CASS Weekly Update

21 - 27 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

Echoing the trends reported in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, civilian casualties continue to be low for the month of May compared to previous months. This is likely due to a number of factors. First, clashes this month have largely taken place away from civilian areas. There have been few clashes near urban areas, and rural clashes have occurred near villages already abandoned. Second, the high number of casualties among ground troops and civilians has reportedly sparked discussions among the Arakan Army leadership regarding the benefits of large-scale attacks on Tatmadaw positions, prompting a reduction in intensity of the conflict this month. Third, while difficult to confirm, the reduction in civilian casualties does correlate with heightened advocacy by national and international actors, and the submission of Myanmar’s first report to the International Court of Justice. Next week CASS will consider these dynamics in more detail in a May update to the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State: 2020 Scenario Plan.

However, armed conflict does continue with various impacts for civilians. On 24 May, two civilians were injured by a suspected landmine while collecting firewood in Ponnagyun Township. The risk of landmine incidents will rise as some displaced persons return to their villages to plant as the monsoon paddy season arrives, and this is considered in more depth below. As clashes have continued in around urban Paletwa, shells are repeatedly launched over the town with high risks for civilians. On 25 May a shell fell into a school teacher’s house in the downtown. No one was injured.

On Tuesday 26 May, some 50 houses were destroyed in a fire in Mee Let Wa (lower) village, Paletwa Township. The village lies north of Paletwa town on the eastern bank of the Kaladan river. Residents had already fled in February when heavy weapons fell into the village, and watched the fire from nearby Paletwa town. Villagers who passed the Mee Let Wa in a small boat reported that they were fired on as the village burnt. Others from the village who have taken shelter in Yangon told news agency Myanmar Now that this is just another barrier to their return. The burning of this village falls into a pattern which has accelerated this year. Notably, some 200 houses were burnt in Mrauk U’s Letkar village last week. As considered in more depth in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, these burning may be in retribution for perceived civilian support to the Arakan Army, and prevent returns to locations where the Arakan Army may solicit resources from communities. However, Mee Let Wa (lower) is an ethnic Khumi village, and as such is less likely to be suspected of supporting the Arakan Army – although the Arakan Army may use the abandoned village for shelter or to secure food. Human Rights Watch this week called for an inquiry into the burning of Letkar village, which it suggested may constitute a war crime. The military has blamed the Arakan Army for the burning.

The Arakan Army reportedly abducted five Mro heads of hundred households who were visiting a market in downtown Kyauktaw on 18 May, before releasing them days later. The abducted say they were accused of providing resources to the Tatmadaw. Four men in Paletwa Township were also released by the Arakan Army this week. The group had reportedly been held since March. Since 2019 the Arakan Army has increasingly taken a role in local ‘law enforcement’ in rural areas of Rakhine and southern Chin states. In these areas, the Myanmar government’s administrative capacities have all but collapsed, and the Arakan Army is increasingly filling that gap; administering quarantine centres, enforcing alcohol and drug bans, attempting to tax, and otherwise policing behaviour. The continued ability of the Arakan Army to operate relatively freely in the urban areas of Kyauktaw reflects the increasingly contested nature of that area – and raises questions for how the government can hold elections there later this year.

Meanwhile, the damage left by Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in West Bengal on 20 May, has become clearer over the week. The cyclone, characterised as ‘the most powerful storm in the Bay of Bengal in over a decade,’ claimed at least 86 lives in West Bengal, destroyed thousands of homes and flooded hundreds of villages. Minimal damage was reported in Myanmar, although on 22 May electricity supplies to Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships were disconnected as a result of damage from stormy weather, likely the tail end of the cyclone, before being reinstated on 26 May.

There have been no new confirmed sightings of boats carrying Rohingya refugees, which reportedly left from Bangladesh in March or April. There were believed to be hundreds of people on board the vessels which were denied entry to Malaysia and denied re-entry to Bangladesh.

