CASS Weekly Update

23 - 29 July 2020

Contributing information sources to the CASS Weekly Update 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.

In Focus

The Toll of No Polls

While elections may be unlikely in Rakhine and southern Chin states, the nationwide political mobilisation will continue to polarise western Myanmar

The countdown to Myanmar’s 8 November nationwide general elections is now truly underway. The Union Election Commission has this week posted voter lists at ward and village administration offices across the country, where they will remain until 7 August as voters request corrections. The lists will reportedly be posted again for review in October.

As elsewhere in central and northern Rakhine, voter lists are scarce on the ground in Myebon Township. The Union Election Commission relies heavily on the ward and village tract administration structure to implement elections, but over 60 village and ward tract administrators resigned in Myebon on 5 June, citing fears of being trapped between the warring Arakan Army and Tatmadaw. Communities in some IDP sites and villages in Myebon Township report little knowledge of any upcoming election, and point to a communication breakdown between the township and village administration.

Crucially, the Arakan Army has been building its own, new, systems of local governance, while Naypyidaw’s ward and village tract administration structure – its interface between government and the people – has been co-opted, pushed out or simply made irrelevant in many areas. The escalation of hostilities has disrupted any previous sense of normality and there is little sign of preparation for elections in many central and northern areas of the state.

As noted in CASS’ Rakhine and southern Chin State Scenario Plan, the failure of the Union Election Commission to prepare voter lists makes polls very unlikely. While cancellations probably will only be announced in October, the absence of voter lists is one step on the path to cancellations.

Clearly, the lack of polls does not mean Rakhine State will be unaffected by elections. The impact of nationwide political mobilisation is already heightening tensions and polarising communities. This was exemplified in the ruling National League for Democracy party’s candidate lists, which it released on 23 June. The party is contesting 1,132 of the 1,171 constituencies nationwide, with most of the non-contested seats those in self-administered areas of northern Shan State. But the party has also left big gaps in Rakhine State. The National League for Democracy’s failure to put forward candidates for 12 seats in central Rakhine State reflects the fact that the party has struggled to find people willing to represent them. This is unsurprising, given the Arakan Army’s consistent targeting of National League for Democracy representatives, at least one of whom has died in Arakan Army custody. This is also likely a recognition of the fact that the National League for Democracy has little to gain from standing in these seats, which were won convincingly by the Arakan National Party in 2015.

While the Arakan Army’s three-member alliance, the Brotherhood Alliance, last week released a conciliatory statement calling for free and fair elections, there was an air of smugness behind the words on paper. Naypyidaw may well have to rely on Arakan Army buy-in for elections to go ahead in western Myanmar. The issue could force the government to come to the negotiating table, something it has been reluctant to do with a group it has designated a ‘terrorist organization’. The Arakan Army has said it will cease attacks during the election, but has continued to attack Tatmadaw convoys with IEDs along main transportation routes. The Tatmadaw, in the midst of a military push against the Arakan Army, seems uninterested in dialogue. It is not clear whether the Tatmadaw is interested in letting polls go ahead.

As such, escalation appears more likely than de-escalation for the time being. Humanitarian actors should expect both further violent disruption to the vital Yangon-Sittwe main road, and targeted violence against high-profile individuals perceived to be supportive of the Naypyidaw government. The latter type of violence has affected urban areas in recent history, and response actors should be sensitive to these political tensions in the areas where they operate.

Meanwhile, the risks for ward and village tract administrations remain as dire as ever. Implementation at the village tract level needs to be sensitive to the pressures that administrators are under, while response actors must recognise that the role of administrators in some areas has changed in nature. The government’s continued prosecution of anyone who engages with the Arakan Army makes engagement with the new structure impossible. What agencies can do is monitor these shifts and continue to support the communities who are facing the same competing pressures.

Communities remain disengaged more broadly with the political process, and this can have real repercussions on the ground. Perceptions that the Union Election Commission is not doing enough to prepare for elections may also stir further discontent. The election commission is appointed by the ruling party, and is thus justifiably open to criticism of bias. The National League for Democracy has historically lost to local ethnic parties in central and northern Rakhine State, and will not be expecting success this year. Perceptions that the commission is deliberately excluding ethnic Rakhine voters in IDP sites or elsewhere will drive further disillusionment with the electoral process, protest, and disengagement with the rules of Naypyidaw. This will only fuel more of the same violence that Rakhine has seen for the last 19 months.

