CASS Weekly Update 18 – 24 March 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

18 - 24 March 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

An Arakan Against Dictatorship

The Arakan Army (AA) has publicly condemned the Tatmadaw’s violence against civilians, and declared that it stands against the Tatmadaw and with the people.

Since the 1 February coup, the AA held a position of quiet acquiescence towards the coup, refusing to challenge the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power and even pressuring civil society groups to cease protests. In return, the Tatmadaw was apparently softening its stance against the armed group. The Tatmadaw lifted the AA’s terrorist designation on 11 March, and reports have emerged that they would permit the AA to open a liaison office in Sittwe. But over the weekend, the AA reached out to its networks and suggested it would take a firmer stance against the military.

In response, the Arakan Students’ Union released a statement on 21 March calling the use of force by the military ‘extremely disgusting’ and calling those in collusion with the military ‘revolting’. The following day, a statement released by Rakhine civil society groups opposed the military’s actions and called for a new federal democratic system. The statement was attributed to 77 organisations, including a Kaman group.

Rohingya contacts in Rakhine State have welcomed the apparent shift in the AA’s position, and the more vocal stance of ethnic Rakhine civil society. Since the coup, Rohingya communities have been concerned about a potential alliance of the AA, the Tatmadaw and ethno-nationalist Rakhine political leaders such as Dr Aye Maung – who the Rohingya expect would have little incentive to improve conditions for the Rohingya.

The AA has not made the reasons for its change of heart public. But it was likely influenced by the positioning of other ethnic armed groups. The Kachin Independence Organisation/Army (KIO/A) – which fostered and trained the AA from 2009 – has re-opened armed clashes in Kachin State from 11 March, after threatening to do as such if security forces harmed demonstrators. The AA may also be reacting to the fact that many ethnic armed groups among its Northern Alliance coalition are increasingly positioning themselves against the Tatmadaw.

Ethnic armed groups’ positioning on the coup can be expected to come to a head on 27 March – Tatmadaw Day. The Tatmadaw has invited a large number of ethnic armed organisations to Naypyidaw to attend its parade. It seems very few will attend, however, with only four confirming attendance: the New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC) (not to be confused with the much larger and significant KNU/KNLA), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), and Arakan Liberation Party (ALP). Political parties have also been invited, but the Arakan National Party has said it will not attend, despite members of its senior leadership working among the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council. For both ethnic armed groups and political parties, 27 March will be a day when battlelines are drawn.

There remains nuance in the AA’s positioning, however. The extent to which the AA will oppose the Tatmadaw is not yet clear. Their constituents in Rakhine State have faced two years of intense fighting, and there is little appetite for another escalation. The AA has also been using the lull in clashes to consolidate its gains over the last two years, both militarily and administratively. Another escalation in fighting would risk a reversal.

The AA may simply be issuing threats to leverage a better deal with the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw has done the same since the 1 February. They have refused to release individuals on charges of affiliation with the AA (despite the mass prison amnesty on 12 February), and have postponed a trial for AA leaders’ family members.

On the other hand, however, the AA may wish to strike while the Tatmadaw is stretched thin. Putting down demonstrations country-wide, fighting numerous wars against ethnic armed groups in the borderlands, and administering the state may prove too much for the Tatmadaw.

As such, the likelihood of new armed clashes in western Myanmar have risen but are certainly not inevitable. What is clear is that, at least for the time being, the AA and the Tatmadaw have an increasingly contentious relationship. The AA’s presence and administrative activity in central and northern Rakhine State has become increasingly visible since the coup, and this may prompt new confrontations, even if both actors wish to avoid clashes.

Finally, it is important to note that the situation country-wide remains in a state of vibrant flux. Alignments are changing quickly. Agencies should monitor events up to and on Tatmadaw day – 27 March – as this will be a key indicator of positioning and the likelihood of further armed conflict.

You will be reading about:

1. Intra-Communal Tensions in Pauktaw

Pauktaw Township, Rakhine State

Intra-communal tensions between Rohingya communities in Kyein Ni Pyin camp, Pauktaw Township, have risen this month. The tensions turned to violence after an 8 March football match pitting teams representing different villages of origin against each other, when the teams disputed the result of the match. Local authorities asked police to intervene, who prohibited movement between the two Rohingya communities. By 22 March, community members reported being allowed to again travel freely through camp areas, following the intervention of a Muslim religious leader, but some remain fearful of further violence. Rohingya from Kyein Ni Pyin report that the football match was organised by a local Rakhine village administrator, thought to be linked to the Arakan Army, for the purposes of building trust and cohesion between communities.

Cohesion calamity

Violence and disputes between host and IDP communities, and between IDP communities, are not uncommon in camp areas of central Rakhine State. Rohingya respondents report that relationships between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in the area are comfortable for the time being – although the baseline for relationships between communities is of a very low level. Tatmadaw restrictions on travel are seen as the greatest barrier to freedom of movement, and Rohingya report not feeling safe to travel to downtown Pauktaw due to the Tatmadaw. It is significant that Rohingya communities report the AA as involved. The AA has long spoken of wanting to see improved relationships, and is viewed positively by many Rohingya in that regard. However, this incident also highlights the risks for any social cohesion activities. Competitive sporting events are unlikely to re-build ties between communities in divided societies, as shown in this case. While authorities have roles to play in improving social cohesion, they should look to the best-practice developed by experts with contextual experience. Many national and local organisations fit this profile.

2. Demining Motivations Remain Obscured

Rakhine State

Since the 1 February coup, the Tatmadaw has been conducting mine clearance activities in areas of central and northern Rakhine State, with a focus on the Sittwe-Ann stretch of the Sittwe-Yangon highway, other main roads, and some village areas. As shown in the infographic below, however, the risk of landmine, improvised explosive device (IED) or unexploded ordnance (UXO) incidents are likely higher in rural village areas. While many incidents have historically occurred on main roads, these routes areas are frequently used, meaning residual contamination is unlikely. Instead, it is farm and hill areas near village locations where the risks of injury and death are higher for civilians. The presence of landmines and other contamination are a huge barrier to the return of IDPs.

Mine your own business

Communities suggest that the Tatmadaw is conducting demining action for militarily strategic purposes, not humanitarian purposes. While the Tatmadaw frequents main roads, the Arakan Army are more likely to use hill paths and village areas for mobility. Similarly, communities depend on the fields and hills for their livelihoods – areas which many suspect are heavily contaminated.  Many social media users continue to point fun at the Tatmadaw, who have removed very few explosives to date, with some users suggesting the Tatmadaw ‘forgot’ where they laid the mines. Meanwhile, there have been several landmine, IED or UXO explosions since the coup resulting in civilian casualties, including at least one death, and one incident in which two children were injured. Landmines, IEDs and UXO will continue to define the context of western Myanmar, and international agencies should work with local partners who have identified mine action as an area of priority.

3. Lashio Explosions Hint at New Unrest

Lashio Township, Northern Shan State

Two explosions in urban Lashio this week have pointed to new upheaval in the state and beyond. On 22 March, an improvised explosive rattled a police compound in Ward 5, but no injuries were reported. On 23 March, a bomb exploded in the house of a civilian suspected of informing to the Tatmadaw. While authorities responded by checking the household lists of residences across the town, contacts report this was an exercise completed only half-heartedly by security forces, who perhaps feared further violence. Across the country, security forces, and those suspected of working with them, are increasingly facing violence from communities in opposition to the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power.

Violence on the rise

In Sagaing Region, police evacuated a police post after pressure from communities this week. This followed the reported killings of two police officers in a confrontation with civilians in another Sagaing township. Meanwhile, in Dawei Township, Tanintharyi Region, two soldiers were killed by community members on 21 March (although it should be noted that far more civilians have been killed by security forces). The potential for violence in Myanmar’s ethnic states is perhaps higher, however. Political protest has historically been peaceful in central and lower parts of Myanmar, while the political culture of violent opposition is much more entrenched in the borderlands, to include Lashio Township of Northern Shan State. In areas such as these, weapons are easily available through long-established illicit economies. With ethnic armed organisations such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army now operating in areas close to urban Lashio, new violence which may spark displacement or other impacts to civilians in urban areas is increasingly high.

4. Land of Jade at a Critical Juncture

Hpakant Township, Kachin State

As fighting between Tatmadaw forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) resumed and intensified this week in Kachin State and Northern Shan State, the KIA has told Hpakant residents to prepare bomb bunkers for emergency shelter and to store three months’ worth of food rations. There, security forces killed one protester and injured several others on 14 March, but mass protests opposing the military have continued each day and night. Furthermore, on 21 March KIA Lieutenant Colonel Htang San warned that the KIA will enter urban areas if security forces escalate violence against demonstrators. He stated that recent KIA attacks were a warning to the Tatmadaw that they would expand fighting if violent towards the protests continue – especially in Hpakant Township, where most of Myanmar’s jade is mined, and where migrants across the country flock to eke out a living while hoping to strike a fortune. In retaliation to the KIA’s threats, on 21 March the Tatmadaw fired heavy artillery at KIA bases in Hpakant Township. Illustrating that they are on the side of the people, on 22 and 18 March, the KIA’s 5th and 9th Brigades issued letters warning community members not to: a) allow members of the Tatmadaw to camp in any religious compound, school or company buildings, and b) lend or hire vehicles to transport Tatmadaw troops, ammunition or rations.

Public on alert

Unlike other areas of Kachin State, both the KIA and Tatmadaw maintain a heavy presence in Hpakant Township. Residents there are aware of the potential for armed clashes, and are in a state of high alert even in ordinary times. Unrest and bank closures across the country have kept jade markets cold and sluggish. The KIA’s warning of escalation has made travel more difficult, slowed trade flows and pushed up commodity prices. Indeed, the economy has been declining since the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, confirmed their stance against the junta on 11 March. Migrant workers from lower Myanmar are returning home, with increased unemployment and economic hardship affecting IDPs in the township as well. Due to the disruption of mobile internet, it is now very difficult for most people in Hpakant Township to access information outside of downtown areas. There are very few CSOs or NGOs in Hpakant Township besides small charity teams, so the opportunities to scale up an emergency response remains challenging. The complex situation there should be monitored closely by humanitarian agencies together with local charity groups, organisations and local churches. Fighting is continuing and is likely to become more intense, as its potential impact is increasingly illustrated by the increasing number of IDPs among the resident and migrant worker populations in different townships across Kachin State.

5. Public Healthcare In Jeopardy After Coup

Myitkyina Township, Kachin State

Healthcare services in Myitkyina Township, Kachin State, are rapidly dwindling amid the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Around 400 healthcare workers have joined the CDM. On 13 March, SAC officials announced they would resume healthcare at Myitkyina General Hospital. However, inpatient wards were still closed on 17 March, with very few patients. Instead, patients needing surgery are referred to the military hospital. A lawyer helping arrested protesters says the SAC is also pressuring private hospitals not to treat those injured during crackdowns on demonstrations – instead telling hospitals to refer them to the military hospital. There, patients have no guarantee of safety, and will most likely face legal charges. Meanwhile, many Myitkyina residents fear a new COVID-19 outbreak. There is no gauge of the current situation, as the entire swab-testing team is involved in CDM. Like other healthcare workers, many have fled in fear of arrest or being forced back to work. Private hospitals are not allowed to give swab tests, and so unless suspected COVID-19 patients need emergency oxygen, private healthcare workers can only provide instructions over the phone and recommend three-weeks of home self-isolation. COVID-19 vaccinations are currently being given to government staff and elderly people above 60 years.

