CASS Weekly Update

7 - 12 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

All Eyes on Arakan

As the country watches escalating conflict and international investment developments in western Myanmar, what will it take for dialogue and a halt in hostilities?

Following the government’s announcement that it will not invite the Arakan Army to next week’s fourth Union Peace Conference, and the Brotherhood Alliance’s subsequent boycott, questions have been raised over the inclusivity of the peace process. If non-signatory groups decide not to attend, the government will be left only with the 10 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory groups – hardly a ‘nationwide’ initiative.

Non-signatory groups who are yet to respond to their invitations to the 19-21 August conference are all members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) which includes Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed group, the 30,000 troop strong United Wa State Army. Other members of the FPNCC include the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army, Mongla’s National Democratic Alliance Army and the four Northern Alliance members the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

The previous Union Peace Conference took place in July 2018, when the three Brotherhood Alliance members (the AA, MNDAA and TNLA) attended as observers. The Tatmadaw reportedly offered the three groups an opportunity to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, but only on the condition of disarmament – a condition the groups deemed unacceptable. Months later the AA dramatically escalated its fight in western Myanmar.

Given the AA’s exclusion from the peace process this year, FPNCC members are likely to skip the conference in protest. Despite the AA’s exclusion, the future of the process very much depends on what happens in Rakhine State, and armed groups all over the country are watching developments there.

Both communities and ethnic armed organisations from Myanmar’s other borderlands are struck by the youthfulness of the AA’s leadership, its unprecedented tactics, and its proven ability to successfully conduct insurgency through the waterways and villages of central and northern Rakhine State. Despite multiple armed insurgencies’ attempts to challenge the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar since the 1950s, none have achieved what the AA has, nevermind in such a short time.

The Elephant Not in the Room

In all this pre-conference politicking, China is mostly conspicuous in its absence. In previous conferences China served to some extent as a broker, encouraging non-signatories to attend or ensuring security guarantees for delegates. This year, there has been no visible intervention. China may be taking a back seat due to recent Tatmadaw allegations of its role in Myanmar’s internal conflicts. During an interview with Russian media in June this year, Myanmar’s Commander in Chief decried how neighbouring countries were providing support to ‘terrorist’ organisations in Myanmar. Myanmar’s top military leader has also previously raised concerns about Chinese arms reaching insurgents with Beijing’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs, and Chinese President Xi Jingping himself.

Meanwhile, with its business interests moving ahead regardless, China may be taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to the peace process. Despite fierce fighting in western Myanmar showing no signs of letting up, last week Myanmar approved the registration of a Myanmar-Chinese joint venture to develop a strategic deep sea port in Kyaukphyu Township, central Rakhine State. Fighting between the AA and Tatmadaw has disrupted Indian attempts to build a land corridor through western Myanmar, but China is moving confidently ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative projects.

Regional Interests, Local Conflicts

While the conflict in western Myanmar is primarily driven by a mix of historical and contemporary local grievances, the injection of regional power politics and massive financial investment has dramatically raised the stakes. Control of key strategic corridors may be enough to force negotiators’ hands, or to join hands with unlikely partners.

With dialogue unthinkable for now, and international investment continuing to be injected, humanitarian agencies should expect armed clashes to continue. Concurrently, locations crucial to investment projects will likely be hotspots for labour abuses, land confiscation, environment disruption and displacement. As seen repeatedly since the escalation of conflict in western Myanmar, it is civilians who are most negatively impacted.

Through Paletwa Township, southern Chin State, civilians have been displaced in large numbers along and nearby the Indian-financed Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Project. Approximately 8,323 persons remained displaced there in mid-July. While the AA has said it has no problems with Chinese investment in western Myanmar, clashes, arrests, abductions and displacement have occurred through 2020 in Kyaukphyu Township. If this becomes a trend in Kyaukphyu, the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw will likely begin a harsh crackdown on civilians deemed sympathetic to the Arakan Army. Any violent escalation so close to its investment may force China to again interfere and encourage dialogue.

