CASS Weekly Update

28 May - 3 June 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

After a reduction in intensity of armed conflict through the month of May, the Arakan Army launched a number of notable attacks on Myanmar security forces this week. This is despite the Brotherhood Alliance’s (the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army) sixth extension of their unilateral ceasefire to 31 August. The Brotherhood Alliance also extended the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire to the Tatmadaw, which was rejected. On 29 May the Arakan Army attacked a Border Guard Police post in northern Rathedaung Township, reportedly killing at least four policemen and taking another six captive. Days later the Myanmar navy fired into villages west of the Mayu river in northern Rathedaung Township, injuring some five civilians and forcing temporary displacement. That area is known to be under considerable Arakan Army influence and even control. Villagers there suspect they are facing retribution for the Arakan Army’s activity in the area. On 2 June the Arakan Army attacked a Tatmadaw convoy just outside the Ponnagyun urban area. One civilian was killed and another injured in the incident. The re-emergence of attacks on or near civilian areas should be of concern to humanitarian responders.

It is reported that boats carrying some 850 Rohingya refugees remain at sea. BBC Bangla has this week spoken to the relatives of Rohingya refugees who paid people smugglers to take them from the Bangladeshi camps to Malaysia some two months ago. The refugees were denied entry to Malaysia and relatives most recently believed the boats were off the coast of Yangon. On April 14 another boat was allowed to land in Bangladesh after two months at sea. Some 60 people died on board after that boat was prevented from landing in Malaysia and Bangladesh due to COVID-19 concerns. Agencies, embassies and donor organisations should encourage Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries to fulfill their obligations under international law, and allow the boats to land safely.

The maps above summarise security incidents in Rakhine State and southern Chin State in the month of May and in 2020 to date respectively. There was a reduction in intensity in the conflict in May, although incidents continued to occur in Paletwa Township, and along the Yangon-Sittwe road through Kyauktaw, Mrauk U, Minbya and Ann Township, and in northern Rathedaung Township. These trends indicate a continuation of the civil war along the lines of status quo. A May Update to the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan, published by CASS on 9 April, will be published later this week and will explore conflict and response indicators in greater detail.

There have been few domestic transmissions of the COVID-19 virus in Myanmar in recent weeks. Most new cases are ‘imported’ – identified among those returning from India, Italy and Malaysia for the most. There are currently 233 confirmed cases in Myanmar, after some 30,000 tests. The figure of 21,893 reported in last week’s CASS Weekly Update should be read as the number of tests undertaken in Myanmar – not the number of people tested as incorrectly referenced in that update. The situation in Myanmar remains wholly overshadowed by that in Bangladesh, which reports a total of 52,445 cases, with 28 active cases in the Rohingya refugee camps bordering Myanmar. Notably, further transmission of the virus within the refugee camps has not occurred this week, although the first fatality to the virus among the refugee community in Bangladesh was reported this week.

This week in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, an eight year old girl won 1.5 billion Myanmar Kyat (approximately 1 million USD) in the government lottery. The family of the girl bought the ticket in her name, and say they will donate some of the winnings to the ticket vendor as well as to persons displaced by armed conflict. Since the advent of armed conflict in Rakhine State, community groups have collected donations for conflict-affected civilians. However, in recent months donations have dried up, as all communities are increasingly affected by the economic impacts of war and of the COVID-19 economic slowdown.

1. Food Shortages and Malnutrition Fears Amidst Aid Blocks

Ann Township, Rakhine State

Local sources report that over 10,000 people from 42 villages in Ann Township are facing food shortages due to freedom of movement restrictions and a prohibition on carrying provisions into the Dar Let Chaung area. Villagers now report limiting meal sizes, and adults are foregoing meals to ensure children can eat. A Tatmadaw checkpoint at the Yoe Chaung bridge restricts villagers’ movement and prohibits the transportation of rice and other foodstuffs. One man was shot and killed by the Tatmadaw when he attempted to leave the village to buy rice on 20 May, but it was not clear if the killing was deliberate or otherwise. While previously people from Dar Let Chaung village-tract area used to purchase rice from areas in Minbya, Mrauk-U and Myebon townships and small amounts of rice were permitted past the checkpoint, local sources report that no rice is currently permitted to pass and villagers are avoiding the checkpoint entirely. Aid groups have not been granted access for months. Residents in Dar Let Chaung report fears that food shortages will be exacerbated in the rainy season as water routes become increasingly difficult to navigate due to flooding and strong tides. Only a minority of the population in the area farms paddy, and villagers rely on the mountains for food and livelihoods.