To fill the gap in provision, healthcare workers on CDM arranged charity clinics and discounts for people in financial need at three private hospitals. Initially, some costs of maternity care were covered by local CSOs. Due to financial constraints, however, vulnerable non-IDPs now have almost no access to healthcare, and are having to rely on faith-based charity clinics run by the Kachin Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church. These clinics, ordinarily open for basic healthcare from 7am to 7pm, are now planning to provide services 24 hours a day, as those they serve have virtually no other options.

Treatment options narrow

The coup and CDM have combined with COVID-19, insecurity, limited resources and an ever-present funding crisis to threaten the collapse of Myitkyina’s healthcare system. According to Myanmar Health Statistics (2020), there are only 13 public-sector medical doctors and 31 basic healthcare professionals per 100,000 people in rural Kachin State. The majority of them have joined the CDM. This leaves vulnerable communities at most risk. They cannot afford stretched private hospitals, and are equally desperate to avoid military hospitals.

Clinics require more inpatient beds and improved facilities, but report difficulties in managing the complex paperwork required by many donor organisations. One faith-based charity clinic expanding their operations has been supported by an aid group which practices simple and flexible paperwork. This clinic has decided to prioritise ‘result-oriented tasks’ over paperwork for the time being. This is a hard decision, since they rely heavily on funding.

While IDP communities are usually a priority for aid organisations, currently it is non-IDPs who are most vulnerable. For IDP communities, healthcare systems are already running with local, national and international support. However, many of these programmes exclude non-IDP patients, even when health services for the most vulnerable non-IDPs are rapidly disappearing. Therefore, healthcare organisations should consider making these services available to others in need. In response to the current crisis, it is crucial to cover healthcare costs for those facing financial difficulties, and to urge donor organisations to carry more of the burden when it comes to complicated reporting requirements for emergency responders.

6. Federal Army Expectations Rising

Whole of Myanmar

In response to the Tatmadaw’s use of force against demonstrators, more youth are considering taking up arms against the regime. Calls for the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) to band with ethnic armed groups in armed struggle have been spreading on social media, and according to a source close to the Karen National Union (KNU), many young activists have moved into KNU controlled areas to attend basic combat training in preparation. A youth leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that other youth groups were also planning to obtain training and support from other ethnic armed groups including the Kachin Independence Organisation and Kayah National Progress Party. On 13 March, the CRPH Acting Foreign Minister, Daw Zin Mar Aung told the media that CRPH was in talks with some ethnic armed groups to establish a ‘federal army’. In an exclusive interview with DVB news on 14 March, the CRPH Special Envoy to the UN, Dr Sasa, said that the founding of a federal army was in progress – and that it would deploy modern technology such as drone fighters.

Mobilising forces

Despite the strong hopes among demonstrators and political leaders that a federal army could take on the Tatmadaw, quantitative studies of contemporary international history show that non-violent mass movements are most likely to topple dictatorships. Although the formation of a federal army has been a topic of discussion during the transition to democracy since 2011, most stakeholders are not prepared for such a development. In a series of bilateral and multilateral talks before signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015, ethnic armed groups and Tatmadaw leaders discussed the structure and process of establishing a federal army. Later in the NCA agreement process, however, this issue was rarely discussed. Meanwhile, the CRPH, ethnic armed groups and other pro-democracy groups are planning to form a ‘National Unity Council’, a political coalition to establish an interim government. It is envisioned that any federal army would form under the interim government and expand as needed. However, any newly formed federal army is likely to face human resource and financial challenges. Facing the well-manned and equipped Tatmadaw would be a mammoth task, especially if the fight were to come to low-land areas of the country. Additionally, ethnic armed groups are required to overcome political and institutional challenges to join the interim government and federal army. As discussed in last week’s Weekly Update, if the CRPH chooses a military path over a non-violent mass movement, more casualties and instability is inevitable.  International organizations should be prepared to deal with increasing humanitarian needs in the case of escalation across the country.

7. Tatmadaw Attempts to Silence the Media

Whole of Myanmar

Freedoms of information and expression, including media freedoms, have been gradually stifled since the 1 February coup. In Naypyidaw on 19 March, two journalists – Naypyidaw BBC correspondent U Aung Thura and Mizzima reporter U Than Htike Aung – were abducted, with the BBC reporting the Tatmadaw as responsible. Although the BBC correspondent was released on 22 March, the junta continues to hold the detained Mizzima reporter. Mizzima is one of five Myanmar news outlets (Mizzima, DVB, 7 Days, Myanmar Now, and Khit Thit Media) which had their licenses revoked by the junta on 8 March for using the term ‘coup council’ to refer to the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council. Other banned terms include ‘coup’, ‘the regime’ and ‘the junta’. On 8 March the junta declared that banned media outlets are prohibited from using any type of media or technology. Despite the ban, those media outlets continue to operate online. On 9 March, the police raided the Mizzima office in Yangon, but no staff were arrested. The final independent daily still printing a hard copy ceased work on 17 March, and contacts there report challenges in information collection after Martial Law was declared in some townships. In addition, the junta has disconnected mobile internet nationwide since 15 March. On 17 March, the junta ordered all telecommunication companies to also turn off public Wi-Fi. VOA reports that nearly 50 journalists have been arrested, and at least 20 remain detained, since the coup. At least 10 have been charged with article 505 (b) under the colonial-era Penal Code for ‘defamation of the state’.

Controlling the media 

The Tatmadaw is clearly pressuring the media to suppress reports of violations against civilians, such as the use of force against demonstrators and night-time home invasions. The spread of information through data connections and the media has allowed the protestors to organise, thereby presenting a threat to the Tatmadaw’s consolidation of power. Perceptions that military informers are increasingly penetrating civilian areas has also decayed trust between journalists and reporters. Meanwhile, people across the country are facing new difficulties accessing reliable information, while the Tatmadaw continues to issue its state media publications. On 4 February, Facebook permanently removed state-run media and Tatmadaw True News Team pages, citing violations of its community standards and incitement to violence. Since media freedom plays a crucial role in preventing and mitigating human rights violations, international agencies should voice their concerns against media restrictions in appropriate forums, while continuing to document abuses committed by security forces across the country.

8. New Sanctions Against Military Leaders and Units

Naypyidaw

On 22 March, the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) imposed new sanctions and restrictive measures on numerous individuals and groups linked to the military coup in Myanmar, citing the repression of pro-democracy protesters by security forces. Under the EU measures, eleven people deemed responsible for the coup and subsequent violence against civilians have been targeted, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Tatmadaw-appointed head of the Union Election Commission. Those designated will not be allowed to travel within the borders of the EU, their financial and business assets will be controlled, and citizens of EU member states and companies will not be allowed to transfer money to any business affiliated to them. The EU already has an arms embargo against Myanmar and has targeted some senior military officials with restrictive measures since 2018. Reuters reported that the EU are likely to target parts of the military’s conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation, barring EU investors and banks from doing business with them. Meanwhile, the US State Department announced that Lt. General Aung Soe and Lt. General Than Hlaing, leaders of the task forces responsible for cracking down on protesters, had also been designated along with two military units. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that members of the Light Infantry Division 33 had fired live rounds into a crowd in Mandalay and along with Light Infantry Division 77 planned systematic strategies to ramp up the use of lethal force.

Tightened sanctions, relaxed oppression?

Targeted sanctions are one of the few tools available to international actors seeking to pressure the Tatmadaw, but are unlikely to significantly affect military leaders’ access to revenue. History also suggests that sanctions do little to reduce the brutality of security forces. As discussed in last week’s Weekly Update, the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council is likely to continue to raise revenue through exporting natural resources, which remain in high demand from neighbouring countries. As such, Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK criticised the EU measures as little more than a holiday ban, and urged the EU to focus on the oil and gas sector, one of Myanmar’s biggest sources of revenue. However, there are fears that the expansion of sanctions could extend to the loss of trade privileges on commodities exports and have a significant impact on employment opportunities for the general population. Due to US sanctions, the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) – which provides duty-free treatment for goods of designated beneficiary countries – would be revoked, resulting in a great loss to Myanmar’s export sector – especially the garment industry. Indeed, the coup leaders and their affiliated business partners own conglomerates throughout the economy, from mining and manufacturing to food and beverages to hotels, telecommunications and banking. International sanctions will disincentivise investors, raising the unemployment rate and poverty across the country. Therefore, international organisations should monitor the potential impacts on the general public due to current and potential new sanctions against individuals and the private sector.

Other Developments

Vaccinations of Rohingya elders have continued in Sittwe Township, Rakhine State. The vaccinations of Rohingya over the age of 60 began from 22 March in Dar Paing Hospital. While there are concerns in some areas of the country about the Tatmadaw’s capacity – or legitimacy – to effectively store, transport and administer the vaccinations, rollout continues in some parts of the country.

Ethno-nationalist and prominent Rakhine political leader Dr Aye Maung this week visited the northern Rakhine State townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung. This trip follows his visit to central and southern townships of the state following his release from prison on 12 February in a Tatmadaw amnesty. The re-emergence of Dr Aye Maung on the political scene has worried Rohingya communities and the international community, who associate Dr Aye Maung with the 2012 violence against Muslims.

Informal returns of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar have continued. Tatmadaw media reports 22 people returning on 13 March, and another one person on 19 March. Local sources report that the group returning on 13 March consisted of children, and that the group has since been detained by security forces.

On 21 March, Dr Sasa, the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw’s Special Envoy to the UN, promised justice for the Rohingya and the abuses they suffered at the hands of the military. On 24 March, he again raised expectations that his organisation would seek to protect the community, by Tweeting condolences to “Rohingyas brothers and sisters” affected by a deadly fire in a Bangladesh refugee camp. The comments will surely be welcomed by many Rohingya. They also suggest a rapid change from the position cultivated by the National League for Democracy over the last decade. International agencies should be cautious about the comments, as public opinion is unlikely to change as fast, especially in western Myanmar.

On 22 March, the Tatmadaw labelled the rival government Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw an ‘Unlawful Organisation’. The designation has raised the risks for civilians or media organisations engaging with the organisation, who may now face more severe punishment from the Tatmadaw.

IDPs displaced by armed conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw since 2018 are facing increased pressure to return to their places of origin. IDPs in Ann Township have reportedly been told they must return by the end of March, or face a loss of assistance, while authorities have said residents who this week suffered a bad fire in Tein Nyo IDP site, Mrauk U Township, must also return. The Tatmadaw has publicly committed to closing IDP sites, and as such the return of IDPs has become increasingly politicised – with the risks of unsafe and involuntary returns exacerbated.

From 5.30pm on 24 March, the Kachin Independence Army launched attacks against Tatmadaw bases near Kachin Independence Organisation headquarters in Laiza – in what they claimed was retaliation to Tatmadaw heavy artillery shelling at KIA’s 3rd Battalion and towards an IDP camp this week. Recent IDP returnees to the area on the Myitkyina-Bhamo road reported hearing the gunfire clearly, and say they see the potential for displacement on the rise again.

CASS Weekly Update 11 – 17 March 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

11 - 17 March 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

Has the Sangha Joined the Resistance?

This week, influential leaders of Myanmar’s Buddhist sangha (clergy) have taken increasingly strong positions against the Tatmadaw. This is a major inflection point for the country and the movement against the Tatmadaw’s 1 February seizure of power. While many monks have taken to the streets for weeks to show their support for the movement, for the first time monastic leaders are taking strong, public, positions against the coup.

Most importantly, on 15 March, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na) – a government appointed committee of high-ranking monks – decided it would cease activities. Though the statement itself cites operational difficulties, including COVID-19, in effect, the statement has been read by many as a sign the committee has endorsed the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and seeks to delegitimise the Tatmadaw junta. A draft statement released onto social media also appeared to call on the authorities to end the violent arrest, torture, and killing of unarmed civilians, and to prevent the looting and destruction of public property, though some commentators have raised concerns that the language in this part of the release differs enough in tone from the first pages to warrant closer inspection.

