CASS Weekly Update

25 June - 1 July 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

Following a lull in armed conflict over the previous two months, clashes escalated significantly this week as the Tatmadaw launched ‘clearance operations’ against the Arakan Army in Rathedaung Township. The village tracts of northern Rathedaung Township represent one of the Arakan Army’s most secure strongholds, and the group have launched numerous attacks on nearby Border Guard Police posts in recent months. The Tatmadaw is now hitting back.

Operations began when on 23 June the military-appointed Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister Colonel Min Than released a notice to the Rathedaung Township Committee to request villagers in “Kyauk Tan village and surrounds” to vacate the area before planned Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’. The Township Administrator released his own notice on 24 June and contacted village administrators to request them to vacate villages. In total, 43 villages, thought to be home to some 30,000 people, were reportedly contacted and told to leave.

The backlash was swift. One Rakhine State parliamentarian immediately raised the spectre of possible genocide against the Rakhine people. Local civil society group Rakhine Ethnics Congress demanded the Tatmadaw withdraw the notice, while international pressure was also quickly applied. A joint statement from four western embassies was followed by a Tweet from the EU ambassador to Myanmar, a statement from the UN and another statement later from 19 INGOs.

The revocation of the order was confirmed on the morning of 28 June. Regardless, Tatmadaw operations have continued in Rathedaung Township. Up to the time of writing, shelling into Kyauk Tan village continued from Myanmar navy vessels on the Mayu river and fixed Tatmadaw positions near urban Rathedaung. Tatmadaw forces have entered the Kyauk Tan area – now devoid of civilians – and clashed with Arakan Army troops there.

It is also clear that the military operations are not limited to Kyauk Tan village tract. Tatmadaw troops have launched inspections of IDP sites in urban Rathedaung and southern Rathedaung, and detained dozens of civilians in a school in Kyein Thar village, east Rathedaung, following the Arakan Army’s capture of three sons of Tatmadaw soldiers and an Isreali-produced drone. The entire Kyein Thar village remains displaced, mostly in nearby villages. Operations also escalated in Ann Township, where local Tatmadaw troops verbally ordered the evacuation of one village, forcing the displacement of some 500 people in anticipation of clashes. This followed shelling into a nearby village in Ann Township which reportedly killed two civilians.

Total displacement remains difficult to assess, but is lower than initially reported by the media and remains unlikely to reach 30,000. OCHA has reported that some 1,500 people have fled the Kyauk Tan area to downtown Rathedaung while another 1,300 fled into Buthidaung, Sittwe and Ponnagyun townships. Reports of IDPs arriving in the Sittwe urban area continue to emerge. At least 400 people now have arrived in Sittwe (video). Other reports indicate that around 2,400 people, Rakhine and Rohingya, have fled the Kyauk Tan area north into southern Buthidaung Township. Initial reports of tens of thousands displaced emerged from the widespread confusion among administrators about which villages exactly were included in the order, while coordination was hampered by the absence of many village administrators after mass resignations in 2019. Additionally, Kyauk Tan village itself was almost entirely empty before the notice was released. Villagers have been repeatedly displaced from Kyauk Tan since the Tatmadaw shot and killed six villagers there in May 2019 after brutal interrogations. The CASS Weekly Update has previously reported that 500 civilians who returned to Kyauk Tan to prepare to plant monsoon paddy since March this year were again displaced by Tatmadaw operations in early June. New displacement is additional to the figure of 77,253 armed conflict generated IDPs as of 21 June in Rakhine and southern Chin states, as shared by the Rakhine State Government and humanitarian partners.

Additionally, up to 10,000 people are now believed to have been displaced to nearby villages in southern Rathedaung Township after the Tatmadaw entered the area in the evening of 29 June and clashed with the Arakan Army. Tatmadaw troops have camped nearby a Rohingya village there, raising concerns of abuses as clashes with the Arakan Army have ensued. Rohingya villagers face massive difficulties fleeing southern Rathedaung due to movement restrictions and hostility in nearby towns and villages. Similarly, Rakhine IDPs seeking to reach Rathedaung town have been blocked by a Tatmadaw and Navy presence.

