CASS Weekly Update

2 - 8 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

On 1 July the Union Election Commission announced that Myanmar’s general election would take place on 8 November this year. Members of the government are allowed to begin campaigning now, before the commission announces the formal campaign period, although no decision has been made on whether or not polls will take place in western Myanmar. The ruling National League for Democracy party is meanwhile reportedly having difficulty finding willing candidates in areas of Rakhine State. Members of the ruling party have consistently been targets of the Arakan Army, and one member died in Arakan Army custody in December 2019. Electoral violence can be expected to continue as campaigning gets underway.

Electoral tensions are likely to translate into tensions on the battlefield. Displacement has already increased as a result of new clashes through June. New figures from society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress released this week report that displacement in IDP sites in Rakhine State has risen from from 59,643 to 62,137 over the last month.  The organisation also reports an increase of 31,758 conflict-affected persons outside of sites. On 21 June the Rakhine State government reported 69,598 persons displaced in Rakhine State, and humanitarian partner organisations reported 7,655 displaced persons in southern Chin State’s Paletwa Township.

1. Rohingya Returnees Prosecuted

Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine State

It was reported this week more than 30 informal returnees to northern Rakhine State were prosecuted on charges of ‘illegally’ entering Myanmar from Bangladesh under Section 13(1) of the Immigration Act. These prosecutions are in line with the government’s commitment to take action against those entering the country ‘illegally’ or those facilitating illegal entry. There are reportedly other recent returnees to northern Rakhine State who have not yet been apprehended by authorities, with some estimates of approximately 100 informal returns during June alone.

Double standard: The prosecutions this week illustrate a double-standard on how Naypyidaw is treating returnees. While numerous migrants are known to have entered Myanmar from other land borders in a way which contravenes national laws, charges have only been made on the Bangladeshi border. While the ethnic and religious identities of those charges has not been made public, the majority are thought to be Rohingya returnees or their family members. The harsh penalties for returning informally to Myanmar are also likely to discourage returnees from attending official quarantine or health checks – risking the spread of the virus in northern Rakhine State. While COVID-19 is now widespread in Bangladesh, reports of the virus in Rohingya refugee camps remain at approximately 50 cases. However, further spread of the virus may prompt greater numbers of Rohingya to attempt to cross back to Myanmar. There is a reported lack of trust in clinics in the camps in Bangladesh, due a perceived tendency to prescribe generic medicines regardless of the illness. Existing sickness in the camps, including Hepatitis, may increase the risks of COVID-19 complications in the case of an outbreak. There is little evidence that the recent developments have prompted further stigmatization of the Rohingya among communities in Rakhine State, but agencies active in the north should continue to monitor sentiment. Agency staff should also continue to follow recommended guidelines for the prevention of the virus. 

2. School Displaced Seek New Shelter

Kyauktaw Township, central Rakhine State

More than 3,000 displaced persons sheltering at seven schools in Kyauktaw town have had to relocate after the Union Government office on 13 May ordered displaced persons to vacate school facilities ahead of schools opening on 21 July. However, existing sites and monasteries are already crowded. Some displaced persons at two high school buildings in the town began relocating on 14 June to monasteries and community halls but face crowding issues. Sources in the town report that some of the 3,000 conflict-affected displaced persons remain at schools due to the lack of accommodation elsewhere. Local organisations and Yat Mi Yat Pha (‘respected elders’) from Kyauktaw are now building new temporary shelters expected to host 3,000 people near monasteries outside of town, but report budget constraints. The relocation is expected to start later this week. Local sources report that there are currently 6,963 conflict-affected displaced persons taking refuge in schools and monasteries in five wards of Kyauktaw town.

Shelter shortage: Despite a response from the community, various obstacles to relocations remain. The government has offered little support to arrange accommodation after ordering the relocation. Despite the fact that the community is trying to fill these gaps, they have concerns for the longer term. Local sources report that the most urgent need for the displaced population at the moment is dry firewood for cooking – difficult to find during the rainy season. In addition, they face insufficient food supplies even though humanitarian organisations have been able to provide food for displaced persons. For humanitarian responders, it is important to note that the displaced population needs urgent support for new displacement sites with better quality shelters and proper sanitation as well as food and clothes. Needs can be expected to remain. Displaced persons expect to stay in the sites for the foreseeable future, as armed conflict and its impact on livelihoods and finances makes returning to their places of origin exceedingly difficult.

3. Villages Deserted After Verbal Order

Ann Township, southern Rakhine State

Thousands of people have been displaced after the Tatamdaw issued a 27 June verbal order to leave before opening access routes out of Dar Let village tract, Ann Township. Following severe restrictions on movement, food transportation and humanitarian access since at least January 2020, the Tatmadaw opened transport routes out of the village tract this week. However, there remain restrictions on entry into the village tract. Rakhine Ethnics Congress reported on 7 July that approximately 5,000 people fled the Dar Let village tract area over the last two months. According to civil society groups, some 2,000 IDPs have arrived in the Ann urban area over the last two weeks and are staying in existing IDP sites. Approximately 2,000 other people are thought to be staying with relatives or friends in other villages near the urban area.

Change in the air: The trend of the Tatmadaw ordering the vacation of villages (either verbally or on paper) represents a change in tactics. Previously displacement was either a result of armed clashes, presence of security forces, or forced by the Tatmadaw through indiscriminate shelling into civilian areas, food blockages, or other abuses. While the issuing of warnings before offensives may appear on the surface to be a positive development, this may also be an indication that the Tatmadaw is preparing to scale up operations against the AA. The strategy also serves to absolve the Tatmadaw of responsibility for civilian casualties.  Civilians who are unable to vacate the area risk becoming targets for the Tatmadaw who may characterise them as insurgents. Further displacement over the coming week may be expected should the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army clash around the Dar Let village tract area. IDP sites in the town are already crowded and there are ongoing food needs which humanitarian agencies can offer support with. IDPs in the town have access to markets but are often short of cash. 

4. Jade Mine Disaster Demands Change

Hpakant Township, Kachin State

At least 172 people were killed when heavy rain triggered a landslide of mining waste in one of northern Myanmar’s accident-prone jade mines on 2 July. The promise of hitting it rich in the mines draws many of the most economically destitute from across Myanmar, most of them young men from the country’s poorest regions. Between 35 and 70 ethnic Rakhine miners died in the worst disaster to date in the mines this week. The large representation of ethnic Rakhine in the mining workforce motivated the Arakan Army to recruit many of its first soldiers from this pool of disaffected labour. The incident has triggered calls for more oversight on the barely-regulated industry. Myanmar’s president has formed a committee to investigate the disaster, but activist group Justice for Myanmar have highlighted a considerable conflict of interest. Military-appointed Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant General Soe Htut is a member of the investigation committee, but is also among the largest shareholders in the military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited which continues to invest in and profit from jade mining in Hpakant and other areas in Kachin State. The jade industry in Kachin State is intimately tied to military, ethnic armed organisations and a shadowy criminal underworld interests, and regulation will be difficult to institute.

Momentum for change: Just as the tragedy in Hpakant has highlighted the terrible conditions which lead hundreds of thousands of people to risk their lives in unstable jade mines, it has brought national attention to an industry long overdue for reform. The incident prompted Facebook users to call out both the big business which make gargantuans profit from the incident, and the government who have long left it unregulated. While numerous political parties, armed groups and civil society groups issued statements of condolence, the National League for Democracy and State Counsellor were deafeningly silent. It took Aung San Suu Kyi more than 24 hours before sending condolences to the families of victims.  Yet this remains an opportunity for change. Encouragement from embassies and other international partners for regulation, combined with the technical expertise and support from agencies already working with stakeholders may help to seize this chance for change. Without sustainable options for livelihoods, disaffected youth from Rakhine State and other regions will likely continue to seek employment in jade mines or to take up arms – perpetuating economics of conflict.