Multiple impacts: A number of related difficulties in Dar Let Chaung have emerged in addition to food shortages. Health care has become increasingly difficult as a result of the restrictions on movement. It was reported that one woman in the village died during childbirth in May after being reluctant to travel to Ann hospital due to fears of harassment or violence at the Tatmadaw checkpoint. There is little awareness of COVID-19 in the area, and no agencies or local CSOs have conducted awareness sessions. The township health department has similarly not reached the Dar Let Chaung area to distribute protective equipment or conduct awareness sessions regarding COVID-19. In relation to livelihoods, a resident noted that most farmers have insufficient paddy seeds for the coming rainy season crop. Farmers were unable to save the paddy seeds from the last harvesting season due to armed conflict between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw. Farmers and those who rely on the hills are anxious about landmines and reluctant to visit their farms or other livelihood activities near the mountains. Compounding these concerns are anxieties about farmers’ abilities to repay agricultural loans for the last year. Advocacy is required to encourage authorities to allow humanitarian aid into the village before food shortages and malnutrition worsen. Remote programming to monitor protection concerns in the area is also required, and humanitarian responders should explore the potential for cash transfers to villagers, to support the provision of some food which can enter the village via informal routes.

2. COVID Cooperation or Return to Clashes?

Northern Shan State

On April 27, the Myanmar President’s office announced the formation of the COVID-19 Committee of Coordination and Cooperation with Ethnic Armed Organisations for the prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19 in line with the government’s ‘no one left’ policy. Despite this emergent cooperation, insecurity reigned in northern Shan State this week. Despite the Brotherhood Alliance’s ongoing unilateral ceasefire, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army attacked a Tatmadaw military convoy on 29 May on the Muse-Mandalay main road near Nam Kut village in Kutkai Township. Numerous passenger and cargo vehicles were stuck on the main trade route and had to shelter in NamKut village. Two days before the incident, four houses in a village in Muse district, northern Shan State, were reportedly searched and looted by the Tatmadaw. Villagers reported that ten villagers, including the village administrator, were taken by the Tatmadaw and that nine remain in detention. More restrictions and inspection have subsequently been instituted at nearby checkpoints. Local sources suspect that the clashes may have been orchestrated to displace communities to prevent voting in upcoming general elections, or that the clashes may be related to attempts to hide illegal logging activities which begin at this time of year and continue to September.

EAOs response: Many ethnic armed organisations have welcomed the government’s new cooperation as it shows recognition of their work on COVID-19 prevention and control in their own respective regions (highlighted in more depth in the recent CASS Paper Covid-19 Response & Parahita Groups). However, violence in Shan State this week reflects the challenges to cooperation amongst armed state and non-state actors. Given continuous fighting amid repeated extensions of unilateral ceasefires, there is reportedly little expectation for stability in the short to medium term among communities, at least in the absence of a Tatmadaw commitment to a bilateral agreement with all actors and meaningful cooperation in the prevention of COVID-19. In this light, on 1 June, 213 Myanmar civil society organizations and networks released a statement urging the Myanmar government and respective stakeholders to ‘unconditionally stop armed conflict in all areas across Myanmar’ as a top priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, a committee of ethnic health organisations released a statement on 6 May welcoming the government’s ‘no one left behind’ policy and its cooperation with ethnic armed organisations to combat COVID-19 in areas controlled by ethnic armed organisations. They also encouraged an end to civil wars and requested the Tatmadaw to cease threatening the work that ethnic armed organisations have done for COVID-19 prevention. Importantly, they ask local and international donors to support directly to ethnic health organizations as the frontline workers in the region. Local CSOs are concerned that ongoing armed conflicts will affect their ability to support IDPs under these precarious conditions. In locations such as northern Shan State, humanitarian actors should closely work with local CSOs and ethnic health organizations as they take critical roles in COVID-19 prevention and control.