For humanitarian responders the most immediate needs among IDPs are food and shelter. Access remains limited due to restrictions, ongoing armed clashes and security forces presence. Many local CSO and religious groups are responding to immediate needs in village displacement sites, and support to these organisations is needed. Additional IDPs can be expected to arrive in both Rathedaung and Sittwe urban areas. Meanwhile, agencies should also consider the longer term impacts to food and financial security.

1. ‘Clearance Operations’ and International Reputation

Rathedaung Township

Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’ against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in 2016 and 2017 involved massacres of civilians, sexual violence, mass displacement into Bangladesh and eventual accusations of genocide. Since then, the term ‘clearance operations’ has carried deepy negative connotations for national and international communities, although such operations have been practiced against borderland communities in Kachin, Kayin and other states for decades. After significant national and international pushback following the release of the 23 June notice to evacuate villages, Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister Colonal Min Than offered two explanations for the debacle. The first was that the order was only directed at four or five villages around the Kyauk Tan village tract and that the Township Administrator had misunderstood the notice. The second was that the international community had misunderstood the term ‘clearance operations’. The latter is a common refrain. Addressing the International Court of Justice in December 2019, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi similarly downplayed the impact of such operations on civilians and said the term ‘clearance operations’ had been ‘distorted’ and “simply means to clear an area of insurgents or terrorists”. The security minister, however, made it clear over the weekend that civilians will be impacted by these operations, telling the media that “those who remain will be those who are loyal to the AA”.

Four cuts:  As noted by observer Richard Horsey, the international community’s understanding of ‘clearance operations’ is informed by decades of the Tatmadaw targeting civilians. In December 2019 at the International Court of Justice, Myanmar’s legal team appeared to endorse the same idea, noting that ‘clearance operations’ were first used by the Tatmadaw against the Burmese Communist Party in the 1950s. The operations are key to the Tatmadaw’s ‘four cuts’ policy – to starve insurgents of foods, funds, intelligence and recruits by severing their links with civilians. The security minister’s response can be understood as back-tracking. Claims that the Township Administrator misunderstood his notice are unstable grounds, as the Township Administrator’s notice used the exact same wording as his original notice. The president’s office has now requested the Tatmadaw to refrain from using the term ‘clearance operations’. While Tatmadaw operations this week continue to have devastating impacts for civilians, the evidence from this week suggests that international pressure does influence Tatmadaw operations and may have mitigated the impact of armed conflict on civilians.

The maps below illustrate the relative lull in active clashes through most of June up to the Rathedaung offensive this week. While there was a decrease in the instance of active clashes, they did continue to occur most prominently in the Rathedaung-Buthidaung border and in Ann Township, while isolated incidents also occurred in other townships. The second map illustrates just how widespread security incidents throughout Rakhine and southern Chin States have been this year to date.

2. Rathedaung Crisis Reverberates South

Sittwe Township

Tatmadaw offensives against the Arakan Army in Rathedaung Township this week added further fuel to the conflict flames in townships further south. In Sittwe Township a Tatmadaw convoy was attacked by IEDs near Yae Chan Pyin village on 27 June. This was followed by Tatmadaw searches of nearby villages and unconfirmed reports of shelling. On the evening of 29 June, a police officer was stabbed to death in Sittwe town. In Kyauk Phyu Township, around 100 people fled a village after Tatmadaw troops made arrests in their village and gun fire was heard. Meanwhile in Taungup Township four men were killed by an explosion, thought to have occurred when they were planting a mine.

