This May 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.
During the month of May there was a reduction in intensity of armed conflict between the Arakan Army and Myanmar Tatmadaw in Rakhine and southern Chin States, with correlating impacts for civilians. Compared to the escalation of armed conflict from February 2020, there were fewer clashes near urban areas, fewer civilian casualties, and little additional displacement in May. The Arakan Army has not opened a new front in southern Rakhine State – although security incidents have continued – and there is no further indication of the fragmentation of conflict in southern Chin State. As such, the trajectory of armed conflict in Myanmar’s west reflects one of status quo and the continuation of conflict at the current scale before elections expected for 2020 – as outlined in Scenario Three of the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan.
Clashes this month have largely taken place away from civilian areas. There have been few clashes near urban areas, and rural clashes have generally occurred near already abandoned villages. As a result, there were far fewer civilian casualties in May than in preceding months. There are a number of points to consider in this regard:
More reports of the burning of villages in Rakhine State emerged during May. Armed actors have blamed each other for the fires, but reports from local media and ground sources suggest the Tatmadaw are the more likely perpetrators.
The map below illustrates instances of fires in village locations which have destroyed residential structures this year. Affected villages are typically near hill areas where the Arakan Army is known to operate. This suggests that the fires are targeted at forcing displacement, or preventing the return of displaced persons, with the goal of inhibiting the Arakan Army’s access to food, funds or recruits from rural villagers.
The Rakhine State government has reported that as of 5 May, 69,975 people remained displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State. Reports suggest that some 11,160 people are displaced in Paletwa Township.
Humanitarian access remains heavily restricted in Rakhine and southern Chin states. Certain locations – including the Dar Let Chaung area in Ann Township and IDP locations in Myebon – remain off-limits to both national and international humanitarian responders.
Despite unilateral ceasefires on both sides and the threat of COVID-19, there has been little indication that armed parties will enter discussion.
Rohingya communities in Rakhine State remain trapped in a conflict zone and face specific vulnerabilities. Under strict movement restrictions, Rohingya often cannot flee conflict zones and face numerous barriers to accessing livelihoods, or basic health or education services.
The Arakan Army has continued to launch occasional attacks on Tatmadaw targets in southern Rakhine State. There was no new front of conflict opened in southern Rakhine State throughout this month. However, the impact of the conflict continues to be felt in the south of the state, where conflict and political dynamics are intertwined.
In the first four months of this year, there were frequent reports of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activities near the Bangladeshi border in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township. These reports continued in early May, before ceasing. In Paletwa Township, there have been no further indications of mobilization of communities to oppose the Arakan Army.
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 levy taxes, and otherwise policing behaviour. A culture of intimidation, especially towards non-Rakhine minorities and former or serving formal governance officials, is clear in some areas, such as Paletwa, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, and Mrauk U.
At the time of writing, there are 233 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Myanmar, with just two cases in Rakhine State, both in the south. The situation is dwarfed by Bangladesh, which reports a total of 52,445 cases and increasing, with 28 active cases in the Rohingya refugee camps bordering Myanmar. The threat of the virus, and the politics of the response, have implications for armed conflict and the humanitarian response in Rakhine State.
Elections continue to be expected to take place on 8 November. However, there is a growing realisation that restrictions in place for the prevention of COVID-19 will likely still be in place to some extent at the time of polling. As such, there is an expectation that much campaigning will move online. However, in Rakhine State and southern Chin State, both interest in and expectations for the elections are low.
While armed conflict in Myanmar 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 monsoon despite conditions – although sickness among troops was reportedly widespread.
For farmers, the start of the rainy season also is also the planting season for monsoon paddies. In some locations, such as Kyauk Tan village tract in Rathedaung, farmers displaced by armed conflict have begun returning to their villages to plant. As noted in more depth in the CASS Weekly Update 21 – 27 May, these farmers face a host of financial and security concerns not limited to debt and the risk of landmines.
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 repeatedly blocked market supply routes from Yangon, is 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.
Few openings in official travel permissions can be expected by international humanitarian agencies as long as armed clashes continue. The reduction in the number of clashes near civilian-heavy areas throughout May is to be welcomed, but there is also a need to reinforce advocacy with all actors. The heavy toll that this conflict continues to impart on civilians should continue to be of mammoth concern.