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.
As political parties polarise and armed conflict continues, humanitarian agencies in western Myanmar shouldn’t expect a de-escalation in hostilities. But an escalation might not be on the cards either.
This week’s ‘In Focus’ considers the most likely scenarios ahead of Myanmar’s scheduled 8 November nationwide general elections with a particular focus on conflict-affected areas of western Myanmar. The focus of this section is on the immediate run up to the election, and election day itself, and is designed to facilitate forward-looking programming for humanitarian agencies. This section should be read to complement CASS’ regular reporting and monthly Scenario Plan Updates.
Any scenario planning in western Myanmar is fraught with risk. As such, the following comes with the disclaimer that western Myanmar’s recent turbulent past, an ongoing civil war, fractures between the civilian government and military, and a six week old COVID-19 outbreak make forecasting exceptionally difficult. This scenario plan, however, is based on an analysis of the most up-to-date information regarding western Myanmar and nationwide dynamics.
As noted in CASS’ Scenario Plan for Rakhine and Southern Chin State, the Union Election Commission remains likely to cancel or postpone polls in many areas of central and northern Rakhine State. This is primarily due to the ongoing civil war, but has been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 outbreak. The election commission has been unable to access many rural areas (and some urban areas) to post voter lists, while the administration structure that the commission relies on has collapsed or been co-opted by the Arakan Army in many areas. At this late stage, there is little time for catch-up preparation.
Last minute news
The election commission’s announcement on where polls will be held will be made in October, and will be informed by Tatmadaw recommendations about security. Polls may only be cancelled at the last minute. In 2015, cancellations were announced twice — three weeks before the election, then just 10 days before.
If elections are declared unviable in whole townships or constituencies, then polls will be postponed and a by-election will follow when feasible during the government’s 5-year term. By-elections were held during the current government’s term in 2017 and 2018. If polls are deemed feasible in certain areas of a constituency, but not in others, the election commission may declare that elections only go ahead in certain wards and village tracts, while they will be cancelled in others. No replacement by-elections will follow.
Despite the large numbers of COVID-19 cases being reported nationwide, and pressure from some opposition parties to postpone, the ruling National League for Democracy party and the election commission are reluctant to postpone elections on a nationwide scale due to the constitutional crisis this may invite. The military-designed 2008 Constitution demands that a new parliament be formed exactly five years after the previous one, and a suspension or transgression of this clause would require negotiations with the military. Sources suggest that the ruling party fears this would give the military an upper hand.
Any delay in polls would thereby probably only be until mid-January 2021, but even this seems unlikely. A National League for Democracy spokesperson recently suggested that they wish to rush the polls through now before the COVID-19 situation deteriorates. A rapid spread of the virus before 8 November is the only factor likely to force a postponement. However, nationwide postponement would not be read as marginalisation of Rakhine in particular. Indeed, the Arakan National Party has been among those encouraging a postponement of polls.
Cancellations or postponements in conflict-affected areas of central and northern Rakhine State will be fuel to the flames of narratives of central government neglect, and may bring about allegations of ‘electoral rigging by pandemic’. Trust in electoral democracy and interest in the upcoming elections is already low among communities in Rakhine State. While the Arakan National Party won a majority of elected seats in 2015 it was denied any power. Mistrust between Rakhine political parties and the central government was on display this week when the Arakan National Party accused state media of censoring its campaign speech. The Arakan Front Party subsequently announced it would boycott campaigning on state media.
While cancellations will feed into perceptions of neglect and marginalisation which may drive conflict, violence or large-scale demonstrations at polling places on election day is unlikely for several reasons. Polls in urban areas will be overseen by significant security force deployments. Moreover, election day attacks in civilian-heavy areas would risk numerous civilian casualties — something the Arakan Army has tried to avoid, particularly during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Arakan Army’s outward facing social media strategy also illustrates that the group is highly concerned with its international reputation. Bombing polling places is unlikely to win the group any sympathy. Perceptions that the central government has silenced the voice of Rakhine voters is more likely to fuel support for insurgency, which will be borne out in the months following elections.
While the likelihood of a spike in violence around elections is small, armed clashes between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw are likely to continue up to, and after, elections. The Tatmadaw remains committed to a military solution in western Myanmar, and the Arakan Army has continued to launch attacks on Tatmadaw targets. As noted in the most recent update to CASS’ Scenario Plan, the trajectory of conflict reflects that plan’s third scenario of ‘Status Quo’. However, the impact of COVID-19 on freedom of movement, access to healthcare and livelihoods, and humanitarian access means the humanitarian response and attendant impacts for communities better reflect the impacts detailed under the first scenario of ‘Escalation and Potential Fragmentation’.