Destabilising presence: Sittwe Township has rarely been affected by armed clashes, yet such instances can be expected to continue as the conflict escalates before the nationwide elections still expected for November. Sittwe – the state’s capital – remains an obvious target for the Arakan Army, but its geography makes it difficult to penetrate. As such, the Arakan Army will have to change its fighting modality. A spike in targeted killings of police and civil servants in urban areas throughout June suggests that this change is already underway. In many urban areas of central Rakhine State, police are now afraid to operate – and the Arakan Army is increasingly filling this space by dealing with everyday crime and other social issues. While the Arakan Army will not be able to take these urban areas through military means, it can make these towns increasingly ungovernable and eventually force authorities’ hands. While security incidents have increased in Sittwe Township, there remains no suggestion that humanitarian actors are targets in this conflict. Rather, the greatest risk is of being in the wrong time at the wrong place, and agencies should ensure all staff and contractors are trained in how to manage those situations. Communication should be constant between field teams and designated office staff, and communities should also be engaged in training in personal safety in conflict contexts.

3. Rohingya IDPs: Little Hope of Return

Hpon Nyo Leik village, Buthidaung Township

More than 2,000 Rohingya have been displaced in Hpon Nyo Leik and nearby villages in southern Buthidaung Township for approximately eight months. With severe restrictions on their ability to move, the IDPs continue to face a host of challenges, despite hailing from villages only kilometers away. The Tatmadaw and Border Guard Police checkpoint at the bridge near Hpon Nyo Leik is the first of six checkpoints that communities must pass to access Buthidaung town. This checkpoint inspects all vehicles and requests documents to allow movement – effectively restricting access for Rohingya Muslims to Buthidaung town or other Rohingya villages. The checkpoint also restricts the transportation of rice and other food – part of the Tatmadaw’s strategy to starve Arakan Army insurgents in the area of food. Most Rohingya communities there rely on the mountains for their livelihoods, where they collect bamboo and firewood. However, the war has impacted livelihoods significantly. In January this year four students were killed and five others were seriously injured by an explosion when they were walking to a mountain to collect firewood. Other villagers rely on paddy farming or fishing, but are now limited their access to fields and rivers due to concerns of troop movement, mines and clashes.

Nowhere to run: The IDP and host community in Hpon Nyo Leik and nearby faces difficulties regarding food shortages, movement, healthcare and a lack of humanitarian assistance. In particular, access to health care – restricted for decades in Rakhine State – has become increasingly difficult as a result of further restrictions on movement amid armed clashes. The IDPs are hoping to return to their villages to cultivate their farmland and plantations in the monsoon season, but fear return remains impossible amid ongoing armed clashes and a Tatmadaw base at Thoe Si Tarpon ancient pagoda near their village. Almost constant shelling and regular troop movements from both the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army have raised security concerns, and some families have built new homes near relatives in nearby villages. Unlike other communities, the Rohingya community are largely unable to relocate due to movement restrictions and hostility in Buthidaung town. In the immediate, food and shelter needs are most important. Humanitarian agencies should reach out to the Township General Administration Department and local Tatmadaw operations officers to negotiate access to these areas. While access is likely to remain limited due to ongoing conflict and tight government policies, agencies should reach out to authorities through designated experienced staff who act as counterparts for engagement with local government and armed forces.

4. Growing Tensions Risk Larger Conflict

Kutkai Township, Northern Shan State

June 2020 saw the resurgence of frequent armed clashes between armed actors in Kutkai Township, Northern Shan State. The Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw reportedly have clashed at least four times in Kutkai Township this month, and twice in neighbouring Muse Township. In comparison, only one armed clash was reported between the two parties in Kutkai from May 2019 to May 2020. These clashes are linked with the tensions between the Tatmadaw and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army – a Brotherhood Alliance member together with the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. The Brotherhood Alliance member groups are also part of the four-member Northern Alliance together with the Kachin Independence Army. Despite the fact that both the Brotherhood Alliance and the Tatmadaw have announced the extension of unilateral ceasefires up to the end of August, the Tatmadaw and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have been exchanging military assaults in several townships of Northern Shan State including Kutkai and Muse townships consistently. Tatmadaw reinforcement for operations against the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Kutkai and Muse townships have exposed them to Kachin Independence Army troops based in the area and prompted the recent clashes. Since late March 2020, tensions have increased between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army/Organisation after the Tatmadaw threatened to attack Kachin Independence Army headquarters if they continued to host Arakan Army troops.

