CASS Weekly Update

30 July - 6 August 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

Missed Connections

The government continues to restrict access to mobile internet, but limited openings offer some lines of relief

In mid-July, Rohingya diaspora in Malaysia and elsewhere had a pleasant, if time bound, surprise. For the first time in months, their families were making online audio and video calls from villages in central Rakhine State. In the midst of the world’s longest internet shutdown, mobile internet services had reappeared in some rural areas overnight. People spent hours on video calls catching up with brothers, sisters, and children they hadn’t spoken to since early 2019. The opening was short lived, however. Internet access stopped again after some 48 hours. It would later emerge that the internet lines had inadvertently been opened as a result of maintenance to physical infrastructure.

Then, on 1 August, the Norwegian telecommunication operation Telenor announced that the government was permitting operators to re-open 2G internet provision in eight townships of Rakhine and southern Chin states. Myanmar’s Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications had instructed operators to shut down the internet in nine townships on 21 June 2019. The internet connection was reinstated in full only in Maungdaw Township only on 2 May 2020, and remains restricted in all other locations.

Naypyidaw has given several justifications for the internet shutdown, all related to the ongoing active conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw. Authorities have frequently alleged that the Arakan Army uses WIFI signals to detonate explosives, but the Arakan Army continues to strike Tatmadaw targets with IEDs through internet shutdown areas regardless. It is likely the government’s intentions are also to limit the effectiveness of the Arakan Army’s sophisticated information campaign and cut its contacts with communities on the ground. The shutdown also serves to limit reports of potential Tatmadaw human rights abuses in the most controversial areas of Myanmar.

Getting Signals

Internet access is also heavily limited in the Rohingya refugee camps over the border in Bangladesh. On 9 September 2019 the Bangladeshi government ordered operators to limit networks to 2G capacity in the camp areas. Sources on the Bangladesh side of the border report that in some locations the signal emitting from Maungdaw Township is now stronger than the Bangladeshi one.

In this way, despite the modern international boundary separating Myanmar and Bangladesh along the Naf river, the limitations of the border remain clear. Just as the ancient Arakanese Kingdom spanned north from Mrauk U through Chittagong, many individuals continue navigate both sides of the border, and it is common for people to carry sim cards from networks established both east and west of the river. Humanitarian agencies could learn from this to improve their cross-border response. While agencies do have greater physical access to communities and camps in Bangladesh, responders in Myanmar may look to the response across the border to see what can be achieved with a 2G connection.

A 2G connection can transfer data at approximately 50 kbps, a 3G can manage upwards of 2Mbps, and 4G some 10Mbps. While people can send and receive messages through messaging applications on a 2G connection, sending and receiving images is difficult, and video exceedingly so. Voice and video calls are almost entirely out of the question. Stronger internet signals are available in certain areas, prompting people to climb trees or erect phones above houses on bamboo poles. Stronger signals also draw groups of people to hill tops, bridges and pagodas to connect. This is not without risk. Tatmadaw soldiers question young people ascending hills or pagoda platforms, suspicious of their intentions. Similarly, these are often areas inaccessible to certain demographics. In Buthidaung, internet signals are strong near a Tatmadaw base, where all civilians are wary of moving through. Within Rohingya communities, social norms limit the movement of women in particular. This puts further limitations on their access to information, while the subsection of men who can access information and stronger signals perform an information gate-keeping function.

Humanitarian responders need to be aware of how the internet shutdown affects certain communities more than others. The engagement of those who can access certain social spaces can serve to overcome some of these barriers, and can thus be seen as a means of accessing and disseminating information. Medical practitioners, and in particular midwives and traditional birth attendants, are trusted sources of information in all communities.

We’ve Got Bars, Now What?

Ultimately the reconnection of 2G presents considerable new opportunities that the Rakhine response must consider. Information sharing through mobile messaging applications is now possible, and this may be leveraged to provide rural communities with greater awareness of COVID-19. Low-resolution infographics can be shared and made accessible to illiterate communities who have limited access to information on COVID-19 and its impact. Humanitarian agencies can encourage people in areas with limited connectivity to share the information or infographics via common mobile phone applications such as Zapya which do not rely on an internet connection to transfer files.