In the meantime, agencies should ensure that preparations are in place for the set of challenges which western Myanmar will face. Civil society organisations will need to be equipped for the eventual responsibilities they are likely to take under any ceasefire deal –  ceasefire monitoring, mine risk education, and protection reporting. Other capacities for dealing with land confiscations, environmental disruption, and the likely influx of migrant workers should also be considered. Next week at the peace conference, however, developments on the ground in western Myanmar are sure to dominate sidebar conversations in Naypyidaw.

1. Civilians Flee As Operations Spread

Northern Rathedaung Township

Tatmadaw operations in northern Rathedaung this week spread to the western bank of the Mayu river, prompting displacement and longer term disruption. Clashes have continued almost everyday in northern Rathedaung Township between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army since the 23 June order from the Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister for villagers to evacuate ahead of Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’. This week Tatmadaw troops have entered villages on the west bank of Mayu river, near Pyine Shey (Sa Hpo Kyun) village. Some 10 navy ships have also remained in the areas following a 2 August clash  between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army near Ah Htet Nan Yar village. Those navy vessels were accused by the media of firing indiscriminately into Aung Kyaung Taung village on 9 August, and injuring three men. Local people reported that the navy vessels dropped off hundreds of soldiers near the area the same day, some of whom slept in villages. Due to the troop arrivals and searches of villages  thousands of villagers from Doe Wai Chaung, Aung Zay Kone, Kan Pyin, Pyine Shey (Sa Hpo Kyun), Pyin Wan, Kyein Tan and Hmani Pyin villages have fled to other villages nearby on the west of the Mayu river.

Civilian uncertainties

Rathedaung has been among the most armed conflict-affected townships since the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army escalated in 2018/19, and the intensity of clashes there continues to represent this. One the western bank of the Mayu river, the situation is unstable as troops from both sides are moving through the area and communities are expecting clashes or abuses by Tatmadaw troops. Displacement at this time is extremely disruptive, as there is a need to monitor paddy, or finalise planting. Communities also have serious concerns about landmines and IEDs, which are used by both sides of this conflict. To that end, mine risk education will be important. The use of mines and IED is relatively novel in Rakhine State, and any returnees will face a series of challenges they are unprepared for. Displacement will also put pressures on food supplies in host communities, and agencies should engage with CSOs who can accept cash payments to facilitate distributions. As humanitarian access is likely to remain limited due to ongoing conflict and tight government policies, agencies should also consider reaching out to local township authorities and local Tatmadaw operation officers to negotiate access to these areas. Religious leaders may be able to help facilitate some of these conversations.

2. IDPs face food shortages

Pi Pin Yin IDP site, Mrauk-U township

IDPs in Pi Pin Yin displacement site in Mrauk-U Township are facing food shortages. Originally from Pauktaw Pyin, Vesali, Letkha, Hpa Yar Gyi and Bu Ywet Ma Nyo villages, the thousands of displaced people there rely on mountains, farming and plantations for their livelihoods. However, Tatmadaw troops have deployed east of the IDP site near the ancient Thin Kwat Taung pagoda, restricting safe movement. According to local sources, Tatmadaw troops fire warning shots if people go near the mountains. Landmines are another concern, and IDPs report reluctance to travel to fishing or firewood sites due to the potential for mines. Attempts to return to villages of origin at Pauk Taw Pyin and Vesali village areas have resulted in Tatmadaw troops turning civilians around or inspections. Civilians fear arbitrary arrest and violence.

