Rakhine State and Southern Chin State Scenario Plan:
June Update

15 July 2020

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. 

Summary

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.

Map_V2_Security-Incidents-in-Rakhine-Chin_June_CASS_Myanmar.png
Map_V2_Security-Incidents-in-Rakhine-Chin_Jan-June_CASS_Myanmar.png

Indicators

Urban Warfare

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.

  • On 2 June the Arakan Army attacked a Tatmadaw convoy just outside the Ponnagyun urban area. One civilian was killed and another injured in the incident. 
  • 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 killing one and injuring three civilians. 
  • 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. 
  • Perceptions of insecurity have been bolstered by a reported increase in urban crime. Unknown assailants robbed a bank in downtown Sittwe in daylight on 10 June, while the failure of police to make an arrest after the suspected sexual assault and murder of a 13 year old girl in Sittwe prompted crowds to gather downtown outside the Sittwe No. 1 Police Station and demand justice. 

Targeted Killings

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.

  • Arakan Army members stabbed one military officer and abducted another in downtown Ponnagyun on 11 June.
  • Unknown assailants stabbed and killed a police officer in downtown Kyauktaw on 13 June. 
  • On 16 June, the Village Clerk of Saing Chon Village Tract, Kyaukpyu Township was abducted and later found dead in Kyaukpyu town. The Tatmadaw released a statement on 17 June alleging that the murdered clerk was killed by some 20 Arakan Army members. The Arakan Army has not publicly responded. 
  • On the evening of 29 June, a police officer was stabbed to death in urban Sittwe. Noone has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Displacement

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”.

  • Approximately 2,300 people have left the Zay Di Pyin displaced persons site and returned to their villages after negotiations between village leaders, village elders, monks, and the Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister. The state security minister directed military troops to arrange for the return after two days of inspections of household members lists. 
  • More than 3,000 displaced persons sheltering at seven schools in Kyauktaw town have had to relocate after authorities ordered displaced persons to vacate school facilities ahead of schools opening on 21 July. However, as existing sites and monasteries are already crowded, many of the 3,000 conflict-affected displaced persons remain at schools. Local organisations from Kyauktaw are now building new temporary shelters expected to host the IDPs near monasteries outside of town.
  • 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. 
  • An estimated 6,000-7,000 people were displaced after the Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister ordered villagers around Kyauk Tan village to evacuate. 
  • An estimated 10,000 persons were displaced in southern Rathedaung Township after Tatmadaw soldiers entered the area in the evening of 29 June and reportedly clashed with the Arakan Army in subsequent days. The vast majority of people displaced from southern Rathedaung returned in early July. 

Table 1: Rakhine State government displacement figures

Township

16 March106 April205 May08 June21 June306 July4
Ponnagyun1,7792,3154,3733,0542,4802,829
Kyauktaw4,18811,21210,40611,36811,56711,180
Mrauk U16,08916,34416,60916,88816,88817,944
Minbya4,0244,0243,3134,3283,4113,411
Pauktaw365433498503503503
Sittwe1,6412,4222,8193,2113,1704,636
Myebon3,9144,2674,8034,7323,5503,550
Ann5785785781,0921,3012,184
Rathedaung15,06115,06114,57514,57514,57515,305
Buthidaung13,06412,53012,00111,09212,15312,153
Kyaukphyu287
Total60,70369,18669,97570,84369,59873,982

Table 2: Displacement in Paletwa, southern Rakhine State

17 March

10 April  09 June 06 July
Paletwa5 1,823 8,196 7,655 7,655

Table 3. Rakhine Ethnic Congress displacement figures

Township

01 April601 May708 June807 July9
Ponnagyun1,8424,7602,3142,513
Kyauktaw11,58412,25012,24111,495
Mrauk U16,41517,02717,19317,383
Minbya4,1112,7202,1672,150
Pauktaw410698598594
Sittwe3,4543,5483,8955,316
Myebon4,7423,6733,3172,357
Ann3268026641,443
Rathedaung8,7328,4868,2489,754
Buthidaung8,6067,9558,3748,821
Maungdaw622622632
Total60,84462,54159,64361,826

Humanitarian Access

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. 