5. Elastic Displacement Expected

Ku Taung, southern Rathedaung Township

Most of the estimated 10,000 persons displaced from southern Rathedaung Township last week have now returned to their villages of origin. The communities left villages after Tatmadaw soldiers entered the area in the evening of 29 June and reportedly clashed with the Arakan Army in subsequent days. Tatmadaw troops camped nearby Rohingya and other Rakhine villages, although no abuses against Rohingya civilians were reported. The Rohingya community there essentially is unable to flee due to severe restrictions on movement and hostility in nearby villages and towns. Displaced Rakhine persons also faced barriers to reach the Rathedaung urban area due to a Tatmadaw and Navy presence blocking access. More than 400 displaced Rakhine persons from Shwe Long Tin village fled to urban Sittwe’s monastic displacement sites where they remain. Others from neighbouring villages fled to nearby locations within Rathedaung Township. Other abuses were reported in Rakhine villages before the Tatmadaw left over the weekend. Local media reported that Tatmadaw troops committed an act of a sexual violence against a Rakhine woman. Tatmadaw troops also reportedly looted valuables from thirty deserted houses in Shay Yar Taw village. Displacement in Rathedaung Township as a whole has increased following the letter from the state security minister ordering village evacuations before Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’ in late June. Rakhine Ethnics Congress report an increase of 1,506 IDPs in sites in Rathedaung over the last month. They also report an increase of 17,731 persons otherwise conflict-affected, including those sheltering with friends or relatives in villages or urban areas. However, these figures do not take into account the approximately 10,000 persons who have already returned to their villages of origin in southern Rathedaung. 

Going home: Security concerns and tightening restrictions have resulted in minimal humanitarian assistance and reduced awareness of the conditions in southern Rathedaung Township. Local organisations are increasingly restricted from accessing the area as authorities demand groups apply for permits even before collecting funds for IDPs. Many local CSOs and religious groups are responding to immediate needs in rural displacement sites, and further support to these organizations is urgently needed. Due to recent Tatmadaw troops movements and concerns of future hostilities, residents from Guu Taung village-tract area are anxious that they will not be able to maintain rice crops during this cultivation season. While villagers have been able to return for now, they face a number of ongoing concerns and fears of repeated displacement. The recent arrivals to Sittwe urban displacement site dare not return home at the moment because they fear further instability in the region and Tatmadaw movements. The Rohingya community in nearby Ah Nauk Pyin village have additional difficulties regarding food shortages, movement, healthcare, and a lack of humanitarian assistance. Healthcare for Rohingya has been severely restricted for decades and will become increasingly difficult as a result of further restrictions on movement amid armed conflict. International responders should liaise with local organizations, traditional birth attendants and religious leaders to identify access points and urge authorities to allow greater access. As armed conflict and the presence of armed groups can be expected to continue in southern Rathedaung Township (and elsewhere), there is a need to continue to monitor potential abuses in both Rakhine and Rohingya villages. Given the continuing restrictions on international agencies, collaboration with local groups to monitor should be prioritised while bearing in mind the need to avoid top-down approaches which outsource the considerable risks associated with this monitoring to vulnerable actors.

6. Vicious Cycle of Rohingya Rights Advocacy

Online

International human rights groups have joined the Democracy and Human Rights Party – a Yangon-based party seeking support from Rohingya communities – in demanding Myanmar to allow the Rohingya and other Muslim groups in Rakhine State to vote in the 2020 election. Notable diaspora Rohingya activists have not commented on this issue to the same extent. Some local media covered the demands from the Democracy and Human Rights Party, before receiving online comments characterised by political shaming and hate speech –  reflecting the strong suspicions the domestic audience has towards Rohingya politicians. The Rohingya and other Muslim populations in Rakhine State were able to vote (and to be elected) in the 1990 and 2010 elections, the 2012 by-election and the 2008 constitutional referendum. In early 2015, the then-ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party government disenfranchised the Rohingya by cancelling Temporary Registration Certificates (‘white cards’) which the Rohingya and other Muslim populations in Rahine State had been issued since the early 1990s. The white cards themselves were given in the 1990s in exchange for an arguably valid citizenship document widely referred to as the ‘trifold card’. The current government has made no effort to restore voting rights, likely fearing a domestic backlash. The Union Solidarity and Development Party distributed white cards and promises of a path to citizenship to Rohingya in northern Rakhine in return for votes in the 2010 election – to the anger of Rakhine political groups.

