, together with new informal restrictions on local humanitarian responders.

  • While some deliveries of rice to Paletwa Township were successful in April, other areas in Rakhine State faced further restrictions. The Nyaung Chaung displacement site in Kyauktaw Township have reported food shortages since 4 April, after people delivering rice to the site were interrogated by Tatmadaw soldiers on suspicion of affiliation with the Arakan Army. 
  • The government and Tatmadaw have made other attempts to control the flow of aid from local community donors. In Mrauk U, it has been reported by CSO sources that some informal aid donors from the community have been barred by a local Tatmadaw presence from providing food relief to displacement sites. Other reports indicate that authorities are demanding relief groups deliver aid to local township administration offices, from where authorities will deliver to displacement sites. 
  • The Tatmadaw has blockaded areas on suspicions that communities have been supplying food, funds, intelligence or even recruits to the Arakan Army. In some cases blockades may be designed to encourage people to move to other sites, thereby giving authorities better control on the flow of aid. As markets do remain accessible to individual IDPs, opportunities to support remotely with cash should be explored where possible by humanitarian responders.
  • A World Health Organisation vehicle and a World Food Programme convoy came under fire on separate occasions through the month of April, in Minbya and Paletwa townships respectively. That humanitarian vehicles should come under fire should be 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. The CASS Weekly Update 22 – 29 April presents visual representations of security incidents in which civilians were affected in the two townships.

Dialogue

There is no indication of a dialogue emerging between the Arakan Army, government and Tatmadaw. Civilian casualties, including the death of a World Health Organisation staff member, have continued to prompt the two belligerents to trade blame in heated public statements.

  • A statement released by Aung San Suu Kyi on the evening of 21 April did not mention the incident involving the World Health Organisation vehicle, but paid tribute to “members of the Tatmadaw who have discharged their duty with courage and dedication” to defend against the “ULA/AA terrorist group”. The statement drew ire from Rakhine communities online, where it was received as giving license to the Tatmadaw’s abuses against civilians. It is likely that the Arakan Army received the statement in the same light. 
  • Despite extending its unilateral ceasefire through the first four months of 2020, the Arakan Army allowed its unilateral ceasefire to expire on 30 April. What the Arakan Army’s change in tact does reflect is a recognition that the Tatmadaw is not ready to talk, and that armed conflict can be expected to continue.

Geopolitics: No Signs of Intervention

There have been no reports of Chinese intervention to encourage the Tatmadaw, Arakan Army or the civilian government to enter dialogue. Talks encouraged by China in 2019 led to little progress, and the Chinese authorities remain preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis domestically.

  • An imaginative article published in late April alleged that the Arakan Army had received a shipment of arms from China – delivered by ship to Bangladesh then transported overland by porters to an Arakan Army base. The article is highly implausible, as considered in more depth in the CASS Weekly Update 22 – 29 April, but does raise some important considerations. In a context where rumours can drive events as much as real events, the article may encourage perceptions that China seeks to back the Arakan Army. Furthermore, the article brought to light the fact that Bangladesh continues to turn a blind eye to the Arakan Army’s operations on its borders.
  • The United Nations and embassies in Yangon this month encouraged the government to seek a resolution to hostilities in Myanmar’s west. Following the death of the World Health Organisation staff member, 16 international agencies called for a ceasefire and humanitarian access to vulnerable populations. This statement followed an 1 April statement from 18 ambassadors to Myanmar urging for a ceasefire to combat COVID-19.

Urban Warfare

As noted in the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan, clashes in urban areas are more likely as the conflict expands in intensity and geographic scope before elections in November. Armed clashes in and around urban areas, together with the further securitisation of the state capital Sittwe, were seen this month.

  • On 1 April the Tatmadaw fired shells from navy vessels which landed in the Kyauktaw urban area. Five civilians were killed and another eight injured in the incident. On the night of 3 April the sounds of heavy weapons could again be heard near the town, but no casualties were reported. Shelling again occurred near the Kyauktaw downtown area on 16 April, causing the death of one civilian and injuries to 10 others. It was also reported that three civilians who reportedly went missing during the violence were later found dead. 
  • In Paletwa urban area, three civilians were killed in an explosion on 22 April.
  • Security forces have been increasingly active in urban areas of the Rakhine State capital Sittwe. Additional checkpoints have also been put in place, as inspections of IDP sites take place. The existing checkpoint near the Sittwe town entrance has been strengthened, and two others erected on the main road to Ponnagyun.

Rohingya Communities

There have been no notable improvements in the living conditions for Rohingya in Rakhine State and southern Chin State. They continue to face heavy restrictions on movement, livelihoods and access to basic health or education. With many Rohingya villages now set in the middle of active conflict zones, civilian casualties continue to be reported while communities are unable to flee the violence.

  • Some 800 Rohingya prisoners released from Myanmar’s jails have been returned to Rakhine State. The inmates were released in Myanmar’s traditional New Year amnesty. Those returned to Rakhine State will again be subject to strict limitations on freedom of movement, as all Rohingya in Rakhine State and southern Chin State are. 
  • The release raised concerns among Rakhine social media users, who raised the fact that Rakhine State was being treated as an open air prison for the Rohingya. As such, the frustration is directed towards the central government rather than Rohingya communities. 
  • Following the rejection of up to five Rohingya vessels from Malaysian coastlines in mid-April, at least two boats of refugees at sea were prevented from landing in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s foreign minister, AK Abdul Momen, has said the boats will not be accepted by Bangladesh. While the pre-monsoon season is usually the peak of the smuggling season, the conditions under COVID have meant a halt in smuggling operations for the time being.

