CASS Weekly Update 18 – 24 February 2021

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.

In Focus

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.

Notable absence

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.

Caption: Monks from Masoyein Tite Thit protest the coup in Mandalay on 22 February Image used with permission.

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.

You will be reading about:

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.

EAO refuge

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.

Dim hopes

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.

Escalation fears

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.

Potential allies 

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.

International concerns

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.

Myanmar Coup: Rakhine Scenarios and Response Implications

Myanmar Coup: Rakhine Scenarios and Response Implications

February 2021

Introduction

On 1 February 2021 the Myanmar Tatmadaw detained civilian leaders and announced they would be taking power under a ‘State of Emergency’ for one year. Having detained civilian leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the Tatmadaw elevated military-appointed vice president Myint Swe to the presidency and called a meeting of the National Defence and Security Council – the military-dominated body constitutionally mandated to revert to military control.

This document – with a focus on Rakhine State and western Myanmar – is split into three parts. The first considers the scenarios the current political crisis may take over the coming weeks and months. The second takes a deeper look at issues of particular concern to the international humanitarian response in western Myanmar. The third examines scenarios and considerations for the international humanitarian response.

The situation remains dynamic, and this document does not pretend to offer a pathway for the response out of the current crisis. The situation is changing daily, and our evaluation this week should be contested in the next. With consideration given to a variety of likely scenarios over coming weeks and months, this flash report highlights flashpoints and issues which will define the context and response in coming months.

Background

The Tatmadaw’s 1 February coup d’état was staged less than three months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) landslide electoral win in Myanmar’s November 2020 General Elections, and the response from civil society, activists and much of Myanmar’s population has been one of both intense disappointment and energetic opposition. A ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ has prompted strikes and boycotts. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in towns and cities in much of the country. At the same time, the response from security forces has been increasingly violent. Arrests are growing daily, and police and soldiers have graduated from using water cannons to rubber bullets and even live fire. On 9 February, in the country’s purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw, a young demonstrator was shot by police and fatally injured. As the demonstrations continue, increasing numbers of ethnic armed organisations and ethnic political parties are publicly speaking out in opposition to the coup.

In contrast to the mass mobilisation against the coup across the vast majority of the country, the response from communities in central and northern Rakhine State has been subdued. Some healthcare workers and university staff have engaged with the Civil Disobedience Movement, but not on the same scale as the rest of the country. The traditional pots and pans banging protest has not been seen, and street protests limited. On 9 February, the first protests were reported in Ann Township, and protests there and elsewhere in southern Rakhine State have been followed by Tatmadaw arrests of demonstrators.

Since seizing power Tatmadaw leaders have said their administration will seek to resolve issues affecting Rohingya communities both in and outside of the country. Specifically, in his first post-coup address to the nation on 8 February, Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing committed to the return of refugees from Bangladesh under the existing Myanmar-Bangladesh bilateral agreement and the closure of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. The speech came just days after the Rakhine State Border Affairs and Security Minister, Col. Min Thant, visited the notorious Aung Mingalar quarter, in the Rakhine State capital Sittwe, to meet with Rohingya community leaders. According to reports, the minister informed Rohingya community leaders that the military would restore the Rohingya’s freedom of movement, and laid blame for the current conditions, and the events of 2017, largely at the feet of the ousted NLD.1

However, other developments problematise these statements, and suggest that the Tatmadaw is more interested in legitimising its seizure of power through international recognition, than in improving conditions for the Rohingya. On 7 February, a township court sentenced 20 Rohingya to prison or detention centres for unauthorised travel.2 This is the first sentencing of Rohingya for unauthorised travel since the 1 February coup, and indicates a reversal in the NLD government’s policy of returning arrested Rohingya to Rakhine State, rather than imprisoning them.

There has been speculation regarding the role of China in the coup. On 16 February, the Chinese ambassador made unprecedented comments in opposition to the coup, noting that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”. The ambassador also called for the immediate release of all current detainees including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.3 It should be remembered that what China values most in Myanmar is stability, regardless of the political system or party in place in Naypyidaw, and China maintains relationships with all leadership actors for this purpose. The Tatmadaw does not make decisions based on pressure from its neighbours or other international actors. However, there are credible reports that China has supported the Tatmadaw in its control of information since the coup – suggesting that Beijing has already made a decision about which side to back. It is also notable that the ethnic armed organisations most intimately connected with China have not spoken out against the coup – including the Arakan Army (AA)

Infographic_Timeline_Military Coup_Update_18Feb2021_A4

Likely Scenarios

Three scenarios are presented here describing likely contextual developments in Myanmar, with a special focus on Rakhine State. Given the unpredictability and dynamism of the current situation across Myanmar, the ‘likelihood’ of scenarios presented here should be taken as speculative. It is unlikely that any one scenario will emerge, and the reality will likely contain elements of all three.

Scenario 1: Authoritarian Reversion

In this scenario, Myanmar returns to a post-1988 authoritarian military-led state, in which basic rights are repressed and Myanmar is again considered an international pariah. In this scenario, the Tatmadaw is unable to consolidate power according to the terms it outlined on 8 February, and is forced to use increasingly violent approaches to put down demonstrations and a growing Civil Disobedience Movement.

History shows that the Tatmadaw has little capacity for compromise and backtracking – both of which are seen as weaknesses. As such, as it loses control of the coup process, instead of compromising with civilian leaders, it seeks to reassert itself through force, promoting a return to the ‘dark old days’ of isolation and totalitarianism under the Tatmadaw. The result is that the Tatmadaw is sanctioned and isolated by the west, and Myanmar is forced to again rely heavily on Chinese capital international protection in forums such as the UN Security Council.4 This is an outcome no actors – including the Tatmadaw – have any interest in. But is a likely result of a spiral of escalation and refusal to compromise.

In this scenario, some ethnic armed organisations would likely seek to capitalise on the Tatmadaw’s preoccupation with the crushing of civil unrest, and would escalate armed conflict. The AA has made it clear it will favour pragmatism over allegiance to any actor, and its emergent rapprochement with the Tatmadaw would be discarded in favour of potential gains in western Myanmar. This scenario would likely lead to a dramatic escalation in Arakan Army governance, and the armed group would seek to expand its governance and administrative structures in central and northern areas of Rakhine State.

In the most devastating version of this scenario, the Tatmadaw struggles to fight numerous civil wars while asserting force in the Bamar-majority areas (to include Yangon, Naypyidaw and Mandalay), and is forced to use extreme violent measures. This would have devastating impacts on the Tatmadaw’s ability to govern, and was likely to lead to an economic disaster.

Scenario 2: Military Consolidation of Power

This scenario sees a post-coup Tatmadaw consolidation of power under the military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing, with the goal of reasserting Tatmadaw control over Myanmar’s political process. The Tatmadaw will likely use whatever means it has, not least extreme violence, to quell the protest and CDM movement. The Tatmadaw will then seek an eventual return to the pre-coup quasi-democratic arrangement, although there is no guarantee that this will occur during the one-year timeline outlined, and no guarantee that it will allow the NLD as currently constituted to compete.

The future of conflict in Rakhine State and western Myanmar is thereby intimately connected to the AA’s cooperation with the military administration, and the armed group will likely receive concessions for its acquiescence. It should be remembered that previous periods of national political upheaval and social unrest have prompted radical re-alignments in the country’s mosaic of armed insurgencies – including the period post-88 uprising, and with the Naypyidaw administrations in 2010. There is a likelihood that a new ‘peace process’ paradigm will emerge, with the AA on the inside, and others who have sided against the Tatmadaw on the outside.

