CASS Weekly Update
17 - 23 December 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.
Beyond the #ArakanDream2020
Perspectives from the ground regarding the Arakan Army-Tatmadaw dialogue suggest measured expectations, and new challenges for a much-needed humanitarian response in 2021.
Talks between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw have continued since the rapprochement between the two actors in mid-November, sustaining a lull in armed clashes in western Myanmar. The success of the talks thus far, which centre around the potential for new polls, is being received in various ways on the ground in western Myanmar. In conversations with eight respondents from diverse ethnic communities across central and northern Rakhine State, there are clear hopes for peace, although expectations are measured.
Respondents cited the ongoing internet restrictions in central and northern Rakhine State as a limitation to their own analysis — information about developments is difficult to access. In general, however, a narrative has emerged of a positive response to the fact that the Arakan Army had the opportunity to raise its demands to the Tatmadaw. This challenges suggestions that communities see dialogue as premature. However, there is widespread recognition that Arakan Army demands, particularly that for a ‘confederacy’, are unlikely to be met in full. Many respondents cited this, and continued sightings of Tatmadaw deployments, as indicators that armed clashes may soon intensify again.
Some community members noted that it was unsurprising that the negotiations and lull in clashes had coincided with the monsoon paddy harvest season, which takes place November to December. Around 98 per cent of Rakhine State’s total paddy cultivation comes from the monsoon crop, compared to only 2 per cent from the summer crop, making it vitally important. Some attributed the timing to armed actors’ attempt to ensure communities’ food security, but others cited the fact that armed actors themselves rely on farmer’s outputs to sustain their troops.
Among Rohingya and other non-Rakhine communities in Maungdaw Township, there are clear narratives linking the current negotiations to international accountability mechanisms and the Arakan Army’s delivery of two Tatmadaw soldiers to the International Court of Justice in September. Respondents suggest that the Arakan Army’s campaign to expose Tatmadaw atrocities to international courts has influenced the Tatmadaw to come to the negotiating table. While many international observers remain sceptical about the potential for international pressure to influence the Tatmadaw, confidence can be found among those on the ground. The fact that this narrative has gained a foothold in northern Rakhine State, but not elsewhere, also reflects that a gap remains between perceptions in Rakhine and non-Rakhine communities, as well as between those living in the northern, central and southern regions of the state.
While there was little hope for positive change emerging from the existing electoral system, people continue to note the value of having elected representatives in parliament, and say they would welcome elections where possible. As reported previously by CASS, this suggests that communities’ views towards electoral politics are more nuanced than mere ‘disillusionment’.
Meanwhile, conflict dynamics continue. Local sources in Paletwa Township report that the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army engaged in a skirmish there on 22 December, apparently a result of patrols from the two sides meeting unexpectedly. The same day, four Rohingya villagers were injured when Tatmadaw troops reportedly entered a village in Kyauktaw Township and took goods from the market without paying. These incidents illustrate the fragility of the current lull, ongoing protection concerns, and the potential for another escalation of clashes.
Looking forward, if negotiations with the military or civilian authorities move into a more advanced stage, the Arakan Army will face new challenges familiar to more established ethnic armed organisations elsewhere in Myanmar. One is a legitimacy challenge — how does the Arakan Army maintain popular support among its constituency while also making concessions in negotiations with authorities? So far, the Arakan Army has proven adept at managing these political challenges, although its experience to date has been limited.
There remain particular challenges for the Arakan Army in terms of clarifying its objectives. The Arakan Army has never articulated the details of its social media by-line ‘#ArakanDream2020’ or ‘Way of Rakhita’ rhetoric, although its leadership have consistently referenced the autonomy held by the United Wa State Army as a model for its system of confederacy. The vague nature of the objective allows the rebels flexibility in negotiations, but also presents challenges vis-a-vis its support base. When an Arakan National Party parliamentarian suggested to the media last week that the Arakan Army did not want Independence, but merely some form of autonomy, he was attacked by ethnic Rakhine social media users insisting that the Arakan Army was fighting for a state independent from Myanmar.
