CASS Weekly Update

4 - 10 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

New displacement figures were released by civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress this week, noting that as of 8 June 59,643 people were in displacement sites in Rakhine State, and another 96,813 were also affected by conflict outside of formal displacement sites. Previous figures from the organisation, dated 1 May, noted that 62,541 persons were displaced on 1 May, and that an additional 101,670 were also affected by conflict. Most recent figures from the Rakhine State government report that as of 5 May, 69,975 people remained displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State. According to most recent reports from the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee for Chin IDPs, 10,072 people remain displaced in Paletwa Township. This is an increase of more than 3,600 people displaced in Paletwa Township since early March.

Displacement remains difficult to track – with discrepancies between sources and significant secondary and multiple displacements. That said, figures from the Rakhine Ethnics Congress in the table below suggest that in the past month displacement has reduced slightly since early May. This can be attributed for the most part to people returning to their villages as clashes reduce in their areas and as the monsoon paddy season approaches and preparation becomes necessary. For example, over 1,000 people left the Zay Di Pyin displacement site to return to their villages following reported negotiations with Rakhine State government authorities. This weekly below considers the situation of persons displaced from Paletwa to Sittwe in depth, while the challenges faced by farmers returning to their fields in northern Rathedaung Township was previously considered in the CASS Weekly Update 21 – 27 May.

 

Township

1 April

1 May

8 June

Ponnagyun

1,842

4,760

2,314

Kyauktaw

11,584

12,250

12,241

Mrauk U

16,415

17,027

17,193

Minbya

4,111

2,720

2,167

Pauktaw

410

698

598

Sittwe

3,454

3,548

3,895

Myebon

4,742

3,673

3,317

Ann

326

802

664

Rathedaung

8,732

8,486

8,248

Buthidaung

8,606

7,955

8,374

Maungdaw

622

622

632

Total

60,844

62,541

59,643

However while absolute numbers may be slightly reduced, many of those displaced continue to face serious concerns regarding shelter, especially those temporarily housed in schools.  Authorities have requested that displaced individuals sheltering in school buildings vacate before 15 June, before the school year begins in July. Regardless, authorities have announced that more than 100 schools in four townships of Rakhine State will not re-open for this school year due to ongoing armed conflict, while the Paletwa Township Education Officer has said that 207 teachers are being permitted to leave to seek jobs elsewhere in the country. Rakhine State lawmakers have opposed the notice to vacate schools and say the government should find the displaced persons adequate shelter if they are to be turned out.

The slight reduction in displacement is also in part due to the fact that the conflict itself has reduced in intensity over the last month, and away from civilian areas. This is most likely attributable to discussions within the Arakan Army about the utility of large attacks on the Tatmadaw which result in many civilian casualties, and also correlates with heightened international pressure and a reduction in Tatmadaw attacks on civilian areas. However, a reduction in conflict is not likely to remain indefinitely. Rumors indicate that large numbers of Tatmadaw reinforcements are being deployed to Sittwe. Moreover, armed conflict made a rare incursion into Sittwe Township early in the morning of 10 June, when a Tatmadaw navy ship reportedly shelled Ah Myint Kyun village, which lies at the border of Ponnagyun Township, killing one and injuring three civilians. Tatmadaw abuses were also reported in Kyauktaw Township’s Ah Pauk Wa village this week. The current lull in the conflict is by no means guaranteed to continue.

CASS-Weekly-Update-4-–-10-June-2020_WebMap-scaled.jpg

1. Paletwa to Sittwe: Displaced Families Seek Monastic Support

Sittwe, central Rakhine State

Eighty-seven displaced persons from southern Chin State are currently sheltering at the Zee Taw monastery, near Yae Shan Pyin village in rural Sittwe Township. Originally from Hna Ma Dar, Seint Sin Wa and Kyet U Wa villages in Paletwa Township, the IDPs are among the more than 10,000 people from Paletwa Township now displaced. The families made a collective decision to move to the Zee Taw monastery, citing overcrowded displacement sites in urban Kyauktaw and Paletwa, and little food and humanitarian assistance in Paletwa Township. Furthermore, the displaced persons were familiar with the monks at this monastery, illustrating how networks of trust can influence displacement patterns. The displaced persons were forced to leave their villages without any possessions, and say that houses in Kyet U Wa and Hna Ma Dar villages were destroyed by fires sparked by artillery shells and that shops in Hna Ma Dar village’s market were looted.