1. Flu-Like Symptoms in IDP Sites Prompt Health Concerns

Central and Northern Rakhine State

An influenza outbreak has been reported in several IDP sites in Mrauk U, Minbya, Buthedaung and Sittwe townships. IDPs are suffering from the virus in approximately ten sites in urban Mrauk U, infecting over 100 people in monasteries. In Minbya township, Ann Thar Ywa and Thae Kan are among the most populated camps and report numerous cases. The instance of the virus in these sites has been contained thanks to support provided by the Myanmar Health Assistant Association and village tract health assistants. However, many people suffering from the flu in IDP sites in Sittwe and Buthidaung townships lack access to healthcare due to financial restraints. In Sittwe, 50 people among an estimated 170 IDPs in the Tayzar Yarma Meditation Monastery are unwell. According to Chin University Students in Rakhine State, 15 children from the Ward (4) Mro IDP site in Buthidaung town have also reported infections, but lack treatment options.The monsoon season from June to September is the usual influenza season in Myanmar, but this year will spark additional COVID-19 concerns.

Flu season

While the virus has been diagnosed as seasonal influenza, there has been no COVID-19 testing done among the IDPs. Testing has been limited in Myanmar as a whole, creating great difficulties in tracking COVID-19, but one man in Kyauktaw Township was confirmed to have the virus earlier this month. Medical agencies should support authorities to expand testing to IDP sites, while humanitarian agencies should continue to share and follow COVID-19 precautionary measures. Assuming the virus is influenza, both medical and financial assistance are needed to ensure treatment for patients. Although vaccination is an effective way to prevent infection, many displaced persons are not able to afford vaccination. Movement restrictions due to checkpoints and active fighting also prevent people from seeking healthcare services and accessing treatment. Tein Nyo site in Mrauk U Township has a particular lack of access to healthcare at the site, while movement to urban Mrauk U is limited by a large Tatmadaw presence along the Sittwe-Yangon road. While there is a healthcare facility in Tein Nyo, the doctor is reportedly being transferred out. Financial support to people from IDP sites who can access health services in downtown are needed and can be sent via mobile application. As the monsoon season is barely underway, agencies should consider direct advocacy to authorities for accessible medical services including vaccines and COVID-19 testing capacity at IDP sites.

2. Closing Window: Planting Season Ends as IDPs Struggle

Southern Coastal Rathedaung Township

Following Tatmadaw-Arakan Army clashes since 11 July, an unconfirmed number of people – estimated between 1,000 and 3,000 – from the southern Rathedaung coastal area have fled to nearby villages. Three civilians were reportedly wounded by heavy shelling and another two injured by stray gunfire in the fighting. Many of these IDPs are sheltering at Angu Maw (Kone Tan) village where the host community and local responders are providing emergency support. Others have fled to urban Sittwe and villages on the western bank of Mayu River. A small number of IDPs return daily to their villages to do paddy farming, but do not stay the night due to security concerns and a large Myanmar security forces presence. Public vehicle movement along the Angu Maw and Maungdaw road has been minimal. The coastal Angu Maw-Maungdaw road is also used by humanitarian agencies to access Maungdaw from Sittwe and represents a particularly contentious geography.

Support needed

Displacement at this time in the agricultural season is highly disruptive, as the window for planting monsoon paddy is now closed. Farmers who have been unable to plant due to armed conflict and displacement will likely face future food and financial insecurity, with follow-on impacts to education. IDPs in southern coastal Rathedaung are in need of food and shelter support, as host community responders are increasingly overwhelmed. Cash payments to communities or CSOs are possible, as IDPs have access to markets. WASH support is also urgently needed as latrines are insufficient to support the IDP population. The presence of local responders in the area presents international agencies an opportunity to explore options for a localised response, and CASS remains available to support international agencies in such engagement. Agencies should also recognise that this area represents a particularly vexed context. Bordering Maungdaw Township, this is an area from which numerous Rohingya villages were displaced during Tatmadaw 2017 ‘clearance operations’, and where authorities have bulldozed villages to make way for an upgraded road and new Border Guard Police Stations. The Arakan Army has to date been wary of attacking the Tatmadaw on Rohingya land, likely due to concerns of a reaction from Bangladesh. Bangladesh wishes to see Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar, but has so far turned a blind eye to the Arakan Army’s use of its border. In this context, international agencies should be cognizant of how their programmes may impact on consolidating different stakeholders’ control of land taken from the Rohingya.