The outlook for the Rohingya is bleak. Tatmadaw administration appointees are known for their anti-Rohingya sentiment and speech, and questions remain about the future AA positions towards that vulnerable minority. Rohingya contacts in central and northern Rakhine State have voiced concerns of a potentially dangerous alliance against them, noting that the only thing Rakhine nationalists and the Tatmadaw agree on is the persecution of the Rohingya. The Tatmadaw’s decision to release well known anti-Rohingya politician Dr Aye Maung from prison on 12 February has intensified concerns among the Rohingya and has been taken as an example of the potential for a Rakhine nationalist-Tatmadaw ‘alliance’ against the Rohingya.5

Scenario 3: Compromise

In what may be the least likely scenario, the wishes of moderate demonstrators are realised and the Tatmadaw negotiates with NLD and ethnic leaders for a return to a quasi-democratic power-sharing arrangement. This emerges from two factors; a) a Tatmadaw incapability to consolidate power – emerging from a possible combination of internal Tatmadaw dynamics, success of the civil disobedience movement and protests, international pressure or ethnic armed organisation resistance; and b) a willingness or opportunity for the Tatmadaw to retreat from its position.

In this scenario, the pre-coup contextual status quo is likely to remain in Rakhine State. Individual actors may change, but the overall incentives will not. There will be ongoing armed conflict in the borderlands and similar access pressures on international responders. While some concessions may be made to the AA for its acquiescence, little will change the huge gap between the demands of the AA and the Tatmadaw, likely meaning a re-escalation of active armed conflict. Complicated access restrictions will remain a challenge for international humanitarian responders, and there will be few new incentives for the civilian government to change its approach to camp closures. Disenfranchised and with no political representation at any level, Rohingya see little to no benefit and continue to face repression.

Thematic Considerations

Below are six thematic considerations for the response in Rakhine State and western Myanmar, with reference to the above scenarios as relevant.

The Rohingya

The persecution faced by the Rohingya is an extreme example of the persecution faced by all ethnic groups in the country. As such, the Rohingya are uniquely vulnerable, and political developments in recent history have rarely proven positive for the community. There is no indication that the 1 February coup and aftermath will be an exception.

The Rohingya inside Myanmar, whether in IDP camps or in out-of-camp communities in northern Rakhine State, are unlikely to take an overtly strong or unified public stance on the coup, given their vulnerable status. The treatment of the Rohingya by the Tatmadaw, and the community’s ongoing vulnerability and lack of legal protections, mean they are most likely to adopt a risk-minimising position.

The status of the Rohingya is likely to remain a key tool in the Tatmadaw’s international public relations arsenal, and they have thus opted for statements and activities aimed at placating international objectives vis-a-vis the Rohingya community, especially considering the Tatmadaw’s concerns regarding the ICJ/ICC cases. As noted, whether the Tatmadaw actually seeks to deliver on its new rhetoric is questionable at best. In some respects, this does mean there is the potential for some improvements in conditions for the Rohingya, should the Tatmadaw wish to extend a carrot to the international community. However, no substantial, long term, gains for the Rohingya should be expected.

Consultations with Rohingya communities in Bangladesh and central and northern Rakhine State suggest that the Rohingya consider the coup as a dangerous development. Given decades of persecution and disenfranchisement, the Rohingya have understandably low levels of trust in the Tatmadaw, and the junta’s recent announcements and community consultations have done little to assuage their fears. Most assume the Tatmadaw’s promises of camp closures and repatriation are public relations measures which will never materialise. Some Rohingya suspect such activities will never actually take place (or only in very limited, symbolic quantities); others worry the military’s stance will put further pressure on Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya without genuine consultation, and into unsafe conditions.

They furthermore see the Arakan National Party (ANP)’s decision to align with the Tatmadaw as a bad omen for the Rohingya. Many also fear poorly thought out returns and camp closures may reignite intercommunal conflicts. The military’s recent reports of ARSA clashes and weapons raids made Rohingya fearful the military would use ‘false flag’ attacks as a means of attempting a rapprochement with the AA – creating a common enemy of the Rohingya.

Whichever scenario plays out, the AA’s position in Rakhine State appears likely to be strengthened, and thereby their position towards the Rohingya will be crucial. Since the escalation of armed conflict in western Myanmar in 2018 the AA has spoken of communal harmony and hinted at reconciliation between Rakhine and Rohingya communities. The big question is: will their words be met with action?

Finally, there are legitimate fears among Rohingya communities about increased freedom of movement restrictions and control of humanitarian aid. The military is increasingly authoritarian, and new restrictions can be expected under a Tatmadaw regime. Rohingya fear that military restrictions, aid or donor restrictions on aid under a military regime, will have deadly implications for them.

Rakhine Political and Community Reactions

Ethnic Rakhine representatives were dismayed with the NLD’s failure to engage with them during its term of government. This is best represented by the public stance of the ANP, Rakhine State’s leading ethnic party. On 3 February, the ANP agreed to work with the military’s emerging administration, the State Administration  Council in pursuance of the party’s political objectives – effectively becoming a part of the new government as a token of the junta’s prioritization of ethnic outreach, and the NLD’s perceived failures in that regard.6

This reflects the fact that for many sections of the ethnic Rakhine community in central and northern Rakhine State, a reversal in who rules Naypyidaw is seen to change few facts on the ground. Discontent with the NLD has grown since 2016, and ethnic Rakhine have tended to see the party as representing a continuation of centralised Burmese neglect for Rakhine State.7 From the vantage point of heavily-militarised Rakhine State, little difference is seen between NLD and military administrations.

However, that is not to say that there is implicit support for the military takeover. A backlash from CSOs and some community members followed the 3 February ANP decision to collaborate with the military’s emerging administration. On 7 February, 47 Rakhine CSOs released a statement in opposition to the coup and the ANP’s cooperation with the military administration, and the party has received considerable criticism online. A number of ANP members, particularly among the youth, have left the party. CSOs are thereby not alone in their criticism of the ANP and the coup, but their activism may signal challenges in partnerships under the any Tatmadaw administration.

As such, it is unlikely that the ethnic Rakhine community will take a strong political stance either for or against the coup. Illustrating this, there have been few street protests, CDM action or pots and pans banging in central and northern Rakhine State since the coup. Some civil disobedience activity has been reported amongst healthcare workers and university staff in particular, but not on the same scale as the rest of the country.

Additionally, the Tatmadaw’s ‘charm offensive’ towards Rakhine communities has no doubt contributed toward the muted response in western Myanmar. On 3 February, the military lifted the internet blackout from all areas of Rakhine State (in place since 21 June 2019). The Tatmadaw has refrained from attacks against the AA, and has instead begun clearing landmines in Rakhine State, and released prominent ethnic Rakhine politician Dr Aye Maung from prison.

Finally, the coup and the political positioning of Rakhine political parties and the AA will likely exacerbate the cultural gaps between communities in central and northern Rakhine State on the one hand, and southern Rakhine State and central Myanmar on the other. The upshot will be that ethnic Rakhine communities will be seen as increasingly alien and separate by the rest of Myanmar. Unlike the rest of the state, southern Rakhine communities have held street protests and other forms of resistance almost daily. However, these positions are nuanced – as illustrated by this southern Rakhine demonstrator’s signboard – suggested protestors saw neither the military nor NLD as preferable, but were there to protest ‘injustice’.

Intercommunal Relations

Horizontal social cohesion challenges in western Myanmar are highly dependent upon the policies of the state. Positively, both the AA and ANP have sought to improve relationships between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities in recent years. The AA’s rhetoric on the Rohingya has driven this, and the ANP ran on a ‘unity’ platform in the 2020 elections. However, public sentiment has been slow to keep up.8

Therefore, and as suggested above, improvements in intercommunal relations are largely contingent on: a) the AA and ANP’s commitment to follow through on its rhetoric of improvements in the treatment of the Rohingya; and b) the AA and ANP’s ability to actually influence Tatmadaw policy. International responders should remember that under any scenario no improvement in intercommunal relations can be expected to come quickly – ethnicity is deeply politicised in the Myanmar context, and the history of violence and discrimination in Rakhine State requires deep processes of reconciliation.

International responders should therefore prepare for the worst case scenario, and there are signs that any negotiation with the Tatmadaw administration for improved conditions will be difficult. The Tatmadaw, has appointed well-known Sittwe social worker, U Than Tun, as a member of the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council in Rakhine State. Before the emergence of armed conflict in 2018, U Than Tun was well known for his advocacy against the Rohingya, and against international aid agencies. In addition, many political leaders in Rakhine State are unlikely to advocate for the return of Rohingya to their places of origin – a key point of concern among the international community. In most respects, this reflects the pre-coup status quo, and there is very little likelihood that the coup – by itself – will improve Rohingya-Rakhine relations in the short or intermediate term.

Armed Conflict

Ethnic parties and ethnic armed organisations have traditionally sought federalism or other forms of autonomy. While civil society organisations in ethnic areas have been outspoken about the importance of democracy in Myanmar, it is also true that under NLD leadership, democracy has not necessarily proved advantageous (or even existent) in many borderland areas, a phenomenon especially true for Rakhine State. Indeed, elections in 2015 and 2020 did not live up to popular expectations. Furthermore, many ethnic armed organisations may be more comfortable negotiating directly with the Tatmadaw. This is informed by past experience, and in particular the perception that the Tatmadaw speaks as a meaningful actor, while the civilian government does not necessarily speak for or control the Tatmadaw. This goes some way to explaining the position of the AA vis-a-vis the coup.

The AA has not spoken publicly about the coup, and is likely seeking opportunities to further its political position through acquiescence.9 That said, the dynamism of the situation means that the AA response may easily shift, and a re-escalation of armed conflict is very possible.

In the case of Rakhine State, the absence of any firm statements by the AA is as telling as the ANP’s decision to join the government. It is expected among numerous stakeholders that in the event of a successful junta coup, the AA’s terrorist designation will be removed.  Reliable CSO sources also report that the AA has pressured CSO leaders not to protest the coup. It was implied that this was part of a rapprochement agreement between the AA and Tatmadaw. Equally, as noted, ethnic Rakhine popular opinion has not been outspoken against the junta coup, and therefore there is limited popular pressure on the AA to object.

Events since the 1 February coup indicate that the AA will follow the political winds, with a pragmatic eye on their objectives. This is similarly the case in many ethnic areas – and other ethnic armed organisations have taken similarly noncommittal stances toward the junta takeover. However, illustrating the dynamism of the current situation, a number of powerful ethnic armed organisations, such as the Karen National Union and the Kachin Independence Army, have taken increasingly vocal positions against the coup – even if they have not yet used force.

Freedom of Information and Connectivity

While nationally the junta coup may lead to severe constraints on access to information, in Rakhine State internet connectivity has already improved with the lifting of the internet shutdown on 3 February. That 20-month long shutdown (June 2019 to February 2021) significantly undermined donor and implementing partner visibility on active conflict and emerging needs, to say little of direct or implementing partner activities.  If the coup is consolidated and the AA-Tatmadaw rapprochement to bear fruit, there is reason to believe that the Tatmadaw will allow ongoing access to 4G networks in western Myanmar for a longer term.

That said, the Tatmadaw has shown a willingness to implement intermittent and nationwide internet shutdowns and restrictions since 1 February, largely in order to impede coordinated demonstrations as well as domestic and international coverage of the coup and subsequent protests and demonstrations. As such, internet connection and communications are likely to remain an ongoing and intermittent challenge for the entire Myanmar response under even the best case scenarios.10 The Tatmadaw’s release of the draft Cyber Security Law on 9 February indicates increasingly authoritarian approaches to freedom of information and the internet. The primary concerns are the degree to which communication activity is actively impeded, and the degree to which communications are monitored (and individuals are subsequently arrested or punished). This will impact western Myanmar as much as anywhere else in the county, and perhaps to a greater extent given the sensitivities of the region.

International Response Perceptions

The public perception of INGOs in Rakhine State is to some degree contingent upon the stance of the general population of ethnic Rakhine communities to the coup. INGOs will be, and already have been, pushed by Myanmar’s activist community to take a more active and public stance against the coup. So long as INGOs do not take a public stance against the coup – or take a stance which is perceived as being too ‘weak’ – they will likely be heavily criticised by the wider activist movement, which will naturally extend to at least some element of the Rakhine population. However, power dynamics in the country are shifting and INGOs should not assume any particular outcome.

Here it is important to note that the stance of the activist community in Rakhine State does not necessarily represent the stance and perception of the general population of the state. As noted, the general sentiment of the Rakhine population appears to generally veer between indifference to strategic support for the military government. However, considering the 7 February statement made by 47 Rakhine civil society organisations, it is also clear that a large component of the Rakhine activist community – which makes up the core of Rakhine State’s most prominent civil society organisations – are decidedly against the coup and collaboration with it. As such, the impact of public perception is likely to be felt in INGO-civil society partnerships, and less in general public sentiment.

The primary INGO perception issues in Rakhine State do not necessarily stem from the INGO’s relationships with the Government of Myanmar. Issues instead largely stem from the fact that the broad perception on the part of the Rakhine population is that the INGO community overly focuses on the Muslim community, and overly blames the Rakhine community for the violence in 2012. Perception issues also more significantly stem from the perception that INGOs are not sufficiently localized – both in the sense that they do not sufficiently support local civil society, and in the sense that they are more likely to hire non-Rakhine Myanmar staff (such as Bamar) for management positions instead of Rakhine local staff. To that end, the response to the coup will first and foremost affect perceptions of INGOs among local civil society, and subsequent challenges to work with Rakhine civil society will impact perceptions among the wider public.

Humanitarian Response Impact: Scenarios

The implementation of programming anywhere in Myanmar requires engagement with local authorities and adherence to procedures established by relevant ministries in Naypyidaw. With respect to access, travel authorisations, and registration, there are essentially three broad post-junta scenarios moving forward in Rakhine State, the likelihood of which are influenced by external factors.  These scenarios are: 1) status quo; 2) loss of access; and 3) marginal improvement.

Loss of Access:

Escalating protests, growing international outcry, and an effective and widespread civil disobedience movement would leave the Tatmadaw isolated, forcing it to re-establish control and authority through repressive means. This more aggressive positioning would lead it to curtail the presence and activities of even compliant INGOs and civil society in an effort to ‘dominate’ the response. Indeed, reminiscent of Turkey in 2017 and Syria in 2014, the junta may prefer that humanitarian assistance be channelled through junta-controlled organs, with activities implemented under the close supervision of the state. Centralisation of the response would result in impediments to needs-based programming. Any re-escalation of conflict or breakdown in fragile AA-Tatmadaw relations would mean communities in Rakhine State would be particularly affected by these restrictions. Some INGOs will likely be forced to serve communities using cross-border and remote modalities; others will remain in-country, citing a ‘stay and deliver’ ethos, but very close donor supervision will be required to ensure that programming does not directly or indirectly serve junta interests.

Status Quo:

While concern for popular welfare may not be the Tatmadaw’s primary concern, the Tatmadaw appears to have decided that ensuring international legitimacy will be one hallmark of a successful coup. If the Tatmadaw is successful in consolidating power, they will seek to maintain an international NGO presence for its legitimising function – a situation familiar to responders in other complex conflicts, At the same time, the Tatmadaw likely views aid organisations with some suspicion, both due to fears that assistance is indirectly supporting ‘terrorists’ and that agencies act as monitoring and reporting mechanisms to the ICC/ICJ.  To this end, INGOs focused exclusively on ‘service delivery’ will be permitted to continue to implement programs, largely under approval frameworks similar to the pre-coup processes. That said, INGOs and international organizations that take a more overt stance on the coup (or on other issues of importance to the Tatmadaw) will face increasing challenges and hurdles reminiscent of the pre-coup response. It is worth noting that in the two weeks after the coup, international response actors that have attempted to continue to carry out activities have been permitted to do so without issue, using approvals granted before the coup. In the short term, travel approvals are very likely to be disrupted by the civil disobedience movement (strikes) at different ministries and at various levels.