Support needed: The IDPs have now been sheltering at Zee Taw monastery for three months. The IDP community there faces difficulties regarding drinking water, sanitation and health care. There has been some support from international and local humanitarian responders, but needs remain. WASH programming is required from humanitarian organizations to establish functioning latrines, and clean drinking water and healthcare is also required for children and older persons. Displaced persons at the monastery practice open defecation nearby the shelters which may lead to serious health problems, while residents rely on just one well for drinking and bathing. Diarrhea cases found last month among children were attributed to the low-quality drinking water. Furthermore, the site lies on the edge of a river and displaced persons fear flooding as the rainy season gets underway. While some national and international agencies have provided COVID-19 awareness sessions, there remains little facilities to prevent the virus’ spread, as illustrated by the rudimentary handwashing station pictured in this Weekly Update. The IDPs are hoping to return back to their villages to cultivate their farmland and plantations in the monsoon season, but fear return remains impossible amid ongoing armed clashes. Safely concerns in active or latent conflict zones, a loss of crops and livestock, and disruption to agricultural patterns and supply chains are among the most serious barriers to returns. These needs and concerns, of course, are not limited to this displacement site. Humanitarian agencies should reach out to displacement sites through monastic actors and camp leaders to support these needs. Operating within Sittwe Township is likely to mean few formal access restrictions. Finally, the networks with monastic leaders and the response from religious institutions cannot be overlooked. This is a key aspect of the humanitarian response in western Myanmar. Humanitarian agencies would do well to reach out to religious leaders, who continue to offer relief and sanctuary for conflict-affected populations. Engaging religious leaders should be an iterative process, and should begin with the identification of key stakeholders involved in response activities. Agencies should designate experienced staff to act as counterparts for engagement with monastic leaders. Future CASS papers will detail more practical approaches for engaging religious leaders.

A rudimentary hand washing station at an IDP site in rural Sittwe Township, Rakhine State, illustrates the challenges to preventing a COVID-19 outbreak during a civil war. The signboard reads ‘Please wash your hands if entering. Thank you’. Image credit: Maung Than Htay, June 2020.

2. Border no Barrier for COVID-19

Maungdaw, northern Rakhine State

On 4 June, the first case of COVID-19 in northern Rakhine State was confirmed, among a Rohingya man who had recently returned from Bangladesh with his family through informal channels. Although the repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar is now temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, the Maungdaw District Administrator admits that informal returns do continue. The family of five entered Myanmar on 30 May and stayed in U Shey Kya village (near the Nga Ku Ra reception centre) for a night before being taken to quarantine at the Hla Pho Kaung reception centre. That village has now been put in an informal lockdown enforced by the Border Guard Police. A second returnee, a 25 year old Hindu man formerly working in Bangladesh, was found to be carrying the virus on 8 June. He reportedly stayed overnight in Kyein Chaung village, Maungdaw Township, before being taken to quarantine. In total, at least 17 persons are reported to have entered Myanmar informally since the end of April. The continued use of the border by armed groups also reflects the fact that the border remains very porous.

Responsibilities to protect: The potential for the COVID-19 virus to spread further in Rakhine State carries considerable health risks. However, the virus’ identification and measures to contain it prompt additional considerations for humanitarian responders.  First, the lockdown in the village prompts significant protection concerns. The Border Guard Police have been implicated in numerous abuses against the Rohingya in recent years, including during the 2016 and 2017 ‘clearance operations’ which led to the exodus of more than 740,000 Rohingya. VIllagers in U Shey Kya village are now prevented from leaving their homes or the village. This will likely have significant impacts for farmers, who are now preparing to plant monsoon paddy. A failure to plant this season will have ramifications for food security for years, meaning difficulties in the repayment of agricultural loans and an inability to plant the following year – with follow-on impacts for education and livelihoods. Second, while there has been online hate speech targeted at the Rohingya following the identification of the virus, this has mostly come from Facebook users outside of Rakhine. Rakhine Facebook users and influential profiles have for the most part aimed their discontent at authorities and Border Guard Police. Some allege that officials are taking bribes of 500,000 Myanmar Kyat (approximately 350 USD) to allow ‘Bengalis’ into the country. This reflects the current conflict dynamics in the state, and the current emphasis on Rakhine’s ‘vertical conflict’, over its ‘horizontal’ one. This narrative falls quite neatly into the widespread perception that Naypyidaw has done little to prevent COVID-19 reaching ethnic minority areas. This also has political and social implications regarding both the conflict and electoral politics. It should be kept in mind that dynamics in the state can shift quickly, and further stigmatization of the Rohingya is a risk if the virus spreads further. Finally, as the virus continues to spread in Bangladesh and concerns of further instability in the camps there intensify, greater numbers of informal returns to Myanmar may be expected. While these have not yet eventuated, agencies with links to government should assist in planning to receive and quarantine returnees, and ensure sufficient food and non-food items can be provided.