3. International Accountability, the Rohingya and Ethnic Politics

Several Locations, Myanmar

The Myanmar government submitted its first bi-annual progress report to the International Court of Justice on 22 May. However, the government has not made the report public, nor has it given any indication of its contents or plans to make the report public. There is no formal obligation for Myanmar to make the report publicly available. However, Myanmar government’s perceived lack of transparency around the report has been criticised by international rights groups, diaspora Rohingya activists and international media outlets in Myanmar and abroad. They have also criticised the government’s lack of progress in implementing the mandated provisional measures meaningfully, and a perceived ‘lack of genuine political will’ to impliment the measures or more broadly to mitigate the systemic marginalisation of Rohingya and other Muslim populations in Rakhine State. The developments around the International Court of Justice case – and other international justice seeking efforts  cannot be expected to push the Myanmar government and security forces to achieve significant progress, at least not before the upcoming general elections. To that end, international accountability mechanisms will likely also feature as main talking points during the election campaign. Apart from elections, public interest and trust in the International Court of Justice case has been very limited. It was only immediately before and during hearings for Gambia’s proposed provisional measures in The Hague on 10-12 December that the ICJ case seemed to have been of high interest nationally. The public interest then was however focused more on the ‘We Stand with Suu Kyi’ campaigns built around Aung San Suu Kyi’s perceived courageous representation of the country in those hearings. Following the hearings, crowds nationwide that showed solidarity suddenly disappeared  – not even to reappear when the court ruled on 23 January. Not surprisingly, the majority of ordinary people thereby barely noticed when the Myanmar government submitted its first progress report to the court on 22 May.

Self interest, nationalist politics, and progress?: The proceedings at the Hague have a number of implications for politics and ethnic affairs in Myanmar. First, different political actors in Myanmar have responded to the case to serve their domestic political goals. Domestic political opponents and international and domestic observers alike have accused the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi of manipulating the case for their own political popularity, while accusing her of failing to address the Rohingyas’ suffering and systemic political marginalisation. On the other hand, activists and political actors from some ethnic minority groups have responded by highlighting similar human rights violations they have faced in their own areas at the hands of the Tatmadaw. At the other end of the spectrum, Union Solidarity and Development Party supporters and Buddhist nationalist actors have for the most part blamed the ruling National League for Democracy who, by improperly handling international pressure, have made the nation vulnerable to further demands by the international community. These groups have compared the ruling party with the previous government’s approaches to international pressure: the outright denial of Rohingya identity and political demands; minimal acceptance of the UN and international actors’ intervention in the Rohingya crisis.

Low levels of domestic interest in international accountability mechanisms can be partly attributed to state-owned and independent local media’s bias and selective emphasis, but also reflects a common perception that the international community is biased towards the Rohingya, prompting little ownership of justice-seeking initiatives among the Myanmar population. Such perceptions undermine the local ownership of decisions and advocacy (including both provisional measures and domestic advocacy) and outcomes from international justice efforts, but also have other broader implications. In recent history, anti-Muslim rhetoric has been effective in boosting ethnic and religious nationalism in Myanmar. As in other young democratic nations with diverse populations and ongoing conflict dynamics, nationalism is effectively channeled by political actors for their advantage in electoral politics. In particular, Bamar nationalist leaders tap into Islamophobia to nurture Bamar nationalism. Bamar nationalism has been perceived as weaker – or at least less visible – than that amongst ethnic minorities who can point to governance failures, abuses, and ongoing conflict relating to a chronic Burmanisation trend. In this context, Bamar nationalist leaders have focused on anti-Muslim and anti-western influence rhetoric to create a sense of solidarity among Bamar people. There is an increasing perception in the Bamar heartland that ethnic minorities harbour anti-Bamar sentiments and support insurgency, fostering a greater sense of ‘in-group’ Bamar nationalism. In the context of worsening civil war in western Myanmar and little ownership of international efforts for accountability,  there is a real risk that increasingly inward-looking nationalisms will undermine fragile progress towards a more open democratic system. Humanitarian actors should ensure that their programmes are sensitive to these social cohesion concerns, and should avoid inadvertently endorsing ideas which may promote exclusionary policies in this context, for example a link between concepts of indigeneity and access to citizenship.

4. War on Words of Terror Paid Little Heed

Central and Northern Rakhine State

On Monday 1 June, the Myanmar President’s office accused the Arakan Army of working with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to traffic drugs into Bangladesh. The accusation followed the seizure of more than USD $3 million worth of methamphetamine pills in Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine State. The statement from the President’s office alleges that the pills were found in the house of Arakan Army affiliate Shwe Thein. The Arakan Army rejected any allegation it was involved in the drug trade, but did not address the accusations it was working with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Also this week, an article has alleged the Arakan Army’s involvement in the drug trade, and specifically its employment of Rohingya drug mules to carry the product into Bangladesh. The Arakan Army has vehemently rejected any suggestion it is involved in the drug trade, including in April this year when an article written by an foreign analyst alleged Arakan Army links with the Khaung Kha militia following the Tatmadaw’s seizure of drugs and production facilities from that group in northern Shan State.