Trouble brewing: The current conflict in Kutkai Township, if not well handled, may grow into a larger, fragmented conflict, possibly expanding into Kachin State and other townships in Northern Shan State. This will have significant humanitarian consequences as well as dire political ramifications. Three contextual elements need to be closely monitored. First, there has been increased tension between the Restoration Council of Shan State and the loose alliance of the Shan State Progressive Party, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The Restoration Council of Shan State is a nationwide ceasefire signatory and has cooperated with the Tatmadaw in several military assaults against other ethnic armed groups, while the latter loose alliance functions to counterbalance the Restoration Council of Shan State’s perceived expansionism. Second, it is also possible that the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army – which share membership in the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee with other non-nationwide ceasefire signatory groups – will become involved in this imbroglio. Third, it is also important to note that there are a multitude of militia groups and Border Guard Forces in Kutkai and other townships of Northern Shan. Many of them are formal allies of the Tatmadaw, but have strong ethnic, economic and informal ties with different armed ethnic groups that are not friendly with the Tatmadaw. These groups may be absorbed into different sides if the conflict escalates. To avoid a spiral of escalation, the Myanmar Government and the Tatmadaw needs to carefully address the root of the issue: the Tatmadaw–Brotherhood Alliance tension. That is the immediate blockage to deescalation in Myanmar’s eastern and northern borderlands, and the continued absence of the alliance from peace negotiations is undermining both the ‘nationwide’ and ‘ceasefire’ aspects of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Humanitarian actors should closely monitor the context and ensure capacity is available to scale up response activities through local partners. A localised response will be more effective, efficient and resilient in this highly sensitive context. Traditional local response actors possess sophisticated local knowledge, and can make use of well-established political and social networks to implement practical and sensitive responses.

5. Little Domestic Sympathy for Rohingya

Online

COVID-19 restrictions on movement and gatherings, together with xenophobic paranoia of Rohingya potentially carrying the coronavirus, have temporarily halted the smuggling of Rohingya from central Rakhine State and Bangladesh. However, Rohingya already en route  are now facing severe difficulties. Some have been stranded on the way, arrested by authorities or detained by traffickers now asking for substantial additional payments from family members. For instance, on 24 June 94 Rohingya (including 30 children) were finally rescued by communities near the coast of Aceh province, Indonesia, after three to four months of travel at sea with severe shortages of water and food. Indonesia authorities initially attempted to push the Rohingya refugees back out to sea, citing COVID-19 concerns, but were confronted by local communities who protested and took the Rohingya to shore against the authorities’ will. Aceh communities have previously welcomed Rohingya refugees, notably during the southeast Asian migrant crisis in 2015, and were reportedly searching for the most recent boat for months. Tides often pick up boats adrift in the Andaman sea and take them to the coast of Aceh. In Myanmar meanwhile, a group of 16 smuggled Rohingyas were arrested in Ayeyarwady Region on 23 June when the group, having entered the region by boat, was found sheltering in a hut after their travel plans were disrupted by COVID-19. Local people in the area are worried about the risk of them carrying and spreading the virus in their area. While there has been some sympathy for the Rohingya impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, as in Indonesia, most reactions in Myanmar remain plagued with fear and prejudice.

Sympathy scarcity: A glance at the widespread online media disparagement of the Rohingya illustrates that Myanmar’s domestic social and political climate remains largely unfriendly to the minority, despite considerable media coverage of their suffering. In a sea of nationalist rhetoric and blame-shifting, the small number of social media users who dare to express pity for the plight of the Rohingya face a wave of hate speech. Mostly-Rakhine Facebook users have alleged that successive Naypyidaw governments left a ticking time-bomb by locking Rohingya in Rakhine State and prohibiting any travel for decades. At another end of the spectrum, other voices in opposition to the National League for Democracy government have taken aim at the government’s softening of policies in recent months. Indeed, the government is no longer jailing Rohingya for ‘illegal travel’ but rather are immediately deporting them back to Rakhine State. While the government contends that the policy is aimed at minimising prison crowding during the COVID-19 pandemic, others suggest the change in policy is related to mandatory reporting to the International Court of Justice. No doubt a friendlier online culture may foster more sympathetic voices for the Rohingya. Agencies with experience and expertise in social cohesion and social media should invest in engaging youth and community leaders in constructive online initiatives to combat hate speech and foster online spaces welcome to a diversity of opinions. At the same time, online spaces are a reflection of offline attitudes. Online programming can only ever be successful if paired with effective offline peacebuilding programmes. Meanwhile, embassies and international representatives should continue to advocate for the government to loosen movement restrictions for Muslims in Rakhine State and to provide citizenship documents to support equal treatment under the law.

6. Activists Charged for Internet Shutdown Protests

Southern Rakhine State and Yangon

Authorities have filed charges against three activists from Southern Rakhine State and five others in Yangon under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law after protests against the year-long internet shutdown in nine townships of Rakhine and southern Chin states. Many people joined virtual protests on 21 June, posting photos of themselves wearing t-shirts saying, ‘Oppose Internet Oppression’. On 25 June, a court in Ramree Township fined a leading member of the Ramree Township Youth Network 20,000 Myanmar Kyat for organizing the protest without notifying local authorities in advance. Two other activists from Kyauk Phyu town, members of the Arakan National Party youth affairs committee, also face charges resulting from social media posts protesting the shutdown. Finally, police have charged five activists from Yangon-based Athan, a freedom of expression advocacy group, under the same accusation. They hung banners with the text,“You cut internet access because you don’t want us to know you’re committing war crimes and arbitrary killings?” over a pedestrian overpass in downtown Yangon on 21 June.

Oppression of expression?:  Freedom of expression remains limited under the civilian government. The charges under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law against online protesters raised criticisms from activists who expressed their concerns of repressed expression under the civilian government. Activists have criticized the current charges as a violation of freedom of expression in contravention of democatic standards. More broadly, the charges reflect a trend of authorities arbitrarily using the law to restrict freedom of expression. In apparent contradiction to the charges, the chief of the Myanmar Police Force told DVB news on 27 June that online virtual protests are not a violation of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. But this may reflect how arbitrarily the law is being used. A recent report from Athan showed that there are at least 539 cases against 1,501 individuals under a number of laws and provisions counter to freedom of expression. Activists from Yangon and Kyauk Phyu are yet to be sentenced, and punishment could be up to 3 months imprisonment, a fine, or both.

Other developments

The Union Election Commission has announced changes to electoral boundaries ahead of general elections still expected for November. Changes include the merging of the previously separate Maungdaw and Buthidaung upper house constituencies into one single constituency, a blow for ethnic Rakhine parties who traditionally dominate the centre and north of the state. Communities and observers alike, however, continue to suggest that polls will be impossible in central and northern Rakhine State due to ongoing armed conflict.

With pressure bearing down over ‘clearance operations’ in Rakhine State, the Tatmadaw announced that court martial proceedings against three military personnel for their role in a 2017 massacre of Rohingya Muslims were complete with unspecified punishments handed down. Responders should remain skeptical of the Tatmadaw’s ability to investigate itself – low level troops are repeatedly scapegoated for abuses tolerated at all levels. Even those who are punished may be released early – soldiers implicated in Maungdaw’s 2017 Inn Din massacre were released from prison less than one year into their 10 year sentences.

Following the first confirmation of a COVID-19 patient in Sittwe Township on 23 June, there have been no further reports of transmission after 13 people who had contact with the carrier tested negative for the virus. In total, 28 people, mostly traders and boat drivers, are believed to have returned to Sittwe from Bangladesh in recent weeks.

Finally, some 500 ethnic Mro IDPs have fled six different townships of Rakhine State to settle in makeshift shelters on the outskirts of Yangon, where they are receiving support from local responders.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • Military operations in Rathedaung can be expected to continue for this week and perhaps longer as the Tatmadaw remains committed to pushing the Arakan Army out. Displacement and impacts to civilians should be monitored closely.
  • Al Lim considers the hit the macro and micro impacts of COVID-19 to Myanmar’s economy and everyday livelihoods before suggesting how the government’s economic relief plan may be improved.