The identification of COVID-19 in Myanmar remains minimal at just 206 confirmed cases. The country’s capacity to test has been bolstered and 21,593 people have been tested at the time of writing. The most recent confirmed cases are among returnees from Malaysia, India and Italy. No new cases have been identified in Rakhine State after two were found among returnees from Malaysia to southern Rakhine State last week. Across the border in Bangladesh, meanwhile, the situation is increasingly serious, with over 36,000 cases identified and 522 deaths. Over 15,000 people have been quarantined in the sprawling camps hosting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, where 29 cases have been confirmed.

1. Return to Paddy: Finance, Landmine Difficulties Exposed

Kyauk Tan Village Tract, Rathedaung Township

Since early March, some 500 villagers have returned to Kyauk Tan village and its surrounding villages in northern Rathedaung Township to prepare for the monsoon paddy season. The entire population of Kyauk Tan village fled the area following a violent incident in May 2019, during which Tatmadaw soldiers held men captive in the village school for days, before shooting at the group when a mentally ill man attempted to escape. Eight deaths were reported and a number more were injured. Armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army subsequently escalated in the area and troops from both sides frequented the village. Villagers were displaced to Rathedaung town and villages on the adjacent western bank of the Mayu River. It has been three months since Kyauk Tan was a conflict hotspot, and villagers were also motivated to leave crowded displacement sites amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of humanitarian assistance. Returnees to Kyauk Tan have begun to repair houses, cultivate farmland and tend to cattle. The situation remains unstable, however. Travel to Kyauk Tan on the road from Rathedaung may result in Tatmadaw troops turning civilians around, inspections, and risks of arbitrary arrest. Travel by waterway is now untenable given the security situation and the Myanmar navy’s use of the Mayu river. Villagers are restricting their movements in the hills around the village due to the risks of landmines.

Precarious planting: Last year, armed conflict forced farmers to leave their farmlands before they could harvest, and the crops went to waste. The Arakan Peasant’s Union reports that 34,250 acres could not be planted across Rakhine State last year due to the conflict, and that close to 6,000 of these were in Rathedaung Township. An additional 15,450 acres were planted but could not be harvested in Rakhine State in total. In total, this represents some 5% of Rakhine’s paddy land, but the impact to these farmers has been immense. Farmers from Kyauk Tan and other villages are facing shortages of paddy seeds and machinery to cultivate their farmlands in the coming monsoon season. Farmers were unable to save the paddy seeds from last year’s harvest season. The Rathedaung Farmers’ Union raised these issues with the Arakan Peasants’ Union, and submitted a letter to the Rakhine State Government on 26 May requesting resources for paddy cultivation. Conflict-affected farmers from northern Rathedaung Township are also hoping to be granted an exemption for repayment of the previous monsoon’s season agricultural loans from the government in recognition of these challenges. In Man Aung Township in southern Rakhine State, the Government Agricultural Development Bank has now twice extended the deadline for the repayment of agricultural loans for the previous monsoon’s season due to COVID-19 pandemic, and Rathedaung farmers are hoping for similar leniency. The farmers remain uneasy, however. Support is needed from humanitarian organisations in the form of advocacy for an extension of the loan periods, and provision of agricultural equipment including seeds and machinery. Additional cash payments will also support conflict-affected farmers seeking to rebuild their lives and industry.

2. Security Concerns Stop Humanitarian Aid

Central and Northern Rakhine State

Several locations continue to be off-limits to humanitarian responders. These include the Nyaung Chaung displacement site in Kyauktaw Township, the Da Lek Chaung area in Ann Township and the locations around the Sa Hnyin displacement site in Myebon Township.  Both international and national humanitarian responders have largely been prevented from visiting these sites, with authorities citing security considerations. However, there have been periods of time without armed clashes in all of these areas when humanitarian aid could have been delivered, including during this week. These locations report food shortages and difficulty accessing food. The only relief is provided by community members who can travel to nearby areas to buy food. Security forces in most cases limit the amounts of food locals are permitted to carry into the locations. The Tatmdaw this week released 26 villagers detained since 17 May from villages near Dar Lek Chaung in Ann Township. Sources report that no humanitarian assistance has reached this area for some five months. One of the released said that the Tatmadaw had detained them to prevent them speaking about troop movements in that area, but that they were treated well in custody.