No relief

The last delivery of relief from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to Pi Pin Yin occurred in early May 2020, and supplies are now running low. Camp leaders report that they do not know why the government has stopped providing food supplies. IDPs are relying on assistance from the WFP, but needs reportedly remain. Tatmadaw troops movement along the Yangon-Sittwe main road through the areas have increased after a late July clash with the Arakan Army, while fighters from the latter group are also in the vicinity. Humanitarian access is likely to remain limited due to a heavy Tatmadaw presence at the ancient Thin Kwat Taung pagoda nearby. Local aid groups however, have found creative ways to access IDP sites for distributions by avoiding the main road. Camp leaders and CSOs have access to markets, so additional cash payment support is needed to buy rice and foodstuffs. Humanitarian agencies should reach out to local actors to support displaced persons. Parahita groups, monastic organisations and camp leaders can provide foodstuffs with the support of international agencies. Appropriate agencies should also advocate for local authorities’ cooperation with local CSOs and humanitarian agencies to access that area.

3. Arrests and Civilians Casualties on the Rise

Northern Rakhine state

A spike in explosions and clashes near civilian areas this week has resulted in numerous civilian casualties. On 9 August, the Tamadaw entered Ah Pauk Wa village, Kyauktaw Township, where they detained about 50 villagers including young women. Three men were injured (video) during Tatmadaw interrogations, and another 400 people fled to Kyauktaw urban area. In separate incidents, four villagers were injured by indiscriminate fire from Tatmadaw navy vessels in Rathedaung Township, a teenage girl from Ann Township was also reportedly killed by a landmine explosion near her village, and two men were injured by gunfire from an unidentified group on the Maungdaw-Ah Nga Maw road. One Mrauk U man also died in military custody this week, raising concerns about the treatment of detainees.

Civilian targets?

The numerous arrests and injury to mostly young Rakhine people have prompted many youth to be extremely conscious of their actions in the face of potential searches, interrogation, arbitrary arrest and even prolonged detention by security forces. As of 7 August, Radio Free Asia reported that there were 604 injured and 278 civilians killed as a result of armed conflict in Rakhine and Chin states since December 2018. Local media also reports that there are about 30 Rakhine youth arrested by the Tatmadaw between January 2020 to date on suspicions of affiliation with the Arakan Army, and their family members have received no information on their whereabouts. While the Tatmadaw has promised to investigate one instance of the violent torture of four accused men, there has been little transparency and previous instances of Tatmadaw internal accountability has been weak. Armed groups’ use of religious and historic buildings, villages and public places to launch offensives has also led to disruption to infrastructure and livelihoods. Rural people are concerned about their safety when working paddy fields or engaging in livelihood activities near the mountains due to increased incidence of landmine and IED explosions near residential areas. Creative ways to share information about the risks of mines and IED may be found through the newly-open (if limited) internet connections, the sharing of infographics through offline data-transfer applications such as Zapya, or through partnerships with CBOs and monastery actors who are already accessing locations.

Other Developments

Six people were charged under Myanmar’s Counter Terrorism Law in Mandalay Region’s Pyin Oo Lwin this week for their alleged role in August 2019 Brotherhood Alliance attacks on Tatmadaw positions along the Mandalay-Muse road. The Brotherhood Alliance has released a statement saying that the newly imprisoned men are civilians with no links to the August 2019 attacks.

New rumours online that the Chin National Front has deployed troops to southern Chin State are likely to raise tensions between communities, and agencies should be sensitive to changing dynamics.

Despite safety concerns hindering candidate selection, the ruling National League for Democracy has announced candidates for 12 more seats in Rakhine State, meaning it will contest all Rakhine seats in the 2020 election, excluding the Chin Ethnic Affairs seat. The military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party has meanwhile announced its candidates for all seats in the state.

The All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress has submitted a report on human rights violations committed by the Tatmadaw and government amid armed conflict in Rakhine State to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • 13 August is Arakan Rice Massacre Day, which marks the military’s brutal 1967 crackdown on Sittwe crowds protesting rice shortages. It is estimated that between 300 and 400 civilians were killed. The commemoration of the lives lost to the brutality of the central government is a key date in the shared memory of Rakhine nationalists.
  • This Medium Podcast and article recounts the experience of how a former Tatmadaw solider, who had converted to Islam and married a Rohingya woman, escaped from a massacre at Tula Toli during Tatmadaw ‘clearance operations’ in 2017.