Days earlier, rumours began to spread on social media that security forces detained the prominent Bhamo Sayadaw, the Chair of the Ma Ha Na, on 14 March. The elderly monk had reportedly released a statement in which he evoked the Latukika Jataka, a story in which an elephant tramples a nest of young birds out of cruelty, only to fall to his death when the birds, flies, crows, and frogs unite against him. The story could easily have been seen as both a warning to the new junta and tacit support for the CDM. While the reports of his arrest are not yet confirmed, the rumour itself is significant – and its rapid spread highlights just how important Buddhist symbolism is for the Tatmadaw and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing himself.

Another monk – the Mogoke Yay Pu Sayadaw Gyi – was also detained and disrobed on 11 March, after intervening in protests to plead with the military not to use live ammunition and tear gas against civilians in Mandalay Region’s ruby-rich Mogoke town.

Other statements have also emerged. On 4 March, monks from the Shwe Gyin sect released a statement against the coup. This is notable, as the influential Sitagu Sayadaw holds a high position in the Shwe Gyin sect, and has carefully attempted to maintain a position representing some neutrality since the coup – something many activists have characterised as collaboration with the Tatmadaw. Despite the Sitagu Sayadaw’s position, teachers and students from the Sitagu University also showed support for the CDM movement last week – illustrating that religious institutions are willing to speak out, despite the positions of leadership.

Saffron coalition

These developments, the Ma Ha Na statement, in particular, suggest the sangha may soon become much more engaged in CDM protests and anti-coup action. The Ma Ha Na announcement signals to monks and nuns a tacit approval to engage in the protest movement, when leadership on this front was previously absent. As such, responders should monitor for further sangha activity on the streets. Disrobing monks for participating in ‘politics’ is a tactic the military have used since the Saffron Revolution in 2007. However, doing so does very little to undermine people’s support for the monks, or monks’ willingness to engage in public protest, but instead is likely to increase resentment of the military both among communities and among the sangha.

The use of violence against monks is also unlikely to silence either the sangha or communities. One monk was reportedly shot during a crackdown in Mandalay on 13 March, and there has only been a trajectory of mobilisation since. However, the use of extreme force against monks was exactly what the military chose to do in 2007 – although it wasn’t long after this that the generals changed track and instigated a political opening.

Sanga mobilisation would be a major problem for the military, and for Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in particular. He is known to care deeply for Buddhist symbolism and a monastic boycott of his regime would be taken as a major blow to his legitimacy to rule. Illustrative of how seriously the regime takes this symbolism was the violent crackdown against anti-coup demonstrators in Yangon’s San Chaung Township after they hung images of a monk (perceived to be pro-Tatmadaw) on women’s longyi in the streets. State media released a warning against the hanging of women’s clothing and sanitary items the next day, as discussed in last week’s Weekly Update.

Humanitarian agencies should monitor these dynamics closely. Organised and large-scale presence of monks, and nuns, alongside lay protestors would add further impetus to an already powerful protest movement.

You will be reading about:

1. CDM Raises its Head in Rakhine

Maungdaw Township

Since 7 March, some 20 health workers at the Maungdaw District Hospital have walked off the job in protest to the Tatmadaw’s 1 February coup. Most of those who have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) are ethnic Burmese, leaving the hospital staffed with mostly ethnic Rakhine healthcare workers, as the local Rohingya population are denied opportunities to work in the sector. There is no CDM reported in neighbouring Buthidaung Township’s hospital, and some patients from Maungdaw are transferred to Buthidaung or Sittwe hospitals for treatment now unavailable in Maungdaw. At the same time, remittances from elsewhere in the country are no longer reaching families in northern Rakhine State, because of the financial freeze in the country. With highly restricted incomes and a shortage of staff in the hospitals, there are few opportunities for communities to seek healthcare elsewhere. Sources among Rohingya communities are concerned that the dysfunction in healthcare and financial systems will impact them adversely.

Few safety nets

The military continues to restrict the movement for Rohingya communities in western Myanmar. Basic rights also continue to be denied, including access to healthcare, livelihoods and education. Positively, Rohingya sources report that the remaining staff at Maungdaw hospital do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or religion. However, there are concerns that rapidly declining capacities at the hospitals will mean already sparse healthcare disappears altogether. One worker in Buthidaung reports that the facilities in Buthidaung hospital are already overburdened due to the arrival of new patients from Maungdaw. Indeed, while communities in many other areas of the country have alternative healthcare options – including private clinics and free-of-charge healthcare services from otherwise striking workers – there are few of these options and social safety nets open to those in northern Rakhine State. It will be important that international agencies monitor where access to healthcare is especially diminished, to ensure that the most vulnerable continue to have access.

2. Raising Hope for Peace in Rakhine State

Rakhine State

Despite the nationwide escalation of security forces’ crackdowns on protests and a rising number of deaths, Rakhine State remains quiet – both in terms of protests and armed clashes. On 17 March, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) announced revoked the classification as ‘terrorist’ or ‘unlawful’ for all ethnic armed groups, including the Arakan Army (AA) (and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army). The revocation was done in the spirit of appreciation for ethnic organizations protecting demonstrators, government staff and political activists. The CRPH announcement followed the 11 March Tatmadaw removal of the AA terrorism designation. This could be taken as an indicator of real progress towards a de-escalation of conflict in western Myanmar. AA Spokesperson Khaing Thuka told the media that the group welcomed the Tatmadaw announcement and saw an opportunity for dialogue. Daw Khin Saw Wai, a former Arakan National Party member of the Pyithu Hluttaw, said that the disbandment of the AA as a terrorist organization would lead to the release of many AA convicted people and would help bring peace to the Rakhine State. The AA was declared a terrorist organisation on 23 March 2020, and the Rakhine State Parliament approved a proposal to revoke the classification on 11 January 2021. However, the previous government did not respond to the proposal. Following the revocation of the AA as a terrorist organization, on 11 March the Kyaukphyu District Court released six suspects arrested under the Counter-Terror Law. However, families are calling for the further release of about 600 people who were charged under the law during armed conflict in western Myanmar.

Illusion of peace? 

The AA will not be able to maintain its quiet acquiescence in the long run. Humanitarians should be cautious – there is no quick fix to the challenges in western Myanmar and the wider peace process remains in the hands of the AA and its allies. According to a decision made at its meeting on 13 March, the Peace Process Support Team – representing the 10 ethnic armed organizations signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement – will work with the CRPH to end the military coup. The Kachin Independence Army, a key ally of the AA, has demonstrated its position against the Tatmadaw by attacking and seizing military bases in Kachin and Northern Shan states. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army, another strong ally of the AA, is also preparing to wage war, as showed by the assassination of an army-backed militia leader in Namhsan Township this week. In this situation, AA leaders might have to choose between proceeding with quiet acquiescence to the Tatmadaw, and resuming the war by showing commitment to their allies. However, a third path may remain. Besides signing a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw, or resuming the war, the AA could choose to prepare for its “Arakan Dream” of establishing a separate nation. Indeed, most Rakhine leaders seem to prefer a confederation rather than a federal system, but have consistently hinted at their desire to rule over a separate state. At present, the AA has a force of approximately 8,000 men and women, and has already established authority in the rural areas of numerous townships. Years of resistance to military and political pressure have further strengthened the belief of a separate nation among Rakhine communities. Moreover, during the two years of Rakhine conflict, the loss of trust and relations between the Rakhine people and the Burmese majority has also eroded Rakhine people’s confidence in the federal system. If the Tatmadaw fails to consolidate its power, these communities might choose to pursue their Arakan Dream despite most other ethnic armed groups having aspirations to establish a federal system, thereby aggravating disorder in the country. Therefore, international agencies should constantly monitor the development of bilateral relationship between the AA and the Tatmadaw, as choices on both sides will influence the potential for further armed clashes, and the opportunities for IDPs to return home.

3. Paletwa Internet and Movement Restrictions Lift, Tensions Remain

Paletwa, Southern Chin State

Following the 1 February coup, internet, road and water connectivity finally improved in southern Chin State’s Paletwa Township, as it has for non-Muslim communities in townships in Rakhine State. However, many of the long-standing mobility issues of this area remain unsolved. The Tatmadaw has lifted the internet restrictions and eased the land route blockade on the Matupi-Paletwa route, while still maintaining its checkpoints. On 11 March, Colonel Min Than, a Rakhine State Administration Council member, said that the Sittwe-Kyauktaw-Paletwa waterway will be operated twice a week by state-owned ships, after a survey of the depth of the river is complete. However, locals reported that the privately-owned motorboat transport service from Paletwa to Kyauktaw, which was given permission to run, was turned back by the Tatmadaw near Laungkadu village, near Paletwa urban area, last week. As a result of the armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA) which raged for the past two years, more than 8,000 displaced people in and around Paletwa Township have not been able to return to their homes. The Chin State Administration Council has not made any public announcement regarding IDP returns, and most displaced people remained concerned about the presence of landmines in their villages and the resumption of fighting. Despite these improvements in connectivity and transportation, serious barriers remain to a sustainable peace in Paletwa – and these have in some cases worsened after the 1 February coup.

Political differences worsen social divides

Although the State Administration Council announced the revocation of the AA’s terrorist designation on 11 March, and there have been no further clashes between the belligerents, locals in Paletwa fear the current fragile peace will be undermined by long-standing tensions. Khumi and Rakhine people living in Paletwa Township reacted to the military coup in different ways. One Paletwa resident noted that most Rakhine people were optimistic about the coup, viewed it as a political power struggle among Burmese leaders, and therefore have not joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. However, many Khumi people believe that this is an issue of democracy and thereby should concern all citizens. A few days after the coup, two demonstrations took place in Paletwa Town but quickly faded after township authorities threatened protest organizers. Some Khumi youth instead travelled to other towns in Chin State, such as Matupi and Mindat, to take part in anti-coup demonstrations there. On 12 March, the Khumi Youth Association and diaspora group the United States Khumi Organisation released a statement condemning the former Chin State Forestry Minister Kyaw Nyein for his cooperation in the Chin State Administration Council. Illustrating the political divide, on 14 March, it was announced that the Paletwa Township People’s Administration Team, led by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), had been formed with 21 members. With communities staking different political positions, hate speech between Rakhine and Chin youths on social media has also increased. These differences are likely to escalate ethnic tensions over territorial ownership, implicating the AA’s presence in Paletwa Township. Long-standing tension between Chin and Rakhine communities are mainly based on territorial struggles. Chin people accuse the Rakhine of having migrated and oppressed the indigenous population since the colonial era – when Paletwa was administered as the ‘Arakan Hill Tracts’ – but many Rakhine argue that they have been living in the area for centuries. Those tensions are likely to escalate into violence if the Tatmadaw accepts the deployment of AA troops in Paletwa Township as legitimate, a key requirement for a bilateral ceasefire agreement between the two sides. To operate in this difficult context, it is as crucial as ever that international agencies understand these dynamics and engage in a conflict sensitive manner.