Street demonstrations are likely to increase as elections approach. On 9 September, authorities in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, arrested three students from the Arakan Students’ Union who staged a protest in front of the Rakhine State government office. The students protested holding placards condemning the government’s policies in conflict-affected areas. Students also organized a related poster campaign across 15 townships in Rakhine State, which was soon picked up and replicated by students across the country in Yangon, Mandalay, Loikaw, Lashio and Hsipaw. The arrests of protesting students in Mandalay has given the movement added publicity, and further demonstrations by students may be expected when the Arakan Students’ Union protesters appear in a Sittwe court on 6 October.
Looking past the November elections, the big question is whether the incentives for government and military will have changed. The potential for a dialogue to emerge between the Arakan Army, government and Tatmadaw will be dependent on a realignment of incentives or a new set of decision makers. However, a new government will not take power before several months into 2021, and armed clashes should be expected to continue through that period. Meanwhile, hints of power shuffles and kingmaking will be evident over the coming months. There is a lot of speculation around whether the current Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief is seeking a vice-presidency or more, which would mean a change in Tatmadaw leadership — and perhaps a re-evaluation of strategy in western Myanmar.
Following the deployment of an estimated 2,500 Tatmadaw troops to northern Rakhine State’s Myanmar-Bangladesh border between 10 and 12 September, tensions between the two neighbours have risen. The Tatmadaw have not given any more justification for the deployment, after contrasting narratives were offered by civilian and military authorities last week. Despite assurances from Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the deployment is routine, Bangladeshi media continue to raise concerns about the deployment and further Rohingya refugee arrivals. Myanmar ‘security sources’ have also told The Irrawaddy media outlet that Bangladesh has similarly deployed heavily-armed troops to the opposite side of the border — although this has not been reported by Bangladeshi media. Insecurity in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh was highlighted this week, when authorities transferred all police (approximately 1,500 personnel) out of Cox’s Bazar district and brought in new police personnel. There have been ongoing reports of violence by armed groups in the camps, as well as an alleged split in the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Routine or exigency?
Myanmar security forces take the threat of armed Rohingya organisations extremely seriously, and its antagonistic relationship with Bangladesh does little to placate concerns. As noted in last week’s CASS Weekly Update, there are a number of immediate factors likely behind the Tatmadaw deployment to the border. The turbulence in the camps in Bangladesh, and the fears among decision-makers of a large scale Rohingya return is likely to be one. Tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar have been high since the 2016 and 2017 Tatmadaw clearance operations pushed almost 800,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. Following a government directive in April 2019, members of the Border Guard Bangladesh paramilitary force have been deployed near the border and on the touristic St Martin’s Island. In addition to Tatmadaw concerns about Rohingya returns — particularly during the time of COVID-19 — there are significant concerns about international justice mechanisms. The Tatmadaw deployment followed fast on the heels of reports that Bangladesh had cooperated to send two Tatmadaw soldiers to the International Criminal Court to provide testimony against the Tatmadaw. Rather than deploying troops to prevent further Tatmadaw desertions, however, the deployment may be simply to alarm Bangladesh. For now, no armed clashes have been confirmed. The Tatmadaw troops have reportedly refrained from entering villages and no human rights violations have been reported.
Rathedaung Township, northern Rakhine State
On 23 September, thousands of villagers fled their homes from near the Mayu River in the southern part of Rathedaung Township, Rakhine State, to nearby villages and Sittwe as a result of the deployment of Tatmadaw naval vessels at Nganabya jetty, and indiscriminate shooting by the navy into residential areas. Local news outlet Narinjara reported that two naval vessels harboured at Nganapya port on Moe Zay Island, some two miles north of Ku Taung village in southern Rathedaung Township. An estimated 2,000 villagers from Ku Taung village — almost half the population — have fled their homes due to the presence of Myanmar troops at Nganapya jetty, and fears of being caught in new hostilities. The Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) representative for Rathedaung Township U Khin Maung Latt reported to Myanmar Now that almost 10,000 villagers from five villages — Shwe Laung Tin, Kan Pyin, Myin Gan Chaung, U Gar, and Ku Taung villages — left their homes this week and fled to Yae Pike Sone and Zee Kaing villages, as well as urban Sittwe. While these numbers cannot be confirmed, Rathedaung Township is among the most conflict-affected areas in Rakhine State, and the Rakhine State Government reported a total of 16,718 displaced persons there on 16 September. According to local communities, an official request has been submitted to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to build new sites to host newly displaced people in U Gar and Yae Paik Sone villages. However, there has been no response from the government at the time of writing. Consequently, the immediate needs of the displaced — particularly with regard to shelter — are not being met.
