CASS Weekly Update

14 - 20 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 Wednesday 20 May, Cyclone Amphan, categorised as an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’, landed in West Bengal. The storm destroyed trees and shelters in Bangladesh and India’s east coast following emergency evacuations and preparedness. In Myanmar, the resultant storm resulted in heavy rain and winds in central and northern Rakhine State. A number of shelters in displacement sites hosting persons affected by armed conflict were damaged or destroyed (pictures), including in San Hnyin displacement site, Myebon Township. Assessments over the following week will provide a better overview of impact.

Despite the threat of COVID-19, and a tropical cyclone, armed conflict continued in Rakhine State and southern Chin State’s Paletwa Township. This week the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw engaged in Mrauk U Township, near Waytharli village. That stretch of the Yangon-Sittwe main road between Mrauk U and the Mahamuni pagoda was a hotspot for incidents in 2019, but had been relatively quiet this year. Following clashes in that area, a fire destroyed some 192 houses in Letkar village. The village was empty, as residents had already fled to nearby displacement sites. Media and influential Rakhine social media influencers have alleged that the Tatmadaw deliberately destroyed the houses and a middle school. Incidence of the burning of villages or parts thereof have been increasingly reported in recent months, and may reflect increased attempts by local Tatmadaw troops to intimidate or seek retribution against communities suspected of supporting the Arakan Army. The fires also serve to prevent returns to villages near the hilly areas where the Arakan Army operates, as illustrated on the map below.

Notably, civilian casualties have dropped dramatically in May. There were a high number of civilian casualties in April and March. The reduction in civilian casualties may be due in part to the sustained advocacy directed towards Myanmar’s government, although other analysis reports that there are also discussions within the Arakan Army leadership regarding the high costs of the conflict for group troops and civilians. During May, there has been a reduction in the number of clashes near urban areas, meaning a lower risk of civilian casualties. Regardless, incidents continue to be reported. In Buthidaung this week a Rohingya man was hit by a stray bullet, reportedly while mending fields, while in Kyauktaw Township a Rakhine civilian was reportedly injured during shelling. A factsheet from Unicef this week illustrates the increasing risk of landmine injury or death for civilians in Rakhine State and southern Chin State.

1. Concerns and Confusion as COVID Closes In

Central and Northern Rakhine State

The first cases of COVID-19 were also confirmed in Rakhine State and in the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh this week. Two cases were confirmed in southern Rakhine State in Taungup and Thandwe townships. Both patients had recently returned from Malaysia. Concern was raised among online communities who noted that the patients had travelled with some 40 others returning to Myanmar, including some people who had returned to villages in central and northern Rakhine State – reportedly without undergoing quarantine. As of 20 May, a total of 15,838 people have now been tested for the virus in Myanmar, with 67 people in Rakhine State tested according to data released on 14 May. Myanmar has confirmed 193  cases of the virus in total. In Bangladesh, the first cases were found among Rohingya refugees in camps on 14 May. A total of four cases have now been identified among Rohingya in the camps and 199 cases in Cox’s Bazar district. There are over 26,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Bangladesh.

Concern over conditions in government quarantine sites in Rakhine State continue to be raised. While authorities previously provided 3,000 Myanmar Kyat daily for food costs for those in quarantine, this support has now stopped. Concerns regarding security in the centres are also arising, including for women. Violent alcohol-related incidents have been reported, and there is a lack of separate bathrooms for women. Community quarantine sites, managed by the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team, continue to provide support. Despite having no official coordination with the government, the Arakan Army is also reportedly directing the administration of a number of quarantine sites in rural locations.

COVID Confusion: In northern Rakhine State, concerns among community members regarding the virus crossing from Bangladesh were reported in previous weeks. This week, however, sources in Maungdaw report that the identification of cases among Rohingya communities in Bangladesh has had no impact on relations between communities in northern Rakhine State. Concerns do exist about two people who have recently returned to Maungdaw District from Malaysia, after a number of those who returned with them tested positive to the virus. There are additionally some rumors circulating that those diagnosed in Bangladesh had recently entered from Myanmar. The further stigmatization of the Rohingya communities in Rakhine State under these conditions remains a risk. Following the identification of the first cases of the virus in the camps in Bangladesh, one vocal Rakhine politician took to social media to warn officials against taking bribes to allow Rohingya to enter Myanmar, and Myanmar announced that it would raise security along the border with Bangladesh to prevent the spread of the virus.

Reflecting this, perceptions that the central government is not doing enough to prevent the spread of the virus continue to be prevalent. Social media users went so far as to allege that the central government has allowed the virus to spread into Rakhine State. There was also further criticism of the government online this week, when hundreds of people arrived in crowds to apply for a teaching job at the U Ottama park in downtown Sittwe. Pictures of the crowds were shared on Facebook alongside criticism of the government for allowing people to congregate en masse. Humanitarian actors and donor organisations should reach out to civil society and government actors to identify what support may be needed in the sites in Sittwe. Support to COVID-19 responses may also be cited to justify travel permissions to rural areas which are otherwise inaccessible.

