CASS Weekly Update 14 – 20 January 2021

CASS Weekly Update

14 - 20 January 2021

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

Declaration for a United Arakan

The challenges facing a new reconciliation initiative are vast, but the bold declaration should be given an opportunity.

On 18 January, Rakhine, Rohingya and other community members announced the ‘Declaration by the Diverse and United Communities of Arakan’, a commitment to ‘peaceful coexistence and the building of a new society’. In an online briefing (transcribed here) to launch the declaration, representatives outlined an ambitious agenda to engage domestic and international stakeholders and tackle a wide array of challenges currently facing Rakhine State. This is a bold and important initiative: just two years ago it would have been impossible to imagine leaders from divided Rakhine and Rohingya communities collaborating publicly. But this milestone will have to overcome serious challenges.

Community representation

The fact that most of the public-facing representatives of the group are from the Rakhine and Rohingya diaspora will evoke criticisms that they don’t reflect sentiments held by community members, and that they ultimately have little influence to drive change.

However, at least one prominent member of the Arakan National Party — Rakhine State parliament speaker San Kyaw Hla — reportedly gave his support to the declaration, and contacts close to the initiative report wider engagement with diverse representatives of the Rakhine community. This should not be surprising. The Arakan Army has been particularly active in advocating unity between Rakhine and Rohingya communities in western Myanmar, and the Arakan National Party stood on a unity platform in the 2020 general elections: a huge change from its former position of exclusive nationalism.

With the initiative now public, some civil society actors are asking why they were not consulted. But this is not to say there is no sympathy for the sentiment shared in the declaration. Ideally, the declaration represents the start of a longer process of consultation. For now, some political or civil society actors may be taking a ‘wait and see’ approach before taking a position. This is an unfortunate Catch-22: their absence from the initial session contributes to a poor response to the overall movement.

Hesitancies

Yet it is clear why actors within the country would be hesitant to openly participate. While relationships between communities on the ground have clearly improved from the peak of violent tensions in 2012 and 2017, there remain massive barriers to reconciliation.

Hardline politicians are still active on social media platforms such as Facebook, where they have recently taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to call for even greater segregation of Rakhine and ‘Bengali’ communities in central Rakhine State. There remains an audience for this sentiment. Furthermore, in a context in which conflict lines can change overnight, politicians will be hesitant to be seen as allying with Rohingya diaspora leaders accused by the national press of being traitors.

For now, the declaration has opened some discussion online and offline about reconciliation and the declaration. Nyi Nyi Lwin, a public-facing member of the initiative, hopes this will develop into a fruitful national dialogue.

Blowback?

There is a risk that hostile actors who do not want to see reconciliation between Rakhine and Rohingya communities may attempt to undermine this initiative. It should be remembered that the Tatmadaw’s levers of control in Myanmar’s border regions go beyond sheer military force. It is well-known for its divide and rule tactics, which seek to prevent unity among ethnic groups while widening a divide between leaders of ethnic armed groups and the communities they claim to represent.

The timing of this declaration is also perhaps less than fortuitous. The Arakan Army has now established a position on the ground in Rakhine State, and its leaders are in dialogue with the Tatmadaw. But where will this process leave the Rohingya? Will external actors who seek to influence Rakhine State attempt to incite new tensions between communities?

Delicate international engagement

The enthusiasm among international actors for reconciliation in western Myanmar will no doubt prompt many international actors to get behind the declaration. However, social cohesion initiatives such as this need to be locally-owned. This is true anywhere in the world, but is particularly so in the context of western Myanmar — where nationalism and suspicion of external actors runs strong. Here, the ‘INGO-isation’ of social movements risks undermining them.

Rather than co-opting this initiative with funding and branding, international agencies should engage meaningfully to understand what support is welcome and where it is needed. It will be important to make space for this initiative and seek wider support for its processes.

Nyi Nyi Lwin wishes to see more engagement between his group and international communities in the future. This includes on; income generation; landmine eradication; reconciliation; communications; education; and improving understanding community perceptions of root causes, national development and reconciliation.

Most of all, the initiative cannot be dismissed out of hand, and deserves an opportunity to engage a wider range of stakeholders and drive change.

You will be reading about:

1. Repatriation to be Realised?

Myanmar-Bangladesh Border

On 19 January, Myanmar, Bangladesh and China held tripartite talks to discuss the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Bangladeshi authorities say they have handed Myanmar a list of nearly 840,000 names of refugees verified for return, but say only 42,000 names have been verified by Myanmar, slowing the process down. China previously invited Bangladesh and Myanmar to tripartite talks in 2020, but Myanmar did not reply to the invitation. Perhaps explaining the change in approach, this week’s talks follow a visit from the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Myanmar on 11-12 January. Myanmar and Bangladesh have said they will attempt another repatriation attempt in the second quarter of the year.

Returns on the cards

Despite the failure of the Myanmar government to improve conditions for the Rohingya inside Myanmar, there is a distinct possibility for Rohingya repatriation at this time. Bangladesh is under significant domestic pressure to present a solution to the refugee crisis, which threatens its political stability, environment and the livelihoods of host community members. At the same time, the security situation inside the camps has deteriorated significantly over the last six months. The fear of armed groups in the camps was on display this week. Some community members blamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army for a fire which destroyed multiple shelters and UNICEF schools, and news of new detentions by the same group were shared on social media. CASS contacts in the camps this week said that insecurity in the camps was driving appetite for return to Myanmar. They also noted concerns about repatriation, including the right to return to place of origin, freedom of movement, access to citizenship, and fear of arrest on accusations of involvement in the 2012 or 2017 violence. As such, international agencies in Rakhine State should expect returns on a small scale. Agencies should engage the government to ensure that those who do return are allowed to settle on their original land, are provided freedom of movement, and are able to access basic service provided by the state.

2. Down But Not Out: BGF Resignations Shake Up Kayin

Myawaddy Township, Kayin State

On 14 January, at least 7,000 members of the Kayin State BGF Battalion 1018 (Kayin State BGF) resigned to protest the ousting of their top leaders under pressure from the Tatmadaw. Tensions have risen in recent weeks amid controversy over business dealings by the BGF on the Thai-Myanmar Border. This mass resignation followed the removal of BGF senior officer Major Saw Mout Thon under Tatmadaw pressure on BGF General Secretary, Colonel Saw Chit Thu, and Major Saw Tin Win, both of whom resigned after being summoned by the Tatmadaw last week. The Tatmadaw officers met the BGF leaders three times and warned them to quit their positions if they wanted to engage in business activities. Responding to this pressure, Colonel Saw Chit Thu told the media that the BGF would struggle to support 7,000 soldiers, including disabled soldiers and their families, if they cannot conduct business, and requested the Tatmadaw to reconsider this matter.

On 15 January, Tatmadaw officers met with the BGF commander, Colonel Saw Chit Thu, urging him to reconsider his resignation and those of his colleagues. The Tatmadaw Special Operations Commander Lt. General Aung Soe joined the meeting, which was held in Myaing Gyi Ngu — an area formerly controlled by the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).  In the meantime, residents in Myawaddy Town are increasingly worried about increased numbers of Tatmadaw troops in many parts of the city and suburbs, threatening stability and their ability to trade. An official agreement between the Tatmadaw and the BGF remains unsettled at the time of writing, and sources close to ethnic armed groups said the Tatmadaw gave the BGF leaders two months to reconsider their unit’s resignation.

Business or arms concerns?

Following widespread public concerns over the USD 15 billion Shwe Kokko city project operated by the Kayin State BGF near the Thai border in Kayin State’s Myawaddy Township, the Tatmadaw have finally intervened and asked top leaders to resign. Following the Tatmadaw’s urging of all peace settlement groups to convert their troops into Tatmadaw-aligned BGFs in late 2009, the Kayin State BGF was formed in 2010 by 12 battalions from the DKBA and one battalion from Karen National Union splinter group, the Karen Peace Force. The Kayin State BGF has been guarding areas along the border with Thailand in southern Myanmar since, while engaging in business activities, many of them reportedly illegal. The government says it has suspended the Shwe Kokko project due to its violation of investment regulations, and government concerns about stability in the project area. The government has transferred the project’s supervision from the BGF to the government. In addition to government concerns of illegality, the Tatmadaw leaders are likely to have been worried about the Kayin BGF engaging in arms smuggling across the border. On 24 June 2020, a Thai joint task force seized a large cache of Chinese-made weapons, which were believed to be destined for Myanmar, particularly for insurgent groups in Rakhine State. Despite the DKBA being accused of smuggling the arms, sources close to ethnic armed groups remarked that the Kayin BGFs are more likely to be involved in arms smuggling. Media has also previously reported that the March 2020 Tatmadaw raid and disarmament of the Kaung Kha militia in Northern Shan State was due, at least in part, to suspected involvement in arms smuggling.