Marginal Improvement:

Many access challenges faced by humanitarians in Rakhine State prior to the 1 February coup were the result of competition and poor coordination between the NLD government and the Tatmadaw, especially in the context of Myanmar’s then-apparent democratic transition and associated shift of the General Administration Department (GAD) to civilian control. In this respect, internal friction may be eased somewhat by the reduction of these impediments – although Tatmadaw suspicions about the presence of international agencies will remain. Equally, the Tatmadaw may seek to curry favour with the international community, as indicated by the Tatmadaw’s approach to Rohingya communities and commitment to camp closures and repatriation.11 This scenario is dependent somewhat on the international community’s recognition of the Tatmadaw as a legitimate governance actor – something which is far from guaranteed.

Key Considerations

The following considerations highlight issues which will be of increasing concern to the international response. All considerations are of relevance, regardless of which scenario unfolds, although specific areas of concerns have been noted for particular scenarios.

The vulnerability of Rohingya communities has again risen, and international responders should ensure that protection monitoring and food distribution activities are continued, regardless of the political upheaval. It is important that international actors not take the Tatmadaw’s public position on the Rohingya issue at face value; the status of the Rohingya is and likely will remain a ‘card’ that the military attempts to use to influence international perception of its legitimacy. An AA-Tatmadaw rapprochement has the potential to prompt increased hate speech and risks of violence against the Rohingya, who have very few protections in the country. It will be essential that humanitarian responders remain on the ground to provide humanitarian aid and monitor risk.

Depending on the continued response of the international community to the coup d’état, there is likely some opportunity to engage with authorities to negotiate current access paradigms. If the Tatmadaw is able to consolidate power, all aspects of governance – from village administrations to the entire GAD – will fall under Tatmadaw control. While some humanitarian INGOs will find such an arrangement in opposition to their principles, others may take a more pragmatic approach to continued service delivery in Rakhine State. There will likely be a short window to negotiate new more streamlined and simplified authorisation procedures governing access to all communities, including Rohingya in and out of camps.

While INGOs are not known for their cohesion, in cases such as this, negotiations with authorities are best taken collectively or under the aegis of donor or coordination mechanisms. The history of the Myanmar response, and other responses, have shown the weakness of independent and individual access negotiations, and the exposure to ‘divide and conquer’ strategies taken by authorities. Negotiations should be based on practical considerations such as operational independence.  INGOs (and donors) also need to be prepared to collectively say ‘no.’ Of note, INGOs fail to coalesce when donors financially reward ‘individual’ organisations that negotiate separate agreements.

Under any scenario, landmine and unexploded ordnance risks will be substantial. Many mine action modalities are fairly advanced with respect to remote programming (especially in mine risk education) and there is the potential that mine action may be able to continue in some form even under the worst case scenario. Local responders have identified mine action as an area of priority, have existing, if nascent, capacities, and partnerships should be expanded in preparation of loss of access as soon as possible.

Contingency plans should be made that include a fully remote response based from outside Myanmar. This would require a fundamentally different donor and implementer approach to programming in Myanmar, likely drawn from remote response examples in the past in Myanmar, and from other contexts. In particular, mechanisms to provide funding to informal or unregistered civil society organisations should be expanded.

In the event of Tatmadaw consolidation of power, access will likely be jeopardised by recent or historical criticism of the Tatmadaw, and responders’ avoidance of the Tatmadaw will necessitate entirely new approaches to programming, including a much greater engagement with civil society. To that end, careful consideration of the political implications of individual projects and partners will be critical.

With respect to procurement, new due diligence procedures will likely become imperative. This will include contractual due diligence, to include vetting of downstream subcontractors owned by sanctioned entities.

On account of both the civil disobedience movement as well as western bank de-risking, financial transactions to Myanmar will grow more complicated.  Alternative financial transfer systems will need to be explored, such as the informal hundi money transfer networks.

CASS Weekly Update 11 – 17 February 2021

CASS Weekly Update

11 - 17 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.

In Focus

The Levers of Power in Kachin

The military’s crackdown on demonstrators in Myitkyina on 14 February reflects a rising public anger – and contention over the electricity provision status quo. How the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army reacts will determine new power relations.

Since the Tatmadaw’s coup d’etat on 1 February, the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina has been heavily militarised. While police were sent to the streets in Yangon, Naypyidaw, and in other cities around the country to protect government assets and control protests, it has been the military fronting the streets in Myitkyina. There, demonstrations have taken place since 8 February. The situation escalated dramatically on the night of 14 February, however, when security forces violently cracked down on demonstrations near a power station, deploying tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and water cannons.

The 14 February crackdown resulted in an unknown number of minor injuries to civilians, and security forces detained two civilians and five reporters from three media outlets overnight. The Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG), a set of Kachin business leaders instrumental in brokering talks between the KIO and military since the breakdown of the ceasefire and escalation of armed conflict in Kachin State in 2011, negotiated with security forces for their release.

Generating resistance

Since 1 February, Tatmadaw troops have reportedly taken positions in the compounds of at least three power stations. From 13 February, more police and troops arrived and surrounded those locations. Demonstrators and townspeople reacted by themselves gathering around the power stations, demanding that the Tatmadaw troops withdraw. Rumours spread that the military wanted to control the power supply, and would manipulate power cuts for arrests and protest crackdowns. Like elsewhere in Myanmar, communities are worried about thugs, widely thought to be employed by the military regime to spread fear and insecurity at night.

Central to the demonstrations – and the crackdown – was a Buga Company Ltd. power station, which is owned and run by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Under the terms of a contract, spanning at least 20 years and signed by the KIO and Myanmar government in 2007, the Buga Company supplies power to Myitkyina and Waingmaw townships. As documented by Frontier Myanmar, the KIO-owned power distribution network massively over-shadows government electricity provision in Kachin State, and has long been a thorn in the side of the military. All stakeholders have a vested interest in reliable power supply, but the current systems functions as a significant revenue generator for the KIO.

A trusted intermediary

The PCG has also been mediating between protestors and security forces at these power plants. The PCG’s successful mediation between protestors and the military had resulted in the military’s withdrawal from two stations (in Myitkyina and Waingmaw) on 13 and 14 February. But, the group could not persuade the protestors to return home during the 14 February night protest, before the crackdown.

The PCG’s active intervention in these recent incidents should be considered a milestone development for the anti-coup movement in Kachin State. The PCG is well respected locally and carries considerable influence with ethnic armed organisations (especially the Kachin Independence Army – the armed wing of the KIO) and state security forces. Communities and civil society organisations in Kachin State usually approach the PCG for support in disputes with police or military, and the PCG has had a strong track record of effective de-escalation.

A pragmatic balancing act

After the violent crackdown by the military on largely peaceful protesters, many ethnic Kachin – and broader segments of Myanmar society – expected KIO/A pressure on the military – especially through military means. The KIA had previously announced through the PCG on 9 February that it will intervene if the security forces harm protestors.

The first statement from the KIO since the coup – officially stating their position – finally surfaced on 17 February. The KIO urged the authorities to refrain from violently cracking down on demonstrators, to respect the will of the protestors and to swiftly resolve the current political crisis by “right and just means”. Notably, the statement also reads that the KIO “welcomes the public’s efforts to absolutely end authoritarianism”.

Predictable unpredictability

Despite using a relatively strong tone against the coup and the military regime in its statement, the KIO/A is expected to avoid an escalation with the Tatmadaw. While public pressure to assert their authority is building, the KIO is in a difficult position. The majority of other EAO’s in Myanmar’s north have so far been silent on the coup. It is also assumed that China will work with any incoming regime, with an eye on maintaining stability on its borders. However, the situation remains dynamic and the calculations of China, as well as all other armed groups, could change at any time. International agencies should ensure they are listening to the positions of the PCG, which the KIO is likely to continue relying on to convey its concerns and positions directly to the military and the public, as it balances uncertainty during the current upheaval.

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1. Contested Collaboration in the West

Rakhine State, Myanmar

In Mrauk U between the 12 and 14 February, the Arakan National Party (ANP) held its annual Central Committee Meeting to discuss the party’s activities and its involvement in the military’s new State Administrative Council (SAC). At the meeting, the party agreed that participation in the SAC would be determined based on the best interests of the Rakhine people. On 3 February, the new military junta appointed a prominent leader from the ANP, Daw Aye Nu Sein, as a member of its SAC shortly after seizing power in a coup. On 7 February, 47 Rakhine CSOs released a joint statement urging the ANP to distance itself from the military administration and said that no political party, organization or individual should take part in, or support, any administration that is politically illegitimate and was formed against the will of the people. Some ANP members, particularly among the younger generations, have resigned in connection with the party’s involvement in the SAC. The two other ethnic Rakhine parties — the Arakan League for Democracy and Arakan Front Party – both rejected offers from the military to collaborate.

Escaping the cycle of oppression

When welcoming the SAC’s offer, the ANP demanded: the appointment of chairman and two other membership positions in the Rakhine State Administration Council; the release of political prisoners including the prominent politician Dr. Aye Maung; and the rescindment of the designation of Arakan Army (AA) as a ‘terrorist group’. Dr. Aye Maung and author Wai Hun Aung were released from serving long-term sentences for treason on 12 February, during the annual Union Day mass amnesty. But, the hope for a leading Rakhine administrative role collapsed when the military appointed Dr. Aung Kyaw Min, a former Rakhine State cabinet minister during the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party government (2011-2016) to the position of Chairman. This indicates that the ANP’s role in the SAC in Rakhine State is likely to be quite limited – threatening yet another cycle of oppression against western Myanmar. Positively, armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA has effectively ceased since the November 2020 election. Rakhine State was also included under the unilateral ceasefire announcement by the Tatmadaw from February 1 to 28 — although the Tatmadaw has not yet revoked the AA’s terrorist designation. Optimism should thereby be limited – without a meaningful negotiation between the Tatmadaw and AA, armed conflict may well re-emerge.

Under the military administration, the fate of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, and any possible plans for repatriation of those outside of the country, now lie in the military’s hands. The coup leaves the Rohingya community in an extremely concerning situation, in which more repression and human rights violations are likely to be the norm. Passing over ANP members, the military has appointed well-known social worker, U Than Tun, as a member of the SAC in Rakhine State. Before the emergence of armed conflict in 2018, U Than Tun was well known for his advocacy against the Rohingya, and against international aid agencies. Another concerning sign for the Rohingya is the 7 February sentencing of 20 Rohingya to prison or detention centres for unauthorised travel. This is the first sentencing of Rohingya for unauthorised travel since the 1 February coup, and appears to indicate a reversal in the NLD government’s policy to return Rohingya to Rakhine State, rather than imprisoning them.

Finally, the Tatmadaw’s charm offensive towards ethnic Rakhine communities has continued. Last week, the Tatmadaw began removing landmines from central Rakhine State. This has long been a concern of all peoples in Rakhine State, and is a key barrier to the return of IDPs. Illustrating that explosives remain an issue, one civilian in Ann Township was severely injured on 17 February by a landmine. The Tatmadaw has previously cleared mines from other conflict-affected areas of Myanmar, but is yet to allow any external agencies to conduct similar activities.

2. No Sign of Armed Conflict Shifts

Northern Shan State

While armed clashes have subsided elsewhere in the country, there is no lull in clashes among Northern Shan State’s mosaic of armed groups. Despite the Restoration Council of Shan State’s (RCSS) early February declaration of a ceasefire with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), clashes between those two groups have continued. Clashes have taken place between the two sides in Kyaukme and Namtu townships, with up to 700 people reportedly displaced across the locations. Local responders have been supporting IDPs with winter kits and hygiene kits. The RCSS has also clashed with the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) this week, as well as with combined SSPP and TNLA forces in Hsipaw Township – prompting an estimated 200 IDPs to flee to Hsipaw urban area. Following those clashes, unconfirmed reports of an SSPP execution of 13 SSPP prisoners of war fomented hostility online, as some political leaders raised International Humanitarian Law concerns. The controversy has split opinion across Shan society, and weakened the prospects of a united front opposing the military’s 1 February coup.

New peace paradigm still distant

Despite suggestions from some observers that a force of united armed ethnic groups in north and north-eastern Myanmar may be able to turn the tide on the current coup, armed conflict and impacts on community cohesion suggest that the coup will more likely function to perpetuate civil war in Northern Shan State. Indeed, untangling the regions’ complex mix of dozens of armed groups, Northern Shan State’s place at the centre of the regional drug economy, and the range of other ongoing, illicit activities poses a formidable challenge for any Naypyidaw regime. There is a need to ensure humanitarian response continues in Northern Shan State, as the impact of this intertwined conflict will be hardest felt by the most vulnerable. Reports this week indicate that a portion of payments from the Kokang Border Guard Force to family members of people killed in an attack on government officials on 5 February were embezzled, illustrating the difficulties that ordinary people face in accessing even basic standards of compensation or justice.

3. China and the Coup

Yangon

On 16 February, Chinese State Media published an interview given by the Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar regarding the current political situation in Myanmar. Significantly, the ambassador noted that China had not been informed of the coup in advance, and, in its more critical comments since the 1 February coup, said that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”.  The ambassador also called for the immediate release of all current detainees including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. China rarely comments on neighbouring country’s internal affairs, and this rebuke has the potential to shake the corridors of power in Naypyidaw.

Shifting position 

Although it is likely that the coup leaders expected an international outcry, criticism and some sanction, they probably held a strong belief that China’s support would see them through those challenges. However, China didn’t show a strong position of support for the junta at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on 2 February. In a subsequent UN Security Council (UNSC) press statement, all member countries, including China, expressed “deep concerns at the declaration of the state of emergency imposed by the military on 1 February” and called for the immediate release of all those detained. However, China and Russia didn’t immediately condemn the coup during the first week, while other UNSC members did. On 1 February, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told the media that China had ‘noted’ the military coup in Myanmar and hoped that all sides could properly manage their differences under the constitution and uphold stability. At a subsequent UN Human Rights Council meeting, some countries, including China, defended Myanmar’s position. Regardless, the council decided to impose punitive sanctions, arms embargoes and travel bans in response to the coup, with the support of a majority of member countries.

As such, speculation has been rife that China may be offering covert support for the coup. Hundreds of protesters have demonstrated daily at the Chinese embassy in Yangon accusing Beijing of just that, despite repeated Chinese denials. The change in China’s stance towards the junta does appear to have shifted. This may well be due to the continuing popular protests, or other evidence that the military’s leadership is struggling to consolidate control. China has long sought to balance its relationships with various actors internal to Myanmar. A source close to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) said the Chinese ambassador has accepted the request of CRPH for a meeting this week. As China exerts its political and economic leverage to mediate the situation, its pivotal role continues to be crucial.

4. Ousted Parliamentarians Unite

Yangon

On 15 February, the military’s State Administration Council (SAC) issued arrest warrants under Section 505 (b) of the penal code for the 15 members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – comprised of politicians elected to the union parliament in Myanmar’s November 2020 elections. The CRPH was formed on 5 February, with the agreement of 378 elected members, and has declared itself the legitimate government of Myanmar. On 14 February, the CRPH announced that they would not respect amendments to the Protection of the Citizen for the Personal Freedom and Personal Security Law, nor the amendments to the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, and urged people not to comply. On 13 February, the CRPH issued a statement urging Myanmar diplomats abroad not to be accountable to the SAC, but to the CRPH as a legitimate body. The statement also noted that the address by Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN to the UN Human Rights Council last week did not represent the people of Myanmar. Another statement on 11 February rejected new SAC laws, orders, and directives as illegitimate. Meanwhile, the CRPH extended the State Counsellor Law, filed a lawsuit against SAC and its members, and appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council to take action against the military. In the meantime, arrests have been growing rapidly, and military has now also issued arrest warrants for seven prominent 88-Generation activists, on charges of incitement.

