This June Update tracks a set of indicators drawn from the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan, published by CASS on 9 April, to document updates and consider implications for the humanitarian response. That scenario plan considered the trajectory of armed conflict in Rakhine State before nationwide elections expected for November 2020, and anticipated the impact of armed conflict for communities and the humanitarian response in western Myanmar, with the objective of facilitating forward-looking programming for humanitarian responders. Please see the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan for the full consideration of scenarios, conflict trajectories and humanitarian impacts.
The intensity of armed clashes between the Myanmar Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army remained low in June, before a sharp escalation when the Tatmadaw announced ‘clearance operations’ at the end of the month. There is also a shift towards more targeted killings in urban areas, while Arakan Army attacks on Tatmadaw targets near urban areas have reduced, representing a change in how the war is being fought. Importantly, the escalation toward the end of the month reflects the fact that there has been no structural change to foster de-escalation. The Northern Alliance’s continued absence from the peace process and western Myanmar’s exclusion from the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire reflect the fact that dialogue remains stalled, while no obvious third-party mediator has emerged. The Arakan Army’s influence is reportedly growing as it attempts to set up rival governance structures in urban and rural areas. As such, there is little sign of de-escalation – at least until November. Meanwhile, the slow spread of COVID-19 into northern Rakhine State through June has had implications for the Rohingya community there. While there has been no large scale backlash towards the group, the risk of further stigmatization of the community continues. As such, the trajectory of armed conflict and its impact in Myanmar’s west best reflects one of status quo ahead of elections expected for 2020 – as outlined in Scenario Three of the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan.
The maps below illustrate the relative lull in active clashes through most of June up to the Rathedaung offensive in late June. While there was a decrease in the instance of active clashes compared to earlier this year, clashes continued most prominently along 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.
Active clashes and the firing of artillery or light arms into urban areas were sparse through June. This indicates that the way the war is being fought is changing. As discussed in the following section, there has been a resurgence of targeted killings throughout June, aimed in part to destablise urban areas.
Abducations and assassinations of police, civil servants or others seen to be linked to the Naypyidaw government have been a key part of the Arakan Army’s attempts to destabalise administration in urban areas. While not all instances were claimed by the Arakan Army, there was a resurgence in these kinds of events in June – indicating an escalation of the conflict. It was reported through June that Myanmar security forces are increasingly fearful of moving through urban areas in uniform, and police lock themselves inside stations at night. Thus, while Myanmar authorities will still see urban areas as their strongholds, targeted killings are making patrolling some areas increasingly challenging. This will have long-term implications for governance, elections and the humanitarian response.
Displacement continues to be elastic, and repeated. Villagers who returned to their villages in Kyauk Tan village tract earlier this year, for example, were displaced again by Tatmadaw operations and clashes in June. The Tatmadaw’s new tactic of ordering evacuation of villages before operations is most likely an attempt to absolve the Tatmadaw of responsibility for civilian casualties. Speaking to media, the security minister said that “those who remain will be those who are loyal to the AA”.
Table 1: Rakhine State government displacement figures
|16 March1||06 April2||05 May||08 June||21 June3||06 July4|
Table 2: Displacement in Paletwa, southern Rakhine State
|10 April||09 June||06 July|
Table 3. Rakhine Ethnic Congress displacement figures
|01 April6||01 May7||08 June8||07 July9|
Considerable restrictions on humanitarian access continue to be enforced by authorities. This has implications for both national and international responders, although national groups are better placed to work through existing local structures. In addition, security incidents continue to occur along main transportation routes. While the Yangon-Sittwe road has been a hotspot for clashes since 2019, the Agumaw-Maungdaw road through Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships was increasingly affected by clashes during June.
On 1 June the three member Brotherhood Alliance – made up of the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army – extended the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire to the Tatmadaw, who rejected it outright. On 5 June, however, the government invited the four member Northern Alliance – consisting of the three Brotherhood Alliance members and the Kachin Independence Army – to start an online dialogue. The Northern Alliance rejected the invitation and reportedly retorted that no dialogue will be possible until after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brotherhood Alliance has also announced the extension of its unilateral ceasefire from 1 June to 31 August, while the Tatmadaw’s Western Command (Rakhine and southern Chin States) remains outside of the Tatmadaw’s own unilateral ceasefire which covers other conflict-affected areas of Myanmar. While there are signs that the National League for Democracy government is open to talking with the Northern Alliance, it is clear that the Tatmadaw remain committed to a military solution in western Myanmar – making any progress on dialogue unlikely.