3. People Smuggling in a Pandemic

Various Locations

On 8 June a boat carrying some 260 Rohingya refugees arrived on Malaysia’s tourist destination Langkawi island. The boat is believed to have left camps in Bangladesh at least two months ago, and was repeatedly pushed away from both Bangladesh and Malaysia authorities, who cited COVID-19 concerns. Malaysian sea patrols reportedly sought to push the boat back into international waters again this week, but were forced to allow it to make landing after a number of passengers jumped overboard and the boat’s engine was damaged. Separately, Malaysia is reportedly seeking to deport some 3,000 Myanmar migrants who have been detained for immigration violations. Meanwhile, authorities in Min Hla, Magwe Region have arrested two Rohingya men travelling without permissions, but say they will not press charges. Authorities will reportedly send the men back to their place of origin – reportedly in Sittwe Township. On the other side of the country, a group of up to 100 underage Rohingya youth are allegedly being detained by people traffickers on the Thai-Burma border, after their travel plans were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brokers are repeatedly extorting money from the families of the children by violently beating the children on telephone calls with parents.

Most vulnerable affected: The incident is a reflection of how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable populations. In normal times, persecution under the law means that most Rohingya are unable to travel far from their home without required, and difficult to obtain, paperwork. Those who travel outside of Rakhine State were previously imprisoned, but in recent months authorities have instead sent detained persons back to their places of origin in Rakhine State. The change is likely due to fears of the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and detention centres and a result of international pressure, particularly the ongoing case at the International Court of Justice. While most travel by water and overland is currently on hold due to COVID-19, the slow exodus of Rohingya out of Rakhine State (mapped in this previous CASS Weekly Update) is likely to continue, bolstered by violent persecution, armed conflict and intense restrictions on movement and access to education, healthcare and livelihoods. Illustrating the insecurity that many Rohingya are fleeing, this week the Tatmadaw’s mouthpiece, Myawady news, reported that on 1 June three Rohingya men in Buthidaung were reportedly fired upon by an unknown group, killing one. Local sources confirmed a man had been killed by gunfire.

4. Arrests, Violence, Fear, and Rumours Shape Conflict Dynamics

Southern Rakhine State

Southern Rakhine State has – perhaps inevitably – become visibly involved in the war which has engulfed the central and northern parts of the state, and instability is compounded by contentious party politics ahead of the expected November 2020 general elections. The Tatmadaw has now arrested numerous civilians and Arakan National Party officials and supporters on suspicion of affiliation with the Arakan Army, and the Arakan Army has allegedly attempted abductions of some local civilians, ex-Tatmadaw personnel and National League for Democracy members in Toungup, Kyaukpyu and Ramree townships. Adding to the already complex situation, a new mysterious and controversial armed youth organisation, the ‘National Security Organisation’ has gained centre stage in southern Rakhine State after claiming to have abducted and murdered a member of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement group the Arakan Liberation Party. While the National Security Organisation’s affiliations remain unclear, its statements have mostly targeted local National League for Democracy members and the Arakan Army. There is little public commentary regarding the group from active social media influencers in central and northern Rakhine State – likely due to the remaining unknowns and rumours that the group is backed by the Tatmadaw. There are key contextual elements of this multifaceted conflict that humanitarians should understand.