Conduit back to democracy?

Despite wielding considerable hard power, the SAC lacks the recognition of the public and control over most government and private institutions across the country. In contrast, the CRPH believes it has an internal legitimacy and has thus been trying to achieve international recognition and support – which many believe may be a game-changer to turn the tide on the current coup. However, the CRPH has very limited capacity to mobilize different actors, including ethnic political parties and armed groups. Initially, CRPH was formed entirely from representatives from the National League for Democracy, but members of the Kayah State Democratic Party and the Ta’ang National Party joined the CRPH on 10 February. Negotiations are underway to include representatives from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and other ethnic parties which do not support the military coup. Sources close to the CRPH said that it agreed upon some key demands raised by the ethnic groups (for example, removal of military dictatorship, abolishing the 2008 constitution, and establishing a federal democratic state) and has some potential to form a coalition body. The power dynamics between the CRPH and the SAC puts international agencies in a difficult position, and contingency plans should be put in place to ensure that the most vulnerable communities in Myanmar receive continued support regardless of future developments – which remain unpredictable.

5. Healthcare Workers’ Strike a Blow to Military State

Whole of Myanmar

On 15 February, State Administrative Council (SAC) – commonly referred to by opponents as the ‘coup council’ – chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, threatened action against healthcare workers involved in the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and called on all government staff to cooperate with the SAC. The same day that the SAC promised retaliation, some 30 police conducted an evening raid on the Sao San Htun General Hospital in Taunggyi, southern Shan State, and attempted to arrest staff suspected of involvement in the CDM. One doctor from the hospital noted that tensions erupted when the police tried to arrest medical staff, and that the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Staff at 70 hospitals and medical departments across Myanmar have been on strike since 3 February, but many are providing free medical care outside of government-owned facilities.  Reflecting the high level of support for the CDM movement, some 2000 nurses demonstrated in front of the Chinese Embassy on 13 February, and on 7 February, the Myanmar Health Assistants Union called on all health assistants in rural areas across Myanmar to join the CDM and take the lead in protesting against the coup.

Meanwhile, the 16 SAC announcement of the sale of government bonds at a value of 200,000 million MMK (approx. 141.8 million USD) has encouraged anti-coup demonstrators, and may be read to suggest that the bite of CDM is being felt. The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw has warned that the bonds sold by the SAC were illegal and would not be recognised.

Unpredictable strike

Among the new SAC leaders are U Thein Nyunt and U Khin Maung Swe – both 1988 demonstrators and former NLD senior leaders. These leaders are best placed to understand the mass demonstrations and best placed to combat it. Their tactic to date has been to gradually erode demonstrations, rather than go for all-out confrontation. The SAC has also sought to amend laws to show to both a domestic and international audience that its actions remain within the legal framework. But there is no clear approach emerging yet to combat the CDM, the impact of which is being felt strongest among the health and banking sectors. There is furthermore widespread sympathy and support towards CDM strikers, not least due to the huge sacrifices made by healthcare workers in the recent fight against COVID-19, prompting other workers to follow the lead of healthcare workers in both urban and rural areas. The CDM has also created difficulties for the government to follow through with its promise to continue the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination plan, very publicaly highlighting the challenges it faces in governing the country. Arrests have also been made to end CDM involvement, but some detainees have been subsequently released after a public outcry. Other healthcare workers are also seeking refuge in locations elsewhere in Myanmar to avoid arrest, thereby accelerating the CDM. As the movement has no real leader, any attempt to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ is unlikely to have much impact. International communities should continue to raise their concerns about arbitrary arrests by the military, while monitoring abuses.

6. Diverse Demands: Protests and the Collective Voice

Whole of Myanmar

Since the first week of February, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Myanmar’s major cities, chanting slogans against the military junta and demanding the release of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained politicians – amongst other things. While Myanmar security forces have generally been restrained, there is a trend of escalating force. On 15 February, the police and military cracked down on a Naypyidaw students’ protest against the military, arresting 40 people including 30 students. The police temporarily detained people in Naypyidaw Prison. Just 27 students out of 40 people were released that evening, after an estimated 10,000 people gathered in front of the prison where the students were being held and shouted for their release. On 16 February the police used rubber bullets against protestors in Mandalay, and an activist noted that a number of protesters were injured and at least four young women arrested.  In response, on 11 February, youths from 18 ethnic nationalities established the ‘Ethnic Debate Committee’. This ethnic alliance then marched in Yangon, with 6,000 people demanding the immediate release of detained people, the abolishment of the 2008 constitution, and the establishment of a federal democratic state. The nationwide protests against the military coup are likely to continue over the coming days under the mobilization and support of different protest groups.

One cause, different demands

Those participating in the current mass demonstrations can be categorized into three broad categories. The first group has the largest number of participants, and their motivation for joining the protests is the arrest and detention of leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. They are calling for the immediate release of detained leaders and demand the State Administrative Council relinquish power to the elected NLD representatives. This position holds an implicit assumption that Aung San Suu Kyi will handle any subsequent challenges, including dealing with the junta and ethnic leaders. This is essentially a demand for a pre-coup situation, which is – paradoxically – the same situation which facilitated the opportunity for a coup. The second group (which initiated the first street protests) is made up of young, mostly urban, activists. Despite having some overlap in demands with the first group, they are driven by the current crisis, which many see as undermining their future. They want more than just the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members or for the NLD to simply regain power, but for a stable political system and credible political leadership – with a leader who can navigate the country away from a military coup.

The third force is the ethnic youth, and their main impetus is that the current military coup has targeted not only the elected government, but the basic principle of democracy itself. They believe that a military coup undermines the fundamental principles of democracy, regardless of which party it ousts. They would not be satisfied with just the military handing back power to the NLD, as the NLD is not considered a strong advocate for ethnic equality or federalism. Reflecting this, Karen ethnic youth leaders say that under the NLD government their rights were no more respected than they were under the previous military dictatorship. Therefore, they wish to firstly overthrow the dictatorship (both military and ‘one-party’ dictatorship) and establish a federal democratic state. Without reconciling the different demands of all anti-coup protesters, there is a risk that their voices will be undermined.

7. Invasive Regulations Threaten International Presence

Whole of Myanmar

On 9 February the Tatmadaw released a draft version of the Cyber Security Law, and requested public feedback before a very short deadline – 15 February. In response, Norwegian-owned telecommunications company Telenor noted its concerns that the law “does not progress relevant regulatory frameworks and law for a digital future, nor promotes and safeguards digital safety and rights,” and advised a review of the law’s human rights considerations, applicability, scope and execution. Other monitors noted that the law is intrusive, and that the vague language and lack of proper definitions allows the law to be abused. Also this week, the State Administration Council announced changes to the penal code related to treason and high sedition, expanding clauses and increasing prison terms. Speculation is rife that this is in anticipation of further charges against Aung San Suu Kyi or members of the National League for Democracy. The Tatmadaw also reinstated a clause in the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, requiring households to report any overnight guests to authorities.

Shrinking space

The scope of the Cyber Security Law, combined with the other recent legal amendments, all indicate that the space for civil society, and individual rights in general, is shrinking. This should be of direct concern to international humanitarian responders, many of whom work closely with civil society organisations. Furthermore, this represents an unprecedented level of restriction and monitoring of online activity in Myanmar. Since internet usage proliferated in the early 2010, users have had access to the internet with very few restrictions. The draft law will likely serve only to further mobilise demonstrators – many of them youth who grew up with the web – against the regime. For international actors, the path ahead is not yet clear, as the law is yet to be enacted or enforced. However, the warning signs are clear. Many international agencies may elect that the law represents an unacceptable invasion of their independence, and some responders may prefer to work through remote or cross-border modalities instead. Finally, it is not only the humanitarian sector feeling the crunch. This week, eight international chambers of commerce in Myanmar released a joint statement of deep concern, noting that the “free flow of information is a critical and necessary condition for businesses and communities to operate.”

CASS Weekly Update 28 January – 10 February 2021

CASS Weekly Update

28 January - 10 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.

In Focus

The Coup and Rakhine

There have been few demonstrations in central and northern Rakhine since the 1 February coup. But business as usual is out the window for the international response.

Approximately one million Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh, a result of numerous rounds of displacement and return. A repatriation attempt this year would be the third attempt at repatriation since violence in Rakhine State forced some 740,000 people to flee Myanmar in 2017.

On 1 February 2021 the Myanmar Tatmadaw detained civilian leaders and announced they would be taking power under a ‘State of Emergency’ for one year. Having detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the Tatmadaw appointed vice president Myint Swe to the presidency and called a meeting of the National Defence and Security Council – the military-dominated body used to revert to military control.

Occurring less than three months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) landslide electoral win, the coup seemed unlikely. Far more predictable was the outburst of disappointment and energetic opposition from civil society, activists and much of Myanmar’s population. A ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ has prompted strikes and boycotts, and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in towns and cities nationwide. The response from security forces has been increasingly violent. More arrests continue to be reported, including NLD leaders and Union Election Commission figures, and police have graduated from using water cannons to rubber bullets and even live fire. In Naypyidaw on 9 February, a young demonstrator was shot by police and later declared brain dead.

In contrast to the mass mobilisation in the rest of the country, the response has been subdued in central and northern Rakhine State. Some healthcare workers and university staff have engaged with the Civil Disobedience Movement, but not on the same scale as the rest of the country (see graphic below). The traditional pots and pans banging protest has not been seen, and street protests limited. On 9 February, the first protests were reported in Ann Township, and were followed by the arrest of at least four protestors.

Among many in Rakhine State, a reversal in who rules Naypyidaw is seen to change few facts on the ground. Discontent with the NLD has grown since 2016, and the party was seen to represent a continuation of centralised Burmese neglect for Rakhine. From the vantage point of heavily-militarised Rakhine State, little difference is seen between NLD and military administrations.

However, that is not to say that there is implicit support for the military takeover. A backlash from CSOs and some community members followed a 3 February decision by leaders of the prominent Arakan National Party (ANP) to collaborate with the military’s emerging administration, the State Administrative Council (SAC), in pursuance of the party’s political objectives. Additionally, on 7 February 47 Rakhine CSOs released a statement in opposition to the coup and the ANP’s cooperation with the military administration, and the party has received considerable criticism online. A number of ANP members have left the party.

The Tatmadaw’s charm offensive towards Rakhine communities has no doubt contributed toward the muted response. On 3 February, the military lifted the internet blackout – in place since 21 June 2019 – from all areas of Rakhine State. A disinformation campaign may also be in the works. Early on 1 February, a graphic was widely shared through Rakhine social media networks calling for celebrations welcoming the coup. The text was in Rakhine language, but no group claimed responsibility for the notice.

Moreover, civilians in Rakhine remain highly concerned with conflict dynamics. Although the lull in clashes has continued, civilians continue to be affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance. On 4 February, an explosive detonated in Buthidaung Township, killing one and injuring two other Rakhine civilians. Landmine and unexploded ordnance are a key barrier to the return of IDPs and more humanitarian programming for awareness and victim assistance will be critical, although agencies’ engagement with security forces under a military government will need further consideration.

The position of the Arakan Army (AA) will be significant. Like other members of the Northern Alliance and Federal Political Negotiation and Consultation Committee, the AA has not spoken publicly about the coup, and may be seeking opportunities to further its political position. It should be kept in mind that the situation remains dynamic, and a shift in variables may encourage the AA to again escalate armed conflict in western Myanmar.

While there have been few visible changes on the ground in Rakhine State, it is clear that the context has changed dramatically. Some internationals have expressed hopes that a military establishment will streamline approvals processes and improve humanitarian access, as the military seeks to shore up legitimacy. It should be remembered, however, that the military may have as many incentives to block access as the civilian government. The military is concerned about the presence of international agencies, who are suspected of reporting to international human rights observers or accountability mechanisms. Furthermore, little will change Tatmadaw concerns about the divergence of aid to ‘terrorist’ groups.

Finally, humanitarian actors in western Myanmar are likely to face new protection risks. The space for civil society has already shrunk, and the arrests of activists will have a stifling effect on freedom of speech. New areas of the state may be expected to be increasingly militarised as the military asserts control.

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1. Rohingya See Little Light in Military Takeover

Rakhine State and Cox’s Bazaar

Recent history has shown that political developments in Myanmar are rarely positive for the Rohingya, and rapid consultations with communities in northern Rakhine State and in the refugee camps in Bangladesh this week show that there is little optimism their conditions will improve under any new military administration. Highlighting the uncertainty, communities in Maungdaw Township rushed to banks in the days after the coup to exchange bank notes, as rumours spread that the military administration would demonetise 5,000 and 10,000 MMK notes – something the authorities and central bank officials were forced to deny.

New risks for return

While the emerging military administration has promised to close IDP camps and repatriate refugees from Bangladesh, Rohingya are sceptical regarding both. Predictably, mistrust and fears of the military are behind this. Despite the military’s claims to the contrary, the civilian government had little to do with the atrocities committed in 2016 and 2017 against the Rohingya. Those who spoke to CASS don’t believe the military would truly commit meaningfully to either improving documentation for the mostly stateless population, or a safe repatriation plan. There are, furthermore, concerns among the community that the government of Bangladesh will seek to capitalise on the military’s newfound optimism for returns, amid concerns about the ongoing economic, environmental and political issues it faces domestically in regards to the refugee crisis. Some respondents suggested that the refugee community in Bangladesh expects a small number of people to be repatriated in less than ideal conditions, before subsequent stalling of the process. International responders should also be sceptical of any promises regarding repatriation. The emerging administration has repeatedly committed to repatriation, likely in search of international legitimacy. This is a key demand of the international community. However, without meaningful reforms for the conditions of the Rohingya inside Myanmar, sustainable solutions to the community’s plight will be out of reach. Rohingya have also expressed disappointment in the Arakan National Party’s decision to work with the emerging administration, as many Rohingya with voting rights supported the party in 2020.

Finally, on 5 February, the Tatmadaw reported a clash with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in north Maungdaw Township. Responders should remain sceptical of these reports. Many armed groups are active in this area, and reports of this particular armed group serve a particular narrative. It is clear, however, that an incident of some source did take place, further illustrating the barriers to safe return for refugees.

2. Civil Disobedience Movement Spreads

Whole of Myanmar

Anti-coup activists across much of the country mobilised a Civil Disobedience Movement shortly after the 1 February seizure of power. Workers crucial to the function of the state, military or the private institutions linked to it have been encouraged to strike. To date, the sectors most affected have included healthcare, banks, municipal councils and education. One result of this is that the number of COVID-19 tests has dropped significantly. Authorities are reporting less than 2,000 tests daily now, compared with some 17,000 before the coup. The infographic below illustrates the spread of the movement across the country.

Can the momentum keep?

A milestone for demonstrations is expected to be the inclusion of Buddhist monks or nuns. To date, some monks have joined anti-coup protests in Mandalay, Yangon and other towns, but not on the scale seen in previous protest movements in 1988 or 2007. Political leaders in Myanmar draw their legitimacy in part from the Buddhist Sangha.  Since the attempted coup, military leaders have visited high-profile Buddhist religious leaders to make donations, and have spread images of these visits throughout state and social media. As such, monastics’ participation in demonstrations would indicate a deep loss of support for the junta. The term that demonstrators use to refer to strikes – thabeik hmauk – translates as the ‘overturning of a monk’s alms bowl’, representing the monks’ refusal to accept donations, thereby blocking the opportunity for the donor to receive merit.