  • Additional permission requirements for humanitarian responders in Rakhine and southern Chin states were announced in June. Private companies transporting goods by road from Yangon, and any movement of goods between field locations now require travel permissions from authorities. This follows the May announcement that all travel requests must be approved by the Tatmadaw’s Western Command.
  • Informal local responders continue to face barriers to providing humanitarian assistance, including harassment by the military. 
  • These restrictions should be understood in the context of the Tatmadaw’s long standing ‘four cuts’ policy; to starve insurgents of food, funds, intelligence and recruits. Restrictions on humanitarian access can thereby be expected in areas where the Tatmadaw suspects the Arakan Army of operating or suspects civilians of supporting the Arakan Army.

Dialogue

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.

Rohingya Communities

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.

  • Displaced and non-displaced Rohingya remain trapped inside conflict zones in central and northern Rakhine State. Movement restrictions, hostility and little access to healthcare make them especially vulnerable. 
  • COVID-19 restrictions on movement and gatherings have temporarily halted the smuggling of Rohingya from central Rakhine State and Bangladesh, and Rohingya en route are 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. 
  • On 8 June a boat carrying some 260 Rohingya refugees arrived in Malaysia. 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • COVID-19 restrictions on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State 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. 

Southern Rakhine State

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.

  • In Kyauk Phyu Township, some 300 people fled a village after Tatmadaw troops made arrests in their village and gun fire was heard.
  • In Taungup Township four men were killed by an explosion, thought to have occurred when they were planting a mine.

Fragmentation of Conflict

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. 

  • 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 was detained along with three other Chin ethnic men by the Arakan Army from 3 May to 1 June. 
  • An ethnic Chin 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. 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.

Governance

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.

  • The Arakan Army has established its own governance bodies in both rural and urban areas of the state to replace Naypyidaw’s. In many areas of central and northern 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. 
  • 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.
  • The one year anniversary of the mobile telecommunication network shutdown in Rakhine and southern Chin states was marked on 21 June. Instead of re-opening communication lines, however, authorities have sought to silence those who object. For their roles in organising protests, authorities have filed charges against activists in Rakhine State and Yangon. The Ministry of Transportation and Communication has indicated that the internet may be restored on 1 August 2020, providing there are “no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law” – an unlikely prospect in the current climate.

COVID-19 Updates

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 4 June, the first case of COVID-19 in northern Rakhine State was confirmed. The patient is a Rohingya man who had recently returned from Bangladesh with his family through informal channels. The patient’s wife was also found to have the virus on 18 June, the first and only case of local transmission in Rakhine State to date.
  • On 23 June, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe. The patient is an ethnic Rakhine trader who returned from Bangladesh on 21 June and submitted himself to quarantine in a downtown hotel. Contact tracing found that the virus had not spread to those he met in Sittwe.
  • The government has committed 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. Expectations that the policy would unfairly target Rohingya were confirmed in early July.

Elections

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 Arakan National Party announced the formation of township committees to select candidates in June. The party chairperson refused to comment on whether or not elections were feasible in the current climate.
  • The Union Election Commission has announced they will post voter lists online, citing COVID-19 and a desire to avoid large crowds assembling. Online voter lists and online training for electoral staff only make elections even more unlikely in internet shutdown areas of Rakhine and southern Chin states.
  • The Union Election Commission has announced that the previously separate Maungdaw and Buthidaung upper house constituencies will be one single constituency in 2020, a blow for ethnic Rakhine parties who traditionally dominate the centre and north of the state. This is likely to be perceived as gerrymandering, as the Union Electoral Commission is increasingly seen as partial to the ruling National League for Democracy. 

July: Looking Forward

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.