Southern Rakhine tribulations:  The conflict dynamics in southern Rakhine are less clear-cut than in central and northern Rakhine. Southern Rakhine has complex divisions within its own population and with Rakhine ethnic populations from the centre and north of the state. Electoral loyalties in the south of the state are varying and evolving. As a result, communities further north suspect that those in the south lack the strong ethno-nationalism that they treasure. MaBaTha leaders in southern Rakhine State have more connections with Buddhist nationalist groups in lower Myanmar than they do with those in central and northern Rakhine State. Complicating dynamics, the burgeoning tourism industry in southern Rakhine State has also brought influxes of workers from both central Myanmar and northern Rakhine State. Rakhine populations in southern Rakhine State are furthermore discontent with the negative image projected onto them following the 2012 intercommunal conflict. However, this cannot be separated from a phenomenon felt across Rakhine State: that the government’s policy of preventing Muslims from travelling outside of Rakhine State is a tool to suppress the ethnic Rakhine. Few steps towards decentralising control of natural resources since 2011 has also bolstered resource nationalism in the south. As such, both religious and resource nationalism in southern Rakhine State are increasingly related to a discontent with the central government. While support for the Arakan Army is far less visible in southern Rakhine State, local sources report a growing presence of – and support to – the group. While it has been assumed that elections would be possible in southern Rakhine State later this year, the recent instability suggests a more complicated picture. Divisive campaigns are increasingly expected, raising the risks of violence, arrest and even war. Organisations with an expertise in conflict mitigation, social cohesion, hate speech monitoring, election monitoring and justice services should keep southern Rakhine State on their radar. These dynamics will be explored in an upcoming CASS thematic paper regarding Information Ecosystems among Muslim communites in southern Rakhine State.

5. VTA Resignations Threaten Governance

Myebon, central Rakhine State

Local news outlet Narinjara reported this week that on 5 June, almost every administrator in Myebon Township – 62 out of a total of 68 administrators from nine urban wards and 59 village tracts – submitted letters of resignation at the township administration office, citing fear and the threat of arbitrary arrest by the Myanmar military. This follows the detention of three of their colleagues accused of ties to the Arakan Army. Two of the administrators have been charged under the Counter Terrorism law. Myanmar military and police arrested Ywar Thit Kay ward administrator U Kyaw Myint and A Ngu village tract administrator U Maung Zaw on 30 May and charged them under articles 50 and 52 of the Counter Terrorism law on the following day. They are accused of association with the Arakan Army, although that armed group has denied any links. Additionally, according to DMG news the ward administrator from urban Myebon’s North Ward was arrested on 3 June. He is now detained and reportedly under interrogation by military intelligence. Civilian administrators face serious pressures, and have been abducted by both the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw who hold suspicions on connections to their military foe. Many administrators have been arrested and interrogated under these accusations. These threats to resign fit into what is now an established pattern of protest in Rakhine State.  In 2019, blocs of ward and village administrators tried to resign in Minbya, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung and Mrauk-U townships, but authorities did not accept the resignations. In Myebon, the township’s decision remains unknown, while family members and local administrators have requested the immediate release of the arrested administrators. A lawmaker from Myebon Township this week also expressed his concerns that administrative mechanisms may collapse if this issue is prolonged.

Undermining administrative mechanisms: There are two main factors driving recent developments. Firstly, ward and village tract administrators are simply anxious of possible arrest. They are increasingly unable to perform their essential administrative functions while facing pressures from different armed actors and under constant fear of detention. As the interface of their communities, they must deal with armed forces and government authorities to represent the interests of their communities and perform basic administrative functions. The second important factor is that of the Tatmadaw’s security concerns. This has clear impacts for communities, local administrations and the humanitarian response. It is important to note that authorities have increased their use of counter terrorism law against community leaders and local administrators in the region. This reflects the indirect impact of civil war on existing complex political dynamics. This trend can be expected to continue and even escalate following the government’s official designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization. In addition, these security approaches are likely to continue regardless of the presence or absence of armed clashes in the area. These security concerns also result in further restrictions on humanitarian access, as noted in more in depth in the CASS Weekly Update 21 – 27 May 2020. According to local sources, although communities hold concerns regarding the impact to security and administrative mechanisms, the resignations of administrators may not have mammoth impacts to the implementation of humanitarian programmes because religious and community leaders can fill gaps. Regardless, humanitarian response actors should recognize the important role and responsibilities of ward and village tract administrators. Risk assessments and mitigation measures will help to ensure that  programmes do not endanger administrators in conflict areas. In recognising the risks and possible arrests that administrators might face, agencies should build networks with other community and religious leaders who can provide further support for programmes and communities. A CASS paper due for publication later this month will consider in more depth the dynamics around engaging administrators under conflict pressures.