Although the current tension between the BGF and the Tatmadaw is reasonably likely to be de-escalated through talks, it is unsustainable in the long-run. Without a more comprehensive settlement, tensions will rise again when the BGF inevitably re-engages in illegal business as usual. If the Tatmadaw retains its pressure on the BGF leaders to quit, the risk of an escalation in armed clashes rises. International agencies and donor countries should monitor the peace and security dynamics in southern Myanmar.

3. Tatmadaw Alleges Parliament’s Constitutional Violation

Naypyidaw

The Tatmadaw has alleged that the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union parliament) speaker’s refusal to call a special session of the Hluttaw may be in violation of Myanmar’s constitution. On 11 January, the Tatmadaw, together with 203 lawmakers, requested a special session of the outgoing parliament to discuss election disputes, a request rejected by the speaker. A call for a special session requires at least one-quarter of the total number of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw representatives. However, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw speaker denied their request, arguing that electoral disputes are the mandate of the Union Election Commission (UEC), according to article 402 of the constitution. In the meantime, the Tatmadaw reported that about 7 million fraudulent votes (for example, multiple voting or voting malpractice) were found in 314 townships.

Alfred Stepan’s new professionalism?

The Tatmadaw’s interventions in the 2020 election results has been much more serious than its response to the 2010 and 2015 elections. Six days before the 8 November 2020 election, the Tatmadaw released a statement accusing the UEC of violating election-related “laws and procedures of the pre-voting process”, and asked the government to take “complete responsibility for all the intentional and unintentional mistakes of the commission.” Additionally, the Tatmadaw did not hesitate to endorse military-linked political parties by encouraging soldiers’ families to vote for experienced and educated candidates who understand the law and are committed to “protecting all Myanmar’s race and the Buddhist religion”. These interventions in electoral politics (and other sectors) by the Tatmadaw can be explained when viewed through the lens of the ‘New Professional Doctrine’ — a widely accepted doctrine in the Tatmadaw. New Professionalism, popularized by Professor Alfred Stepan in 1973, encourages military intervention in domestic politics, and suggests the expansion of military expertise to cover political, social and economic affairs. Despite its many critics, the doctrine of ‘New Professionalism’ is widely accepted in the Tatmadaw as it legitimates their participation in domestic politics. Since the Tatmadaw officer corps has been thoroughly socialised, both in practical terms as well as ideologically, with the concept of new professionalism, it is unrealistic to expect that it will give up its political role anytime soon. Despite opposition to engagement by human rights groups, international actors cannot discount the fact that exposure to democratic, civil-military relations and military professionalism through training programs in Western countries may contribute to a changing Tatmadaw role. International agencies should monitor Tatmadaw interventions based on the new professionalism doctrine, and consider its implications for peace, security and Myanmar’s internal politics.

4. NLD Ethnic Party Engagement Meets Mixed Results

Taunggyi, Southern Shan State

The National League for Democracy (NLD) has continued its post-election engagement of ethnic political parties. On 15 January, the negotiating team, led by Dr Aung Moe Nyo, held  meetings with the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, Wa National Party, and Lahu National Development Party at the NLD Taunggyi office, Southern Shan State. That these meetings were held at all should be considered a success in itself. The ruling party’s negotiating team’s proposed meetings with the Mon Unity Party and Kayah State Democratic Party were cancelled after the parties could not decide on a venue. The newly-elected ruling party is yet to meet with Rakhine and Chin ethnic representatives.

Much at stake

Most ethnic parties leaders see the engagement by the NLD as an initial step for the national reconciliation process, but one of the most difficult meetings is yet to come. The NLD will announce a date to meet the Arakan National Party after their Central Executive Committee Meeting on 24 January. So far, the ruling party’s post-election engagement with ethnic parties has met mixed reviews, with many ethnic parties left feeling snubbed. Talks with the Arakan National Party will have to be handled carefully, as they have the potential to inform de-escalation of conflict in western Myanmar. This is not least because they will tackle the important question of the state chief ministership — a heavily politicised role appointed by the Union government. The outcome of the talks may well inform the future trajectory of conflict in western Myanmar.

5. EAOs Frowned Upon for Perceived Ethnic Bias

Namhsan Township, Northern Shan State

On 12 January, around 300 Ta’ang (Palaung) ethnic people staged a protest travelling between Man Loi (upper) village and Manton Town, demanding the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) release six Ta’ang villagers it detained on 10 January. The arrested villagers are from Man Loi (upper), a Ta’ang village in Namhsan Township. The arrest is reportedly related to a local land dispute over the ownership of forest near a Kachin village called Ho Hoke, and the ancestral right to log for firewood there. This arrest, the protest, and the media coverage, have increased tensions between Kachin and Ta’ang ethnic people living in Northern Shan State. Till now, neither the KIA nor the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) have responded to this incident. Ta’ang people are not happy with the KIA because they perceive the arrest of Ta’ang villagers to mean the armed group is taking sides with the Kachin community who reported this land dispute to the KIA. Meanwhile, Kachin communities in Northern Shan State believe that the TNLA is biased towards Ta’ang communities in its handling of disputes. A recent notable incident is the TNLA’s controversial trial in the murder case of a Kachin man, allegedly commited by TNLA members on 5 June 2020 in Kutkai town, Northern Shan State.

Complex context

Dispute resolution in this context is complicated by the fact that there is little coordination of justice systems between the KIA and the TNLA. Such a joint justice system by the KIA and the TNLA, which respects the customary laws and regulations of both Kachin and Ta’ang communities, is not entirely unfeasible, as the armed groups have a close relationship and share many areas of control or influence where a mix of Kachin and Ta’ang populations live in close proximity to each other, especially in rural hilly areas. In the absence of an effective joint justice system, the KIA and the TNLA selectively involve themselves in certain disputes and crime cases. By doing so, at times, they have become caught up in public relations crises due to criticism that their dispute resolution mechanisms suffer from ethnic bias. The recent controversies are unlikely to affect the TNLA-KIA relationship to any great extent, since both remain committed to their ‘perpetual alliance’. Nevertheless, they will impact communities’ grievances against EAOs, and are boosting Ta’ang and Kachin ethno-nationalism while negatively affecting inter-ethnic cohesion. International agencies need to be sensitive about ethnic tensions in the areas of Northern Shan State where they work. As ethno-nationalism is on the rise, there is a perception of ethnic bias in all sectors, and the humanitarian response is no exception. As such, agencies should ensure inclusivity when choosing project communities and in selecting partner organisations, who community members may associate with certain ethnic groups. Agencies with specialised expertise in alternative dispute resolution should consider strengthening the mediation skills and experience of community leaders from diverse ethnic groups. These actors could then take on a mediator role in inter-ethnic conflicts and disputes, and act as advocacy agents — influencing EAOs to provide more transparent and impartial justice services.

6. COVID-19 Strikes Kachin IDP camp

Myitkyina township, Kachin State

A 15-year-old boy from St Joseph’s IDP site, Myitkyina, is the first COVID-19 patient to be confirmed in an IDP site in Kachin State. His family members are now in a quarantine center and about 50 people in contact with him have taken swab tests. All contacts tested negative. Government authorities have put the entire camp under lockdown, which is expected to be lifted on 20 January if all COVID-19 test results are negative. According to the camp coordinator, the boy will be discharged from Myitkyina General Hospital within the week, but will need a quarantine space, as their camp has no dedicated quarantine center. The camp management committee also worries that he may face discrimination and accusations from other people in the camp if someone gets sick in the future. During the lockdown, humanitarian access to the IDP site for local responders remains open, and KMSS is providing food relief and COVID-19 equipment. The camp houses about 2,000 IDPs but half of the listed residents work outside the camp, mostly in gold or jade mines, or farming in their villages of origin. Most of the camp’s residents are either children, the elderly, or particularly pregnant women, who worry about catching the virus during childbirth.

Fighting the COVID-19 battle

Challenges in IDP camps in Kachin State include an inability to socially distance, a lack of quarantine centres in some camps, and a lack of jobs. Despite some WFP monthly cash assistance, IDPs mainly rely on casual work outside the camps and tend to lie about their travel plans to the camp management committee. According to some camp coordinators in Myitkyina, Waimaw and Bhamo townships, all IDPs were highly alert during the first wave of COVID-19, and the internal camp management committees did not allow people to enter or leave the camps. Since then, regulations have gradually relaxed, except for posting volunteers at camp entrances with sign-in lists of people entering and leaving. Fewer IDPs now abide by the health restrictions, seeming to think the danger is past. International actors and local humanitarian organizations together with local CSOs and CBOs should: ensure quarantine centers are available in all camps; continue education on COVID-19 guidelines and provide food assistance to ensure that IDPs do not travel outside of the camp area during lockdown.

7. Detained Students Seek Rights

Various Locations

On 18 January, the Arakan Students Union (ASU) called on the government to release anti-war student activists arrested for staging protests last year. At a press conference, the ASU Chair Toe Toe Aung claimed that authorities were violating the rights of the detained students by postponing hearings for three months without justification. He also accused authorities of exploiting COVID-19 to deny family members prison visits. On 15 January, the ASU organized a pamphlet campaign in Sittwe, demanding the unconditional release of students and political prisoners detained across Myanmar. Meanwhile, a court in Mandalay Region this week sentenced a student leader to one year in prison for taking part in a Mandalay demonstration opposing the war in Rakhine State.

Suppressing a call for peace

Despite rights groups and civil society organizations supporting the students’ ‘a call for peace’ campaign, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the Tatmadaw likely see those movements as a threat to political stability and to their legitimacy, and thereby seek to suppress them. In September 2020, authorities arrested at least 15 students for participating in anti-war movements and filed charges against them under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, Sections 505 (a) and (b) of the Penal Code, and Section 25 of Natural Disaster Management Law. In a 30 September statement, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions called on the public to stand up and support nationwide peace movements against the Tatmadaw. As authorities’ continued arrests and ongoing sentencing of ‘a call for peace’ activists, activists remarked that the same approach is likely to be continued under the newly re-elected NLD government, threatening freedom of expression and peaceful protest. Meanwhile, international actors and human rights organizations should advocate for the government to respond to students’ demands, respecting their fundamental rights.

Other Developments

IDPs hoping to return to Rathedaung’s Kyauktan village tract — the site of repeated Tatmadaw operations against the Arakan Army — turned back this week after finding that Tatmadaw troops had erected temporary camps in their villages. The militarisation of civilian spaces continues to threaten livelihoods, and poses protection and security risks.

On 18 January, the Karen Peace Support Network released a statement, calling for international action to respond to Tatmadaw artillery attacks against civilians, and urging all international donors to suspend funding for the peace process. As reported in this previous CASS Weekly Update, the escalation of armed clashes between the Tatamadaw and the Karen National Liberation Army rose in Hpapun Township in 2020 before spreading and displacing over 3,700 villagers in northern Kayin State.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the Chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Association and former Member of the House of Councilors of Japan, Mr Wantanabe Hideo, on 18 January. The two discussed the further expansion of Japanese investments in Myanmar and the continued provision of Japanese development assistance. Although the civilian government remains absent from the dialogue between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw (which was kick-started by Japan’s Special Envoy to Myanmar), it is clear that Japan will continue its approach of constructive engagement — despite criticisms that it disregards human rights concerns.

On 19 January, an estimated 100 displaced people in Kyauktaw Township, Rakhine State, protested against the Rakhine State Government and the Tatmadaw, demanding action to be taken against soldiers who committed abuses in their village, and IDP access to property left behind. Despite appealing to the Rakhine State government on 31 December 2020 for permission to collect their belongings, locals report that the government has given no response.

The Rakhine State security and border affairs minister has said the Tatmadaw will engage in landmine removal if an agreement is signed with the Arakan Army. In a separate initiative, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has announced the establishment of the Rakhine State Mine Risk Working Group to focus on Mine Risk Education and victim assistance. Stakeholders should lobby for the inclusion of civil society groups already working in this space.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • On 24 January the National League for Democracy will propose a date to meet the Arakan National Party to discuss the coming term of government. Among topics for discussion will be the controversial Rakhine State chief ministership.
  • A third group of Rohingya refugees are expected to be relocated to Bhasan Char from the sprawling Bangladeshi camps between 24 and 29 January, where they will join 3,414 others.
  • Fortify Rights has released a report The Torture in My Mind: The Right to Mental Health for Rohingya Survivors of Genocide in Myanmar and Bangladesh, pointing to a mental health crisis among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh resulting from pervasive human rights violations and violence.
  • Amid uncertainty for the future of peace in Kayin State, Charles Petrie and Ashley South ask whether international supporters of the peace process will respond to Tatmadaw’s violations of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement there?
  • As the expected retirement of the current Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief is approaching, Frontier Myanmar is optimistic about the possibility for the appointment of his successor to be a consensus-reaching exercise between the military and the civilian government -- breaking with past traditions of the Tatmadaw topman simply picking his successor.

CASS Weekly Update 7 – 13 January 2021

CASS Weekly Update

7 - 13 January 2021

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

A Tender Gourd Among the Cacti

The Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit serves as a reminder of Myanmar’s commitment to an independent foreign policy, and of China’s ability to shape events.

Following a year of strained bilateral ties, the Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi visited Myanmar on 11-12 January. Reflecting real life priorities, Myanmar was the first stop on the minister’s tour of southeast Asia. During his visit, Mr Wang Yi voiced support for Myanmar’s peace talks with ethnic armed groups, and called for faster progress on major Chinese-led investment projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

Mr Wang Yi first met Myanmar President U Win Myint, before meeting State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The two parties discussed enhancing bilateral ties, a Chinese donation of 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, national reconciliation and infrastructure development in Myanmar. Mr Wang Yi also met with the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who (much to the chagrin of the civilian government) reportedly informed Mr Wang Yi about irregularities in the 2020 election and voter lists errors. The two also discussed China’s trilateral talks initiative to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

Aligned to none

Myanmar has sought to retain an independent foreign policy since independence. This has not always been an easy task. As a small state precariously placed between regional superpowers, Myanmar’s first Prime Minister U Nu remarked that his country was ‘hemmed in like a tender gourd among the cacti’.

Myanmar’s difficulties in maintaining an independent foreign policy are best reflected in its internal armed conflicts and the peace process. Although China has taken a backseat role in the peace process in 2020, its influence over armed actors along its borderlands constitutes a large part of its carrot and stick approach to Myanmar.

Illustrating the distance China has retreated from the peace process over 2020, it did nothing when the seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultation Committee bloc of armed groups decided to boycott the Myanmar government’s August 2020 peace conference. This was in contrast to 2017, when ethnic armed groups’ leaders threatened a boycott, and China forced them onto an aeroplane and flew them directly to the conference.

China’s reluctance to get behind the peace process in 2020 has been born out of Myanmar’s recent efforts to diversify its international relationships amid concern about over-dependence on its giant neighbour. As discussed here in a  previous CASS Weekly Update, Myanmar has indirectly accused China of arming terrorist groups on Myanmar soil, and delayed major China-led infrastructure projects. All of this has strained bilateral ties.

The Foreign Minister’s visit this week has thereby raised questions about whether China will promote peace in western Myanmar. There, clashes have stopped as the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw engage in a dialogue from which the civilian government is conspicuously absent.

China clearly has influence over the conflict, but this is not absolute. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s January 2020 visit to Myanmar, clashes between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw suddenly ceased for the first time in months, only to resume when Xi Jinping left the country. Conversely, in August 2019 the Arakan Army and its allies in the Brotherhood Alliance launched attacks on the Mandalay-Muse highway, severely disrupting Myanmar-China trade. The ability of China’s Foreign Minister to influence the civilian government to join the dialogue may be restrained by a current impasse between Myanmar and China.

The need for steel 

An key objective of Mr Wang Yi’s trip is to ensure the newly-elected government remains on board with Chinese investment projects in Myanmar. According to Chinese state-run CGTN media, China aims to speed up the construction of three major projects — the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone, the New Yangon City development, and the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone.

The two countries signed a feasibility study into the second phase of the proposed Mandalay-Kyaukphyu Railway project this week. A feasibility study on the first half of that rail project, which would link Mandalay and southern China’s Kunming, was submitted during Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January 2020. The rail link will connect southern China to the Indian Ocean, securing greater market access for China’s underdeveloped southern provinces while reducing China’s reliance on potential shipping choke-points. However, this railway project carries a high potential for land confiscation or forced acquisitions, threatening the livelihoods of local communities. Protests along the rail route are likely.

Domestic sentiment

While concerns about overdependence on China are key to Myanmar’s policy of non-alignment, so are worries about domestic anti-Chinese sentiment. China’s image among Myanmar people has been damaged due to its association with the military government and its abuses against the people of Myanmar.

Investment projects linked to Chinese companies have become synonymous with land confiscation, human rights abuses and environmental degradation. 63 per cent of Chinese investment in projects in Myanmar are for hydropower dams on Myanmar’s major rivers, which often threaten livelihoods, cause mass displacement or pollute waterways. According to a survey of perceptions towards Chinese investment among Myanmar people, in 2018, only 38 per cent saw China as a responsible investor.

Humanitarian implications

For humanitarian agencies, this week’s visit should act as a reminder of the unavoidable influence that China has in Myanmar, despite Myanmar’s efforts to balance its foreign relations. While having reservations, the civilian government recognises that dealing with China is inevitable — a result of proximity, politics, economics and infrastructure needs. China will continue to influence the central government, Tatmadaw and other armed groups.

Crucially, many of the infrastructure projects within the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor will pass through conflict-affected areas, and these capital injections risk making conditions for civilians worse. Before construction or any land acquisition begins, agencies should put in place measures to prepare for challenges. It is vital that local responders receive support to prepare for a response in hard-to-reach areas, while encouraging authorities and investors to listen to the voices of local communities.

You will be reading about:

1. The KNU Request for Maintaining Peace

Hpapun Township, Kayin State

On 8 January the Karen National Union (KNU) Central Committee issued a statement demanding the Tatmadaw work with them to prevent further clashes in Hpapun Township and other areas, claiming that such clashes are eroding trust and damaging the peace process. The KNU General Secretary, Pado Saw Ta Do Mu, told Radio Free Asia that the recent confrontations in the field were due to delays in discussing military issues previously agreed on by the two sides, leading to a decline in public confidence in the peace process. According to Pado Saw Ta Do Mu, the KNU has sent two letters to the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) and the Tatmadaw Peace Talk Committee to prevent an escalation in conflict, but the Tatmadaw has not responded. In its statement, the KNU recognised the public’s concern and fear due to Tatmadaw troop presence and artillery strikes near villages, claiming they will take any necessary action to protect local communities. As mentioned in a previous CASS Weekly Update, tensions between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Liberation Army rose in Hpapun Township in 2020 after the KNU demanded the Tatmadaw withdraw its troops from Me Waing village, which lies close to a controversial road project. In the meantime, the escalation of armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have spread to other areas. Clashes between the two parties in Bago Region’s Kyaukkyi Township displaced more than 600 people this week.

Peace promise and pitfalls 

According to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), both the Tatmadaw and the KNU agree to obtain prior agreement for troop movements in mixed-controlled areas and to protect civilians living in the conflict area. However, both the KNU and the Tatmadaw have accused each other of violating the terms. Despite the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committees (JMC) role in resolving field-level disputes, JMCs have proven dysfunctional and ineffectual, as discussed in this previous CASS Weekly Update. Despite the KNU requesting reform of the JMCs, both the Union-level JMC and the Tatmadaw have delayed responding. Meanwhile, armed clashes and civilian protests against the Tatmadaw in Hpapun Township have prompted the KNU to take action in order to maintain its reputation, legitimacy and internal solidarity. Despite the commitment of most KNU leaders to the peace process, the government’s delay in addressing the current tensions in Kayin State are prompting some hardliners in the KNU to mobilize internal support for leaving the NCA process, resulting in the recent escalation. As the NCA plays such a crucial role in the peace process, advocacy to both the government and the Tatmadaw to respond to the KNU request for maintaining peace is crucial. Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations should maintain regular communications with local responders in the area to fill any response needs in the event of further displacement.

2. Entrenched Practices Risk Women’s Justice

Myitkyina Township, Kachin State

A letter signed by 10 Kachin-based women’s groups and local residents was sent to the Dugahtawng Ward Administration office in Myitkyina Township on 6 January. The letter raised concerns about the outcomes of an traditional informal dispute resolution process in the case of an alleged attempted child rape on 24 December. Household and community elders handled the crime through an informal justice system and ruled that the alleged perpetrator be freed after paying a fine to the survivor’s family. Three policemen from Myitkyina police station, including a sub-inspector, contacted the forensic pathologist who visited the patient but did not file a case. On 3 January, the Kachin State Police Commander’s Office posted on Facebook alleging that the information about the case is incorrect, while publicising the names and addresses of the child and parents. Local women’s organizations and others are calling for stonger action to be taken, and sent a request letter to the Ward Administration office (referenced online as  “Justice for Sophia”) under section 511 of the Myanmar Penal Code, attempted rape. In Kachin society, elders are drawn from the community, and are typically either ‘trustworthy’ men or resourceful elderly people.They mostly act as figure-heads, although they are often called on to settle crimes and social disputes. Children and women’s rights lawyer and advocate, Daw Zar Li Htwe, commented to CASS that only 20 per cent of sexual violence cases agasint women and children are reported or filed by police, while most are settled through informal (customary) justice systems. These systems are mostly dictated by elder people on their own terms and according to their experience. While it is commonly believed that decisions are often made in favour of the aggrieved party, but Daw Htang Kai Nau, the Director of the Kachin Legal Aid Network Group, notes that in practice informal solutions are based on the impartiality of the community, traditional elders, and influential figures among the perpetrators’ family and relatives. According to Kachin customary practices, if the offending party accepts the terms imposed, peace is declared and nothing more will be said or done.

Misconceptions at women’s cost

Female victims are the worst affected by these informal justice systems. The understanding of stakeholders and the structures of the legal institutions to protect people from sexual violence are weak, since knowledge-sharing is rare and there are few advocates to enage with. Instead,. survivors are victimized to protect the dignity of families, relatives, ethnicity and institutions. This is an example of discrimination against Kachin women and girls, who are largely absent from decision-making roles and face stereotyping of gender norms. While the formal justice system has legal provisions and penalties, it takes time and is seen as causing burden and shame for survivors and their families. Therefore, many of the survivors resort to traditional systems, though this cannot help them obtain justice — preferring instead to save the dignity of their families and relatives. In order to help curb and change such informal justice systems and social norms that are harmful for women, international actors and women’s groups should advocate for women rights and legal systems, and engage with community leaders, religious leaders, Kachin Cultural and Literature Association leaders, committee members and those involved in informal justice systems. It is not the abolition of the traditional system, but its reform which will guarantee the continuation of a proud tradition while protecting society’s most vulnerable.