Perhaps most importantly, cash transfer and microfinance mobile phone applications are now also accessible and more widely available, and agencies can further explore opportunities to inject cash into urban and rural communities who continue to face the economic impacts of COVID-19 and ongoing armed conflict. 

1. Arakan Army Leader’s Eid Wish Catches Attention

Online

The leader of the Arakan Army this week wished his Twitter followers a blessed feast on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha. Although this is not the first Eid wish Twan Mrat Naing has shared via his Twitter feed, the tweet caught the attention of journalists, international observers and Rohingya Muslims online, who responded positively to the expression.

A plural society? 

The tweet from the leader of the mostly ethnic Rakhine armed group is highly significant and symbolic. In the context of state-enforced segregation since 2012 and the aftermath of the atrocities of 2016-17, initiatives by leaders to foster a greater sense of inclusivity are exceedingly rare. The fact that the leadership of the Arakan Army has faced no visible backlash from its own ethnic Rakhine constituency challenges assumptions that communities themselves are resistant to reconciliation. Optimism, should however, be qualified. In the competition for international sympathy, the Arakan Army’s top leadership has an interest in minimising perceptions that it poses a threat to the Rohingya or other minorities. Reports of both Tatmadaw and Arakan Army abuses of Rohingya and other minority civilians continue to be reported.

2. Religious Tax Controversies

Central Rakhine State

As during this week, Muslim communities in Myanmar have been required to pay taxes to the government for animal sacrifices at Eid for decades. The tax is applied in an ad-hoc fashion across Myanmar and is a mix of formal and informal costs. In some areas, authorities provide health examinations of animals before they are sacrificed in return for the payment of the tax. The Minorities at Risk project reports that this tax was introduced by the military government in 1995, and Human Rights Watch has previously documented that Rohingya in Rakhine State face a series of unofficial ‘taxes’ for everything from getting married to keeping more cattle than those officially registered. However, in some locations there are now questions over the tax. As Naypyidaw’s governance structures have fallen apart or been co-opted, the Arakan Army has instituted new structures and taxes. Contradictory stories emerged from different areas this week about whether or not the Arakan Army was collecting the tax.

No big beef

The fact that the Arakan Army is not charging cattle tax in some areas is highly noteworthy. The cow and buffalo is highly revered in Buddhist Myanmar agricultural societies, where they are considered benefactors to farmers. Access to cattle and cattle policies are deeply political issues in Rakhine state, even more so for Muslim communities during Eid celebrations. In other areas, however, reports indicate that Arakan Army actors, or those using the name of the group, are demanding the tax be paid. The poor coordination suggests that it is unlikely that this is part of any Arakan Army international public relations campaign or any groundwork by the Arakan Army to build some sympathy among Muslim communities. Humanitarian agencies should continue to monitor sentiments among staff and communities, as shifts in sentiment are taking place rapidly. It should also be kept in mind that these shifts occur notoriously quickly in Rakhine State, where rumour is as much of a driver of dynamics as actual events. As such, reversals in sentiment can occur just as fast. CASS will continue to monitor reports of informal and formal tax collections.

3. Non-Stop Violence for Rohingya

Sittwe Township

At approximately 10pm on 2 August four Rohingya men on a motorcycle were reportedly shot by police after failing to stop at a checkpoint. One man died and another was hospitalised. When contacted by Radio Free Asia, the Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs minister reportedly alleged the men were instead involved in a machete fight, dismissing the report and noting that “they always do these kinds of things”.

Restricted Movement

Rohingya in all areas of Rakhine State continue to face both strict restrictions on movement and extrajudicial violence. Last week’s CASS Weekly Update did note that relationships between communities in locations such as Sittwe do show indications of improvements. This instance illustrates the fact that massive structural barriers remain. Furthermore, there are security considerations for agencies here. Police have been on the front lines of the war with the Arakan Army, and as such are likely under instruction to act first and ask questions later. As Sittwe remains the hub for the humanitarian response, agencies should take precautions and ensure security protocols are understood by all staff.