2. Narzi: Order to Vacate Rohingya Land Before ICJ

Sittwe, Rakhine State

Radio Free Asia reported on 14 May that the Sittwe Township Administrator ordered the (mostly ethnic Rakhine) communities who have settled on land in Set Yone Su ward (known as Narzi in Rohingya language) without proper land ownership papers to vacate the land before 14 August, citing security concerns. There are reportedly over 1250 households this will affect. The ward was majority-Rohingya until it was almost entirely burnt in 2012 violence. Approximately 35% of the population of the Sittwe internment camps previously resided in Narzi ward prior to 2012. The notice has also been posted outside the ward office in Narzi.

Land Security: The order has understandably created severe concerns among communities in Narzi about where they will relocate to. Most people living in Narzi are recent migrants from rural areas seeking opportunities in the state capital, and have little social or economic support to fall back on. There is furthermore a concern among communities that this order will create problems between Rakhine and Muslim communities, and speculation among the community that the order is related to Myanmar’s posturing for the International Court of Justice case against Myanmar – with reporting due this Saturday. The order suggests that a plan for the return of displaced Rohingya may be underway. Agencies involved in land issues may offer support with documentation processes for those facing eviction. If forced relocations from Narzi do occur, there will likely be humanitarian need among the thousands of people affected. Humanitarian agencies in Sittwe will likely have straightforward access to these communities as this is within the Sittwe urban area. A swift and effective response will also serve to challenge perceptions that humanitarian responders are biased towards Rohingya communities.

3. Rohingya Refugees Remain At Sea

Unknown Location

Two boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees remain at sea, with their whereabouts unknown. Concerns of their safety should be widespread given the length of time the boats have been at sea (perhaps as early as mid-March) and the rough conditions generated by severe weather events in the Bay of Bengal.

Duty of care: Conditions at sea are hazardous as the storm passes through the Bay of Bengal, and vessels previously allowed to land in Bangladesh reported at least 60 deaths on board. Authorities off Aceh, Indonesia, are on the lookout for the boats, after they were signed nearby. Fishermen in Aceh brought ashore numerous Rohingya refugees in 2015 when thousands of Rohingya left Bangladesh and Myanmar by sea. There are some reports that Indonesia and Australia are exploring cooperation to respond to the crisis under the Bali Process. Partners with influence should continue to advocate for Bangladesh, neighbouring countries and influential regional powers to accept the Rohingya refugees at sea on humanitarian grounds.

Other developments

Access to numerous displacement sites in Rakhine State remain blocked. In Ponnagyun Township, Zay Ti Pyin village was inaccessible earlier this week due to a military presence on the road from Ponnagyun. Food shortages were reported by communities there. The increasing threat of COVID-19 may be leveraged by humanitarian responders to gain further access to conflict-affected communities in remote areas.

The President-appointed committee investigating the death of a World Health Organisation staff member when his marked vehicle was fired on 20 April has completed its consultations in Rakhine State, and now seeks input from ‘any person desiring to share any information related to the incident’. The committee can be reached at vechcoms@gmail.com. Rhetoric of the government has blamed the Arakan Army for the incident since it was first reported. While this has raised doubts about the ability of the committee to effectively investigate the incident, other reports note that the committee members are committed and have undertaken serious consultations.

The Union Election Commission has announced that former Arakan National Party chairperson Doctor Aye Maung is no longer eligible to serve as a parliamentarian nor contest seats in any parliament in future elections. Doctor Aye Maung remains in Insein prison, Yangon, where he is serving a 20 year sentence for treason. The well-known nationalist politician resigned the Arakan National Party in November 2017, and has since established the Arakan Front Party with colleagues. The new electoral party has recently been increasingly active in consolidating their online presence, but remain a small force when compared with the Arakan National Party.

Six civilians arrested in Kyauktan village, Rathedaung, in May 2019 have been released by a Sittwe court this week, after a judge found a lack of evidence. The six men spent over one year in jail, and allege that security forces tortured them during that time. The Rakhine State attorney general said this week that between 1 February 2019 and 20 March 2020 a total of 109 cases were opened under Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law, across 13 townships of Rakhine State.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • Myanmar is due to report to the International Court of Justice on 23 May. Further positioning may occur prior to this.
  • In a new report this week, Crisis Group notes that the government and ethnic armed groups have positioned themselves well to increase cooperation to combat COVID-19, and that such cooperation may also have positive results for the peace process. The authors also note that such cooperation ‘will not be possible in Rakhine’, where conflict is escalating. The report calls for greater humanitarian access to affected communities in Rakhine and southern Chin states and a lift on the internet shutdown.
  • This week, a press release from UNODC and the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control revealed the scale of drug seizures in Myanmar through 2019 – confirming the centrality of Myanmar to the international trade of illicit drugs and a shift towards synthetic drugs in particular.