4. Impending Humanitarian Catastrophe as Cities on the Precipice

Whole of Myanmar

On 14 March, the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) shadow government released a statement endorsing the people’s right to self-defence against the ‘unlawful military coup council’. This statement was widely interpreted as an indication and blessing of more organised resistance against the Tatmadaw. The statement comes at a time that the CRPH has been meeting with ethnic armed organisations and seeking to mobilise a ‘federal army’ to counter the coup attempt. While some have argued that peaceful resistance to the Tatmadaw takeover is more likely to offer results, anti-coup demonstrators point to the fact that the Tatmadaw has repeatedly used lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, strikers and unarmed political leaders – and that demonstrators have a right to fight back. Demonstrators are armed with only rudimentary weapons such as slingshots, molotov cocktails and fireworks, but are increasingly striking security forces on the streets of Yangon and other cities across the country. This week, in the most violent incident to date, some 50 people were killed in Yangon’s Hlaing Thar Yar Township, where security forces opened fire on mostly working class demonstrators. The township, on the outskirts of Myanmar’s economic capital, is populated by a large cohort of migrant workers who are employed in factories, including garment factories. In response to the violence, demonstrators torched at least three garment factories, thought to be Chinese-owned – to protest China’s perceived backing of the coup. On 16 March, Chinese state media reported that 32 Chinese-owned factories had been burnt or vandalised; and later the same day Beijing asked all non-essential staff from Chinese companies to evacuate the country – signalling they have little confidence the Tatmadaw can peacefully quell the anti-coup movement. Whatever the longer-term outcome will be, humanitarian needs are rapidly rising in urban, and rural, settings.

Urban displacement

Although the number of people fleeing from Hlaing Thar Yar Township remains unknown, media outlet the Irrawaddy has estimated that at least 100,000 people have now joined an exodus. Just where they will flee to remains unknown. Many originate from Ayeyarwady Region, however, and migrated to Yangon after cyclone Nargis. The proximity of Ayeyarwady also means it is a likely destination, where people will stay with family or other networks. But there is also the potential for people to return to locations all over Myanmar. While armed violence against civilians has long been a feature of Myanmar’s borderlands, this is not the case in the ethnic Bamar centre of the country. Coping mechanisms are low and there are few resiliencies in place. Humanitarian agencies, in partnership with local civil society groups, should scale up protection monitoring and other activities for unarmed civilians affected by violence in urban areas. New protection concerns will also likely emerge as large numbers of migrants return to their hometowns and villages in both the centre and peripheries of the country – to include Rakhine State, from where many migrant workers hail. Finally, the violence and exodus from Hlaing Thar Yar Township illustrates the high economic toll that the coup continues to have. With factories shuttered or destroyed, hundreds of thousands of workers will be without jobs – and their families without remittances – putting further strain on an already extremely fragile economy still paying the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.

5. Why Protect the Environment During the Coup?

Whole of Myanmar

The Tatmadaw’s struggle to mitigate western sanctions are accelerating environmental degradation across the whole of Myanmar, in a country that already suffers climate change and ecosystem impairment and has among the highest rates of extreme weather fatalities globally. The Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC)’s announcement that they will restart stalled hydropower projects has raised fears this would include the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam, one of the most controversial projects in the country in terms of civil resistance and environmental concerns. As western countries refuse to engage economically with Myanmar, the junta might turn to closer regional partners to compensate for the economic loss with an increased trade in natural resources – from wood to hydropower and, of course, coal. However, some of these partners care less about sustainability, and this is already pushing natural resource extraction to a faster pace.

Myanmar’s rural communities are well aware of the risk. In recent years, they have protested for their right to functioning ecosystems, fundamental for their livelihoods. They have seen wildlife and biodiversity disappear from their forests (even illegal wildlife markets are no longer functioning), more extreme weather events, fish stock collapse, indiscriminate logging (making their lands more vulnerable to both floods and droughts), and shrinking agricultural output due to soil degradation. They can no longer rely on traditional livelihoods and are struggling to find alternatives – migrating when possible, or competing further for resources. Lastly, ethnic armed groups have a history of natural resource exploitation and amid instability might also have an interest in capitalising on business interests.

The politics of natural resources 

With environmental exploitation on the rise, rural communities, and those who live in areas prone to climate change, will be in need of extra support. Their livelihoods are likely to be further impaired and threatened. A concerted programmatic effort is fundamental to slowing down the current rate of environmental degradation. Conveying this priority to donors during a time of human rights abuses will be a remarkable challenge. The announcement regarding hydropower projects exemplifies how important natural resources are for the junta. As for Myitsone, China has yet to make any public statement. Approval for that project has been pushed back and forth since the very beginning of the project due to unrelenting civil protests and concerns among policy makers. Out of fear that the project might be resumed, communities displaced for the project voiced their dissent in Kachin State on 14 March, walking from the place they were forcefully relocated to back to their homeland. The dam would flood forests in one of the most sacred sites for the Kachin community, and would disrupt the course of the Irrawaddy river, the basis upon which the livelihoods of thousands of communities depend. Over 60 villages would be forcefully relocated and there are concerns that mercury from mining operations would disperse, causing severe health hazards. While this particular project is in the eye of the media, there are dozens of others moving forward unnoticed. But the SAC is likely to be sensible about controversial Chinese-funded projects. In the last few days, protesters called for the destruction of a Chinese gas pipeline, and a wave of anger against the Chinese government and businesses is sweeping across Myanmar, seeing Chinese factories set on fire in Yangon. This could compromise Chinese interests in the country in the longer term, and could be the reason why China has not yet publicly revealed its cards on Myanmar.

Logging and mining are other businesses of environmental concern. Due to deforestation, forests can no longer effectively retain water to prevent floods and release it during the dry season, aggravating drought. Myanmar timber merchants announced that timber exports are “trading legally and officially”, and have requested continued access to EU markets – triggering the opposition of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an INGO who object to the Tatmadaw’s involvement in the trade.

In this context, donors are recalling funds for environmental projects, and the UN, the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund are suspending climate work in the country. Without international support, local environmental organisations will be unable to mobilise resources and expertise to tackle increased environmental threats. Environmental protection is paramount in Myanmar and, without proper safeguards, the local population will suffer even more from both military abuse and climate change. Climate action, including from international agencies, remains an urgent need – highlighting the conundrum for an international community otherwise facing many good reasons to cease engagement.

6. Attack and Retaliation: IDPs in the Centre

Kachin State

For the first time in two years, armed clashes between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw have occurred in Kachin State. Fighting started on 11 March, when the KIA attacked and destroyed a Tatmadaw camp in Hpakant Township. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and KIA had long promised that they would take action if peaceful demonstrators were attacked. The 8 March deadly Tatmadaw violence against protestors was the trigger. Over the following days, the Tatmadaw retaliated with attacks on the KIA in four townships of Kachin State, firing artillery shells in villages and launching airstrikes in Mogaung and Hpakant townships. In the morning of 11 March, fighting broke out in Nanshan village, Mogaung Township, and five villagers in nearby Nam Hai reported minor injuries from artillery shells fired from the Tatmadaw camp at Buha Kone. Airstrikes continued from 11 to 15 March, and shelling in Injangyang township continued even up to 16 March. About 200 villagers – aged between one month and 100 years – from Gway Htaw, Tangbau Yang, Sa Nip Tu Yang and Pa Si Zwut villages fled. These villagers had been staying in Palana IDP camp since 2018 but had recently returned home to access farms and to escape camp overcrowding during COVID-19. As they again fled their village, the Northern Commander refused to allow them to re-enter the IDP camp, so they took shelter in the Tanphaye Roman Catholic Church compound.

IDPs in jeopardy

Fighting between the KIA and the Tatmadaw in Northern Shan State increased following the 1 February coup, and armed clashes in Kachin State this week have displaced even more people. Before the coup, IDPs had been planning to return to their villages, but the resumption of armed conflict has dimmed their hopes, as the Tatmadaw is even restricting their entry to the IDP camps. On 11 March, as over 120 villagers were clearing their land in order to build houses and move back into Kazu village, Waingmaw township, local Tatmadaw Captain Nyein Chan Aung ordered them to evacuate by 4pm that afternoon. The following day, he again ordered the villagers not to approach within 300 yards of the military camp. As a result, Kazu villagers again fled their village for IDP camps. This reflects the fear and insecurity felt across all segments of society in Kachin State. There is danger in the city from crackdowns, danger from fighting in the villages, and IDPs cannot stay in their homes, but are blocked from IDP camps.

Only late in the evening on 16 March did the Tatmadaw Northern Commander finally approve negotiations, led by the Peace-talks Creation Group (PCG), for IDPs from these four villages to re-enter Palana IDP camp. It is not only the dire situation on the ground causing fear among the IDPs, but also the circulation of rumours of further violence. A letter, claiming to be from the KIO/A, was widely shared on social media this week warning of further violence against security forces. KIO/A denied issuing the letter, saying  that the KIA has no orders to seize Tatmadaw territory, but added that the group must defend itself from any Tatmadaw offensive in Kachin State and Northern Shan State (referred to as the Kachin sub-state region by KIO/A). Illustrating the local support for the KIO/A, young people launched an online ‘We support the KIO/A campaign’ on 11 March. Comprehensive peace talks are extremely unlikely, as the KIO/A continue to reject the coup. Therefore, humanitarian responders should carefully monitor the deteriorating security situation and reconsider alternative arrangements for IDPs who are blocked from IDP sites. There is also a need to provide assistance to newly conflict-affected civilians, in coordination with trusted groups such as the PCG, religious leaders, local NGOs and CSOs. In addition, to counter rumours regarding armed conflict and other controversies, there is an increasing need to support local media sources to ensure reliable news continues to be available despite the internet blackout.

Other Developments

On 12 March, the Central Bank of Myanmar ordered financial institutions to submit to it: a) records of money flows from abroad to international and national NGOs in Myanmar since 1 April 2016 (approximately one month into the National League for Democracy government’s term) and b) records of accounts in foreign currency being held by international and national NGOs. Subsequently, on 16 March, the Tatmadaw accused George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, and local office Open Society Myanmar, of an unauthorised money transfer worth 5 million USD, and of exchanging money to MMK “without following the necessary rules and regulations”. The Tatmadaw is concerned about international funding for the Civil Disobedience Movement, currently the greatest threat to its consolidation of power, but these new restrictions also raise new concerns about further control over international aid under a military regime.

  • Key Readings
    • A Frontier Myanmar journalist’s account of the 14 March massacre in Yangon Region’s Hlaing Thar Yar Township illustrates the depth of determination among protestors, and the barbarity of security forces. Myanmar Now reports that the killings continued on Tuesday, including inside garment factories.
    • Amnesty International have analysed a cache of videos from the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on demonstrators across the country, documenting evidence of “systematic and premeditated killings amid extensive deployment of battlefield weaponry.”
    •  

CASS Weekly Update 4 – 10 March 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

4 - 10 March 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

Navigating a Coup Through Financial Squeeze

Frozen resources and economic sanctions in response to the coup are now a reality for Myanmar. Consequences are clear for the population, the international response, and the Tatmadaw.

Early last week, US President Joe Biden blocked an attempt by the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) to collect 1 billion USD from US-based Myanmar international reserves, thus freezing a considerable asset. The US Department of Commerce has also announced further export restrictions on Myanmar, including those aimed at ‘Military end users’. Several other western powers, including the European Union, are implementing their own new restrictive measures. Biden’s clear message to the SAC will likely cheer demonstrators and the Justice for Myanmar activist movement, which has called for the international community to “locate and freeze” Myanmar’s foreign reserves to isolate the Tatmadaw.

However, it is not clear if this initiative will do much to shift the position of the generals. Vice-Senior General Soe Win has already responded to Myanmar’s increased isolation with an air of nonchalance, saying that they have “learned to walk with few friends”. Indeed, consolidation of power – under their own terms – is clearly of greater importance to the Tatmadaw than western capital, and a small number of closer neighbours are likely to fill the gap left by fleeing western partners. For example, Singapore has been identified by protesters as another crucial Myanmar reserves holder, but has taken a ‘neutral’ stance.

Engagement conundrum

Meanwhile, as the Tatmadaw’s violent crackdown on demonstrators continues, many international donor governments are either withdrawing developmental assistance which directly benefits the Myanmar state, or strongly considering the precise shape of new engagement guidelines and protocols in Myanmar. Financial flows will come under increased scrutiny by donor countries. One thing is clear: humanitarian actors will be under increasing pressure to circumvent the state wherever possible, and to avoid programming which is seen to legitimise the new government.