3. Consultations Waived in Coastal Camp Closure

Kyaukphyu Township, Rakhine State

On 21 December, Social Welfare minister U Win Myat Aye, Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu and other officials joined community leaders from Kyaukphyu Township’s Kyauk Ta Lone camp for a virtual meeting regarding the ongoing camp closure process. In the meeting, authorities confirmed they were continuing with the plan to relocate the camp community to a site adjacent to the current camp. Camp residents reportedly remain opposed to relocating to the government-proposed relocation site (where no new construction has been done since May 2020), but report that maintaining their demands for return to place of origin is proving increasingly difficult. Long term financial stability in the camp is inducing an increasing number of people to sell their downtown properties. As such, there is greater interest in re-settling in Pike Seik ward of urban Kyaukphyu, which was destroyed by fire in 2012. This is made difficult by the fact that the residents of that land were displaced to Sittwe and Pauktaw townships in 2012 and remain there. Camp community members report that another acceptable location for relocation is the site of the old bus station in urban Kyaukphyu, as the bus station is currently being relocated to a site out of town near the Kyauk Ta Lone camp. Meanwhile, ethnic Rakhine sources in downtown Kyaukphyu report good relations between communities, and suggest that the Rakhine community writ large would not oppose relocation of the Muslim community to either Pike Seik or the old bus station.

Inclusive negotiations?

Government decision-makers, who learnt their trade under an authoritarian regime, have little experience in consultation and have struggled to adapt to the government’s own camp closure policy. The consultations for the camp closure process in Kyaukphyu Township have been lacking in inclusivity, while previous camp closure processes in Kyauktaw and Myebon townships have resulted in camp communities relocated to new sites with very limited improvements to their conditions. In Kyaukphyu, negotiations with farmers linked to the government-proposed relocation site have reportedly been held up over compensation, and the original residents of Pike Seik, Muslims who mostly fled to Sittwe and Pauktaw townships in 2012, have been left out of the conversation. There is a clear need for the camp closure process to be consultative, to prioritise the desires of communities in camps in line with the government’s own camp closure process. But there is also a need for recognition that government decision-makers are not accustomed to consultations and have little experience in this field. International agencies should identify those within government who are able to manage consultations and attempt to empower them.

4. Government’s Rakhine Enterprise Builds Rohingya Shelters

Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine State

According to Rakhine media outfit Narinjara, the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD) will build 500 houses across Maungdaw Township for Rohingya from the township who were displaced internally in the 2017 violence. Government officials interviewed by Narinjara said that the Rakhine State government had already published tender notices for construction of those houses. The eight locations designated for relocations include two urban wards in Maungdaw town, two villages nearby the town, villages near Hla Poe Khaung Transit Centre and Ngar Khu Ya Reception Centre, and two more villages in northern and southern Maungdaw Township. Rohingya in the township have little knowledge of the process, or specifically who the shelters are designed for, suggesting that consultations have been limited. Local media Maungdaw Daily News shared on its Facebook page some photos of preliminary structures, and suggested they would be of poor quality. Another post from the same page also alleged that authorities were in violation of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act due to the lack of proper compensation to landowners, and questioned the potential forced resettlement of Rohingya IDPs. Some Rohingya activists have also similarly voiced concerns on this development.

Non-negotiable resettlements

What is known about the new initiative to construct resettlement shelters for IDPs in Maungdaw Township suggest that the process will be marked by the same lack of transparency and consultation which mark other IDP camp closure processes in Rakhine State. There is no indication of participatory processes to identify or select locations for resettlement — not only this recent development but also more broadly in the selection of at least 46 locations which it calls ‘relocation sites’ (as seen in a 2018 report by Reuters). While returning to their place of origin is one of the most important bottom-line demands of Rohingya IDPs and refugees, the Myanmar government, so far, has ignored such concerns and demands. On the contrary, the government has let other ethnic settlers and IDPs settle on the site of land where Rohingya villages used to sit. It has done infrastructure development projects and established the presence of security forces on Rohingya’s land. All these indicate an intention of shrinking the distribution of Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine State by rejecting their right to return to their place of origin, and concentrating their populations in a limited number of relocation sites.

5. Rohingya Smuggling: Increased Use of Overland Routes

Various Locations

In the last few weeks, there have been at least five reported group arrests of Rohingya travellers in different locations across Myanmar and abroad. The arrests took place in Myanmar’s Bago Region, on the Thai border in Kayin State, in Yangon (twice), and in Bangkok. While social media users were preoccupied calling out the hypocrisy of a Buddhist monk attached to the 969 movement (which is known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric) smuggling Rohingya, prominent Muslim civil society leaders in Yangon publicly provided support to those arrested. It is not known whether those arrested will be charged, nor under what laws or regulations. Since April 2020, the government has sent Rohingya found to be travelling without the required paperwork directly back to Rakhine State, rather than imprisoning them, citing prison overcrowding fears during the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, most arrested Rohingya were charged under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act and sentenced up to two years in prison.

Worth the risk?

Due to COVID-19 movement restrictions, it has become increasingly risky for large groups of Rohingya people to travel illegally by sea. This was previously a common means of transport, but COVID-19 restrictions on movement has made large groups conspicuous to locals, who are likely to report outsiders to local authorities. This is true both in Myanmar and abroad, where strict coastal surveillance by Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian navies guard against Rohingya arrivals. Against this background, in order to increase the chances of success, the recent arrests suggest that smugglers are turning to novel forms of transport, such as moving Rohingya in smaller groups and via land or mixed land/sea routes. However, these routes are not safe from arrest either. Agencies may consider partnering with local CSOs to raise awareness for Rohingya in Rakhine State (and abroad), on the security risks associated with people smuggling, and on the increased sensitivity of foreign governments about border security during COVID-19. Such awareness raising can be done through local CSOs active in Rohingya communities, and through well known online Rohingya activists and Rohingya language news sites, in locations with access to the internet.

6. High Risks and Costs, but Smuggling Demand Strong

Various Locations

Media reports and local sources suggest that the smuggling of Rohingya people out of Rakhine State has continued unabated, and perhaps even increased, during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite rising costs. As shown on the map above, there have been 42 group arrests of Rohingya travelling without required paperwork (and 496 people arrested in total) since COVID-19 hit Myanmar in March 2020. Before March 2020, Rohingya commonly paid between 1,500 USD and 5,000 USD per person for smuggling services, depending on the broker/smuggler, transportation and destination. However, sources report that the fee for transportation to Malaysia has risen to some 6,500 USD, due to COVID-19 difficulties. Smuggling activities are usually at their peak between September and March, due to drier weather and easy travel. This trend has continued this year. Recent reports suggest that the most common destination pursued by most Rohingya is Malaysia, followed by Yangon. The most common transit points in Myanmar are Yangon, Ayeyarwady and Magway regions while Kayin State is increasingly used. Many smugglers charge only if their journey is successful, and don’t take a fee if passengers are arrested. In most cases, payment is agreed upon before travel and is made incrementally, after the passengers reach certain milestones in the journey — a system justified by smugglers’ costs and clients’ safety. One risk is smuggling turning to trafficking — when the broker demands more cash or otherwise exploits their passengers.

Push and pull factors

Among Rohingya in Rakhine State (and also in the Bangladesh camps) there has long been strong demand for smuggling services due to the unfavourable conditions in camps and villages: poor living conditions, limited livelihood opportunities, movement restrictions and other systemic discrimination. Another reason for the consistent demand is that Rohingya men working abroad pay to smuggle their fiance abroad for marriage, or other family members for reunion. Men from the community typically migrate first, resulting in an abundance of long distance relationships, virtual engagement and online marriage between Rohingya couples who are thousands of miles far away from one another. Finally, the Myanmar government’s new policy to simply return those arrested, rather than jail them, may in part explain why smuggling continues at its usual scale despite COVID-19 restrictions and dangers. Rohingya who are willing to migrate to Yangon may see the current timing as appropriate to take a calculated risk. In Yangon, there is a large Muslim and Rohingya population from whom they can seek help, or easily blend into.

7. Electoral Lawsuits Suggest Accountability Pathway

Naypyidaw

At a 8 January press conference, the President Office spokesperson, U Zaw Htay, remarked that political parties which filed lawsuits against the President and Union Election Commission (UEC) chair rejecting their 2020 landslide general election were committing political suicide. He claimed that no Hluttaw or Court has the power to question the President carrying out the functions of his office, citing the 2008 constitution article 215 and Union Government Law article 43. On 5 January, the Supreme Court called the President and other defendants to join a preliminary hearing related to the allegations of electoral fraud against the President and the UEC chair — submitted by two military-linked parties: the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the Democratic Party of National Politics (DNP). Additionally, U Zaw Weik, a lawyer known for representing Buddhist nationalists, filed lawsuits against four people, including President U Win Myint, while the DNP Party Chair U Soe Maung and the Union Solidarity and Development Party filed two other lawsuits against 15 people, including the chairman of the UEC, accusing them of electoral fraud. Despite unclear reasons for the lawsuit against the President, it is likely to accuse him of violating article 64 of the constitution, which prohibits the President from being involved in party campaign activities. On 29 January, the three judges will hold a preliminary hearing to determine whether the court accepts the filing or not, and their decision will be final.

Exercising constitutional rights?

According to article 378 of the 2008 constitution, section a, and the Law Relating to the Application of Writ, citizens have the right to file a ‘Writ’ against government officials in the pursuit of ensuring fundamental rights, and the Supreme Court is responsible for investigation. In this case, the plaintiffs filed a ‘Writ of Quo Warranto’, claiming that “the President and some government officials are wrongfully exercising power beyond those authorized by their status”. This was the first time in ten years that the Supreme Court had called on the President to attend a hearing. Some advocates for judicial sector reform welcomed the Writ of Quo Warranto initiative, suggesting it can improve the judicial sector, protect civil rights, and counter abuses of power by public officials.

The lawsuit against the UEC chair for electoral fraud is likely to be thrown out after the preliminary hearing session, as article 402 of the 2008 constitution states that “the resolutions and functions made by the UEC on election functions shall be final and conclusive”. However, the Supreme Court will need to decide whether or not to accept the lawsuit against the President and three Union Ministers for involvement in their party’s electoral campaign activities, which contradicts article 64 and article 232 of the constitution. The Supreme Court may alternatively transfer that case to the Constitutional Tribunal Court which has the power to decide on constitutional matters. Whether or not the Supreme Court accepts the case, the political opposition’s use of the legal platform to manage disputes should be appreciated. The filing of Writs for the protection of civil and political rights should be made accessible for the wider community, and agencies with legal mandates should promote awareness of this potential pathway to holding officials to account and mitigating the abuse of power.

Other Developments

The Tatmadaw has again called for new polls in Rakhine and Shan states, extending its deadline to 1 February. New elections seem increasingly unlikely, as the civilian government and Union Election Commission have given no indication they will back the polls, which are not possible under existing electoral laws.

On 11 January the Rakhine State Parliament accepted without objection a proposal, submitted by an Arakan National Party member for Mrauk U, urging the Union Government to rescind the designation of the Arakan Army as a ‘terrorist’ organisation. The proposal is in part a performative last hurrah before the parliament session ends and the next convenes next month — when it will have no Mrauk U Township representatives. The civilian government, meanwhile, has suggested it will follow the Tatmadaw’s lead on revoking the designation.

An unexploded bomb detonated this week in Minbya Township, Rakhine State, killing one person and injuring nine others. The lull in active clashes does not give any security guarantee to civilians, and agencies need to invest in mine risk education.

Local sources in Dar Let village tract, Ann Township, report that although the Tatmadaw has opened a year-old blockade on water and road routes, inspections are common and civilians are not allowed to carry large quantities of rice. Regardless, some 10 to 20 IDP households are estimated to have returned to the village in January to date. The continued restrictions suggest that the Tatmadaw’s ‘four cuts’ strategy remains in place, despite the absence of active clashes.

The government has announced it will double salaries for civil servants working in Paletwa Township for 4 months until the end of March. The salary is an incentive for staff to live and work in the remote, conflict-affected township, and a reflection of the dangers for government staff in Arakan Army influenced areas.

Sources close to the Paletwa Township Health Department have confirmed that more than five locally-transmitted COVID-19 cases have been detected and about 15 people are now confined to home quarantine. IDP sites in the Township are particularly vulnerable and agencies should ensure preparatory measures are in place.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • 16 January is the third anniversary of a violent crackdown on Mrauk U protests in which seven people were killed. In 2018, a group of Mrauk U residents stormed a government office after authorities cancelled events to commemorate the 223rd anniversary of the fall of the Mrauk U kingdom to the Burmese in 1784. The killings were seen as a key moment in mobilising support for the Arakan Army.
  • Bertil Lintner shares how Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand have been impacted by the recent COVID-19 outbreak, which was traced to Myanmar migrant workers -- and suggests that the blame is misdirected.

CASS Weekly Update 24 December 2020 – 6 January 2021

CASS Weekly Update

24 December 2020 - 6 January 2021

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

COVID-19 and New Migration Concerns

COVID-19 presents new challenges for labour migrants and their families. International agencies need to ensure they address both new and pre-existing challenges.

Myanmar migrant workers have been subjected to hate speech and discrimination in Thailand, where a serious COVID-19 outbreak was traced to Myanmar migrant workers in Samut Sakhon province last month. While Thailand has a strong record of containing the COVID-19 virus to date, the new outbreak and lockdown threatens the livelihoods of the estimated 2.3 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, with implications for families in Myanmar who rely on remittances from abroad.

Armed conflict has long influenced out-migration, including labour migration, but COVID-19 and climate change are likely to present new push factors. While migration is on hold for now under COVID-19, labour migrants from conflict-affected areas of Myanmar are likely to form an important part of any strategy to rebuild southeast Asia’s damaged economy. International agencies in Myanmar can play a crucial part in a strategy to help migrants in preparation for potential difficulties they may face, and to mitigate risks for them and their families.

The conflict push

There is a clear link between migration and internal conflict. As early as 2001, the Thai National Security Council noted that more than 750,000 illegal migrants from Myanmar reside in Thailand, while UNHCR reports that this includes approximately 100,000 Shan ethnic people. Many of these migrants are there illegally, and many have fled conflict zones. While conversations about migration are usually focused on Myanmar’s eastern borders, there is substantial migration of all communities from Rakhine State. Particularly vulnerable are the often-undocumented Rohingya refugees, more than 742,000 of whom fled violence in Myanmar and sought refuge in Bangladesh in 2017.

For international agencies in western Myanmar, it is noteworthy that communities in Paletwa Township are among those most at risk from the dangers of migration at the present time. Armed clashes, numerous abuses against civilians, and social cohesion concerns are driving families to relocate to Yangon or elsewhere within Myanmar, including a group of almost 100 recently settled in northern Yangon. Migrants will enter new and often unfamiliar labour markets, which international agencies can help prepare them for.

Climate change 

Climate change is also a key push factor for migration. The impacts of climate change risk depressing agricultural output, due to shortened seasonal rainfall, flash floods, increased salinity, coastal erosion, and higher temperatures. This is particularly the case in Myanmar’s central dry zone and coastal areas, which is contributing to internal and international migration from these areas. In Myanmar’s tropical climate, the dry zone has the lowest mean annual rainfall (500-1,000 mm/year). However, only 24.75 per cent of Myanmar’s farmlands have access to government irrigation systems. This compares to 70 per cent of farmers in Vietnam, and 30 per cent in Thailand. Increased salinity, coastal erosion, and inundation are especially destructive to the otherwise highly productive delta and coastal rice cultivation areas, including some parts of Rakhine State.

In 2011, heavy rain and flooding in Ayeyarwaddy and Bago regions, and in Mon and Rakhine states resulted in losses of approximately 1.7 million tons of rice, in addition to loss of life and property. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced or otherwise affected by monsoon flooding, reflecting a failure of infrastructure and government policy to keep up with the demands of climate change. These impacts and loss of livelihoods have become a driving force for both internal and international migration.

Trafficking, smuggling and exploitation 

International agencies should also advocate for proper arrangements for migration between countries. The absence of such mechanisms generates irregular migration, human trafficking, exploitation and, in the worst-case scenario, can form a system of modern slavery, particularly in unskilled labour.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch reported that most migrant labourers in Thailand’s fishing industry are illegal migrants, and are often victims of human rights abuses committed by authorities and employers. In Singapore, studies report that 60 per cent of foreign domestic workers are exploited by their employers. Although Singapore is one of the largest destination countries for foreign domestic workers in southeast Asia, domestic workers are highly vulnerable because of the lack of adequate employment regulation, legal protection, and poor working conditions. Similarly, many domestic workers in Malaysia have to work at least 16 hours per day, seven days per week, often for no more than $5 USD a day.

