New Coup, Same Revolution: EAOs React to Myanmar’s 2021 Crisis

New Coup, Same Revolution:
EAOs React to Myanmar's 2021 Crisis

April 2021

Executive Summary

After its attempted 1 February coup d’état, the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw)’s State Administration Council (SAC), and its rival the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), are vying for international recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Crucially, the efforts of both hinge on their relationships to ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) based in Myanmar’s remote jungles.

For the SAC to successfully suppress peaceful anti-coup demonstrations without losing control in ethnic conflict areas, it must ensure its ceasefire agreements with EAOs hold. For its part, the CRPH is seeking to stake its legitimacy as a governing body both as a matter of law (de jure) and of established practice (de facto). A de jure claim may be based on the CRPH’s abolishment of the 2008 Constitution and its declaration of the Federal Democracy Charter, but such a claim may be tenuous. Meanwhile, international recognition of de facto authority hinges on holding territory, and neither the CRPH nor its National Unity Government could make this claim without the support of EAOs.

Despite being actively courted by both sides, no EAO has taken a formal position. For now, most EAOs appear to be positioning themselves close to the CRPH and its objectives. Most have condemned the coup, the SAC, and its mass violence against civilians, and few EAOs attended the Tatmadaw’s annual 27 March Armed Forces Day celebration in Naypyidaw. However, EAOs seem unwilling to participate in the National Unity Government until the immediate benefits of doing so are made clear.

There are compelling reasons why the EAOs have yet to cast their lot with the CRPH. Some of these are unique to certain EAOs or alliance blocs, but three interlinked, cross-cutting objectives guide most EAOs as they navigate Myanmar’s evolving battlefield:

  1. to preserve and extend their financial, territorial, and political gains attained through bilateral or multilateral agreements signed with the Tatmadaw and previous Myanmar governments; 
  2. to ensure and increase the protection of ethnic-minority communities living within their areas of operation and control;
  3. to maintain and strengthen tacit and/or express support from authorities in neighboring states.

Any move towards joining the CRPH in forming the National Unity Government could threaten these objectives. Although EAOs have welcomed CRPH statements to date, they have been fighting too long to value statements above action. Disastrous experiences while protecting and supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s establishment of a parallel government in exile in 1990, and disillusionment during the recent Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD government, have also informed EAO’s cautious responses.

Due to their long and complex histories, EAOs do not make decisions solely on the basis of recent developments. Their strategies and conduct are informed by lessons learned over decades of armed struggle. As the crisis in Myanmar evolves, response actors should expect EAOs to move closer to the CRPH and its National Unity Government. For the time being, however, most will likely strive to maintain a strategic public distance from both the CRPH and SAC, while quietly working directly with the former towards a federal democracy, and pursuing channels to work with the Tatmadaw towards ceasefire preservation to prevent violence against civilians in ethnic-minority areas – at least until the tangible benefits of formally joining either side outweigh the risks.

Background

Myanmar’s Armed Conflicts

Shortly after Myanmar gained independence in 1948, armed conflicts broke out between its military (the Tatmadaw) and armed non-State actors – known in Myanmar as ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). Central to the emergence of these conflicts was the non-implementation of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, the intended framework for a federal democratic union providing representation to ethnic-minority populations. Fought principally in what are now Myanmar’s seven ‘ethnic states’ – territory along Myanmar’s borders where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority – many of these conflicts have continued to the present, while new ones have developed since.

EAO Parties to Conflicts

The newest of Myanmar’s active EAOs were founded in 2009 while the oldest predate Myanmar’s independence. Even the most recently formed view themselves as the latest iteration of their ethnic group’s longstanding struggle against ethnic-Burman oppression. Most EAOs have seen Tatmadaw ceasefires come and go, and have had splinter groups break away to focus on commercial activities and/or join the Tatmadaw chain of command as border guard forces or militias. Due to their long and complex histories, EAOs do not make decisions solely on the basis of recent developments. Rather, their strategies and conduct are informed by lessons learned over decades of armed struggle.

Over the years, EAOs have made numerous efforts at cooperation and coordination in defiance of the Tatmadaw’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics. While several multilateral alliances are currently in effect, widespread military cooperation has proven challenging, due in large part to competing interests and clashes between certain EAOs. The concept of a Federal Army, now very popular across Myanmar social media, has been discussed for decades. Many EAOs have previously agreed in principle to its creation and collaborated under a previous EAO umbrella organisation on the drafting of a Code of Conduct for such an entity.1 Although a document widely-circulated on social media identifies its ‘proposed seal’ and ‘basic principles,2 no EAOs have committed to joining a Federal Army yet and inter-EAO tensions could complicate or preclude the participation of several organisations.

At the time of the Myanmar coup d’état on 1 February 2021, more than twenty EAOs were engaged in various stages of armed conflict with the Government of Myanmar (GoM) and the Tatmadaw. Ten were signatories to the multilateral 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and were actively participating in the Myanmar peace process, despite growing deadlock and disillusion since the launch of the process in 2012. Other politically and militarily powerful EAOs that had not signed the NCA had in place bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw that predated the NCA3 and afforded them some lawful presence within Myanmar and direct negotiating power with respect to the GoM and Tatmadaw.4 Only four EAOs locked in active conflict with the Tatmadaw with no ceasefire agreement in place were prohibited from establishing offices in government areas for the purposes of facilitating ceasefire and peace negotiations with the GoM and Tatmadaw and were branded by the Tatmadaw as ‘terrorist’ organisations. These were the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA); the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/A); the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA); and the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA). Taken together, these four EAOs comprise the Northern Alliance. Although the Tatmadaw engineered for all four to be designated as ‘terrorists’ by the Shan State Parliament in 2016 – a legally weightless intimidation tactic – the AA was added to Myanmar’s official registry of terrorist organisations by the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government in March 2020.5

Under their ‘unlawful association’ designation, rather than ‘terrorist’ status, the four Northern Alliance EAOs were prohibited from establishing formal offices to support their engagement in formal negotiations with the Tatmadaw or GoM.6 Whenever politically expedient, however, the Tatmadaw has granted exceptions to this prohibition, even if it never formally suspends the Unlawful Associations Act with respect to office staff or visitors. This allows the Tatmadaw to maintain the looming threat of potential arrest over anyone who has contact with the offices or their staff members. As a result, authorizing an official EAO presence in government areas has only advanced the Tatmadaw’s intimidation agenda with respect to EAOs and members of ethnic-minority communities.7

EAO Economic Interests and Activities

To sustain operations over time, EAOs have engaged in a wide range of income-generating enterprises, including taxation; agricultural production; narcotics production and trafficking; forestry, most notably teak and timber logging and smuggling; automobile sales, rentals, and other transportation services; and extraction of gold, jade, and other precious minerals, among other activities. Over the years, the Tatmadaw and GoM have oscillated from outright opposition to some of these endeavors to tacit acceptance and active participation – depending on the EAO, the activity, and the political and conflict situation. For example, although the KIO is listed under the Unlawful Associations Act, it famously produces and sells electricity to the GoM to power the city of Myitkyina, the capital of government-controlled Kachin State.8

Historical EAO Support for Parallel Governments

When the Tatmadaw refused to respect the outcome of Myanmar’s 1990 election, and with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, EAOs smuggled barred elected NLD officials out of government-controlled Myanmar and into Manerplaw, a village along the Moei River border of Thailand and Karen State. