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Increasingly frosty relations reflect Myanmar’s concerns regarding Beijing’s clout. The willingness of Myanmar to diversity its foreign relations should be reassuring to international agencies.
On 16 November, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping wrote to National League for Democracy (NLD) chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, congratulating her on her party’s landslide victory in Myanmar’s 8 November elections. While Beijing was the first foreign power to congratulate the winning party following Myanmar’s 2010 and 2015 election results, this year the letter was surprisingly late. This should not be surprising — relations between Myanmar and its northern neighbour have been increasingly frozen through 2020.
Whether actively engaged or aloft, as the regional superpower, China is critical for Myanmar. Beijing holds unrivalled influence over ethnic armed organizations across the Myanmar-China border, making it crucial for Myanmar’s peace process. China has facilitated and hosted numerous peace talks, and donated USD 1 million to the peace process in 2017 and another USD 1 million in 2019. During the NLD government’s first term, Beijing invited the powerful Northern Alliance armed groups bloc to southern China before flying them to Naypyidaw for the government’s 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference — despite the Northern Alliance previously rejecting the meeting.
This year, however, the China-Myanmar relationship has been put on ice. When the Northern Alliance and other armed ethnic groups boycotted the latest peace conference in August 2020, China did nothing to intervene. The frozen nature of the relationship was again on display last week when Myanmar turned down China’s initiative to hold trilateral talks to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar.
There are three key reasons for this changing dynamic in the relationship.
Firstly, the government of Myanmar has extended and deepened its relationship with India, raising Chinese concerns. Myanmar has sourced submarines from India, and Tatmadaw soldiers are increasingly training in India and attending military academies there. Myanmar and India have also conducted joint-operations at land borders and expanded intelligence sharing.
Secondly, the Tatmadaw has repeatedly, if indirectly, accused China of arming terrorist groups on Myanmar soil. Despite having held a deep relationship with its northern neighbour for decades, the Myanmar government has long been suspicious about China’s relationships with ethnic armed groups, many of them descended from the former China-backed Communist Party of Burma, which imploded in the late 1980s.
However, Myanmar — and the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief in particular — are increasingly vocal about these concerns. In a February 2019 meeting with Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang, the Commander-In-Chief raised concerns about rebels buying weapons from China, and contended the same in an interview with Japanese media in November that year. During his visit to Myanmar in January 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping also claimed that China did not accept any organization taking advantage of China’s territory to harm Myanmar. However, this did not dissipate suspicions, and the Commander-in-Chief asked the president directly about arms sales. In May 2020, speaking to the media in Russia, the Tatmadaw leader claimed that terrorist groups exist because of the ‘strong forces’ that support them, referring clearly, if indirectly, to China.
Finally, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has delayed many Chinese investment projects, including those fundamental to China’s ambitions in Southeast Asia. When Aung San Suu Kyi attended the second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum in Beijing in April 2019, the Myanmar government agreed to implement the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), as proposed under the BRI. Similarly, Myanmar and China signed a total of 33 memorandums of understanding and agreements during President Xi Jinping’s 2020 visit to Myanmar. These agreements include multi-sectoral cooperation in infrastructure development, railways, industrial and power projects, trade, investment, and human resource development. However, the government of Myanmar has since delayed many of these, some due to COVID-19 and some due to other concerns. Similarly, in 2018 the Myanmar government massively downgraded a deal with China to develop the port at Kyaukphyu, central Rakhine State, reportedly due to concerns of a debt trap.
With the freezing of relations, there are two key takeaways for international agencies. The first is that despite the current cold snap, China inevitably remains embedded in Myanmar. Outside of investment and infrastructure, the peace process and Rohingya refugee returns are two issues that China seeks to prioritise in Myanmar. As an emergent regional superpower, Beijing seeks to show that it has the influence to solve such political impasses in what it considers its backyard. The second takeaway is that Myanmar continues to seek to balance China’s influence. Concerns of overdependence on its northern neighbour were a key factor driving Myanmar’s transition away from military rule in 2010, and Myanmar continues to seek other international partners. While there are clear differences of opinion and structural barriers for agencies seeking to engage policy-makers, that Myanmar seeks to engage should be reassuring to international agencies.