People smuggling also entails a risk of exploitation for migrants, and new COVID-19 restrictions on movement have opened a new market for creative-minded smugglers. Thai media reports that smugglers are now offering services to transport Myanmar migrant workers into the country illegally, to bypass the current restrictions on travel between the two nations.

In addition to addressing the immediate concerns of drastically reduced remittances from abroad, international agencies in Myanmar must recognise the evolving and changing nature of migration for work, and the new risks this carries in the long-term. While the push factors for migration cannot always be addressed, agencies can support migrant workers to undertake safer migration and to mitigate potential risks.

You will be reading about:

1. AA Hostage Release: Ceasefire in Sight?

Myebon Township, Rakhine State

On 1 January 2021, the Arakan Army released the three National League for Democracy candidates it had abducted in Taungup Township on 14 October 2020. Dozens of Arakan Army troops, under the command of a major Aung Lin, reportedly handed the three parliamentarians to a Tatmadaw party in Mee Kyaung Tet village, Myebon Township, upon arrangement. The Arakan Army’s olive branch to bring the National League for Democracy government onside for peace negotiations has apparently been successful. The civilian government has offered to meet the Northern Alliance (consisting of the Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) in either eastern Shan State or Kachin State this month. The handover of the three detainees followed an online discussion between the Arakan Army commander-in-chief Twan Mrat Naing and the Tatmadaw top peace negotiator Lieutenant General Yar Pyae on 30 December. Also on 1 January, the Arakan Army released three Tatmadaw prisoners and four members of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory the Arakan Liberation Party. Meanwhile, Major General Zaw Min Tun of the Tatmadaw True News Information Team told the Myanmar Times this week that the Tatmadaw hopes to sign a bilateral ceasefire with the Arakan Army.

Warmer welcome

The civilian government has been reluctant to engage in the dialogue between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw since the process began after the 8 November 2020 elections. As suggested in a previous CASS Weekly Update, the National League for Democracy’s reluctance may have as much to do with civil-military relations as it does with the government’s relations with the Arakan Army. The National League for Democracy has reservations about both the insurgents and the Tatmadaw, and doesn’t want the first major development of its second term in government to be driven by its adversaries. As such, both the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw will have to tread carefully to avoid derailing negotiations. Should the reluctant civilian government find more enthusiasm for the process, this will likely be marked by the release of Rakhine political prisoners linked to the armed conflict, or signals that the government is considering lifting the designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist organisation.

2. Reignition of Clashes Threatens Civilians

Kyaukme District, Northern Shan State

Heavy fighting between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) has displaced up to 1,500 people in Kyaukme and Namtu townships, Northern Shan State, since clashes escalated in December. Although the Tatmadaw is friendly with neither the RCSS nor the TNLA — despite the former being a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement — it has avoided any intervention so far. The clashes follow heavy fighting between the Tatmadaw and RCSS in Kyaukme Township in October 2020.

Heavy toll

Local sources report that bold expansions in taxation by both sides, and the RCSS’s ongoing attempts to gain more territory, has prompted the latest fighting. The TNLA is increasingly assertive, and has reportedly asked several Tatmadaw-linked militias, including the Mang Pan militia, to pay large amounts in taxation. Some local sources also suspect that the efforts to increase taxation is linked to the depressed illicit economy, including the logging trade. That trade has taken a hit from restrictions on movement across borders, and particularly through the United Wa State Army territory, which has recently gone into a full lockdown, animating social media with images of armed personnel donning full PPE equipment in the empty streets of the Wa capital, Pangsang. There is no sign yet that the Tatmadaw is ready to enter this battle, but rather will patiently wait for its foes to impart sufficient damage on each other. For now, attention should be directed towards the newly displaced people, some of whom have been repeatedly displaced within the last month. Local CSO sources report that the large number of displaced has strained local capacity, and IDPs are in need of food, winter kits and hygiene kits.

3. Missed Opportunity for a Show of Unity

Mawlamyine, Mon State

Following their 10 November statement calling on 48 ethnic political parties to join them in renewed talks to end decades-old armed conflicts and to discuss a federal union, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has scheduled to meet ethnic political parties — with less-than-optimal results. On 4 January 2021, a scheduled meeting between the NLD and the Mon Unity Party (MUP) was cancelled because the two sides could not agree on a venue. Dr Aung Moe Nyo, the leader of the NLD negotiation team and Magway Chief Minister, said that they waited for MUP representatives for one hour at the NLD Mon State’s office but no one showed up. The general secretary of the MUP told the media they had requested the NLD change the venue and suggested three alternatives, but received no response from the NLD. The NLD’s Dr Aung Moe Nyo retorted that the NLD central committee instructed them to meet only at the NLD’s office. Regarding the next meeting with the MUP, Dr Aung Moe Nyo told the media that he would report back to the NLD central committee and follow their instruction. At the time of writing, the NLD committee had already returned to Yangon without responding to the MUP. Meanwhile, on 1 January at the NLD’s Kachin State office in Myitkyina, the NLD met with elected representatives of three other ethnic parties — the Lisu National Development Party, Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), and the New Democracy Party.

Concerns for unity 

Although a dozen ethnic parties welcomed and responded to the NLD’s call, some have expressed scepticism. The NLD’s new committee to engage with ethnic parties. has only limited authority: to inquire into the demands of ethnic parties and to report back to the NLD, without allowing them to respond or make commitments. The NLD has also continued its exclusionary policy in dealing with ethnic parties. At the meeting with Kachin ethnic parties, the NLD invited three parties that won some constituencies in the 2020 election, while excluding the Kachin National Congress party, which didn’t win any seats. Following the meeting, the vice-chair of the KSPP commented that the three MPs-elect who joined the meeting were not representing the party, as the NLD invitation was only extended to elected candidates, rather than the party and its leadership.

Newly formed ethnic parties such as the KSPP, the MUP and the Kayah State Democratic Party (KysDP), are working hard to secure internal solidarity and unity, and they have been cautious in dealing with the NLD due to fears that these meetings could harm them if they are not well prepared. Ethnic parties have learned a lesson from the NLD’s practice of recruiting individuals from certain ethnic parties without consultation with the party as a whole. For example, following the 2015 election, and without consulting the Arakan National Party leadership, the NLD offered some senior leaders from the party high-level positions in parliament and the Rakhine State government, sparking internal conflict which ultimately led to the disintegration of the party. Meanwhile, there is little clear incentive for collaboration between the NLD and the MUP, and the MUP is likely to mitigate the potential threat to party solidarity by buying more time for building the party instead. Meanwhile, the international community should suggest that the NLD provide more authority to their negotiation committee and focus on greater inclusivity in party-to-party relationships to generate meaningful political dialogue.

4. Counter Terror Cases Reveal Tale of Two Taungups

Taungup Township, southern Rakhine State

Four prominent townspeople — including the township vice chair of the Arakan National Party (ANP) — continue to wait in detention after being charged under sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law on suspicions of affiliation with the Arakan Army (AA) in May 2020. The latest hearing, scheduled for 28 December, was cancelled due to the failure of the final witness, the head of Taungup Township Police Station, to attend. Throughout 2020 in Taungup Township, the Tatmadaw and the police arrested and prosecuted at least eight other ANP members or close associates under the Counter Terrorism law on suspicions of having ties with the AA.

Tense political rivalries 

Abductions, explosions and a strong electoral swing made 2020 a turbulent year for Taungup Township, and one which divided followers of the ANP and the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). NLD members suspected the ANP when some of its members were sent death threats, or abducted and detained by armed actors including the AA and the National Security Organisation (a mysterious local vigilante group which claims non-affiliation). The AA’s abduction of three Taungup NLD candidates ahead of 8 November elections fed suspicions of foul play. Prosecutions under the Counter Terrorism law have also raised tensions between the two parties, and the ANP suspects that the NLD took advantage of the turmoil in Taungup to hinder their political competition. Additionally, the defendants have now been in detention for almost eight months, with court dates repeatedly postponed — sometimes a result of witnesses refusing to attend as a result of COVID-19 fears. Agencies should encourage authorities, including the police and the judiciary, to be more transparent and to respect the human rights and legal rights of civilians, as suggested in this recent CASS thematic paper, which takes a closer look at recent prosecutions under the Counter Terrorism Law in Rakhine State.

