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The Rathedaung operations are unexceptional, and highlight a continued inability of (international) agencies to respond
This week marks one month since the 23 June statement issued by Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister, which ordered the evacuation of civilians from areas around northern Rathedaung’s Kyauk Tan village ahead of Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’. Highlighting the risks for civilians, the security minister later told reporters “those who remain will be those who are loyal to the Arakan Army.” The Tatmadaw’s offensives have since spread in scale as security forces and the Arakan Army clashed in the Rathedaung region.
The incendiary terminology of ‘clearance operations’ in the original statement sparked immediate concern. Local civil society demanded the Tatmadaw withdraw the notice. 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 by the security minister, officially dated 26 June, only became public knowledge on 28 June.
While the concerning language and modality of the order to displace rightly drew response actors’ attention, the Tatmadaw clearance operations themselves cannot be characterised as exceptional when situated in the context of the last 19 months. The term ‘clearance operation’ gained notoriety during the devastating 2016 and 2017 atrocities which drove some 740,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State into Bangladesh. However, it is important to note that the term has been used regularly by the Tatmadaw since the 1950s. The military operations currently ongoing in Rathedaung are also distinct from the 2016 and 2017 violence in that the wholesale destruction of villages has not taken place to the same degree.
It is also worth considering that Rathedaung Township has been one of the most affected locations in this conflict, as illustrated by figures from both the Rakhine State government and civil society group Rakhine Ethnics Congress. The Rakhine State Government reported 15,305 IDPs in the township as of 6 July, while Rakhine Ethnics Congress on 7 July counted 9,745 IDPs in sites and an additional 37,003 conflict-affected people outside of sites. As such, Tatmadaw operations over the last month represent continuity, much more than change.
New displacement from operations and clashes since late June illustrates this point. While the media initially reported expected displacement from Kyauk Tan in the tens of thousands, sources on the ground suggest approximately 5,000 people. This reflects the numbers released by OCHA, plus an additional estimated 2,400 Rakhine and Rohingya persons displaced into southern Buthidaung Township. The misreading of the situation was in part a result of confusion regarding how many villages were implicated in the security minister’s vague order, but also stems from a lack of recognition that residents of Kyauk Tan had already fled in the village earlier that month as a result of previous Tatmadaw operations. Displacement from Kyauk Tan has been elastic since operations there in May 2019. As clashes spread further south in early July, some 10,000 persons were displaced within southern Rathedaung before returning to their villages, while an estimated 1,000 persons remain displaced in coastal Rathedaung.
Thus, while not necessarily exceptional, the Rathedaung military operations have highlighted an important dynamic within the international response in Rakhine State: its inability to reach affected populations. Regardless of how many people fled, or where they fled to, international responders have been for the most part unable to respond to the needs of affected communities due to ongoing access challenges.
However, numerous local groups – both formal and informal – have responded and continue to respond. In many parts of Rakhine State, local NGOs, CBOs, monasteries, and parahita actors are the most important and effective rapid responders. In Rathedaung this month, local and national organisations assessed displacement, built new shelters and provided other relief for IDPs. Models of effective engagement were also seen in Rathedaung, where donors supported national groups in their response to displacement.
After 19 months of active conflict and a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Rakhine and southern Chin states, the Rathedaung developments are a reminder that international agencies should regularly assess and improve their modalities of operations to suit the context. Many have already put in place much of the groundwork though building initial relationships with civil society. Indeed, localisation and local organizations must be increasingly considered not only as potential partners, but as the cornerstones of a response strategy.
A failure to engage local organisations risks not only the irrelevance of the response, but also hardening perceptions of aid bias. While communities can see that international response actors are attempting to reach conflict-affected populations, they also know that the actual ability to do so has been limited. If agencies cannot find ways to respond to conflict-affected communities, they risk the reemergence of previously dominant narratives of INGOs as active in Rakhine State only to support Rohingya Muslims. There are administrative, procedural, and programmatic challenges to working with local organisations. However, prioritising managing these challenges while continuing to advocate for access will represent a much more effective response which is inclusive of all communities.
The Brotherhood Alliance has released a conciliatory statement ahead of the 12-14 August Union Peace Conference and 8 November general elections. The statement said that the three members – the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – were “fully willing” to attend the peace conference, and encouraged the government to hold “free and fair” nationwide elections. Unlike previous statements, the Brotherhood Alliance refrained from name-calling, and expressed a desire to re-enter negotiations with the government. In June, the Tatmadaw rejected Brotherhood Alliance suggestions of dialogue, and the Northern Alliance – consisting of the Brotherhood Alliance and the Kachin Independence Army – rejected a government invitation to online discussions the same month. The government is yet to respond.
A poisoned chalice
While the new statement is among the most conciliatory from the Brotherhood Alliance to date, its timing puts the National League for Democracy government in a very difficult position. If the government does enter into dialogue with the Brotherhood Alliance, it would be making a mockery of its own designation of the Arakan Army as a ‘terrorist’ organisation. The initiation of a dialogue to negotiate access for elections would also require an implicit recognition by the government that the Arakan Army now has at least nominal control over significant parts of western Myanmar. This would represent a huge loss of face for the government just months before elections. Dialogue at this time is also likely to be anathema to the Tatmadaw, who remain in the midst of an offensive against the group. As such, this most recent statement is likely to do more good for the Brotherhood Alliance’s public relations than it is for the peace process. The group’s apparent openness for participation in the peace conference may also reflect the cautious collective approach of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee bloc (headed by the powerful United Wa State Army and consisting of non-signatory ethnic armed groups) toward participation in the peace process. For many non-signatory groups, solidarity is key to both their negotiation strategy and their resistance to perceived attempts to break their alliance and bring individual armed groups into the formal peace process. Ultimately, the peaceful tone is a positive development, but humanitarian agencies should not bet on de-escalation yet.
In a 15 July analytical article about the supposed destination of a large cache of Chinese-produced weapons seized by Thai security forces from rebels on the Thai-Myanmar border, Myanmar’s Irrawaddy news outlet have again raised the spectre of a relationship between the Arakan Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The former has been actively clashing with the Tatmadaw in Rakhine and Chin states since 2014, while the latter has executed limited attacks on Myanmar security forces in northern Rakhine State since 2016. Most notably, the notorious Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’ against Rohingya communities in 2016 and 2017 followed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks on Border Guard Police. Reports of collaboration between the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army echo Myanmar government rhetoric, and should be treated with some skepticism.
While the two groups likely have had some communication as a result of movement through the same borderland areas, any high-level strategic collaboration remains very unlikely. This is a result of several factors. The first is that the Arakan Army’s continued access to the Myanmar-Bangladesh borderlands depends on Bangladesh continuing to turn a blind eye to its activities. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s existence in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh is a threat to Bangladeshi authorities and their eventual plans of repatriation. Bangladesh’s approach has thereby been a denial of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s existence in the camps and a violent approach to wiping out various criminal Rohingya groups including the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Second, for the vast majority of the Myanmar population, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army remains an absolute pariah. The main constituency of the Arakan Army, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, were among the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s victims in 2016 and 2017, and an alliance between the two armed groups would be close to unacceptable to them. Finally, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has little to offer the Arakan Army. The former is unorganised, ill-resourced, and almost completely ineffective. Humanitarian agencies should beware of attempts to conflate the two armed groups, as such a narrative – largely designed for a non-Rakhine audience – continues to legitimise and fuel the conflict on the ground.
Rakhine State and southern Chin State
Last week Myanmar’s Union Electoral Commission announced the final list of registered political parties ahead of the 8 November general election. The list includes several small parties representing minority ethnic groups from ethnic states, including five different political parties seeking to represent the numerically small Mro and Khami speaking groups in Rakhine and southern Chin states. Myanmar’s plurality single-member district electoral system works in favour of large established nationwide political parties, and secondarily in favour of parties representing the majority ethnic group in Myanmar’s seven states. As such, even if the five Mro and Khami parties merged to avoid vote splitting, it would be impossible for them to win any seats in parliament. This is simply because of their small population, their geographic dispersion, and a tendency for voters to vote along ethnic lines. With no chance of electoral success, why do these parties mobilise?
Conflicts for unity
Mro and Khami parties – like many other small ethnic parties in Myanmar – have long contested elections in Myanmar. This is because elections are one of the few available formal opportunities for politicians representing ethnic minorities to take a podium and remind others of their existence, voices and political demands. Elections are also an opportunity to strengthen in-group solidarity. Mro and Khami speaking groups are highly diverse, and the politicisation of this diversity and identity by successive Myanmar governments has fostered decades-long tensions between different sub-groups. Mro and Khami politicians have had persistent arguments over issues ranging from naming, conflicting interpretations of history, culture and place of origin and different political demands. In this context, the louder political voice of one group threatens the other groups. As such, contesting unattainable elections should be understood as an assertion of both identity and political demands. The risk of a further weakening of social cohesion is significant as elections approach. It is common to see ethnic politicians tap into ethnonationalist sentiment to attract votes. The danger is that they do so by stating controversial political claims around identity and history, or through inflammatory attacks on other groups. Humanitarian responders should be sensitive to these dynamics both in communities where they work, and among their own staff. Finally, this represents a key, if often unspoken, dynamic in Myanmar electoral politics: as long as ethnicity remains the most salient factor in Myanmar politics, in the absence of electoral reform smaller ethnic political parties will always be excluded. Unfortunately, this only functions to the benefit of large established parties, who have little to gain from an alliance of ‘minority’ parties mobilising support around their similar interests and challenges.