6. Tatmadaw-ARSA Border Clashes

Maungdaw, northern Rakhine State

On 4 June in Maungdaw Township, Border Guard Police clashed with members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, with casualties reported by both sides. The clash reportedly occurred near Mee Taik village, in Maungdaw township, near the Taung Pyo Let Wae reception centre and the border with Bangladesh. Two Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army combatants were reportedly killed, and two border police were wounded.

ARSA returns?  Ultimately, while clashes with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army are a worrying sign, there are not yet indications that security forces intend to target Rohingya civilians in response. The clashes near Mee Taik mark the first clashes with the group since early May, and thus may point to a resurgence of this particular conflict in northern Rakhine State. Naturally an escalation could rapidly translate into further restrictions, or forced displacements, for the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine State, as attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army sparked the anti-Rohingya military operations of 2016 and 2017.  However, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army remains for the most part a marginal group. It has limited military capacity, limited support within Rakhine State, and is primarily a factor on the Bangladesh side of the border. As such, clashes, for now, are likely to remain of low intensity, especially given rumours that a high-ranking Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army commander was killed in the clash this week.

Other Developments

Some Rakhine State-based ethnic Chin civil society organisations have spoken out about the impact of armed conflict on Chin communities in Rakhine State. The Chin University Students in Rakhine State (CUSR) and Chin Women Organisations Network have exposed the death of a 48-year old Chin ethnic woman from Minbya Township who were detained, along with three other Chin ethnic males, by the Arakan Army from 3 May to 1 June. Separately, a Chin ethnic man from Ann township was shot dead allegedly by the Tatmadaw troops on 20 May when leaving a village blockaded by the Tatmadaw. In general, Chin communities in Rakhine State are highly vulnerable to both Tatmadaw and Arakan Army troops in terms of forced portering and forced informing, or suspicions of volunteering for either task for the enemy. There is little room for them to speak out about these abuses. The civil society organisations have also reported that proximity to armed clashes and shelling continues to result in restricted waterways routes and resultant food shortages, as considered in last week’s CASS Weekly Update. The exchange of hate speech between Rakhine and Chin ethnic social media users in response to these statements indicate that trust and social cohesion between the two communities is increasingly impacted by the ongoing war in Rakhine State.

On June 3, the Tatmadaw and a Border Guard Force attacked the Nationwide Ceasefire Signatory the Restoration Council of the Shan State with heavy weapons in Pongpakam sub-township of Mongton township in eastern Shan State. In addition, on June 4, local news reported that fighting between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Tatmadaw continued in northern Shan State, despite the extension of unilateral ceasefire agreements by both the Brotherhood Alliance and the Tatmadaw. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army claimed that the Tatmadaw attacked them with artillery fire. Despite repeated extensions of unilateral ceasefire agreement by the Tatmadaw and EAOs, fighting has been continuing frequently in Shan State

Community leaders from Kyaukphyu’s Kyauk Ta Lone IDP camp this week took to Zoom to present a press conference on the camp closure process. The camp residents reiterated their opposition to the proposed resettlement site, and urged the government to follow the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission and the policies laid out in the government’s own camp closure plan.

Naypyidaw’s Directorate of Communications has issued a reminder regarding new measures for the mandatory registration of SIM cards. Each individual is only be allowed to register a maximum of two cards to their name, and excess cards will reportedly be deactivated on 1 July.

Finally, an online campaign has been launched this week to encourage people to consider the use of the term kalar. The term, often used to refer to Muslims or to people of southasian descent, is increasingly seen as derogatory. The campaign has been welcomed by some who have shared their stories of abuse online, while others have pushed back and refer to the term’s long history in Myanmar and its function in many apparently benign compound terms.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • The potential for the spread of COVID-19 in northern Rakhine State needs to be closely monitored. Further spread may fuel vertical and horizontal tensions, while prevention measures will have adverse impacts on agriculture and livelihoods.
  • A new report from Crisis Group looks at Rakhine State’s ‘Inevitable War’, finding little indication of de-escalation in the medium term. The report finds that the war is a major threat to peaceful 2020 elections in many areas of the state, and that the elections are more likely to be a flashpoint followed by even greater confrontation. Recognising neither side can win a military contest, the report encourages Naypyidaw to change its approach to Rakhine State’s intimately linked crises.