In reality, such lofty concessions from the Tatmadaw remain distant, as the Tatmadaw’s raison d’etre is to prevent the splintering of the Union. The real space to watch will be how the Arakan Army develops its nascent governance system on the ground. While other ethnic armed organisations hold a distinction between their political and armed wings, the Arakan Army’s ostensible political wing, the United League of Arakan, remains either underdeveloped or very well hidden. Sources on the ground in Rakhine State report that United League of Arakan civilians are now embedded in communities, yet the Arakan Army has rarely invoked that name. Instead, the village- and town-level committees that the Arakan Army has established for administrative purposes are referred to as ‘Arakan Authorities’ or similar.
The realities of these developments on the ground will inevitably have new implications for international agencies in 2021. As the Arakan Army consolidates its influence over territory, IDPs and Rohingya will fall under its umbrella. Agencies will find new barriers to accessing those communities outside the reach of the state government, and the relationships built with civil society groups in 2020 will become increasingly valuable. While some Rohingya this week reported to CASS that they expect the Arakan Army and its inclusive interpretation of a multi-ethnic ‘Arakan’ to be more sympathetic to their plight than the Tatmadaw (something also hinted at by the Arakan ethnic armed groups merger last week), they continue to recognise the vulnerabilities inherent in their current circumstances. Protection risks will not disappear anytime soon. An international presence will continue to be vital.
1. Tensions Rise in Kayin State
Hpapun Township, Kayin State
On 15 December, the Tatmadaw Information Team released a statement claiming that Brigade 5 of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), opened fire on a group of Tatmadaw soldiers near Me Waing village in Hpapun Township, Kayin State, injuring several troops. The Tatmadaw also accused the KNLA of violating the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) Code of Conduct, alleging another five landmine and four sniper attacks in the same area this month. The KNU has retorted that the Tatmadaw arrived in Me Waing village after the NCA was signed in late 2015, and has gradually increased its troop deployments — raising public fears. According to the KNU spokesperson in Hpapun Township, Major Saw Kaleh Doe, the Tatmadaw deployed two more battalions this month, increasing tensions and sparking armed clashes. KNLA Brigadier General Sha Htu Waw also told the Irrawaddy that the Tatmadaw ignored a 1 December KNLA demand that the Tatmadaw withdraw its troops from those areas by the end of 2020. The KNLA also captured and detained two Tatmadaw soldiers on 15 December, demanding the Tatmadaw remove its base from Me Waing village in return for their release. Armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and the KNLA around Me Waing village have escalated since early 2018 over road reconstruction work, as mapped below. Simultaneously, competition between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw over gold mining rights and other extractive projects in Hpapun Township is also contributing to tensions. The Tatmadaw spokesperson has alleged that the cause of the recent fighting is competing interests over natural resources in those areas. The KNU report a total of 88 armed clashes from April to June this year in Kayin State. More than 300 people have been displaced as a result.
A peace monitoring failure?