4. Rohingya See Few Voter Lists

Central and northern Rakhine State

Mostly-Rohingya Muslim communities in rural villages and internment camps in central and northern Rakhine State have reported the absence of voter lists in many areas ahead of 8 November elections. While CASS has not been able to survey all villages, a random sample of villages and camps in 13 areas suggests that voter lists remain unposted in many areas. As discussed in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, the absence of voter lists in many ethnic Rakhine villages is due to both the inaccessibly of conflict-affected areas and the disintegration of the General Administration Department’s governance structures. This is not the case in Muslim villages.

Non-inclusive

The absence of voter lists in Muslim areas of Rakhine State in part reflects the fact that Muslim voters remain disenfranchised. This has been the case since the Union Solidarity and Development Party abolished Temporary Identification Cards ahead of the 2015 election, effectively disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of people, most Rohingya Muslims. However, there are Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims in these areas who hold citizenship documents and who are eligible to vote. In Maungdaw and Myebon townships, the Township Administration has reportedly told Muslim communities as such. However, these voters have not been given an opportunity to review their details on voter lists, a crucial step towards holding elections. Humanitarian agencies should engage with this process, and encourage the Union Election Commission to post voter lists in all feasible areas when voter lists are again displayed in October.

5. Schools Out for Conflict

Northern Rakhine State

According to local civil society group Rakhine Ethnics Congress, more than 30% of people displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine State are school-aged students. As of 21 July, high schools which met the required standards for COVID-19 preventative measures have again opened throughout Myanmar. There are some 400 high schools in Rakhine State, but only 13 met the relevant standards. According to local media, a total of 230 high schools in the state’s five districts have reopened but will have to meet the standards or will be shut again. Local responders reported that ‘self-reliance’ schools are being built by communities themselves at some remote displacement sites such as Sa Nyin in Myebon Township, and War Taung in Kyauktaw Township. Monastic schools are also running educational services for IDP students in some townships. Where existing relationships are in place, agencies should consider to support both formal and informal education services centers.  

Support needed

The camp leaders note difficulties in the construction and administration of self-reliance schools due to a lack of materials and funds. Local religious groups and responders have collected bamboo donations from households, but are insufficient and local donors are scarce. Government school teachers also have security concerns as a result of active armed conflict, so 10th standard or university students are being recruited by camp leaders to teach. International response actors should consider engaging Parahita groups, local CSOs, religious groups and monastic school leaders to provide opportunities for conflict-affected children in remote areas to attend the school. COVID-19 response equipment, temporary learning buildings and school supplies are in short supply in many areas. One example is the Myadasaung monastic school, in the ancient city of Mrauk U, which remains a crucial resource because it provides disadvantaged children, including IDP students, with opportunities to learn. The Myanmar education system allows external examination for certain levels of schooling and agencies may be able to support monastic education centres in providing examinations. Cash payments will also support remote displacement sites to construct temporary learning spaces and hire teachers, while rice distributions to teachers are a flexible method of aid delivery. Donors have indicated flexibility for reporting requirements and in other contexts images of activities and outputs have been accepted as adequate.

6. Fight First, Talk Later

Naypyidaw

On 5 August, Government spokesperson Zaw Htay announced that the Arakan Army will not be invited to attend the fourth Union Peace Conference – now confirmed for 19-21 August – due to “legal constraints”. Meanwhile, seven other Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement non-signatory ethnic armed organisations will be invited to the conference, including the Arakan Army’s Brotherhood Alliance partners the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. In response to the announcement, the latter group has remarked that the other Brotherhood Alliance members will boycott the conference as a result. The previous CASS Weekly Update discussed the substantial barriers to the Arakan Army’s invitation.  

