CASS Weekly Update
18 - 24 February 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.
Sangha at a Crossroads
The Buddhist clergy is facing pressure to take a position on Myanmar’s coup and subsequent uprising. A delay in forging that position has its roots in recent ideological conflict and a leadership divide.
The sangha – or Buddhist clergy – hold a key position in Myanmar politics. Their presence among demonstrators during the 1988 (‘Four Eights’) Uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution legitimated those movements, helped sway public opinion, and ultimately threatened the military’s hold on power. The presence of monks and nuns on the streets, furthermore, provides some protection for the public. Security forces will think twice before firing on religious leaders, but chose to do just that in 2007.
Their position is particularly important in 2021, given the last ten years of political life in Myanmar. In recent years, the Tatmadaw has tried to build their legitimacy by creating an image of themselves as the protector and promoter of Buddhism. This was illustrated when Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing very quickly and publicly approached high level monks in the days after the coup. As such, opposition to the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) by the sangha could pose a real threat. To date, however, the sangha have not been seen in large numbers at protests.
The apparently lethargic reaction by the sangha can in part be attributed to the fact that on 1 February, the Tatmadaw arrested three key monks – the Myawaddy Mingyi Sayadaw, U Sobhita (A Lin Kar Kye) and Shwe Nya War Sayadaw – and continue to hold them in detention. All three were prominent leaders in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and are close to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The arrests alarmed the more activist elements of the sangha and inhibited their ability to mobilise.
Additionally, COVID-19 has slowed any visible response from the sangha. As documented in this May 2020 thematic paper COVID-19 Response & Parahita Groups, religious leaders (typically of older age and therefore at greater risk) have not played strong roles in the COVID-19 response. Instead, it has been CSOs, CBOs, community groups, parahita and youth who have ramped up activities since March 2020. When the Tatmadaw seized power on 1 February, civil society was at the height of its organisational capacity – with connections spanning the country – and was quickly mobilised against the coup. The sangha was not.
Instead, many sangha have left urban areas and returned to their home villages in an attempt to avoid shared monastic dormitories and the risk of COVID-19. As such, there are fewer monks in urban areas to mobilise. At the Masoyein Tite Thit monastery in Mandalay – where anti-Muslim monk U Wirathu resided – there are now only some 500 monks, down from a pre-pandemic 3,000. It was that monastery which led some of the first protests against the coup in Mandalay.
A divide in the sangha
Perhaps the most important reason for the silence of the monks, however, is the divide within the sangha itself.
On the one hand, some senior monks from the Union-level and Mandalay Region-level State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na) – a government appointed committee of high-ranking monks – have made remarks condemning the coup. The five Sitagu Buddhist Universities, which were founded by the Sitagu Sayadaw, collectively released a vaguely worded statement. The exact meaning of the statement has been contested, but has mostly been interpreted as conveying an anti-coup position.
Other influential monks have remained silent. This includes monks such as the Sitagu Sayadaw and former Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) chair Insein Ywama Sayadaw. Their silence has fed perceptions that they are implicitly supporting the coup. Others have taken sides. Some sangha have participated in peaceful demonstrations showing support for the Tatmadaw, while two monks were seen taking part in a violent attack against anti-coup demonstrators in Yangon this week.
These fault lines are the result of a deteriorating relationship between sangha seen as supportive of the NLD and those often characterised as ‘nationalist’. While the term ‘nationalist’ is often used to imply support for the Tatmadaw, this is an oversimplification. The interests of the Tatmadaw and some monks do align on certain issues, but this is certainly not always the case. While some monks may have common ground with the Tatmadaw’s position on the Rohingya, they do not necessarily wish for a return to military rule. Future reactions from those sangha who have so far remained quiet will shed further light on this nuance, and this should be taken as an opportunity to revisit many of the assumptions previously made about ‘nationalist’ networks such as Ma Ba Tha.