Advocacy at risk: Advocacy towards voting rights for Muslims in northern Rakhine State needs to be implemented with strong caution. Domestically, any political demands for granting the Rohingya voting (or other significant) rights have not only been unsuccessful, but have instead played into existing narratives which serve to further marginalise the group. A consistent narrative since 2012 has painted the Rohingya as members of an international Islamic expansionist movement with powerful backers in the United Nations and other international organisations. This remains a dominant sentiment among voters. As such, it is more likely that political parties will double-down on anti-Rohingya rhetoric to appease their support base, rather than grant voting rights for the Rohingya. While anti-Rohingya rhetoric has been limited in this election year so far, international organisations should take into consideration the vicious cycle of rights advocacy for the Rohingya, especially during an election year. Advocacy aimed at voting rights for the Rohingya may also have unintended implications for other diverse Muslim communities in Rakhine State – as explored in this recent CASS paper on Southern Rakhine Information Ecosystems

7. No End Expected to Internet Shutdown

Naypyidaw

On 8 July the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, released a statement offering justification for the continuing internet shutdown in eight townships of Rakhine and southern Chin states. The statement read that the internet shutdown remains in place to prevent the Arakan Army from “exploiting mobile internet technologies to detonate IEDs and landmines, to incite hatred among different ethnic groups and to plan attacks or kidnappings of government officials.” The statement also noted that the government was cooperating with national and international to ensure that people living under the internet shutdown continued to receive information regarding COVID-19. Responses to the statement on Facebook showed little sympathy for the government’s position, labeled it as insincere and suggested the shutdown was hiding human rights abuses. On 7 July meanwhile, activist Maung Saung Kha appeared in a Yangon court to face accusations that he took part in a demonstration marking the one year commemoration of the internet shutdown in western Myanmar.

Shutdown: There are three key takeaways from the ongoing internet shutdown and the reiteration of familiar justifications from the civilian government. First, civilian authorities continue to offer little alternative from the military solution the Tatmadaw continues to seek in western Myanmar. Indeed, no party to the conflict is proposing any resolution that is acceptable to all parties. Second, while the justifications given in the statement may be correct, this is certainly not a complete list. Information warfare is a defining feature of this war, and the internet shutdown restricts the ability of the Arakan Army to communicate between its headquarters, ground forces and constituency. The shutdown also serves to limit evidence of Tatmadaw abuses. Video and photos cannot be sent over SMS in Myanmar. Finally, the new statement suggests that the shutdown will continue for the foreseeable future, only to be restored “once the situation stabilizes”. There is little indication that this will occur before the 8 November election. 

Other developments

Rakhine Covid19 Watch reports that the Rakhine State government is preparing a COVID-19 testing lab in Sittwe. The lab is expected to be operational in two months time.

As India and Pakistan face their ‘worst desert locust plague in decades’, concerns that some of the insects may cross international boundaries into Rakhine and Chin states or Sagaing Region have put 13 Myanmar townships on alert. The locusts can form swarms as large as Paris or New York and destroy farmers’ crops and livelihoods.

Finally, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has ordered the removal of numerous Buddha statues which it says were crafted using practices contrary to Theravada Buddhism. The practice of YeDaYar (often translated as ‘occult’ practices) is believed to protect one from danger or to ensure fortune. The order has reignited widespread rumours that a jade Buddha housed in Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda bears a suspicious resemblance to former head of the military regime Senior General Than Shwe. Illustrating the links between jade mining and the military elite, the Buddha statue was reportedly cut from a single 324 kilogram jadestone found in Kachin State. 

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • Activist Maung Saung Kha will face court again on 14 July to answer to charges that he took part in a Yangon demonstration against the internet shutdown in western Myanmar.
  • On 10 July a Yangon court will consider charges against activists involved in a 2018 anti-war rally. Activists face charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, and risk up to a month in prison and fines.