Kyaukme Township, northern Shan State
On 10 July, thousands of residents from Kyaukme Township, northern Shan State, staged a protest against the Tatmadaw over the alleged killing of one civilian and injury of two others on 29 June. The unwarranted violence against civilians reportedly followed an armed clash between the Tatmadaw and the Restoration Council of Shan State. Fighting between the two parties has intensified over a territory dispute after the Restoration Council of Shan State planned to hold a 25 June ceremony on the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. While promising to take action against the Tatmadaw soldiers involved in the abuses, the Tatmadaw will also reportedly charge the organizers of the mass protest under section 19 of the Peaceful Process and Procession Law and section 18 of the Prevention and Suppression of Infectious Diseases Act. In response, 36 civil society organizations and Shan community groups released a statement demanding justice for the victims, and for the Tatmadaw to drop charges against protesters.
Justice over armed clashes
This mass protest calling for justice over the incident of civilian victims committed by the Tatmadaw is a significant development. Such a protest is unprecedented over the past year, despite a number of similar abuses. The Tatmadaw has committed to an investigation into the abuses, but it has also been reported that the investigation team was attacked by the Restoration Council of Shan State. This was denied by the Restoration Council of Shan State, before the Tatmadaw reportedly subsequently increased its troops in the area. The escalation suggests that armed conflicts can be expected to continue despite the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire. As such, the escalation of armed clashes continues to have a dire impact on civilians in Kyaukme Township. Since late June, at least 700 civilians from more than ten villages have fled their homes to monasteries and other sites, with other displacement also reported within the township. Villagers are afraid to visit their paddy fields due to the potential for violence. A continuation of hostilities may impact agricultural production, with implications for financial and food security. In addition to these considerations, humanitarian responders should be aware of the expansion of Tatmadaw troops in the area as these can impact transportation. Therefore, it is important for humanitarian actors to work with host communities, local organisations and religious leaders in order to provide basic needs to the temporarily displaced communities.
Paletwa Township, southern Chin State
Last week the Chin National Front again warned the Arakan Army to get out of southern Chin State, from where the Arakan Army has set up operations to reach into northern and central Rakhine State. At the same time, there have been whispers in pro-Tatmadaw Facebook groups about rumoured training of Chin National Front soldiers in preparation for confrontation with the Arakan Army. The Chin National Front, formed in 1988 and a signatory to Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, has a force only estimated in the hundreds, and as such it is unlikely to be able to follow through on its demands with military action anytime soon. It has warned the Arakan Army to leave Chin State since at least 2017, with little follow-through. The impact of its statement will be among communities.
Stuck in the middle
Relations between Chin communities and the Arakan Army have been strained since the Arakan Army descended into Paletwa Township. This is a result of the disproportionate impact of displacement, abductions and civilian casualties for Chin communities there, as well as the fact that many Chin communities feel there is no side to represent them in this war. Deteriorating relations between the Arakan Army and Chin communities are reportedly increasingly affecting relationships between Chin and Rakhine communities in everyday settings. The latest statement from the Chin National Front may serve only to increase suspicions. Humanitarian actors should be sensitive to these concerns in the communities where they work, and among their own staff bases. Finally, while there may be chatter online about rumoured mobilisation of Chin communities to confront the Arakan Army, such reports should be treated with caution. As elections approach and some political leaders stand to gain from division, misinformation can be expected to rise in both on and offline forums.
Clashes between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw began in Minbya Township on 20 July, and have affected transport along the Yangon-Sittwe main road. With reports of additional Tatmadaw troops arriving, agencies should expect further clashes and disruption in that area.
Last week in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township 12 more informal returnees from Bangladesh were sentenced to six months in prison under section 13 (1) of Myanmar’s immigration law. The harsh sentences may incentivise more people to skip quarantine facilities on their return. Cases of COVID-19 continue to slowly emerge in Rakhine State, mostly among Muslim communities. There has been no widespread backlash against any particular community.