Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan:
May Update

3 June 2020

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.

Summary

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.

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Indicators

Rural Warfare: Fewer Civilian Casualties

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:

  • While any causation is 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. Notably, there were few cases of indiscriminate Tatmadaw fire into civilian areas documented during this month.
  • 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 pause in large Arakan Army operations.
  • Landmines/IEDs and shelling continue to claim most civilian casualties, although light cross fire is also of concern. Landmine incidents continue to occur in rural areas and affect communities seeking firewood, food, or cutting bamboo near hilly areas and near villages where armed groups have been present.1 Apparent deliberate shelling of civilian areas has continued, notable on 31 May when the Myanmar navy fired into villages in Rathedaung Township following the Arakan Army’s attack on the Thazin Myaing Border Guard Police post on 29 May.
  • On 11 May Tatmadaw troops fired into a residential area of urban Kyauktaw following a remote IED/landmine attack on their convoy, injuring five civilians. This was one of few incidents in urban areas during the month.

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.

  • On 4 May a fire destroyed four houses in Nga Tauk Du Chay (old village) and Nga Tauk Du Chay (new village) – just one mile north of the Rathedaung urban area. 
  • On 16 May, fire destroyed some 200 houses in Letkar village, Mrauk U Township. Media and influential Rakhine social media influencers have alleged that the Tatmadaw deliberately destroyed the houses and a middle school. Human Rights Watch this week called for an inquiry into the burning, which it suggested may constitute a war crime.
  • On 26 May, some 50 houses were destroyed in a fire in Mee Let Wa (lower) village, Paletwa Township.

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.

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Displacement

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.

  • OCHA notes an additional 4,000 people were displaced in Minbya Township in early May. 
  • Temporary displacement continues to follow security incidents near civilian areas. After the Myanmar navy fired on villages in Rathedaung in late May, villagers took temporary shelter in neighbouring locations before returning to the home villages.
  • Some displaced persons have returned to their places of origin to prepare for the monsoon paddy season.
  • The latest figures from civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress, dated 1 May, noted that 62,541 persons remained displaced in Rakhine State on 1 May, and that another 101,670 were also affected by conflict.

Humanitarian Access

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.

  • For international humanitarian responders, travel authorisations now require clearance from the Tatmadaw’s Western Command. This new requirement adds further time to the process of applications and also adds to the Tatmadaws control of humanitarian aid.
  • Informal local responders continue to face barriers to providing humanitarian assistance, including harassment by the military. 
  • These restrictions should be understood in the context of the Tatmadaw’s long standing ‘four cuts’ policy; 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.

Dialogue

Despite unilateral ceasefires on both sides and the threat of COVID-19, there has been little indication that armed parties will enter discussion.

  • On 3 May the Brotherhood Alliance – consisting of the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – extended their unilateral ceasefire for the fifth time, up to 31 May 2020. On 1 June the Brotherhood Alliance again extended their unilateral ceasefire to 31 August.  
  • On 9 May the Tatmadaw announced a unilateral ceasefire between 10 May and 31 August, ostensibly to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The ceasefire, however, excludes areas in which groups declared ‘terrorist organisations’  by the government (to include the Arakan Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) are ostensibly active. In practice this means that Rakhine and southern Chin states will be excluded from the ceasefire. 
  • As such, clashes have continued since. Both the Arakan Army and Myanmar security forces continue attacks on the other as armed conflict maintains a high intensity. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army also staged an attack on the Tatmadaw in Shan State on 31 May.
  • In a rare acknowledgement of guilt, a statement from the Tatmadaw’s Commander in Chief conceded that Tatmadaw soldiers used unlawful methods during the interrogation of five men accused of links to the Arakan Army after a video of the men being beaten went viral online. The men beaten in the video have been confirmed as among the 38 persons security forces arrested in Kyauk Seik village, Ponnagyun Township, on 19 April. Thirty-three of those detainees have since been released. While the Tatmadaw promised an investigation, there have been little updates to now, although the five detainees have been charged under Myanmar’s counter terror law.

Rohingya Communities

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.