Security considerations: It is highly likely that these detentions and the blocks on humanitarian access are linked. The Tatmadaw’s security considerations also likely go beyond just the presence or absence of armed clashes. The Tatmadaw’s long standing ‘four cuts’ policy is to ‘starve’ insurgents of food, funds, intelligence and recruits. Restrictions on humanitarian access can thereby be expected in areas where the Tatmadaw suspects the Arakan Army of operating or suspects civilians of supporting the Arakan Army. Restrictions may also be in place where the Tatmadaw expects clashes to occur. In this context, that means a large number of locations. Regardless of the Tatmadaw’s plethora of security considerations, the upshot is a growing impact on malnutrition and access to food. There is a need for international agencies and donor countries to direct advocacy towards civilian and military authorities. Currently on the ground it is primarily Buddhist religious leaders who are negotiating access. Appropriate representatives of humanitarian agencies and donors should explore how these networks of influence may be best engaged to support vulnerable communities, both displaced and non-displaced. Humanitarian response actors should take care that their engagement constitutes consultations and not a disruption to religious leaders’ current activities.

3. Land Contention Reflects Obstacles to Camp Closures

Sittwe Township

As noted in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, on 14 May the Sittwe Township Administrator published a notice directing some 1,250 households squatting on land in Set Yone Su (Narzi) quarter to vacate the area by 14 August. The quarter was majority-Muslim until violence in 2012. Radio Free Asia reports that the order was rescinded on 19 May. On 25 May, however, the Set Yone Su Ward Administrator was violently stabbed and killed in broad daylight, in the everyday task of buying betel nut, after serving as administrator for some three years. A number of business people and government administrators have been accused locally of profiting from illegitimate land sales to vulnerable households in Set Yone Su ward. It is widely believed that the order to vacate the land came from Naypyidaw and was prompted by concerns regarding the provisional measures required by the International Court of Justice, to whom the government of Myanmar submitted its first report on 23 May.

HLP complexities and controversies: These latest developments offer three key takeaways. First is the brazenness of the murder of the ward administrator. The security situation in Sittwe remains unstable, correlating with a rise in the number of high-profile violent murders or attempted murders over the last year. These violent crimes are not necessarily directly linked to the civil war. Second, the order and its rescindment reflect a poor understanding of local dynamics among high-level decision makers in Naypyidaw. This should be kept in mind during coordination meetings and advocacy. Finally, this incident highlights the complications of the camp closure policy and expectations held for it. Any return to place of origin for the mostly-Rohingya Sittwe camp population will be extremely difficult and will require untangling numerous layers of claims on land ownership in various wards and villages of affected townships. Many of those among the pre-2012 Set Yone Su (Narzi) quarter community likely held, or continue to hold, paperwork similar to that now held by the squatters residing on the same land. Advocacy to decision makers at the highest levels to highlight this complexity is required, while agencies with experience in Housing, Land and Property should assist communities (both those who previously lived in Set Yone Su and those on that land currently) to assess their own papers and widen the general knowledge on these complicated issues.

Other Developments

On 20 May clashes broke out near Way Thar Li (Vesali) village in Mrauk U Township after the Arakan Army attacked a Tatmadaw convoy. This location, along the Sittwe-Yangon highway between Mrauk U town and the Mahamuni pagoda, was a hotspot for clashes in 2019 and the Arakan Army maintains a strong presence in the hills east of that main road. Communities nearby have repeatedly been accused of supporting the Arakan Army. Retribution, including the alleged burning of Letkar village last week, has not been uncommon. Following the clashes in Way Thar Li village, two civilians were reportedly beaten, including one 60 year old man. Graphic photographs of facial injuries said to be inflicted by the Tatmadaw troops were circulated online.