Despite both sides technically cooperating in the NCA, the gradual build-up of Tatmadaw units in Hpapun Township and the fight for territorial control of a controversial road-building project has driven instability and numerous armed clashes, resulting in civilian displacement. The KNLA is seriously concerned about the road construction project through an area of mixed-control, as it would enhance logistic support for the Tatmadaw, thus threatening the KNLA’s control of the area. In July 2020, following the alleged murder of a Kayin woman by Tatmadaw soldiers in Hpapun Township, several thousand civilians took part in a series of protests against the Tatmadaw regarding increased civilian casualties and Tatmadaw artillery strikes, demanding that the Tatmadaw troops leave. Both the Tatmadaw and the KNLA have raised objections in Karen State’s Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) — a mechanism of the NCA — regarding violations of the peace agreement, with the Tatmadaw filing 39 separate complaints. However, the KNU has accused the Tatmadaw of using the JMCs as its military committee, citing their failure to resolve tensions and disputes at ground level. Sources close to the disputes cite widespread perceptions of the JMCs as ineffectual at dispute resolution and dysfunctional. Indeed, regular JMC meetings have not taken place since 2018 at either Union or state levels. Despite the KNU requesting reform of the JMCs, the Union-level JMC and the Tatmadaw have delayed addressing this issue to date. If the Tatmadaw and the KNU/KNLA cannot resolve the current tension in Hpapun Township, it is likely to spread to other areas, decaying trust in the institutions of the NCA and distorting the national reconciliation and peace process. Indeed, local actors recently lambasted the JMC for its failure to address armed clashes in Northern Shan State’s Kyaukme Township. Therefore, international communities should encourage both the Tatmadaw and the KNU/KNLA to refrain from armed conflict, while advocating for reform of the JMC.
2. Forced Relocations Spell HLP Woes
Mongkaing Township, Southern Shan State
In the first week of December, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) reportedly ordered the relocation of a village of some 30 Ta’ang (Palaung) households from Mongkaing Township, Southern Shan State, to a nearby ethnic Shan village. Sources in the area allege that the armed group has plans for resource extraction in the area, citing the RCSS marking the area following relocations, and the presence of a nearby coal mine reportedly linked to Chinese business interests. The village area is also known locally for its involvement in the opium trade, a business that the RCSS has opposed vocally. For civilians, the relocations evoke memories of the frequent forced relocations which characterised civil war and the Tatmadaw’s ‘Four Cuts’ policies in Shan State in the 1990s and 2000s.
Few changes for rural poor
For civilians, forced relocations can mean a complete disruption to livelihoods and stability. The Ta’ang villagers affected in this case now exist as displaced persons on the margins of a Shan village with which they reportedly have little connection and few social safety nets. Many rural farmers lack the paperwork and identity documents to seek restitution for lost properties, meaning they now face uncertain livelihoods, and long term housing, land and property challenges. Indeed, swaths of land across conflict-affected areas of Shan State are affected by land confiscations. In many cases multiple persons lay claim to land which has been confiscated and resold. International humanitarian agencies should assist local organisations seeking justice for communities affected by housing, land and property issues, while also remembering that the protection risks faced by communities in all areas of Shan State can be diverse. For now, local welfare groups are collecting warm clothes, blankets and rice for the displaced, and individual or larger donors can contact CASS to link with these first responders.
3. NLD Calls for Unity, Ethnic Parties Respond
On 21 December, a senior leader of the Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP) told the media that the KySDP would request the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party to appoint a KySDP member as the Speaker of Kayah State Hluttaw (Parliament), citing the NLD’s 12 November call to build a federal union. A newly-formed NLD committee, also announced on 12 November, will be led by three people, including Magway Region Chief Minister Dr Aung Moe Nyo, and Kayin State Chief Minister Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint. The NLD has said they will hold talks with ethnic parties in January 2021, and the party will consider any proposal submitted by ethnic parties to participate in Union and state governments. The general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) — the third most successful party nationwide in the 2020 general election — said that they will not demand any political positions in government, but will focus on constitutional reform based on self-determination and equality. However, U Pe Than, a policy steering committee member of the Arakan National Party (ANP) told the media that they would ask the NLD for the post of Rakhine State Chief Minister. At the time of writing, 12 political parties and organizations, including the Kachin State People’s Party, Lisu National Development Party, New Karen Party Peace Group and the United Wa State Army, have responded to talks with the NLD, while other leading ethnic parties, including the ANP, the SNLD, and the Mon Unity Party, have yet to reply.
Unite or divide?