Kyaukme Township, Northern Shan State
On 21 November, newly elected Amyotha Hluttaw representative, National League for Democracy (NLD) member U Hike Zaw, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen at his home in Kyaukme Township. The rare assassination of an elected representative has triggered nationwide concern about Kyaukme Township – an area that has seen increasing violence in recent years. According to Shwe Phee Myay news, a total of 18 civilians have been killed and three others injured in shooting incidents in Kyaukme District so far this year. Additionally, on 15 November, unknown gunmen reportedly opened fire on the house of the Kyaukme election sub-commission chairperson — whose brother is a high-ranking local NLD member and deputy speaker in the state parliament. As such, there is a widespread interpretation among locals that this incident is a consequence of the election result. In a constituency with over 220,000 votes cast, now-deceased U Htike Zaw beat his Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) opponent by just 54 votes in a contest which came down to the wire. Kyaukme Township was previously considered an SNLD stronghold, but polls were cancelled in 12 village tracts– all expected to vote for the SNLD — due to security concerns following active armed clashes in the weeks ahead of elections. An SNLD party spokesperson told 7 Days News that there is no issue regarding the election result from either party. The NLD issued a statement condemning the assassination as an “act of terrorism” and urged authorities to investigate those responsible for the crime. In addition, the NLD’s Shan State Election Campaign Committee has issued a statement urging people not to speculate on the instance before the facts are officially revealed by authorities. The SNLD and other political parties also expressed their condolence for U Hike Zaw’s family, condemned the assassination, and urged the government to take action against the preparators.
Political stability under threat
While most reporting of the incident places it in a nationwide context, more can be learnt about the development from the complex local political dynamics in the area. In Kyaukme Township, targeted civilian killings are common. Shooting incidents in recent months have killed at least four village leaders, and three members of the SNLD were shot and killed in the township over the past year. The influential Shwe Kyin Sayadaw, a monastic leader and founder of the Nam Khone Shan Parahita group, was assassinated in his Kyaukme monastery by an unknown gunman in 2018. The Sayadaw was known for mediating tensions between ethnic groups and his assassination raised suspicions and tensions between Shan and Ta’ang people. Northern Shan State is not only infamous as an active armed conflict area, but is also well known for its crime and illegal gun trade. There are also numerous armed groups, gangs and militia in Kyaukme Township. It is furthermore impossible to identify which group an individual belongs to, as uniforms are easily obtained. The sharp rise in shootings in recent years reflects the fact that security in the area is deteriorating, while no perpetrators have been identified or brought to justice. As such, the recent assassination may be motivated by political dynamics, but may just as much be motivated by other local tensions. Thus, it will be a challenge for local authorities or the government to bring justice or clarity to the case. Regardless of what an official investigation finds, the assassination of the NLD representative risks fuelling rivalries between political parties, particularly between the SNLD and NLD, and between ethnic communities. In addition, the risks of armed clashes are again on the radar, especially as some news media implicitly deliver their conclusions around the involvement of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) in the assassination. The RCSS, the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army are all active in the region, although they have publicly denied responsibility for this incident. For international agencies operating in the area, the most important considerations now concern security and preparations for emergency response in the event of further escalation.
Rakhine and southern Chin states
Since the limited post-election detente between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, there has been a significant lull in clashes between the belligerents. This is despite the National League for Democracy’s 18 November statement which continued to call the Arakan Army ‘terrorists’, a departure from the Tatmadaw’s restraint from divisive language in early November. That statement was highly significant, and posed the first opportunity for dialogue since talks broke down in September 2019. While no armed clashes have been reported since 12 November, a look at the broader context suggests that the lull may not last long.
A fragile lull
While armed clashes have subsided since the elections, the rhetoric has been increasingly heated and civilian deaths have continued. In addition to the National League for Democracy’s return to divisive rhetoric, the Arakan Army has said it will only release the three National League for Democracy candidates it kidnapped in Taungup Township if the government releases student protestors, relatives of United League of Arakan members, and all other Rakhine people under arrest, charged or imprisoned. These ambitious demands suggest a return to the status quo of opposing sides trading blame and insults. In the meantime, over a dozen civilians have been killed or injured since polls, most by landmines or IEDs. In the meantime, huge needs remain among IDPs and vulnerable COVID-19 affected communities. Humanitarian agencies should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Paletwa Township, southern Chin State
On 19 November, the first four COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State. The Paletwa Township Medical Officer reports that four of seven people recently returned from Yangon tested positive, despite not having any signs or symptoms. The Township COVID-19 Control Committee has been managing contact tracing and quarantine. According to COVID-19 control measures, all arrivals to Paletwa Township are required to quarantine for two weeks. However, truck drivers who bring rice and other foodstuffs to Paletwa Township are not required to quarantine. Residents are therefore concerned about local transmissions, as the positive patients travelled into the township with truck drivers who had subsequent contact with other community members before being identified. The Paletwa Township Administrator has told media that the IDP sites have been provided with infection control measures and necessary equipment, but local sources report that these sites have not received masks or hand sanitisers. At the time of writing, the Ministry of Health reported 83, 566 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 1,810 COVID-19-related deaths across the country.