5. Repatriation Concerns for Relocated Rohingya

Rakhine State and Bangladesh

A limited CASS rapid survey among a small sample of Rohingya people in Bangladesh and Myanmar indicates that news about Bangladesh’s recent relocation of Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char Island is widespread, but details are scarce. Respondents receive the information mostly from informal conversation with peers, social media, or from Rohingya language news sources such as Rohingya Vision. Displaced Rohingya in Rakhine State fear the potential implications of the relocations for the repatriation of their relatives currently in Bangladesh back to Rakhine State. The same concern was shared by Rohingya in the Bangladesh camps, who are afraid that the Bangladesh government — with the prospect of reduced domestic pressure from host communities in Cox’s Bazar due to a significant reduction in refugee populations in the province — may feel a reduced urgency to negotiate with Myanmar for swift repatriation of the refugees. Conversations with people in contact with people already relocated to Bhasan Char also indicate that those now on the island are also concerned that news of their positive experiences on the island may undermine messages from international rights groups for the refugees’ repatriation back to Myanmar.

Seeking durable and timely solutions

Narratives suggesting that the recent relocations to Bhasan Char island would have a negative impact on repatriation contradict expectations widespread among the international community: that the island relocations were designed, at least in part, to encourage the refugees to return to Myanmar. Rather, respondents felt that the relocations would make repatriation less of a priority for the Bangladeshi authorities and local communities. The fact that the narrative regarding the island appears to now be focused on repatriation, however, reflects the fact that expectations are still very much alive, and that impatience is growing. However, existing barriers against repatriation are significant and include the Myanmar government’s limited commitment to resolve the Rohingya crisis through meaningful reform, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s position against repatriation, and the Tatmadaw-Arakan Army conflict in western Myanmar. However, growing impatience among refugees may make them vulnerable to premature repatriation arrangements. For instance, the aspiring broker for Rohingya repatriation, China, and another emerging broker, Japan, also seem to prioritise repatriation sooner rather than emphasising safe and sustainable returns. International human rights advocacy groups, who are concerned about premature repatriation arrangements, should prioritise influencing Chinese and Japanese negotiators to encourage the Myanmar government carries out the Rohingyas’ bottom-line pre-conditions for repatriation: safety and security, access to their land, availability of basic services and citizenship.

6. Island Relocations: Initial Response Positive

Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh

On 29 December, the second group of Rohingya refugees, 1,804 in total, were transported by Bangladesh authorities to Bhasan Char island, following the first relocation of 1,642 people on 4 December. The Bangladesh government plans to relocate around 100,000 refugees to the island in total. According to sources in close contact with people who have relocated to the island, many of the new Bhasan Char residents find that living conditions and facilities on the island are generally quite good. According to sources, this is in part a reflection of the difficult circumstances the relocated people were previously facing in the Cox’s Bazar camps, many in poor living conditions or facing threats from violent actors. Comparatively, the island offers a better environment for the time being, and the government reportedly promises better services and rations at Bhasan Char. However, to date, Bangladesh authorities have not been wholly transparent with their plans for relocation, and it remains a question how many refugees will be moved to the island before the monsoon season starts. Among some international circles, there is speculation that the government is considering mass relocations only after the next monsoon season, to firstly test the resilience of the flood-prone island based on the experience of current residents.

Time to tell?

Despite concerns that the relocations might undermine repatriation attempts, as discussed above, international actors may expect some enthusiasm for relocations among other refugees as early arrivals on the island quietly share their experiences with others facing difficult conditions in the camps. Such enthusiasm could facilitate further relocations before the end of the winter, while the sea remains calm. That being said, the initial favourable experience of a small population of pioneers may be misleading. Tens of thousands of eventual residents will increase space constraints, and dilute the high provider-to-beneficiary ratio currently being provided by the government and 22 national NGOs. Should UN and INGOs continue to refrain from engagement on the island, this will leave the government facing large costs. Finally, there is no clarity on whether the government will allow those who have relocated to move back to the Cox’s Bazar camps if they consider the island unfavourable. Meanwhile, international aid response agencies should remotely monitor, on an ongoing basis, refugees’ experiences on the island and perceptions from the camps. With absolute reliance on the government to meet their needs, those on the island may be reluctant to criticize, and international actors can help voice concerns.

7. Conflict-Affected See Little Reprieve

Central Rakhine State

Conflict-affected civilians in western Myanmar continue to face adversity despite the current lull in clashes and high-level dialogue. This week, the Tatmadaw and Myanmar police force have announced joint inspections of 15 displacement sites in Mrauk U Township. While the statement does not specify what security forces will be inspecting for, IDPs fear arbitrary arrest under suspicion of affiliation with the Arakan Army, following the reported arrest and detention of a displaced woman in Mrauk U Township in late 2020. A number of IDPs have left the sites ahead of inspections, and are sheltering in other IDP sites, afraid to return to their villages in fear of new clashes. Tensions are expected to rise as some sites have reportedly requested authorities to cancel the inspections. Meanwhile, local media have reported that the Tatmadaw has again opened movement along the route to Dar Let village tract, Ann Township, after blockading it for approximately one year. Local sources in the area, however, say they have seen no change. Finally, on 23 December, the Tatmadaw Navy reportedly turned back an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) supply boat on the Mayu river, Rathedaung Township, despite reports it was carrying all the necessary paperwork. The contracted boat intended to deliver aid to eight villages. In the same area on 28 October, the navy fired upon and destroyed an ICRC-contracted boat, killing one man. The 23 December turnback is a reminder of the ongoing difficulties communities and international agencies face in the delivery of aid, despite the current lull in armed clashes.

Abuse concerns remain

While armed clashes have been increasingly rare in western Myanmar since November 2020, the daily tribulations faced by IDPs and conflict-affected communities illustrates how quickly negotiations between warring parties could deteriorate. At the same time that the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army are negotiating face-to-face, and while armed clashes have ceased for the time being, IDPs on the ground continue to face fears of arbitrary arrest or re-emergent armed clashes. Given that the Arakan Army has made the release of politicians and civilians detained during the armed conflict one of its key and ongoing demands in negotiations, the inspection of IDP sites puts the success of the ongoing talks at risk. International actors should make the most of the current lull in armed clashes to service hard-to-reach displacement sites and conflict-affected communities, as there is no guarantee for any political settlement so early in the negotiating process.

Other Developments

The Supreme Court has announced that on 29 January it will hold, by video conference, a preliminary hearing related to complaints of electoral fraud submitted against the Union Election Commission by two military-linked parties. The National League for Democracy will be hoping to push the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s complaints away for good.

On 6 January, more than 1,000 civilians from Hpapun Township, Kayin State, protested against an increased Tatmadaw troop presence and artillery strikes, demanding the Tatmadaw withdraw. Tensions between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Liberation Army rose in Hpapun Township after the armed group demanded the Tatmadaw withdraw its troops from Me Waing village, nearby a controversial road project, by the end of 2020.

The Three Brotherhood Alliance, consisting of the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, has extended its unilateral ceasefire until the end of February 2021. Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw extended its own unilateral ceasefire to the end of January 2021, but continues to exclude Rakhine State — likely as an insurance policy against the ongoing talks.

Despite indications from authorities that Myanmar would again open international flights on 1 January, the date has again been delayed to 31 January. It has also banned, until further notice, entry to Myanmar for UK residents, or anyone who has visited the UK in the past 14 days.

  • To Watch This Week
  • Key Readings
  • The Kachin-based Peace Creation Group has reported that the civilian government has offered to meet the Northern Alliance (Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) in the second week of January. The announcement has buoyed optimism, as the civilian government has shown little interest in the peace negotiations -- until now.
  • A new report from Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar maps out major international actors, support funds and their roles in Myanmar’s peace process, considering national actors’ reservations and openness towards certain international roles and actors.
  • The Transnational Institute explores why ethnic parties in Myanmar didn’t meet their own expectations in the 2020 polls, and how the National League for Democracy party grabbed new seats.