3. Tailoring the Four Cuts

Central and Northern Rakhine State

In an apparent attempt to respond to the conflation of civilians and combatants in armed insurgency in Rakhine State, the Tatmadaw has begun ordering the clearance of civilians from rural areas before ‘clearance operations’, and is expanding restrictions on the movement of food goods and humanitarian aid. As mentioned in the CASS June Scenario Plan Update, the Tatmadaw has ordered villages to vacate both the Kyauk Tan area of northern Rathedaung Township and the Dar Lat village tract area of Ann Township. Such orders have resulted in additional displacement to nearby towns and villages. More recently, the Tatmadaw has also restricted civilians’ use of waterways in those areas and threatened that those using waterways will be considered as Arakan Army personnel and be shot. According to local sources and CSOs in Ann Township, the Tatmadaw is continuing to block the waterway and seize all motorboats from the Dar Let area while restricting the movement of rice and other foodstuffs in areas of Ann and Myebon townships.

The blame game

The trend of forced displacement and increased restrictions on movements of people and rice is highly concerning. Previously, displacement in this conflict was mostly either a result of armed clashes, the presence of security forces, or forced by the Tatmadaw through indiscriminate shelling into civilian areas, food blockages, or other abuses. The new approach may be in response to domestic and international criticism over the high numbers of civilian casualties. As previously discussed in the CASS June Scenario Plan Update, the intent of the new approach may be to avoid blame for civilian casualties. The effect is also to shift blame to the Arakan Army, who do move and camp around civilian areas. Indeed, both parties are using tactics which impact civilians to an extent, although the Arakan Army clearly has a greater interest in minimising these impacts. Humanitarian agencies should note that the Tatmadaw’s restrictions on movements and goods can only be expected to escalate, and are impacting both international and national humanitarian responders. Rakhine CSOs are most at risk of being suspected as sympathetic to the Arakan Army, and international partners should be sensitive to how this may affect local partner’s security considerations, access and relationships with authorities. Finally, international agencies should expect an increase of IDPs in urban areas as restrictions affect those in rural villages and IDP sites, while support is more easily accessed in urban sites.

4. Reconciliation Indications Among IDPs

Sittwe Township

This week in Sittwe Township, donations for mostly ethnic Rakhine persons displaced by armed conflict came from an unlikely source: displaced Muslims in the same township. The donation to the Rakhine Students Union from the Rakhine Muslims Student Union for the purpose of humanitarian response prompted a visit by Rakhine students to the Sittwe camp complex to assess conditions. While this has been hailed as progress for reconciliation in some quarters, others point to structural limitations of mammoth proportions.

Time heals all wounds? 

While there remains a great deal of unprocessed trauma and tension between communities in Rakhine State, there continue to be indications of a gradual rapprochement at the ground level. Muslims in towns such as Sittwe are gradually and cautiously increasing their movement to markets, healthcare centres and social settings, and downtown Buddhist communities are not pushing back. This is not a phenomenon pushed by any leadership of either community, and some Rakhine political leaders in Sittwe simply feel that ‘time has healed’ some of the problems between the communities. Some people in both Rakhine and Rohingya communities point to how the inclusive rhetoric of the Arakan Army’s top leadership has been adopted on the ground. The limitations of any reconciliation is painfully clear. How can communities engage on an equal standing under state-enforced apartheid conditions? At the same time, however, it is important to recognise the agency and resilience among both Rakhine and Rohingya communities who are committed to improving their relationships with other communities, regardless of the dictates of Naypyidaw. Ultimately, international agencies should recognise that meaningful social change cannot be imposed from external forces.

Other Developments

Hindu communities in Sittwe Township have offered humanitarian relief to mostly ethnic Rakhine IDPs there, citing solidarity between the communities and support that Rakhine groups gave Hindus displaced by violence in 2012.

The Tatmadaw has transferred the head of its Western Command, Major General Phone Myat, to deputy Minister for Border Affairs, one of the three Tatmadaw-led ministries at the Union level. Major General Htin Latt Oo will become the new head of Western Command, which covers the territory contested by the Arakan Army.

On 27 July, 118 CSOs from Rakhine State demanded an investigation by “an independent and impartial team” to ensure justice for an ethnic Rakhine woman allegedly raped by three Tatmadaw soldiers on 30 June. The Tatmadaw is reportedly conducting its own internal investigation, and prior experience suggests it will avoid an external investigation.

Formal and informal village leaders continue to be caught in the crossfire. A village leader in Kyaukphyu was briefly detained by the military on suspicions of links to the Arakan Army last week, while a village leader in southern Chin State was found dead in Paletwa after his reported abduction by the Arakan Army.

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  • The government has previously noted that the internet shutdown will continue up to 1 August, but has not officially announced an extension of the shutdown, nor its end.