While this new committee will attempt to address the NLD’s call to 48 ethnic political parties to join in an effort to forge a federal union, some ethnic parties remain sceptical. In 2019 the NLD formed a similar committee — aimed at restoring trust and relationships with ethnic parties — but led by Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu. Sources close to the ANP noted, however, that the committee failed to achieve its desired outcomes, and instead worsened the situation in Rakhine State because it couldn’t address ethnic parties’ demands. Participating in Union and state governments and amending the 2008 constitution, particularly article 261 (which allows for Naypyidaw to appoint state and regional government chief ministers) are likely to be major issues during the talks. Holding new elections in areas of Rakhine and Shan states where polls did not go ahead on 8 November will be another elephant in the room. As the NLD promised in its election manifesto to establish “a genuine federal democratic union based on the principles of freedom, equal rights and self-determination,” it will strive to establish a collaborative platform with ethnic parties. However, amending article 261 will remain challenging, as the NLD leaders have remained concerned about exploitation by the Tatmadaw or its allies if they agree to delegate power to state and regional parliaments. The NLD and the Union Election Commission are unlikely to agree to new elections in Rakhine and Shan states, due to legal constraints that prohibit holding by-elections in the first and fifth year of any new government. Since collaboration between political parties and inclusive dialogue play a crucial role in establishing effective government and ensuring political stability, international agencies should appreciate the NLD calls for a unity government, while encouraging ethnic parties to establish dialogues with the NLD.
New travel restrictions have been put in place in Sittwe Township, and residents now require a letter of permission from authorities to travel out of Sittwe Township. Restrictions in the township have been stringent when compared to neighbouring townships, something many local residents suspect is related as much to the civil war as to COVID-19.
The International Court of Justice has authorized the establishment of an ad hoc committee, composed of three judges, to assist the Court in monitoring the implementation of provisional measures, including in Myanmar. Myanmar’s two reports to the court to date remain unpublished, and continued abuses against Rohingya in 2020 will likely be considered as violations of the court’s measures.
The National League for Democracy spokesperson told the media that its central committee has continued corruption investigations into the party chair for Chin State’s Thantlang Township, who wrote recommendation letters for six companies bidding in an education department construction tender after they donated cash to the local party branch. According to the party’s Chin State chairperson, the township party chair submitted his resignation letter on 1 December, following an investigation by the party’s Chin State Discipline Committee. Corruption has dogged the ruling party in its first term of office, but this made little dent in its electoral popularity in 2020.
On 15 December, the Taungup Township Court heard from three witnesses in a case against four prominent townspeople charged under the 2014 Counter Terrorism Law on accusations of affiliation with the Arakan Army. While the court will likely not rule for months, the accused have already been in jail for over half a year. A new thematic paper from CASS considers the negative impacts arrests under the Counter Terrorism Law have had for communities, and how international agencies can best support.
- Talks between the top Arakan Army leadership, including Commander-in-Chief Twan Mrat Naing, and the Tatmadaw’s top negotiator Lieutenant General Yar Pyae are still expected to occur before the end of the year.
- Myanmar’s 73rd Independence Day falls on 4 January. It is also the second anniversary of the Arakan Army’s 2019 attack on police outposts in northern Rakhine State, which precipitated a sharp escalation in war in western Myanmar. Will early 2021 be marked by a re-escalation, or can a de-escalation be negotiated?
- On 30 December, the three civil society activists arrested on 10 December for taking part in a commemoration of International Human Rights Day will appear in a Sittwe court, on charges under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
- Crisis Group have detailed the current negotiations between the Arakan Army and authorities, arguing that all sides need to make significant concessions to seize this opportunity -- or risk a re-escalation of bloody conflict and another blow to Myanmar’s peace process.
- As the Karen National Liberation Army and Tatmadaw clash over the road project in Kayin State, David Mathieson decries the death of Myanmar’s peace process.
- Free Expression Myanmar has teamed up with Freedom House to present an assessment of online freedoms in Myanmar in 2020, reporting in no uncertain terms that internet freedoms have declined dramatically.