Southern Rakhine State

While occasional attacks on Tatmadaw targets have continued in the south of Rakhine State, large-scale clashes as seen further north have not been seen in the south of the state.

  • It was reported by national media that the Arakan Army launched an attack against a Tatmadaw base in Rakhine State’s Gwa Township on the evening of 3 April. This would represent the furthest reach of the Arakan Army to date. The Arakan Army took to Russian social media platform VK to deny involvement.
  • On 28 April a remote mine was reportedly found inside the Kyaukphyu Township General Administration Department compound, where another explosive was found in April 2019, and an explosion in a trash pile injured eight staff members in February 2019. Earlier in the month, on 8 April, a Tatmadaw convoy was attacked in the same township.

Fragmentation of Conflict

There have been no further reports alleging the mobilisation of any militia group in southern Chin State to confront the Arakan Army. Reports of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army increasing its activity in northern Rakhine State continue to emerge.

  • A spokesperson from the Chin National Front, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory group, denied reports that their armed wing the Chin National Army was preparing to fight the Arakan Army alongside the Tatmadaw. 
  • On 9 April the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army released a statement claiming to have clashed with the Tatmadaw twice. The statement described a 30 March incident in very different terms to media and Tatmadaw reports. A 15 April incident was also reported, in which the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army allegedly killed two Myanmar Border Guard Police. 
  • All indications are that the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army remains relatively low. While the group may launch small-scale attacks, there is no suggestion that the group has achieved greater resources or capacity. However, the attacks that sparked mass violence against Rohingya civilians in 2016 and 2017 were executed by poorly-equipped Rohingya acting under the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army name. As such, close attention needs to be paid to further developments.

COVID-19 Updates

There remain no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rakhine State and 149 cases in total confirmed nationwide after only some 7,000 tests. Concerns have been growing locally about the state’s capacity to manage an outbreak. A medical officer in Sittwe told Frontier Myanmar that the Sittwe general hospital can only manage about 20 confirmed cases in its isolation ward, and that only about six patients could be held in its intensive care unit.

  • In the Rakhine State capital Sittwe a coalition of CSOs have set up Community Based Quarantine Centres (pictures) for people returning to Sittwe from other states or regions of the country. There is a mandated quarantine period of 21 days. The centres were established in schools after coordination with the Rakhine State government. 
  • The internet blackout and the immediate impacts of armed conflict for communities in Rakhine State have meant that awareness of COVID-19 remains low. As the economic impact of this global crisis increasingly affects Myanmar and Rakhine State, it will be the most vulnerable people most affected in an economy already severely impacted by armed clashes and a related impact to livelihoods and blockages to transportation and supply lines.

Elections

There have been no public preparations for elections in Rakhine or southern Chin states. As noted in the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan, the Union Election Commission would have to access areas in August by the latest to finalise preparations before November.  Many communities in Rakhine State continue to express little interest in elections, while Rohingya communities in particular report hearing no information about forthcoming elections at all.

  • Restrictions on civil servants travelling to many townships of Rakhine State were put in place last year due to security concerns, and remain active.
  • The military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party has asked the Union Election Commission to announce the date of upcoming nationwide general elections. Held every five years, speculation holds that elections will be held in November this year. One National League for Democracy member, however, has said a delay is likely due to the COVID-19 crisis. Given the centrality of the elections to political developments this year, including conflict in Rakhine State, postponement of the elections could shift dynamics. Given that the country’s bureaucracy largely remains offline, preparations under the travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19 add a further complication to holding elections this year.

May: Looking Forward

The monsoon season can be expected to be truly underway by early June. As such, both the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw will attempt to consolidate gains made before movement becomes hindered by wet weather. While armed conflict has historically been known to reduce in intensity during the monsoon season, this cannot be guaranteed in this case. In 2019, armed clashes continued through the year despite conditions.

Few openings in official travel permissions can be expected by international humanitarian agencies as long as armed clashes continue. As such, there is a need to pre-position food aid where possible in anticipation of the spread of armed conflict and barriers to movement in the rainy season.

Close attention needs to be paid to the large numbers of civilian casualties reported since early February. Such numbers are highly alarming and concerns should be raised to military and civilian government interlocutors whenever possible.

Both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 need to be taken into account in any response. The most vulnerable of urban and rural populations will be hit hardest by an economic impact, and will need support. The impact of blocked market supply routes from Yangon, bottlenecked in Minbya due to armed clashes, will already be impacting informal workers in markets in Sittwe and other urban hubs. Humanitarian agencies can engage with the government to lessen the economic impact on the urban poor, who often have no safety net.

Finally, the pre-monsoon season also brings the risk of tropical storms and cyclones. The development of the year’s first tropical storm in the Bay of Bengal in late April and early May should be notice to all humanitarian responders to prepare for the monsoon season, increased presence of disease and potential environmental disaster.