Charges have been laid under Myanmar’s Counter Terror law against five men from Kyauk Seik village, Ponnagyun Township, who were beaten by Tatmadaw soldiers onboard a ship earlier this month. Videos of the beatings went viral across Myanmar, prompting a rare promise from the Tatmadaw to investigate what appeared to be unlawful interrogations, although little progress has been reported since. Influencers among Rakhine communities online have suggested that the charges represent a turnaround from the Tatmadaw, highlighting the lack of progress on the Tatmadaw’s internal investigations.

Meanwhile, another arrest has been made in southern Rakhine State’s Taungup Township and charges laid under the Counter Terrorism law on suspicions of association with the Arakan Army. The accused is the younger brother of chairperson of Taungup’s municipal service, who was also arrested together with Arakan National Party members and former municipal staff earlier this month as covered in the CASS Weekly Update 7 – 13 May. The arrests reflect both the expanded influence of the Arakan Army and ongoing attempts by security forces to weed out those affiliated with the group.

On 21 May, it was reported that two billion Kyat (approx 1.4 million USD) was allocated from the Ministry of Border Affairs emergency fund to the Rakhine State government for the purpose of the new site construction on the land adjacent to Kyauk Ta Lone camp, Kyauk Phyu. Residents of the Kyauk Ta Lone camp – Muslims displaced from downtown Kyauk Phyu in 2012 – continue to object to the relocation site. It is reported that no company has yet been selected to construct the new site, but there is little transparency in the process.

As the dry summer months continue water shortages remain widespread. In displaced persons’ sites in Minbya Township, images of crowds of people waiting to draw small amounts of water from a dry lake were posted online this week – sparking concerns about both COVID-19 and the lack of water. Relief to water shortages is expected once the monsoon season is truly underway by the end of June.

As such, communities in central Rakhine State remain critical of the Union government’s response to COVID-19. Following the identification of two COVID-19 cases in southern Rakhine State, questions have been raised as to why these individuals (returnees from Malaysia) were sent to rural villages without undergoing quarantine. However, it appears that in this case the government has simply followed its own policy. Returnees are often sent to quarantine in their hometowns regardless of where in the country they originate. The spread of COVID-19 has been raised by activists to urge the government to reconnect mobile internet telecommunication in Myanmar’ west, such as in this statement from the Arakan Students’ Union.

Finally, there has been little popular reaction to the Union Election Commission announcement that prominent Rakhine political and social leader Dr. Aye Maung has been banned from electoral politics. This reflects the fact that there is little interest in electoral politics among many communities in Rakhine State. So long as Dr. Aye Maung remains in prison, the ban from politics is irrelevant to many. There has been an outcry among political leaders, however. The Arakan National Party vice-chair Daw Aye Nu Sein alleged that ‘in Burma, if a government comes into power, the opposition groups are going to be put in prison or they will go to a liberated area for armed struggle. In my opinion, these are the circumstances Dr. Aye Maung is facing.’

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • More displaced persons may return to villages in Rathedaung, Ann and Myebon townships this week to prepare for the monsoon paddy planting season. 
  • The government of Myanmar is expected to ease COVID-19 restrictions over the coming week, although this remains contingent on few cases being reported.
  • The title of this new report from the Centre for Global Policy reflects the widespread mood regarding the ground situation in Rakhine State: No Place for Optimism: Anticipating Myanmar’s First Report to the International Court of Justice. Myanmar’s submission is not expected to be made public and Myanmar will have to report every six months hereafter. The next submission will be due 23 November.
  • Nyi Nyi Kyaw considers Aung San Suu Kyi’s Crisis Facebooking’ in the time of COVID-19; noting that Amay Suu has remained highly engaging and popular since coming online on 1 April – but has avoided engaging conflict-affected Rakhine and Kachin communities online.