In addition to new guidelines, in the immediate term the financial options available to humanitarians and private sector actors alike are increasingly limited. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) has encouraged government staff and private bank workers to strike, shutting down the entire banking system. International agencies and businesses are struggling to manage liquidity and unstable exchange rates, move aid money and pay wages. At the same time, when financial flows are blocked and humanitarians are seeking new ways of operating, there is also growing urgency to respond, as humanitarian needs are on the rise across the country.

Humanitarian impact rising

The coup has been a further disruption to an economy already devastated by the pandemic, and this week residents across much of Myanmar have engaged in panic buying amid increased prices for essential items such as petrol. However, the economic fallout of the coup and the ongoing CDM may be even more widespread in the longer term.  One assessment by a multi-donor programme has suggested that the drop in international trade may well threaten basic goods supply and agricultural outputs, with a consequent increase in food prices to be expected. Both rural and urban households will be affected.

The squeeze has been felt for months already, as small businesses earn much less during curfews. Increased basic good prices affect the most vulnerable communities the hardest. Many questions also remain, especially surrounding what options there will be for the numerous households across the country who rely on microfinance to sustain livelihoods.

Myanmar citizens now have to find informal alternatives to ensure financial stability during a time of missing wages and increasing prices. In order to enable them to maintain their financial stability, national and international donation groups have multiplied and remittances are taking on a revolutionary role. The humanitarian and development community will also need to consider – with urgency – how to reallocate resources (both physical and financial) to support existing and emergent needs.

Overcoming financial restrictions — imposed and self-imposed

Driven variously by practicality, a need for privacy, or a desire to avoid military-controlled accounts, humanitarians, CDM supporters and communities in general are having to find ways to circumvent the broken banking system. But there is a history to this in Myanmar.

‘Hundi’ is the name given to the informal network that has been used to move cash and send remittances abroad and within Myanmar for over a century. The sender hands cash to an agent, and the agent calls a counterpart near the location of the soon-to-be recipient to deliver the stated amount. Fees are low and nothing is traced, but agents make profit off the exchange rates. There are examples of such informal networks forming specifically to face the coup, including through compliant foreign businesses. With increased demand for their services, it remains to be seen if they have the liquidity capacity, or if this will be a practical option for the response. A forthcoming paper from CASS will attempt to provide some answers to these questions.

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1. More Myitkyina Violence Prompts Calls for EAO Intervention

Kachin State

Security forces again waged a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina on Monday 8 March, killing two demonstrators, injuring numerous others and arresting 91 people. Following negotiations headed by the Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG), 19 demonstrators were released in the evening of 8 March. This was despite the targeting of a PCG vehicle by live fire during the crackdown. The escalation, which follows numerous other confrontations between security forces and demonstrators in the city (as documented by this analytical unit here and here), has prompted social media users to call for a more proactive response by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and its armed wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Protecting peaceful protestors

Unlike ethnic armed groups signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, such as the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army, the KIO/A is restricted in its ability to operate in government-controlled areas and as such cannot easily appear in downtown Myitkyina to offer protection for demonstrators. The KIA and Tatmadaw were engaged in heavy fighting in Kachin State between 2011 and 2018, and an unwritten ceasefire has been the status quo since, despite intermittent clashes between the two sides in Northern Shan State (including this week and last week). This uneasy agreement between the two sides is under new pressure in the post-coup environment. Following the crackdown in Myitkyina this week, KIA Colonel Naw Bu openly spoke about the need for the KIA to find a new way to become involved after the death of civilians. But there are also other concerns. In addition to the human suffering which would be prompted by a re-emergence of active fighting, there has been real progress to return or resettle internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the last two years. This may be jeopardized by a stronger position against the coup. The KIO/A’s military position was also significantly weakened up to 2018, and they would not be staging strikes from an advantageous position. But the escalation in the current context may make escalation inevitable and rumours are already swirling in some remote areas of Kachin State of new KIA recruitment drives. International agencies should use whatever levers are available to them to ensure that the influential PCG continues to have a place at the negotiating table. With buy-in from both armed actors, and considerable civilian support, it may be the best option for maintaining some semblance of stability in Kachin State.

2. Kachin IDPs Look for Solutions to Livelihood Crisis

Sadong Sub-Township, Kachin State

Ah Nyoi (pseudonym), 20, from Lu Htawng village, in Kachin State’s Sadong Sub-Township, Waingmaw Township, says she does not understand the current political instability in Myanmar, but is grateful for the COVID-19 pandemic, and prays for the Myanmar-China border restrictions to remain in place longer. Thanks to those restrictions, her wedding has been delayed. In her small village of around 50 households, half of the women are in traditional arranged marriages to men from China whom they have never met. In 2020, while Ah Nyoi was taking nurse-aide training in Myitkyina, her family brought her back to her village to prepare for an arranged marriage with a Chinese man. Her parents and two older brothers, like many in her village, are addicted to narcotics, and were looking forward to the bride-price, which is typically at least 30,000 RMB (4,610 USD).

Many families in the area derive their income from working in Chinese-operated opium fields and rare earth mines, earning just enough to meet basic needs like health care and education for their children. But schools and universities have been closed and earning a living has become difficult amid political upheaval and the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, many children, youth and adults from IDP camps across Kachin State – even government school teachers according to one media reporter – have turned to work in the opium fields of Sadong Sub-Township and Chipwi and Tsawlaw townships for daily wages starting at 50 RMB (7.69 USD). Ah Nyoi is now one of these opium field workers. Poppy fields are planted in October and November, and harvested in February and March. According to an UN Office of Drugs and Crime 2020 survey, the opium cultivation area in Kachin State in 2020 was 3,600 hectares, a six per cent reduction from 2019. Local people explain that the decrease is due to COVID-19 border restrictions, which prevented the majority-Chinese operators of these farms from entering Myanmar to plant. Despite the decline in opium poppy cultivation, the supply of workers has risen post-coup due to the economic downturn. The fields are in an area controlled by the New Democratic Army – Kachin, a former insurgent group which became a government-supported border guard force (BGF) in 2009.

Crackdown on rise as coup hits livelihood

There have been anti-coup protests in many parts of Kachin State since 8 February, and more and more government staff are joining the Civil Disobedience Movement. Security forces are responding by cracking down on protesters with escalating levels of violence. However, in the BGF-controlled areas, it is rare to find people interested in Naypyidaw politics, apart from the youth who study in the state capital, Myitkyina. Instead, there is a veneer of calm, and many people live quietly, farming in the poppy fields and working in rare earth mines. These livelihoods are seen as the answers to their financial difficulties. The rule of law is weak in these areas, however, and an array of armed actors, including the BGF, Tatmadaw and police, collect millions of kyats in informal taxes from the opium farms. Such taxes buy protection from higher-level authorities. Security forces are known to destroy a small plot of opium, use drones to take manipulated photographs which disguise the size of the plot, then report a successful opium eradication raid to their superiors.

The military coup has threatened to further devastate Myanmar’s economy, already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workplaces have shuttered, and unemployment and unrest are on the rise. Private banks remain closed, cash on hand is dwindling, cash flow is slowing, yet petrol prices are quickly rising (from an average of 600-800 MMK to over 1,000 MMK per litre this week). Cash shortages in local CSOs and humanitarian organizations have caused hardship for both ordinary people and those in IDP camps. Many local humanitarian responders are facing challenges and having to suspend ongoing projects. The most vulnerable people in IDP camps (both in government and non-government controlled areas) are struggling due to the new instability. In BGF-controlled areas, very few local development organizations exist, and people are unaware of political issues or their rights under Myanmar law, such as the right to not be trafficked against their will. For some, the only thing that matters is their family’s livelihood, and in the case of addicts – their drug supply. While the attention of international responders is understandably on tackling the new challenges the post-coup environment has presented, the current livelihood crisis in Kachin State must be taken into account.

3. Panties on the Line: Fighting the Coup and the Patriarchy

Location - Whole of Myanmar

Female anti-coup demonstrators have fought back against misogynistic authorities this week. During anti-coup protests, female demonstrators have faced threats of rape and sexual abuse from security forces. In the evening of 8 March, security forces in Yangon were filmed calling female protestors ‘whores’ while roaming streets looking to arrest demonstrators. But protestors have found a savvy way to exert leverage on the backward mindset of the male-dominated institution in the lead-up to International Women’s Day on 8 March. There is a superstition in Myanmar that if a man passes under a female longyi (traditional gown) or underwear, he will lose his superior masculine power (bhone) and suffer from bad luck. This week, women have hung their longyis and undergarments across streets, so that troops will have to walk below them to crackdown on protesters. Soldiers have been seen dismantling some longyis barricades to avoid passing under the lines, and on 9 March the military junta issued a warning not to hang ‘women’s clothes and sanitary products’ in the streets. Meanwhile, women marched across the whole country celebrating International Women Day alongside men, waving female longyis as flags. These tactics, though, are nothing new in Myanmar’s long fight for political change. On previous occasions, activists mailed female underwear to embassies and military leaders as a way to shame them, as in the 2007 “Panties for Peace” campaign that involved social media, underwear mailing, and marches.

Celebrating International Women’s Day by fighting for democracy and breaking gender stereotypes

Across Myanmar, numerous women have been arrested for participating in demonstrations and female leaders have been targeted. But, sources familiar with the marchers report that when offered protection during marches, female protesters are refusing to be sheltered behind men, and are receiving international attention for their leading roles in the protests. To show solidarity, a social media campaign saw men wearing female longyis on their heads and on their bodies as an illustration of gender equality, and to show they do not share the superstitions of the Tatmadaw. Indeed, the protest movement against the coup has seen men, women and the larger LGBTQ+ community unite for the same cause in a unique manifestation of equity. It seems that there is a younger generation willing to challenge gender norms, and counterbalancing a political class that they say belongs to the past. Most of the protesters that are being detained are men, but international organisations should be aware that there is an increasing number of women in detention who face additional gender-related risks. The Tatmadaw has long used rape as a weapon, and has openly advertised sexual abuse.

4. CRPH Special Representative Meets KNU Leaders

Southeast Myanmar

On 5 March, Dr Sa Sa, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) Special Representative to the United Nations, and top Karen National Union (KNU) leaders met via video conference. After the meeting, KNU General Secretary Pado Saw Ta Tomu told the media that they discussed how to work together to reverse the coup, and how to prepare for a transition to a federal union after the crisis. On the same day, the CRPH announced its political vision, committing to eliminate the military dictatorship and to build a ‘federal democratic republic’. The KNU has also been increasingly assertive against the Tatmadaw. Further to a KNU statement on 14 February which strongly condemned the coup, KNU field fighters joined peaceful protesters demonstrating against the coup in Bago Region, Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region. On 26 February, the KNU reported that three Tatmadaw soldiers, including one major, were killed and four others injured in clashes between the KNU’s armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Tatmadaw in Kawkareik Township, Kayin State. Moreover, the KNU provided accommodation and protection for ten Tatmadaw deserters fleeing into KNU territory. Most recently, on 9 March, fighting broke out between the KNLA 1st Brigade and the Tatmadaw in five different places in Thaton and Hpa-an townships, and five Tatmadaw soldiers and one KNLA soldier were reportedly killed. On 5 February, the KNLA 5th Brigade announced that it will aim to eradicate the military dictatorship in collaboration with the international community, raising public concerns about the escalation of clashes along Thai-Myanmar border. In a 20 February statement, the Peace Process Steering Team (PSST), a group consisting of ten ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and led by the KNU/KNLA, announced they would no longer hold peace talks with the military council, condemned the coup, called for peaceful solutions, and appealed for support from the UN.

Will clashes escalate along Thai-Myanmar border? 

Despite no political agreement being announced between the CRPH and the KNU, the strong opposition of KNU towards the coup is likely to generate some concern for Tatmadaw leaders. While there is a small possibility of large-scale fighting between the KNU and the Tatmadaw, clashes have already escalated in Thaton and Kawkareik townships. Sources close to the KNLA said that the clash in Kawkareik Township took place when the KNLA intervened to prevent Tatmadaw troops and police from arresting CRPH members sheltering in the area. As a leading NCA signatory, responding to the military coup while preventing armed clashes was always going to be a great challenge for KNU leaders. However, they have decided to show solidarity with the public and the CRPH, feeding tensions between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw. So far, the NCA has been suspended, although it has not been officially abolished. Given that the two most influential NCA signatories – the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State – have come out firmly against the coup, Tatmadaw pressure on the KNU may spell the end of the NCA process, and prompt a re-escalation of fighting in eastern Myanmar. However, since the Tatmadaw has a close relationship with Thai military leaders, and the KNU relies on some level of political support from the Thai government to use the borderland, any large scale fighting between them seems unlikely, but not impossible. Thai media is reporting that Thailand has prepared facilities near the Myanmar border to prepare for a possible movement of refugees across the border following the coup. Some 90,000 Myanmar refugees remain in Thailand, where they have lived for decades as a result of war in eastern Myanmar.  International agencies should monitor security dynamics in southeast Myanmar, while continuing their humanitarian support to internally displaced people there and preparing to scale up response in the event of further escalation.

5. TNLA Hints at Changing Posture on Coup

Lashio Township, Northern Shan State

In a strong indication of a firmer anti-coup stance, on 5 March the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) moved a large force of troops into Mae Han village, on the outskirts of Lashio. This is an assertive move against the Tatmadaw near the economic hub of Northern Shan State. Following their movement out of the village on 8 March, the TNLA took to urban Kutkai, where they claimed to be supporting protestors and CDM strikers. Previous to this week, the TNLA had been criticized by both Ta’ang and non-Ta’ang communities alike for its failure to speak out against the 1 February military coup. Ta’ang civil society groups have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the coup, building pressure on the TNLA.

Choosing the people

While the TNLA must be responsive to pressure from their constituencies to respond to the coup, they also face a number of barriers to speaking out. First, as a member of the Northern Alliance (the TNLA, Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Kachin Independence Army), the TNLA are afforded some safety in numbers – but a more assertive anti-coup position may serve to split the group and play into the Tatmadaw’s hands. The Arakan Army (AA) has so far remained silent in regards to the coup, and have seemingly decided that quiet acquiescence is the key to their gain, if only in the short-term. While the Tatmadaw’s overtures towards the AA likely constitute – at least in part – a divide and rule approach, the TNLA will be hesitant to further any divide, or perception thereof. Second, the TNLA’s headquarters for Northern Shan State lies just inside Chinese territory, making them vulnerable to the desires of that superpower. Although China is clearly not pleased with developments in Myanmar, it has elected to back the military, and does not want to see the TNLA further political instability. However, it is clear that the establishment alignment of ethnic armed groups in the country is shifting – and the TNLA may be determined to forge its own path and reduce its reliance on alliance groups or China.

6. Clashes Continue in Northern Shan

Namtu Township

The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) have continued clashes in Northern Shan State this week, near Man San village tract – a hotspot for armed clashes in Namtu Township. Local sources have also suggested that the Tatmadaw engaged in the clashes, although this cannot be confirmed. However, it is clear that already prevailing tensions between the Tatmadaw and the RCSS have reached new heights because the latter has taken a vocally anti-coup stance. Existing internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been particularly affected by the clashes this week, as artillery shells have landed nearby IDP camps.

IDPs in need

Already afflicted by a loss of livelihoods amid the COVID-19 pandemic, IDPs in Northern Shan State are again facing tribulations amid economic standstill and ongoing armed conflict after the 1 February coup. Most IDPs in this area are ethnic Shan and Ta’ang (also known as Palaung), and have received some support from international agencies and local parahita networks such as the Hsi Lane Kham Parahita Group. However, food or cash for food remains a need in these sites where children are numerous. Responders should note that bike petrol is a particular need, as IDPs in this area typically flee armed clashes and insecurity on motorbikes.

7. IDP Needs Remain Despite Post-Coup Conflict Lull

Northern Rakhine State

As of 28 February, the Rakhine State government has reported that there are 83,210 displaced people in 154 sites and another 7,093 in 30 host communities in Rakhine State. According to local civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC), there are a total of 180,000 displaced people across sites and out of sites, however. While a lull in clashes has held since the 8 November 2020 elections, landmines, IED and unexploded ordnance are barriers to returns. According to camp leaders, the Department of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has continued to supply only rice to some IDP sites – two rice cans per person per day. Displaced people from Zaydi Taung displacement site in Buthidaung Township are facing food shortages and are worried to return home due to the Tatmadaw presence near their villages. Meanwhile, displaced people in Ray Phyu Kan site, Ponnagyun Township and other displacement sites across Mrauk-U and Minbya townships, are now facing Rakhine State’s annual water scarcity and need to buy drinking water, which is costing them 500-600 MMK per 20 litre bottle. There are some initial signs of return to place of origin, however. Over 13,000 displaced people in Sittwe, Buthidaung and Ann townships have registered with authorities to return home, and Rakhine State Minister of Security and Border Affairs Colonel Min Than and did state that the return of IDPs would be implemented in February, although no resettlement has started as yet. Meanwhile, displaced people are concerned that humanitarian assistance from international and local aid groups will stop under the military junta as INGOs pull back in protest, and the military restricts access further.

Collaboration with local CSOs to support?

Despite the lull in clashes, communities in northern Rakhine State remain significantly affected by residual effects of armed conflict and related human rights violations. Furthermore, Tatmadaw troops remain near residential areas and in villages. This week, one man was injured when unexploded ordnance exploded in Myebon Township, and three children were injured in a similar instance in Rathedaung Township. While it is a good sign that fighting has eased between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army, it should not be assumed that stability has been restored throughout the region. Communities are concerned that armed conflict could erupt at any time. It seems that tensions will remain until both sides reach a more meaningful, perhaps written, agreement. Inspections of displacement sites also remain an issue. On 26 February, Tatmadaw soldiers inspected the Ann Thar Gyi displacement site and questioned people about affiliation with the Arakan Army. On 11 February, police and Tatmadaw soldiers detained about 40 people returning from Bu Ywet Ma Nyo village to Mrauk-U town on suspicion of connections with the Arakan Army.

Operations have also become more challenging for all agencies – domestic and international. While local aid groups don’t rely on government authorisation, they are severely limited by cash shortages and fears of being swept up in security crackdowns. Some worry that the authorities will set their sights on local civil society groups – many of whom are heavily involved in both the humanitarian response and activism. Many of these organisations have therefore kept a low profile since the coup began – but massive humanitarian needs remain. Increased emphasis is also required for mine clearance and mine risk education efforts. On 15 February, the Tatmadaw started demining action along the highway road from Sittwe to Ann Townships, but have not yet started demining in the villages areas et – and as such have not found any mines. International agencies should therefore continue to work closely with local civil society organizations to support displaced people.

8. CRPH Appeals for International Intervention

Whole of Myanmar

Ahead of a 5 March UN Security Council emergency meeting on Myanmar, Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)’s Special Representative to the United Nations Dr Sa Sa submitted a letter to the council. The 5 March meeting was to discuss an international response to the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on protestors, during which more than 60 people have been killed by the police and Tatmadaw since 1 February. The CRPH has appealed to the international community to take effective action against leaders of the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council, including through economic sanctions and military intervention under the Responsibility to Protect framework. No Security Council resolution has been released since the 5 March meeting, and Dr Sa Sa has conceded that international military intervention is unlikely. However, the Chinese stance on SAC is unclear. Despite China referring to the Myanmar military coup as a domestic issue last week, its response has changed again this week. On 8 March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wen Yi said that China has a long-standing relationship with the concerned political parties, including the National League for Democracy, and stressed the need to prevent bloodshed and resolve tensions as soon as possible, hoping that current issues would be discussed within the framework of the constitution. In the meantime, the SAC has hired an international lobbying company to gain the support of Western democratic countries, including the United States.

Limited effects on the junta 

Considering the wide SAC access to regional markets and the support it receives from some neighbouring countries, international sanctions against individual coup leaders and targeted economic sanctions are unlikely to strongly influence the junta and reverse the coup. Despite openly criticising the SAC for killing protesters, the Singapore Government has not yet ceased financial ties. According to the leaked minutes of a meeting between Indian embassy officials and the SAC Economic Minister, India also has the intention of continuing economic cooperation with the Tatmadaw. These relationships are why the Vice-Senior General Soe Win, Deputy Commander-in-Chief, told the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar that SAC will persevere and thrive ‘with few friends’, despite international sanctions.

Since Myanmar’s natural resources exports are in high demand from neighbouring countries, the SAC is likely to continue to raise its foreign currency reserves. In terms of international trade, China accounts for 33.35 per cent of Myanmar’s total trade, and Thailand for 18.34 per cent. Neither country is considering ceasing this trade. Moreover, investment from China, Hong Kong and Singapore cover more than 50 per cent of total investment in Myanmar, mitigating the effect of western retaliation. However, sanctions could still imply the loss of trade privileges on commodities exports and have a significant impact on employment opportunities for the general population – but it is not clear if this bothers the SAC either. Meanwhile, if the CRPH forms a federal army and chooses a military path over a non-violent mass movement, international intervention may entail some level of financial and technical assistance to the federal army. This would result in more casualties and disorder compared to the current bloodshed. International organizations should be prepared to deal with increasing humanitarian needs in the case of escalation across the country.

Other Developments

To protest its cooperation with the Tatmadaw, at least four Arakan National Party parliamentarians have left the party to join the Arakan Front Party. As discussed in depth in last week’s Weekly Update, the Arakan Front Party has been revitalised after its charismatic leader Dr Aye Maung was released from prison on 12 February. The position of the Arakan Front Party remains opaque, both on the issue of the military coup and the position of the Rohingya in Rakhine State – a topic on which the party’s leader is particularly hardline.

As discussed in last week’s Weekly Update, People’s Administration bodies have been organised – at least in name – across Myanmar in opposition to the Tatmadaw’s efforts to consolidate control over ward and village administration. This week, the Tatmadaw announced that one such body, in southern Rakhine State’s Gwa Township, was unlawful. Meanwhile, the authoritarian rulers have pressed new charges against the National League for Democracy’s Rakhine State Chief Minister and Gwa Township parliamentarian U Nyi Pu, under widely applied section 505 (b) of the colonial-era Penal Code.

The Arakan Army has released its first unilateral statement since the 1 February coup – to note the passing of a leading intellectual Rakhine monk. The Arakan Army has remained largely silent since the coup, apparently opting to take advantage of the lull in clashes since the 8 November 2020 elections to consolidate military and administrative gains made in the previous two years of intense active conflict.

Illustrating the current (gigantic) political gap between Rakhine State and the rest of the country, media outlet The Irrawaddy reports that some 600 uniformed police officers have broken ranks and joined the Civil Disobedience Movement across the country since the 1 February coup – none from Rakhine State.

The Indian government says it will deport some 1,500 ‘illegal’ Rohingya people from its Jammu and Kashmir territory to Myanmar. India previously deported Rohingya people from its territory to Myanmar under the National League for Democracy government, but its apparent willingness to refoul the Rohingya under the current crisis can be considered a litmus test of its future relationships with any military regime in Myanmar. India is unlikely to revert to a policy which isolates Myanmar, given its great power rivalry with China in the region, and its considerable investments in the southeast Asian nation.

Responding to security forces firing into mosques, the deaths at least one Muslim Yangon National League for Democracy member in custody, and numerous other cases of Muslim demonstrators being killed or arrested on the streets, Muslim communities have expressed concerns about new vulnerabilities under the military government. There is concern that the Tatmadaw may wish to revive the intercommunal tensions which wracked the country in the years after 2012. Developments to date do indicate that security forces are willing to use especially violent force against Muslims opposing the regime. Whether this is a sinister campaign to ‘divide and rule’ the country, or a dark reflection of entrenched biases among security forces, is as yet unclear.

Illustrating the shrinking space for civil society, this week the Tatmadaw raided media offices, and stripped five media outlets of their licenses. However, in a reflection of how much authority the junta has right now, four of the five outlets have continued operations. Rakhine State is not immune from the shrinking space. There, three students were detained by authorities for organising an education event, and civil society organisations say the outlook for their operations is bleak.

CASS Weekly Update 25 February – 3 March 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

25 February - 3 March 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

ASEAN Intervention

Amid Myanmar’s deadliest week since the 1 February coup, the regional bloc has met to discuss a way forward. But is it more than just a paper tiger?

This week, police and military forces cracked down on demonstrators across Myanmar, killing dozens. The use of force escalated sharply over the weekend. The UN High Commission for Human Rights has reported that at least 18 people were killed on Sunday 28 February alone, although some reports on social media suggest that up to 24 people were killed. The deaths have not stopped demonstrators from taking to the streets.

The growing crisis has prompted regional leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to attempt an intervention. On Tuesday 2 March, ASEAN foreign ministers held a virtual emergency meeting. They called on Myanmar’s military rulers to stop violence against protestors and immediately release detained civilian leaders and activists. The Tatmadaw’s pick of foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, attended the meeting.

Although ASEAN has not condemned the coup as a bloc, member states have voiced their concern. Malaysia’s foreign minister proposed the junta appoint a set of ‘eminent persons’ to oversee resolution of the electoral dispute which the Tatmadaw has claimed is at the heart of its confrontation with civilian leaders. It also requested the Tatmadaw allow a visit to Myanmar by the ASEAN’s secretary general and chair (Brunei), and the establishment of an ‘ASEAN Troika’ to facilitate engagement between ASEAN, Myanmar and outside powers. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister remarked on the need for dialogue and the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders. For his part, in an interview with the BBC, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the use of lethal force against demonstrators was “not acceptable”, and that there is “no future” in the military taking over the country again.

Reacting to the ASEAN meeting, the shadow government Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) opposed the representation of the Tatmadaw. The CRPH declared the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council as a ‘terrorist group’ on account of the “atrocities and acts of terrorism” it has committed in recent weeks.

Diverse interests

The changing stance of Indonesia and Singapore, two of ASEAN’s leading members, from non-intervention to public criticism, has challenged the Myanmar junta’s ability to consolidate regional support. Despite western democracies’ strong opposition to the coup, ASEAN members have taken a different approach. The bloc is governed by the principle of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. As such, it is unlikely to echo the strong statements issued by the west, or get behind the demands for punitive measures that demonstrators are calling for.

There are also other reasons why ASEAN members are reluctant to get behind any strong intervention. Most member states are governed by autocratic governments, who do not wish to see any precedent of interference. Indeed, the current chair of the bloc, Brunei, is an absolute monarchy.

However, this is not as straightforward as suggested. Thailand, itself ruled by a military junta, has not yet taken any firm position on the military coup. The fact that the informal ministerial meeting on 24 February between the Tatmadaw’s foreign minister, and the Indonesian Foreign Minister was held in Bangkok suggests there is some implicit backing of the Tatmadaw’s position. Indonesia had suggested the meeting take place in Myanmar, but the location was moved to Bangkok amid demands from demonstrators. As the Tatmadaw escalates the use of force against its own citizens and comes under increased pressure internationally, Bangkok may become more reluctant to welcome junta leaders.

The Indonesian government agreed to mediate the current crisis and accepted the junta’s stated agenda to hold general elections within one year. Although border stability and bilateral trade may be priorities for the Thai government, Indonesia is likely to maintain a focus on the early repatriation of Rohingya refugees and broader regional stability. The movement of Rohingya refugees through the region remains a key concern for coastal Indonesia and Malaysia. The quick settlement of domestic upheaval in Myanmar is likely to be prioritised by those member states most affected by regional instability.

In contrast, the main concern of Singapore is one of economic stability, as it remains the main source of foreign direct investment into Myanmar, accounting for 34% of overall approved investments. Despite anti-coup demonstrators’ demands that Singapore freeze Myanmar government reserves valued at 5.7 billion USD, the Singaporean government has so far resisted – demonstrating its prioritisation of economic interest.

A way forward

Despite the fact that Myanmar’s neighbours, whether nearer or further, have the most to lose from an unstable Myanmar, numerous barriers suggest that there is little potential for ASEAN as a bloc to make any meaningful intervention in Myanmar. Instead, the best hope may lie with individual regional states engaging bilaterally. Many have built strong relationships with both military and civilian leaders. In this case, a self-interest which revolves around regional stability and prosperity will most likely drive the most effective interventions.

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1. New Barriers to Freedom of Movement

Central and northern Rakhine State

On 23 February, the Ponnagyun Township administration issued a notice to village and ward administrators in Ponnagyun Township informing them that legal action would be taken against ‘Bengalis’ who illegally travelled. Village administrators also noted that they had been informed that they must now report visitors staying overnight in their jurisdictions to authorities – as per recent amendments made by the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council to the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law. Other developments have also suggested that movement restrictions are tightening for Rohingya and Muslim communities in central Rakhine State, with those moving between townships extorted for greater sums by security forces at checkpoints in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Rohingya in Sittwe Township report that police forces are increasingly restricting movement by Rohingya or other Muslims from the camp areas to downtown Sittwe.

Rights regression

Since the 1 February coup, the Tatmadaw has promised Rohingya leaders freedom of movement, committed to refugee returns from Bangladesh, and ensured that COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered to elderly Rohingya leaders. It is unclear if this is an attempt to win international support for their seizure of power, or to buy the trust of Rohingya communities themselves. Regardless, the regime’s authoritarian tendencies have been betrayed by its actions, which have reverted to strict controls on movement, opening the possibilities for security forces to extort vulnerable communities for significant amounts of cash. On 7 February, six Rohingya adults were sent to prison and 14 young people were sent to detention centres for unauthorised travel, which reflects a Tatmadaw reversal of the National League for Democracy government’s policy to return Rohingya to Rakhine State. However, despite the stricter controls on movement by authorities, Rohingya sources report that Rakhine communities have not been opposed to their movement in downtown Sittwe, where Rohingya and other Muslims go to access markets and healthcare among other things. It is important that humanitarian agencies continue to raise freedom of movement concerns with authorities, and engage Rakhine community leaders whose views align on the issues of access to healthcare and other essential services for joint action.

2. Dr Aye Maung Homecoming Not Welcomed by All

Central and southern Rakhine State

After his recent release from prison, ethnic Rakhine political leader Dr Aye Maung is conducting an 11-township homecoming tour in central and southern Rakhine State this week. Local media reports that Dr Aye Maung, a veterinarian by trade, will pay homage to historical pagodas and Buddhist monks, and will visit internally displaced people (IDPs) sheltering in camps if invited. He has already visited Tein Nyo IDP camp in Mrauk U Township. Included on the tour are Sittwe, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Myebon, Ann, Taungup, Kyaukphyu, Ramree and Thandwe townships, arriving in Thandwe on 3 March. Dr Aye Maung arrived in Kyaukphyu on 28 February, where he was welcomed by a large group of supporters. Instead of addressing the crowds, however, he chose to visit local leaders of the Arakan Front Party, the political party he formed in 2017 with other defectors from the Arakan National Party. It is thought that Dr Aye Maung’s objectives on the tour are to reconnect with Arakan Front Party members, and to test the endurance of his popularity with the people. Despite the charismatic leader’s ability to draw crowds, local media have reported few details about the tour. In March 2019, Dr Aye Maung was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime of High Treason, for comments made on the 233rd anniversary of the annexation of the Arakanese Kingdom by the Burmese. He was released on 12 February this year, as part of an annual amnesty to mark Union Day. He is perhaps best known among the international community for his anti-Muslim speech, which is widely understood to have contributed towards the violence against Rohingya communities from 2012.

Back to the future?

Dr Aye Maung remains exceedingly popular among the Rakhine people, as illustrated by the crowds he continues to draw. As such, his release from prison may be a game-changer for politics in western Myanmar. As armed conflict escalated across Rakhine State in 2018-2020, trust in party politics declined as people looked to armed actors as their preferred change agents. As the dominant political party, the Arakan National Party was worst affected by this, and was left to follow the Arakan Army’s lead on crucial issues such as intercommunal harmony. The Arakan National Party’s decision to work with the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council has also jeopardised its popularity. As such, Dr Aye Maung, a canny politician, may well take advantage of the current impasse to stage a political comeback and mobilise support behind a new flag. International actors should carefully monitor the policy positions being put forward by Dr Aye Maung and his party. Muslim communities in Kyaukphyu Township report concerns about Dr Aye Maung’s visit, as ethnic Rakhine have not shared what messages he brought to share with the party. Some contacts say they are now worried to travel downtown, in fear of new anti-Muslim sentiment or violence. In addition to Dr Aye Maung’s reputation for anti-Muslim hate speech and incitement to violence, other members of his party have continued behaviour which threatened intercommunal relations during the years Dr Aye Maung spent in prison.

3. No Protests in War-Torn Areas

Central and northern Rakhine State

Although hundreds of thousands of anti-coup demonstrations have taken to the streets across Myanmar since the 1 February coup, communities in war-torn northern Rakhine State are standing down. No significant gatherings have been seen in these areas – besides those who took to the streets in support of the military. On 6 February, about 50 people including retired military personnel and monks in Sittwe, and about 3,000 people in Thandwe, southern Rakhine State, paraded in support of the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council. Other forms of protest have occurred on a small scale, following a 4 February initiative by lecturers from Sittwe University of a red ribbon campaign against the dictatorship. From then on, a growing chorus of voices from around the state have expressed anti-coup sentiments on the streets and via social media – especially in the southern townships of Gwa and Thandwe, where civilians, activists and civil servants joined nationwide anti-coup protests on 8 February, which spread to Taungup, Manaung and Ann townships the following day. These areas have a strong connection with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and have not been heavily affected by armed conflict. As a result, some 20 people across the state have been arrested and charged under the National Disaster Management and Peaceful Assembly and Procession laws for their involvement in anti-coup protests. Among them, seven civilians, including government-appointed teachers and bank staff, were released in Ann Township after the court levied fines of 80,000 Myanmar Kyat (57 USD) per person. The others remain under detention. In addition, three people, including an Arakan League for Democracy member, were charged with sedition, a much more serious charge, for participating in anti-coup protests.

Who cares who reigns?

There have been few signs of opposition to military rule in the northern part of the state, where armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army has raged for the past two years. Local media reported on 9 February that police interrogated leaders from Sittwe-based civil society organisation Wan Lark Foundation on the basis of rumours spread about protest against the coup. On the other hand, several people in northern Rakhine State have raised their voices on social media claiming that the current situation should be of no concern for Rakhine civilians, but is rather a problem between the Tatmadaw and the NLD. This perspective cites a familiar line – that the NLD government failed to protect civilians from injury, death and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Tatmadaw over the past two years. This point of view informs a widespread opinion that the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the NLD was barely different from the new ‘military dictatorship’. In addition to these perspectives, security concerns have hindered protests. The fear that authorities could react with lethal force, as they did during the 2018 rally in Mrauk U, is a strong deterrent. Although clashes have eased in recent months, a strong military presence in the state will likely deter any attempt by local people to join the nationwide protest efforts. With security forces posted on almost every corner of town in the state capital Sittwe, there is no appetite for new violence after two years of intense fighting. Lastly, most rural areas in northern townships are heavily influenced by the Arakan Army and increasingly under its governance. From that vantage point, there is little interest in becoming entangled in Naypyidaw power shifts. Local sources also report that the Arakan Army is encouraging people not to get involved in protests against the military government.