Emergent influence networks
While monks, nuns, monasteries or networks are likely to take firmer positions in coming weeks, international actors should remember that the sangha is not a monolith, and does not speak with a single voice. There is furthermore the potential for greater divisions in the sangha, as the controversies of the last ten years are forced into the open as society polarises around the coup, and religious leaders are forced to choose sides. As new ties are developed between the sangha and the aspiring SAC or protest leaders, it will be important for international humanitarian agencies to maintain engagement with the sangha within their networks to monitor changing patterns of leadership and influence.
1. Arrest Scares and Bomb Blasts
Northern Shan State
As arrests of demonstrators and strike leaders have risen exponentially since the 1 February coup, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) – perhaps the most vocally anti-coup ethnic armed organisation – offered sanctuary in its territory for those on the run from the authorities. In the early hours of 18 February, its liaison office in Kyaukme, Northern Shan State, was attacked with explosives. No one was hurt. More than 696 people have been arbitrarily detained nationwide, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The junta has issued arrest warrants under Section 505 (b) of the penal code for many social influencers including performers and actors. On 22 February, the list of detainees increased dramatically when tens of people were arrested during demonstrations in Naypyidaw and Pyinmana. Most were reportedly released the next day, but many are still being held. While only 14 detentions have taken place in Northern Shan State, lists of names wanted for arrest have leaked from police and Tatmadaw networks, and dozens of activists have relocated or skipped town to escape detection. Interestingly, few, if any, arrests have occurred in provincial towns where ethnic armed organisations are particularly active, such as Kyaukme and Hsipaw, although protests there have rivalled those in other towns.
Sources in Kyaukme, and others familiar with the RCSS, report strong suspicions that the Tatmadaw conducted the attack on the RCSS office in retaliation for its vocally anti-coup position. The RCSS and Tatmadaw have, furthermore, engaged in armed clashes in Kyaukme Township since the coup – although to what extent this is related to the upheaval in Naypyidaw is unclear, as conflict has been ongoing for months. The attack on the RCSS office incident also highlights the few options that activists facing arrest have available to them. International agencies should ensure protection monitoring resources are designated to identify cases of arbitrary or political arrest and detention. As many CSO partners may also be taking part in protest activities, international agencies should ensure they monitor and offer what support is available. Many of those arrested are unable to access family visits, and face considerable barriers in accessing legal support. Where possible, international partners should provide legal assistance.
2. Post-Coup Peace Under Threat
Kachin State & Northern Shan State
On 21 February, six bullets struck the brick wall of a house near the Buga power plant in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State. Locals presumed the shots were fired by security forces. The threat represents the latest in a series of escalations since Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power on 1 February. Protests have been held every day since 8 February in Kachin State, and have continued despite a security forces’ crackdown near the Buga power plant in Myitkyina on 14 February, during which a number of demonstrators were wounded, as considered in last week’s CASS Weekly Update. Security forces claimed they were using rubber bullets to fire on protestors. However, the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A) concluded that lethal weapons were being used, citing damage to metal objects at the scene. The KIO/A had previously threatened to intervene in the protests if security forces harmed protestors. On 15 February, the acting commander of Bureau of Special Operation 1 (and former commander of the Northern Command), sent a letter to the KIO/A via the Peace-talks Creation Group (PCG), warning them not to interfere in the protests. KIO General Secretary La Nan confirmed that the Tatmadaw threatened both a military offensive and the use of live fire against protestors.
Northern Shan State has become the usual battle ground for the KIA and Tatmadaw, and clashes broke out on 10 February, prompting displacement. Tensions further increased after the KIO/A responded to the Tatmadaw with a statement supporting the people opposing the dictatorship, and told media they will not acknowledge the Tatmadaw’s SAC. On 20 February, the Tatmadaw reportedly deployed more troops into the area, and fighting broke out again. On 23 February, a military vehicle was hit by artillery as clashes intending to block Tatmadaw troop movements broke out on the KIO Bridge 6 base along the highway between Kutkai and Muse townships. Shaking up the existing peace process, the Tatmadaw has informed the PCG that all future peace talks with ethnic armed organisations will be handled through its newly-formed Negotiation Committee, and that the NLD’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center has been dismantled.
Like the bullets in Waingmaw, hopes for peace and the resettlement of IDPs have also hit a brick wall. On 8 February, Min Aung Hlaing announced on Myanma Radio and Television (MRTV) that domestic IDP camps will be closed soon. However, new fighting will complicate that process immensely. IDPs in Kachin State and Northern Shan State, are fearing renewed violence, and their dreams of return and resettlement have dimmed since the coup. Further evidence of war preparations comes from some rice traders in Kachin State, who say that the Tatmadaw are buying up rice. Traders presume they are pre-positioning supplies for the front lines. Amid these concerning developments, international responders face a difficult choice. A decision to avoid working with the Tatmadaw’s SAC, thereby avoiding legitimising the regime, will pose new challenges organizations working in the humanitarian sector, who they require travel approvals and related documents from the state. Furthermore, some relationship with the authorities will be required for demining villages earmarked for return and resettlement, along with other preparatory tasks. International organizations should monitor the situation carefully and seek to pave the road for returns and resettlement for IDPs caught up in this new conflict.
3. A Fragile Lull in Western Myanmar
Central and northern Rakhine State
In Mrauk U Township on 21 February, police arrested 48 people for violation of the curfew and detained them overnight. Arrests of this kind have been rare since the lull in clashes between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw began in November 2020, raising concerns among residents of a new emergence of clashes. Unconfirmed reports have circulated alleging that the police questioned the group about the Arakan Army and may have suspected membership in that armed organisation. These reports of new detentions related to armed conflict have the potential to feed further state-periphery tensions in western Myanmar – a key driver of armed conflict. Also this week, images of armed and well-dressed Arakan Army troops openly operating on the Sittwe-Yangon road went viral through Rakhine social media networks, drawing positive reactions from social media users.
Renewed fears of arrest by security forces, and an increased presence of armed Arakan Army soldiers, illustrate that the unwritten and informal ‘ceasefire’ between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw remains fragile. One the one hand, visible Arakan Army movements may suggest that the Tatmadaw has reached an agreement with the armed group, and accepts their public manoeuvres. This presence may serve to bolster support for the armed group in the short term, presenting the Arakan Army with an opportunity to improve its public image among the Rakhine people, and justify its collaboration with the military during this turbulent period. On the other hand, a wider Arakan Army presence with an increased confidence and ability to move freely will present a threat to police and other state security forces. The risk of accidental escalation is high – especially in a context in which police are accused of unlawful detentions, and where unpredictable landmine explosions continue to injure civilians. Finally, the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire expires at the end of February. While the ceasefire has rarely reflected Tatmadaw behaviour, it continues to shed some light on their positioning. The latest renewal of the ceasefire, on 1 January 2021, included western Myanmar for the first time, and any extension of that ceasefire would suggest the Tatmadaw wishes to maintain a quiet lull there for the time being.
4. Diverse Forces Demand Federal Democracy
Whole of Myanmar
Diverse anti-coup actors are forming a consensus on the need for federal democracy. On 22 February, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) released a statement committing to work for the emergence of a federal democratic union. Similarly, in a 21 February statement, the Shan State Joint Action Committee (SSJAC) condemned the brutal military crackdown on peaceful protests across the country and pledged to work for the emergence of a federal democratic union after repealing the 2008 constitution. This joint committee is formed of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the Shan State Progressive Party/ Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) and the Sin Kaw People’s militia. The General Strike Committee, consisting of 19 protest groups, and the General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN) formed of 25 nationalities, also demanded the repeal of the 2008 constitution and the establishment of a federal democratic union. Despite not directly supporting the repeal of the 2008 constitution, the National League for Democracy (NLD) released a statement on 21 February, claiming that it will work for a constitution that guarantees a democratic federal union. Before this statement, most NLD members and supporters did not agree with the repeal of the 2008 constitution, blaming others for demanding it. Those statements have raised hopes for a strong unification of pro-democracy forces at the end of the military dictatorship and the emergence of a new constitution based on federal democracy.