3. United Demonstrators Foresee Diverse Resolutions

Various Locations

Reflecting the strength of feeling across the country, anti-coup demonstrators represent a diversity of voices. National League for Democracy supporters are perhaps most numerous and visible, but the crowds also consist of ethnic youth, federal democracy activists (including Bamar ethnic people) and others being dubbed ‘Generation Z’ – who demonstrate not with demands for any ethnic group, nor with support for any particular political party, but seeking equal and sustainable politics. This mix of voices represents varying demands, from immediate concerns such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other parliamentarians and the opening of parliament, to long-term goals of federalism or the abolishment or reform of the 2008 Constitution.

Paths forward

Days after the February coup, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw was formed by many of the representatives who were elected in November 2020 and due to have taken their seats in parliament last week. Some 300 hundred members have now joined the lawmakers body, including National League for Democracy members and other ethnic political representatives who have shunned cooperation with the new military administration. If the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw can overcome the challenge of leadership amid the ongoing detention of top leaders, it may prove a game changer for civilian-military engagement. However, much will depend on the international community’s engagement, and the position of ethnic armed groups.

4. Armed Group Attacks SAZ Officials

Theinni Township, Northern Shan State

On 5 February, an armed group – reportedly the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (a Brotherhood Alliance member) – attacked a vehicle carrying Kokang Special Administration Officials returning from a meeting with the Tatmadaw Northeast Command in Lashio. At least nine people were reported killed, although it is not clear who the target was. At least three of the victims are thought to be civilians.

Positions unclear

Speculation has emerged that the killings were related to the recent coup in Naypyidaw, but without evidence this remains just that – speculation. It is likely that the event had more to do with ongoing conflict dynamics in Northern Shan State. Like other members of the Brotherhood Alliance, Northern Alliance, and Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army has remained silent on the coup. These groups, all non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, are seen as closely linked to China, and this has been read into their lack of response to date. However, images of Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Shan State People’s Party troops showing a three-finger salute in solidarity with protestors have circulated on social media, while large numbers of civilians have also protested against the coup in Ta’ang and Wa regions this week. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory, the Restoration Council of Shan State has remarked it will not accept any state violence against demonstrators. That armed group clashed with the Tatmadaw in Hsipaw Township on 10 and 11 February. These ethnic armed organisations are among the strongest in the country, and their position will have sufficient weight to influence future scenarios significantly.

5. Ethnic Representatives: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Mon, Kayin and Kayah states

Civil society, media, and community members in Myanmar’s ethnic states are increasingly pressurising ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) not to cooperate with the military’s emergent State Administration Council (SAC), to release stronger and more direct statements opposing the coup, and to show concrete support for the ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement. There has been a range of responses to this pressure. At the anti-coup end of the spectrum are the Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP), the Kayan National Party (both prominent parties in Kayah State), and the Karen National Union (KNU) – the political wing of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Although armed conflict between the KLNA and the Tatmadaw appeared to be escalating in the weeks before the coup, no clashes have been reported since. The KySDP publicly distanced itself from two of its members who accepted executive positions in the SAC, but some supporters and commentators have indicated diminished trust in the party. Meanwhile, three major Mon and Karen political parties – Mon Unity Party, Karen National Democratic Party, and Kayin Peoples Party (KPP) have committed to cooperating with the SAC. Reflecting this gap between positions, the KNU publicly disowned a KPP member who joined the SAC, noting that he left the KNU in July 2020. As such, cooperation with the military has left these parties with a dramatic reduction in their support base. Other parties have taken a more cautious approach, not committing to either side. This includes the Karenni National Progressive Party (the political wing of the Karenni Army), the New Mon State Party (the political wing of the Mon National Liberation Army), the Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Kayin State Border Guard Force.

Realist, Pragmatist or Opportunist?

Despite facing growing local and national pressure, most ethnic political parties and armed groups in these areas are expected to continue with a wait-and-see approach. This means refraining from publicly confronting the Tatmadaw while also remaining ready to join forces with anti-coup or pro-federal groups. Lessons from the past may have guided them to stick with this approach. Recent and historic experiences mean ethnic political actors neither fully trust the Tatmadaw nor the NLD. Militarily, it is highly risky for one EAO to move away from the decades-long status quo of rebel politics, and it is a major decision to confront or escalate tensions with the Tatmadaw while others remain on friendly terms. Indeed, the Tatmadaw has used a divide and rule approach to ethnic armed groups for decades. Those ethnic parties deemed as opponents by the Tatmadaw also face heightened security risks, and potential exclusion from any new political order. On the other hand, a perception that ethnic political parties have ‘sold out’ their self-determination or federalist mandates may equate to political suicide. The stakes are high, and the situation remains dynamic and unpredictable. As of now, protests in these states have grown in scale and intensity, with increased participation of the general public, social and democracy activist networks, religious institutions and leaders, and government staff – to include police defectors joining protests in Kayah State.

6. Competing Coup Narratives in Northern Myanmar

Kachin State

Demonstrations began in Myitkyina over the weekend, and in the evening of 8 February military authorities began arrests of high-profile figures involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement, and pressed charges against younger protest leaders in Putao Township. Townspeople fear that more arrests will follow. Since the 1 February coup, the response from Kachin leaders has been comparatively muted. Kachin Revolutionary Day was marked on 5 February, where the Kachin Independence Organisation may have been expected to speak out, but didn’t. Reflecting sentiments shared among other ethnic groups, a Kachin Baptist Convention statement noted that there was little progress under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and expressed their great concern over the ongoing safe return of IDPs during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on 10 February, the Kachin Independence Army reportedly told the influential Peace Creation Group that it would not comment on the coup, but it would step in if security forces harm protestors. The Peace Creation Group has been monitoring interactions between security forces and protestors.

Illustrating its attempt to form a broad coalition, the military offered individuals from two Kachin State parties – the Kachin State People Party (KSPP) and the Kachin National Congress (KNC) – positions in its new State Administrative Council (SAC), but both refused. In contrast, a former KSPP member, a younger brother of the now-detained Kachin State Chief Minister (NLD) and chairman of the Kachin Entrepreneurs Association, U Hkyet Hting Nam, accepted a role as the chairman of the Kachin SAC. But the Civil Disobedience Movement is threatening the administration. On 9 February the NLD’s Kachin State minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry announced public holidays for state government staff until the coup is reversed.

Changing tides

The mixed reactions from Kachin State reflect the competing narratives regarding the NLD administration and the anti-coup movement. While anti-coup demonstrators will have put pressure on Kachin, and other ethnic, leaders to denounce the coup, their reality is more complicated. The previous year saw progress on the issues of IDP returns in particular, and Kachin leaders are thought to believe that vocal opposition to the coup may jeopardise this progress on their key interests and the improvement in conditions for Kachin people. Reflecting this nuanced approach to the coup, demonstrators in Myitkyina have joined protesters elsewhere in the country and agreed to dress in black, rather than red. In central Myanmar, this is done in part to protect the National League for Democracy from accusations they are behind any ‘unrest’, while in many ethnic areas the black signals this is an anti-coup protest, not support for any political party.

Finally, it is noteworthy that since the 1 February coup, Myitkyina has been heavily militarised. Unlike other states and regions of the country, armoured vehicles were seen on the streets of Myitkyina in the early days of the coup, and military helicopters have regularly flown over the town in more recent days. Without a formal ceasefire in place with the Kachin Independence Army, and with the memory of the intense conflict there less than three years ago, the show of force is a reminder that the success of the army’s consolidation of power in the country’s lowlands can be threatened by escalation in the borderlands.