Continued armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army in Rathedaung Township, as well as troop movements alongside the Mayu river, threaten the security of residents in southern Rathedaung Township amid the surge of COVID-19 cases in Rakhine State. Under severe restrictions for humanitarian agencies, and a lack of resources for local parahita groups and religious leaders, thousands of newly displaced people in Rathedaung Township are in need of shelter, food, and other humanitarian services. Numerous villagers have fled their homes for fear of being caught in hostilities, and more general concerns about troop movements. Talking to local news, one villager echoed a sentiment often heard in western Myanmar, that, “they are more afraid of military atrocities than the COVID-19 virus infection.” Accordingly, civilian casualties have continued to be reported. In one instance on 25 September, an infant girl from Anaukpyin (Muslim) village in Rathedaung Township was injured by a bullet reportedly fired from a naval vessel in the Mayu River. At an online press conference on 26 September, Major General Zaw Min Tun of the Tatmadaw True News Information Team claimed that the Tatmadaw retaliated with heavy weapons because the Arakan Army attacked the vessels. There are no indications that these operations against the Arakan Army will slow down, despite the COVID-19 outbreak. The number of internally displaced people has continued to rise over the past few weeks in Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Buthidaung and Myebon townships. Response actors should encourage authorities to account for displaced persons in the area and provide for needs for all communities. Literary and cultural associations may also be able to support in accounting for displaced persons from smaller ethnic communities whose experiences are often underreported in this context. Given the shortages in shelters reported by contacts in the area, international response actors should consider engaging parahita organizations, CSOs, and religious groups to assist newly displaced people in these areas.
The Arakan National Party has accused state media of censoring a campaign speech this week, while unknown actors have damaged numerous National League for Democracy sign boards. Speeches and signboards are among the few avenues for parties to communicate with voters — especially in 2G-only areas — as the ongoing ‘stay-at-home’ order across Rakhine State prohibits physical campaigning. The Arakan National Party has accused state media of removing sections in its speech about the erosion of Rakhine peoples’ rights, and of softening its terminology regarding the ongoing war in Rakhine. At least four other non-Rakhine parties have also accused state media of censoring their speech in recent weeks, prompting the Arakan Front Party to announce it will boycott campaigning on state media. Meanwhile, the National League for Democracy has taken down one of its campaign sign boards in Man Aung Township in response to villagers’ objections, while an additional six sign boards were damaged by unknown actors in Taungup and Myebon townships. In another incident in downtown Sittwe, the state capital, two large National League for Democracy banners were destroyed on 25 September.
Expected political tension
The space for electoral campaigning in western Myanmar has shrunk dramatically over the last month, feeding centre-periphery tensions and suggesting a difficult relationship between Rakhine parties and the union government post-November. Although the perpetrators remain unknown, incidents of destroying campaign sign boards may lead to further political tensions. The National League for Democracy won most seats in Gwa, Taungup, Thandwe and Man Aung townships in southern Rakhine State in the 2015 election. However, the destruction of sign boards indicates the declining popularity of the party — or attempts to swing undecided voters towards ethnic Rakhine parties. The National League for Democracy party’s popularity has already been eroded by the few protections it can offer civilians affected by armed clashes, and a perceived inability to stabilise western Myanmar. The trend of sign board vandalism has not been limited to Rakhine State, however. National League for Democracy sign boards have also been destroyed in Mon State’s Mawlamyine, Yay, Paung, Thanbyuzayat and Kyaikmaraw townships. Notably, in Yay Township a National League for Democracy flag was set alight, and the party reported the case to the Union Election Commission. A Union Betterment Party signboard was also reported stolen in Mudon Township, Mon State. At this stage in the political campaign, political parties should expect to encounter minor acts of vandalism, yet they appear particularly keen for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. For response actors, it is important to not get too drawn into tit-for-tat acts of political vandalism, but recognise that these tensions exist. Meanwhile, priorities should be given to vulnerable IDPs and the diverse impacts of COVID-19, since the backdrop of armed conflict can not be expected to slow down any time soon.
While the Tatmadaw have extended their unilateral ceasefire up to 31 October, they continue to exclude areas where armed groups designated as ‘terrorist’ organisations by the government are active: western Myanmar. The Brotherhood Alliance, which consists of the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, holds a unilateral ceasefire due to expire on 9 November, but clashes have continued in western Myanmar and Northern Shan State despite ceasefires from both sides.
Local welfare groups are calling for international support for the most disadvantaged in Yangon who have lost their income due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some of the urban landless poor have reportedly resorted to catching and eating snakes or marsupials. Interested agencies can reach out to CASS to get in touch with local responders.
The Union Election Commission, International IDEA, the Asia Foundation and the European Union have come under criticism from Justice for Myanmar activists for the use of the term ‘Bengali’ in a mobile phone application designed to give voters more information about election candidates. The activists have said the groups are “complicit in the erasure of Rohingya identity”.
Voters will be able to check voter lists and file any required changes online for two weeks from 1 October. The process will facilitate greater access to voting for those under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, but offers little relief for those with only 2G internet accessibility in western Myanmar.