4. Protests Against Junta’s Village and Ward Administration

Whole of Myanmar

Following the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) announcement on forming ‘Security and Rule of Law Teams’ in wards and village tracts nationwide on 22 February, protests against new ward and village tract administrators have taken place across the country. As a result, a vast number of newly-appointed ward and village tract administrators resigned, weakening SAC efforts to consolidate control over local administration systems. Demonstrators in Yangon gathered outside ward offices to shout they did not want dictators, Sagaing villagers banished a new appointee from their village, and Myeik households each attached one padlock to a ward administrator’s office to block the new appointee’s entry. Over 50 people were arrested for such protests in one Yangon township alone, with 45 of them still detained in Insein Prison at the time of writing. Meanwhile, the public administration team in Mindat, Chin State, announced they would not accept new administrators and would rule their town according to Chin tradition. At least one armed group has also rejected the new rules. On 27 February, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) brigade in Thaton District announced that it will not accept the military appointment for ward and village tract administrators, nor the public administration plan of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). The KNLA says it will continue to govern its constituencies under its own laws. The CRPH introduced its interim public administration program on 22 February, urging people to form their own governing bodies for their townships, and wards or village tracts. CRPH suggests these bodies should consist of at least 11 members – including elected MPs, youth and trusted community members. While a number have been set up by communities, they are not yet functioning.

Can coercive action succeed? 

Before announcing the local administration plan, the Tatmadaw’s SAC amended the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law. As per the new amendment, the township administrator has the power to appoint a suitable person as ward/village tract administrator, with the approval of the relevant state or region administration council or the Naypyidaw council. As the ward or village tract administrator was previously appointed by popular vote, the new amendment undermines democratic practices and principles at the community level – effecting a return to the local administrative norms of the pre-2012 era. Although the formation of ‘Security and Rule of Law Teams’ at ward and village levels has prompted significant public pushback, the SAC is likely to employ a variety of methods, including coercive action, to strengthen its control of the vital village and ward-level administration. Indeed, as the interface between state and citizens, controlling local-level administrations is crucial to controlling the country. If public resistance against the SAC’s effort to establish its local administration apparatus shifts from non-violent to violent actions, further escalation by the military is likely to occur. Meanwhile, the CRPH’s local administration plan is likely to face challenges in its implementation, due to a lack of coercive power, experience and budget. While waiting for further developments, humanitarian agencies should be cautious in reaching out to new village or ward administrators for field activities before gauging wider sentiment, and ensure they are following a strict conflict-sensitive approach.

5. Rohingya See Social Cohesion Opportunity in Anti-Coup Movement

Rakhine State and Cox’s Bazar

On 22 February, the UN called for the immediate rescue of a group of Rohingya people who had been stuck at sea near India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands for about 10 days.  The boat was carrying a total of 90 people, including 65 women and girls, fleeing the Bangladesh refugee camps. According to a UN statement, most were highly vulnerable and were suffering from extreme dehydration. According to UNHCR, more than 200 Rohingya refugees are thought to have died or gone missing at sea in 2020. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh leave the camps for many reasons, and abuses by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) are just one more reason to leave. Since August 2020, at least two dozen Rohingya refugees have been abducted or tortured by ARSA. Two young educated Rohingya were recently kidnapped by ARSA and are still missing. For those who wish to leave, it is no easy feat. From Cox’s Bazar, the host community provides the logistical arrangements, and costs are somewhere between 1,200-2,800 USD depending on the journey. For those leaving Rakhine State, Myanmar security forces and local ethnic Rakhine brokers facilitate travel from Yangon to Malaysia. Most young Rohingya leave to seek work, and women and girls often leave to marry or reunite with family in Malaysia. Despite the hardening conditions, some Rohingya are taking relief in the fact that  since the 1 February coup, social media posts and comments under news articles indicate that young and educated people have recognized their prior ignorance towards the persecution against the Rohingya. Some social media pages have apologized for their discriminatory behaviour towards the Rohingya community. Meanwhile, the Rohingya community has shown their solidarity against the military junta.

Opportunities for social integration

Contacts in Bangladesh and Rakhine State report that the coup has heightened a sense of hopelessness among many Rohingya, and there are major doubts about repatriation. It is also clear, however, that Rohingya communities do not see the National League for Democracy (NLD) as a defender of their community either. The NLD government kept silent and ignored the persecution of the Rohingya by the military in 2016 and 2017, a process which culminated with the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). These developments raised concerns among the Rohingya as to whether Myanmar would ever be willing to accept the Rohingya. Some young Rohingya spoken to by CASS are concerned that the anti-coup demonstrators are taking advantage of the Rohingya issue to make serious accusations to the UN and the ICJ regarding the military, rather than accepting the Rohingya’s human rights violations for what they are. Regardless, the Rohingya community see the situation as an opportunity to build trust and social integration between communities. They also call upon the international community to create a platform to start a dialogue between Rohingya and other communities. However, social cohesion will continue to rely heavily on authorities inside Myanmar – and freedom of movement remains a crucial condition to any improvement. Response actors should seize this opportunity to provide support to parahita groups and NGOs with experience and expertise in dialogue programs, fund exchange programs among young people from diverse communities, and encourage economic linkages between Rohingya and non-Rohingya communities to build trust and enhance social integration.

Rohingya activist Tun Khin shares a photo of anti-coup protesters holding a sign citing their new perspectives on the Rohingya crisis. Credits: Twitter

6. Post-Coup Political Fragility

Kachin State

On 22 February, the Tatmadaw’s Kachin State Administration Council, led by former Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) member Hkyet Hting Nan, established a ‘Kachin State Negotiation Committee’ (KSNC) to negotiate between the military and demonstrators opposed to the coup. The KSNC is led by U Hpaula Gam Hpang, a Kachin music composer and businessman, and other members include U Sai Nyunt Maung (chairman of Tarlawgyi Shan people’s militia group), Daw Bawk Ja (former land campaigner and Vice-chair-3 of the KSPP), U Ale Par (former Municipal Minister under U Thein Sein’s 2011-16 administration) and 13 others. Eight of the 17 KSNC members ran in the 2020 election but lost, four of them as members of the KSPP party. After joining the KSCN, the KSPP members announced they were temporarily leaving the party. Officially, the KSCN was formed to prevent further bloodshed of demonstrators, to ensure demonstrations take place in a disciplined and free manner, and to ensure that the country’s economy, education and health run well. However, demonstrators have rejected the KSNC since its appointment. The committee is headquartered in the Kachin State Administration Council office, in the Kachin State General Administration Department. In contrast, the Peace-talks Creation Group (PCG) is trusted by the public, and has been mediating between protesters and security forces. KSNC member Daw Bawk Ja commented that the PCG are not officially recognized and are volunteers, while the KSCN is an official body.

In addition, on 26 February, the junta’s newly-formed Union Election Commission held a nationwide coordination meeting with political parties. The KSPP, the Lisu National Development Party (LNDP), and the New Democracy Party-Kachin (NDP-K) attended. Like a number of other parties nationwide, however, the Kachin National Congress (KNC) party refused to attend, arguing that attendance legitimised the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power. Among the Kachin ethnic parties, the KSPP is the most popular. However, it won only four seats out of the 67 that it contested during the 2020 election.

A bitter turn

The demonstrators and wider public are bitterly disappointed by the KSPP’s collaboration with the military. In the absence of peaceful paths to change, there is a risk of a re-emergence of armed conflict. The KSPP stated on 1 March that it attended the UEC meeting as an observer, while maintaining a policy in favour of establishing a federal democratic union built upon equal rights, self-determination, and national equality in accordance with the 1947 Panglong agreement. Despite this statement, it will be extremely difficult for the KSPP to regain the Kachin public’s support, as most people see their trust as having been misplaced. Since the beginning of the coup, the military has been increasingly focused on gaining the support of ethnic parties which received support in the 2020 elections. However, closer ties with the military council have led to tensions between ethnic parties and communities. As a result, some KSPP Central Executive Committee members have resigned. International communities need to monitor political upheaval in Kachin State, because a disillusionment with political parties, or the absence of a democratic political process, will encourage the public to place their trust in armed actors as the agents of change – thereby risking an eventual return to armed conflict.

Other Developments

On 26 February, Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations General Assembly U Kyaw Moe Tun broke ranks with the Tatmadaw, whom he named an ‘existential threat’, and called for the international community to support the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. U Kyaw Moe Tun was appointed by the National League for Democracy in 2018, but previously served with the military administration for decades. Some activists have pointed out that while Kyaw Moe Tun should be lauded for his bravery, he has previously used his position to defend Myanmar’s violence against the Rohingya. While the Tatmadaw have fired the ambassador from his position, he says he continues in the role, posing a dilemma for the United Nations.

On 27 February, the Kachin Baptist Convention released a special prayer statement, including prayers to uproot all kinds of dictatorship, and to establish a federal union based on a new constitution. On 1 March, military and police barged through the gate of the Lashio KBC association compound and arrested eight young people and three Christian ministers. All were released on 2 March, visibility beaten. The KBC has been active in the education sector and the crackdown on civil society will stifle civil society development activities.

On 26 February, the Tatmadaw extended its unilateral ceasefire from 1 March to 31 March. The three-member Brotherhood Alliance, on 1 March, subsequently extended its unilateral ceasefire from 1 March to 31 March. None of the three Brotherhood Alliance members have commented publicly on the 1 February coup, and the lull in clashes in western Myanmar has continued. Should the Tatmadaw consolidate its hold on power, a new agreement between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw should be expected.

The Tatmadaw’s Ministry of Health and Sports has lifted all COVID-19 related ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions in Rakhine State – in place since 24 August 2020 – citing successful preventative measures and a dramatic decline in the number of infections. The Ministry of Health and Sports now reports very few cases of COVID-19, but this is due in no small part to the Civil Disobedience Movement, with striking health workers no longer engaging in testing. Humanitarian responders should assume cases are under-reported.

Rakhine media outlet Narinjara reports that although the Tatmadaw has conducted mine clearance operations for two weeks in the state, not a single landmine has been detected. Landmine and unexploded ordnance incidents continue to occur, including at least three incidents in February.

The UK has requested a closed-door UN Security Council meeting on 5 March as security forces have stepped up their use of violence against demonstrators in Myanmar. While China remains likely to block any resolution in the council, it has shown it is unhappy with the situation in Myanmar, and wishes to act to stabilize its strategically important neighbour.

  • Key Readings

We’ve put together a collection of readings regarding Myanmar’s coup and subsequent Spring Revolution, with a focus on the international response and humanitarian actors.

    • In The Diplomat, Kim Jolliffe argues that international actors must make a stand in Myanmar and get behind anti-coup forces, while Crisis Group warns against imposing broad-based sanctions. 
    • Following this early piece which highlighted worsening engagement dilemmas and partnership challenges for agencies in post-coup Myanmar, the New Humanitarian’s Irwin Loy this week considers pressures on cash flow, and the potential for a more invasive military policy towards responders.

    • Gabrielle Aron and Francis Wade posit in The Guardian that the international community’s big rhetoric may do more harm than good, especially when there is no intention for follow through action.

    • Finally, Development Media Group documents the events of February 2021 in a comprehensive timeline.