The Rohingya in Rakhine State were negatively affected during June, as the confirmation of the COVI-19 virus among Muslims in northern Rakhine State prompted further stigmatization, hate speech and threats of prosecution for informal border crossings.
Armed conflict has not spread to the southern townships of Rakhine State, but security incidents continue to occur. Most notably, a group calling itself the ‘National Security Organisation – Taungup’ became increasingly active through May and June in Taungup Township. The group has targeted National League for Democracy members and claims to have killed a member of the ceasefire group the Arakan Liberation Army. The Arakan Army has denied any link to the National Security Organisation. While much about the group remains unknown, the impact has been the further polarisation of political positions in southern Rakhine State. The south of the state has historically been known as more politically diverse than the centre and north, and the National League for Democracy won almost all seats there in 2015. The instrumentalisation of political violence ahead of the 2020 elections will force voters choose where their support lies. 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 risk of violence and arrest.
There have been few reports of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activity following a 4 June clash with Border Guard Police in Maungdaw Township. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army remains a marginal group with limited military capacity and is primarily a factor on the Bangladesh side of the border. Clashes are likely to remain of low intensity, especially given rumours that a high-ranking Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army commander was severely injured in the incident in early June. There is no further indication of the mobilisation of a ethnic Chin armed group to repel the Arakan Army in southern Chin State. Meanwhile, some Rakhine State-based Chin civil society organisations have spoken out about the impact of armed conflict on Chin communities.
On 5 June, 62 out of a total of 68 ward and village tract administrators in Myebon submitted letters of resignation to the township citing fear and the threat of arbitrary arrest by the Myanmar military following the detention of three of their colleagues accused of ties to the Arakan Army. Civilian administrators face pressures from both the military and Arakan Army, who both hold suspicions about allegiances. In 2019, blocs of ward and village administrators tried to resign in Minbya, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung and Mrauk-U townships.
COVID-19 began its slow entry to northern and central Rakhine State in June. The scale of the virus’ spread is unknown as testing remains limited. However, there have been no reports of sickness, death, or overcrowded hospitals that would be expected with any widespread outbreak. While health concerns remain, communities are also facing the economic impacts of restrictions to fight the spread of the virus. With the virus now widespread in Bangladesh, there are also concerns of further informal movement of people across the border, and the social implications of this for Rohingya in Rakhine State. Although the repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar is now temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, the Maungdaw District Administrator has admitted that informal returns do continue. The president’s spokesperson U Zaw Htay publicly acknowledged that security forces are involved in the smuggling of people and drugs across the border.
On 1 July the Union Election Commission announced that Myanmar’s 2020 General Election would take place on 8 November. Question marks still hang over the possibilities of elections in many parts of Rakhine and southern Chin states. As noted in the Rakhine State and Southern Chin State 2020 Scenario Plan, polls will likely be cancelled in areas that the Union Election Committee cannot access for necessary preparations by late August.
The initiation of Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’ suggests an intensification of conflict in July after two months of reduced intensity. Displacement had already increased in Rathedaung and Ann townships at the time of writing, and Tatmadaw operations continued in those townships. There is a risk of Tatmadaw abuses against communities during these operations, and there have already been reports of increased civilian casualties during the first two weeks of July. However, displacement and the impact of operations have not been as severe as first expected.
Along the Bangladesh border, the continued prosecution of Rohingya for informally entering from Bangladesh is a policy not equally applied to returnees crossing informally from other land borders in the north and east of Myanmar. Harsh penalties will likely encourage new returnees to return quietly and avoid contact with authorities or quarantine centres, creating a greater risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. Further identification of the virus among Rohingya communities also risks additional marginalisation of this community in northern Rakhine State, and agencies should ensure that protection monitoring is sensitive to these concerns. Humanitarian actors should also maintain dialogue with authorities and influential religious leaders who may be able to influence community sentiment.
The National League for Democracy-led government may take the Union Peace Conference scheduled for August as an opportunity to reach out to the Northern Alliance to restart dialogue. Any developments towards greater engagement may be an indicator of a more conciliatory approach to Rakhine State and the Arakan Army.