Despite challenges and many limitations, the formulation of a collective leadership among potential allies who are against the coup plays a crucial role not only in the current fight against military rule but also in building a federal democratic nation. With the unrivalled popularity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD commands popular support against the coup and for federal democracy in Myanmar. Despite its failure in building alliances with other political forces in the previous government, some ethnic parties and ethnic armed organizations are now ready to reach out to NLD to reverse the coup. The role of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), approved by 380 members of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, including elected MPs from the Kayah Democratic Party and the Ta’ang National Party, would ideally function as a platform for the formulation of federal democracy. To broaden that base, negotiations are underway to ensure support from Myanmar’s third largest party, the SNLD. Although the CRPH is gaining more support and visibility from the general population, it is still seeking recognition from the international community.
Ethnic armed groups are also speaking against the coup. The Peace Process Steering Team, consisting of the 10 ethnic armed organisations who have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, issued a statement on 20 February stating they would no longer hold peace talks with the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC), condemning the coup, calling for peaceful solutions, and appealing to the United Nations for support. Moreover, ethnic armed organisations could prevent the deployment of Tatmadaw forces from ethnic areas to cities, and put political pressure on the Tatmadaw’s SAC. Neither the Kachin Independence Army nor the Arakan Army (two of the strongest armed groups) have formalised ceasefires with the Tatmadaw and will be crucial for forming alliances. Forming political alliances among diverse democratic forces will be crucial to any resistance. But how quickly can the country overcome the divisions hardened by decades of war and neglect?
5. Protests and Crackdown Escalate
Whole of Myanmar
On 22 February, a day of nationwide protests against the coup – named the “Five Twos Protests” after the date they occurred – took place in 240 cities across the country. These were the largest show of force since the movement began, and one media outlet estimated that 20 million people participated. Although there were no serious crackdowns by the junta in most cities, in the nation’s capital Naypyidaw protesters were beaten and some reports suggest over 200 people were arrested and detained overnight. The Five Twos Protests came at a time of escalating violence. In Mandalay on 20 February, two people, including a 16-year-old boy, were shot dead and at least 15 others were seriously injured when riot police and soldiers fired rubber and live bullets at a crowd protecting striking government shipyard workers. Khit Thit Media reported the presence of Tatmadaw snipers. On the same day in Yangon, locals told the media that a volunteer security guard was shot and killed by security forces. The Tatmadaw has claimed the man was obstructing the transportation of a sick person to hospital.
Although coup leaders are likely to expect that the people’s anti-military sentiment will weaken over time, the momentum of the opposition to the coup shows no sign of slowing down. Leadership among varying pro-democracy forces is strong, and the demonstrators have been encouraged by strong statements from the international community. This week, Facebook permanently removed pages of state-run media and the Tatmadaw True News Team, citing violations of its community standards and incitement to violence. This highlights the disinformation campaign being waged. Indeed, the junta banned Facebook on 4 February, undermining the freedom of expression and information dissemination among the public. While the Tatmadaw’s State Administrative Council (SAC) has claimed that their actions against protestors are within the law, the arbitrary arrests and use of violence against peaceful protestors do represent a violation of international human rights standards and Myanmar’s own 2008 constitution. Although violence has been deployed in other cities, security forces are likely to be cautious in Yangon, where many embassies and international media are located. Sources close to the military community remarked that the coup leaders might need time to mobilize internal support of senior and ex-military officials in the coup, and they will use violent actions against the protesters when they can ensure internal support. Meanwhile, international organizations should condemn the use of violent force, and the detentions of peaceful protesters.