Over 6,000 displaced people in Paletwa urban area are facing various difficulties regarding COVID-19 protection equipment. Despite the Ministry of Health and Sports recommending social distancing as a protection measure, people living in IDP sites are not able to follow those guidelines as they typically share rooms or stay together in large, communal spaces. Locals say that people living in IDPs sites are especially vulnerable, as they live in groups and cook together in one place. Shelters were built before the pandemic and stand just three feet apart. The ongoing restrictions on internet access are also undermining access to information on how to control the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, the Paletwa Hospital is not equipped with essential equipment such as air-ventilators, nor has the qualified staff to manage severe cases. If a severe case does occur, it is unlikely to be referred on time due to the ongoing conflict and restriction on movement by the authorities. Although the Chin State government can transport supplies to urban Paletwa, the Tatmadaw has retained its long-term blockades on many land routes and waterways to many rural areas, where Arakan Army presence also poses a security risk. International agencies should engage with the Chin State government and the military to lift the current blockades and ensure sufficient support reaches displaced populations with foodstuffs and other medical supplies. Positively, the Chin State government is seeking to re-open the water route between Paletwa Township and Kyauktaw Township. The state government is reportedly waiting for a response from the Arakan Army on the issue before seeking Tatmadaw approval.
Whole of Myanmar
On 20 November, over 50 women from urban Sittwe organized a protest against their ward administrator, demanding fair distribution of the government’s 40,000 Kyat cash grant to incomeless households, and the removal of the ward administrator on the grounds of unfair cash distribution management. Disputes over the cash grants have reportedly erupted between ward and village administrators and the public, not only in at least six Rakhine State townships but across the country. Despite the government pledge to provide 40,000 Kyats to each household nationwide without regular income on 10 November, some poor families have still not benefited, raising public concern about fairness and effectiveness. In Sittwe, locals said many households with no regular income were excluded from the grant, while those with close relations with the ward administrator were included. Daw Tin Tin Aye, the head of the Rakhine Women’s Union, said that some families in Kalapon Village, Ramree Township, have received only 7,000 Kyats, while others received 40,000 Kyats, raising public concern about corruption. The spokesperson for Rakhine State’s Manaung Township National League for Democracy (NLD) chapter told the media that more than 700 eligible people complained about not receiving the grant. ‘Myanmar Now’ also reported that residents in Yangon are dissatisfied, as distribution lists include deceased persons or families no longer living in the neighbourhood, while excluding other eligible families. In a 16 November speech, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked members of the public to file complaints against the government if they believe they have been unfairly deprived of COVID-19 cash assistance.
Cash in the pocket
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many poor households back into poverty. Alarmingly, according to an IFPRI report, income-based poverty in Myanmar has sharply risen from 16 per cent in January to 62 per cent in October due to pandemic related economic downturn and social distancing measures. Myanmar’s poverty rate declined from 48.2 per cent in 2005 to 32.1 per cent in 2015 and 24.8 per cent in 2017, but even then remained the highest in Southeast Asia. According to the Myanmar Living Condition Survey 2017 report, Chin State has the highest incidence of poverty at 58 per cent, followed by Rakhine State with 41.6 per cent. In response to COVID-19, the NLD government provided rice and other foodstuffs to poor families during the first wave in April. Cash assistance to poor families was adopted in August during the second wave, and deemed more cost-effective at supporting families in extreme poverty. Despite its inadequacies, the government’s cash assistance program is likely to be seen as an initial step in supporting families who face extreme poverty, and that program needs to be extended and sustained. In its Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (2018-2030), the NLD government committed to mitigating poverty by developing comprehensive strategies to address the issue, rather than simply stimulating economic growth, aiming to increase its public expenditure on health, education, and social welfare from five per cent of National Gross Domestic Product in 2011-12 to 12.46 per cent in 2019-20. International agencies should collaborate with national and local governments in providing technical and financial assistance, in the pursuit of improving inclusivity and the resilience of families in extreme poverty.
On Monday 23 November, Myanmar submitted its second report to the International Court of Justice. In January this year, the court ordered Myanmar to prevent genocidal acts, ensure military and police forces do not commit genocidal acts, preserve all evidence of genocidal acts, and report on compliance with these provisional measures. Following Myanmar’s submission of its first report in May, it must submit reports every six months. Myanmar has chosen not to make the reports public.
On 24 November, the Tatmadaw and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army clashed in a village in Mogok Township, just six miles from urban Mogok, Mandalay Region. In anticipation of the fighting, some 64 villagers fled to urban areas or sheltered in the forest. Local sources in urban Mogok are concerned that the fighting will spread to urban areas. The new fighting is a worrying escalation, and follows displacement in Mogok Township in early November after the Ta’ang National Liberation Army troops entered a village.