  • Five Rohingya civilians were injured on 11 May when Tatmadaw troops reportedly fired into a residential area of urban Kyauktaw following a remote IED/landmine attack on their convoy. Independent media and ground sources contradicted a state media report that no one was injured in the attack.
  • On 12 May an unknown explosion killed two Rohingya children and injured another while they were searching for firewood and mangos near Thayet Pyin village, Buthidaung Township.
  • In Bangladesh, a group of Rohingya were taken to facilities on Bhasan Char island for quarantine after spending weeks at sea. An estimated 850 more people are believed to remain at sea after being refused entry to Malaysia and Bangladesh. While there is some speculation that the passengers boarded in Myanmar and seek to enter Bangladesh, sources familiar with smuggling networks in Rakhine State report that the boats did not leave Myanmar or pick up any passengers.

Southern Rakhine State

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.

  • An explosion occurred on 4 May after a Tatmadaw patrol left Ye Nan Dwein village, Kyaukphyu Township, likely intended to target the patrol. This incident follows an explosion in another Kyaukphyu village earlier this month, and the discovery of an explosive device in Kyaukphyu town’s General Administration Department compound in late April. 
  • The Tatmadaw reported that on 8 May the Arakan Army destroyed a temporary building used for road construction near Ku Lar Bar village on the Kyaukphyu-Yangon main road.
  • On 11 May three community leaders in southern Rakhine State’s Taungup Township were arrested on suspicions of affiliation with the Arakan Army and charged under section 52 (a) of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism law, and later in the month another man was also charged under the law in connection with the former charges. However, authorities have released few details of the case. The arrested include the Arakan National Party vice-chairperson for Taungup Township, and the chair and former chair of the Taungup development affairs committee. The arrests follow allegations by Taungup National League for Democracy members that Arakan National Party members are affiliated with Arakan Army associates who reportedly threatened to kill a member of the National League for Democracy party and abducted another man close to the party. Myanmar security forces quickly increased security following the developments.
  • In a seperate case in Taungup Township, on 5 May five persons, including the Arakan National Party chairperson for Sar Pyin village tract, were charged under section 52 (a) of the Counter-Terrorism law in relation to a bomb explosion near Ma Ei town. According to local media, the five men had been released from detention ‘just minutes’ earlier – having previously been arrested on 5 April on suspicions of association with the Arakan Army but released after the township court found insufficient evidence on 5 May.

Fragmentation of Conflict

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.

  • The Tatmadaw reported that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked Border Guard Police on 2 May during a patrol.
  • While increased Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activity has increased on both sides of the border this year, it cannot be guaranteed that all incidents reported by the Tatmadaw are attributable to the armed group. Many criminal gangs, not limited to the smuggling of drugs, operate on the porous border. 
  • Tatmadaw True News Team spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Htun warned that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army may be planning a large attack to coincide with Myanmar’s reporting to the International Court of Justice – due on or before 23 May. Rumours of attacks planned to coincide with Eid were similarly spread during the month, but eventuated to little. The festival coincided with Myanmar’s reporting to the International Court of Justice.
  • Observers this month suggested that the military has exaggerated the threat posed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to emphasise insecurity in Rakhine State. There have been few indications the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has become better resourced or positioned to execute any substantial attack in Rakhine. The concern for humanitarians should be any retaliation from the Tatmadaw towards Rohingya civilians should the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attempt any large-scale attack – however amateur.

Governance

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.

  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • On 1 May Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay stated the mobile internet lines would be reopened in one township of Rakhine State due to stabilized conditions there. On 2 May it became clear that mobile internet lines had been restored in Maungdaw Township, on the border of Bangladesh. On 21 June 2019 Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications directed telecommunication operators to disable mobile internet lines in eight townships of central and northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township of southern Chin State. On 31 August 2019 lines were permitted to open in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Myebon and Paletwa townships, but were disabled again on 3 February 2020.

COVID-19 Updates

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.

  • Informal border crossings into Rakhine State continued to be reported into late April. The government of Myanmar has deployed further Border Guard Police to guard the border as the virus has spread through Bangladesh.
  • Civil society leaders in Sittwe and other urban areas perceive a limited and insufficient response from Naypyidaw amid intensifying conflict and an ongoing internet blackout. Perceptions of a Yangon and Mandalay-focused response will only drive further discontent with the Naypyidaw government among communities in Rakhine State, with implications for armed conflict and electoral positioning.
  • The Arakan Army continues to use the border in the remote hills of Paletwa Township. There are also reports that the armed group has established quarantine centres in rural Rakhine State for those returning from elsewhere in Myanmar or abroad to their home villages.

Elections

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.

  • 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. 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.’

June: Looking Forward

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.