Symbolic exclusion

Overall, any optimism for peace talks between the two foes is premature.The government and the Tatmadaw appears committed to a military approach to weaken the Arakan Army’s negotiating power, before moving ceasefire talks which are widely considered inevitable. As such, the Tatmadaw is likely to continue the current scale of its operations against the Arakan Army at least until the election is over. Similarly, the Arakan Army can be expected to continue attempting to expand its influence and establish governance structures, and continue targeted killings and abductions. As such, agencies should be aware of the potential for escalation and prepare accordingly. Agencies present in townships which are less affected by conflict should also keep abreast of political tensions and security risks. In addition, humanitarian agencies prepare for potential additional displacement. While contested areas are less likely to hold polls, other townships may also experience electoral violence.

7. Rakhine Parties Announce Candidates

Rakhine State

This week two Rakhine ethnic political parties announced their candidates for the 8 November nationwide election. The Arakan National Party – the only ethnic party to win a majority of elected seats in any state parliament in 2015 – also announced that it would run candidates in all constituencies as well as in Yangon. The Arakan League for Democracy – which split from the dominant Arakan National Party in 2017 – has not fielded candidates in many areas of central Rakhine State. Like the National League for Democracy, the Arakan League for Democracy has been unable to find candidates for certain seats, although it is not clear whether this is due to safety concerns or a lack of interest. As discussed in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, the ruling National League for Democracy has been unable to field candidates in many areas of central Rakhine – likely a result of the Arakan Army’s consistent targeting of National League for Democracy members.

Revitalisation?

In many respects, western Myanmar’s experience with the 2020 election will be markedly different from the 2015 election. This is not only due to the fact that massive questions remain about the feasibility of elections in many conflict-affected areas, but also due to the fragmentation of political parties. While Rakhine parties were the only ethnic parties to successfully unite in 2015, the Arakan National Party soon split. While election observers have noted that in the context of Myanmar’s plurality voting system this risks splitting the ethnic Rakhine vote and favouring larger parties such as the National League for Democracy, National academic Gerard McCarthy recently noted on the Myanmar Musings podcast that this was the case in very few constituencies in ethnic areas in 2015. However, the expected shift away from the National League for Democracy and towards ethnic parties may result in a different trend in 2020. The fragmentation of political parties also represents splits in what is often assumed to be a uniform ‘Rakhine’ approach to the affairs of the state. Differences of opinion on policy – and between personalities – have prompted splits. In some cases, the Arakan National Party is refusing to allow some members to formally leave the party, meaning they cannot legally join other political parties and are forced to run as independents in November. Meanwhile, the Arakan National Party has taken this year as an opportunity for revitalisation, with a group of new, young candidates. In Myanmar’s octogenarian parliament, this is highly significant. The Arakan National Party old guard, are standing back from parliament but will remain within the party fold. Given that role that parliamentarians have played recently in facilitating support to conflict-affected communities, humanitarian agencies should develop constructive relationships with the young generation who seek to put their stamp on Rakhine State.

Other Developments

On 31 July the body of a 60 year old man was found in a latrine pit in Chein Kar Li village, coastal Rathedaung Township. The Tatmadaw entered that village after clashes with the Arakan Army on 13 July, prompting villagers to flee. On 14 July, the victim’s wife told local responders that she witnessed Tatmadaw troops shooting her unarmed husband at close range, but his body was only located this week. The Tatmadaw have denied the allegation.

Two boys aged 15 and 9 years old were reportedly killed and four other children injured after coming across unexploded ordnance in Rathedaung Township on Saturday 1 August. Landmines and unexploded ordnance were rare in Rakhine State until 2017, but have since become widespread. Mine risk education is desperately needed.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • With the Arakan Army’s absence from the Union Peace Conference now confirmed, tensions between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw will likely be played out on the battlefield. New displacement has already been reported in Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships since the announcement.
  • Academic and longtime Burma Watcher David Steinberg considers the recent spat between the US and Chinese embassies in Myanmar, “a tender gourd amidst the cactus”.
  • A bizarre and controversial music video featuring an attempted assisination of love-struck State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has stirred critics online. MyanmarMix explains the controversy.