Little interest: Attempts to link the Arakan Army to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army serve an ideological purpose for civilian and military authorities. For many in Myanmar, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army represents the ‘bogey man’ of violent Islamic expansionism, regardless of the groups’ actual goals or ideology. The fact that both the Arakan Army and Rohingya Salvation Army operate in the same general corner of the country and are now the only two armed groups designated under the counter terrorism law is used by authorities to conflate the two groups in the minds of a Myanmar audience – thereby justifying heavy military operations against the Arakan Army. Despite the war of words among the Arakan Army and government, there was little interest in the allegations among online Rakhine communities. There is no doubt a huge amount of drugs crossing the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh, and the trade is no doubt facilitated by a diversity of actors from both state and non-state groups. Throughout recent years, reports have repeatedly emerged of Rohingya carrying illicit drugs being arrested by authorities on both sides of the border. There are clear motivations for Myanmar authorities to attribute arrests of any Rohingya engaging in illicit activities to the work of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The (real or imagined) threat of an organised violent criminal network operating across the border can be used to justify little progress on returns from Bangladesh, and the plethora of other recommendations regarding development, security and human rights identified by other domestic and international commissions. As such, humanitarians should be sceptical of allegations of any extensive cooperation between the two groups. Conflict sensitivity concerns and humanitarian principles dictate that agencies should avoid promoting narratives which continue to feed the conflict.

Other developments

Since early May 2020, politics in Taungup Township, southern Rakhine State, has become increasingly complex. As detailed in the CASS Weekly Update 7–13 May 2020, the abduction of National League for Democracy members by an unknown armed group on 5 May led to the Tatmadaw tightening security in the township as several other party members recieved threats and went into hiding. A local armed group calling itself the “National Security Organisation – Taunggup Township” has since emerged, to a mixed response from online Rakhine communities. Through it’s Facebook page, the local youth militia group has published warnings and updates of its violent activities, most recently claiming to have abducted then killed a member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory group the Arakan Liberation Party. The National Security Organisation presents itself as a youth organisation free from the control of any organisations or armed groups and postures as if balancing the military competition between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw on one hand, and the political competition between the Arakan National Party and the National League for Democracy on the other. Active Facebook users have variously accused the group of affiliation with the Arakan Army, the Arakan National Party, and even the Tatmadaw. The exact nature of the group and its affiliations remain unclear, however. What is clear is that Taungup is increasingly unstable. There is a strong likelihood for intense political competition before this years’ election, or for a convincing armed actor to assert control and fill a leadership vacuum. The potential for expansion of the civil war to the south of Rakhine State remains, and humanitarian actors operating in Taungup Township should keep this possibility in their contingency plans.

Meanwhile, Arakan Army this week released a video featuring four Tatmadaw ‘deserters’ alleging a series of abuses committed by the Tatmadaw and individuals within its ranks. Activists and media were alerted by the allegations of one of the soldiers, who said he had taken part in a massacre of some 30 Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2017. These apparent ‘confessions’ should clearly be taken with a grain of salt. It is likely that neither the statements or desertions took place voluntarily.

Finally, the online release of a still from an upcoming feature film titled ‘Rohingya: People from Nowhere’ has ruffled feathers on social media this week. Directed by first-time director Haider Khan and filmed largely in Bhutan, the film is based on a fictional Indian special forces operation during the real-life 2016-17 atrocities committed against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State. Amidst concerns that it may be ‘too soon’ to fictionalise accounts of the atrocities committed by security forces, others have raised questions about what impact the film will have on Myanmar-India bilateral relationships. The relationship has been at a high peak recently, and joint operations against borderland insurgents by both countries’ armed forces in 2019. This year, Myanmar also deported to India a group of 22 Indian insurgents who had been operating out of Myanmar.

The reception of the film among Rohingya communities online appears to be positive at this early stage. Comments on Haider Khan’s facebook page thank him for concentrating international attention on the Rohingya’s situation. It remains to be seen what impact the film may have for the Rohingya living in India, however, where they have faced tighter restrictions in recent years amid blooming Hindu nationalism in that country. While the film is getting attention in Myanmar however, the director and crew have little following in India – the best known face in the film is Miss Bangladesh Supranational 2019 Tangia Zaman Methila.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • Following the Arakan Army’s escalation of attacks this week – and the war of words with the President’s office – immediate impacts of armed conflicts on civilian casualties should be carefully monitored over the next week. 
  • Further instability in southern Rakhine State needs to be monitored closely. This may indicate the emergence of a new armed actor and fragmentation and expansion of the conflict, or the spread of conflict through a new guise.
  • In Oxford’s Tea Circle blog, Sai Latt highlights racial thinking in Myanmar during the time of COVID-19, and advocates for reflection on what this means for Myanmar’s future.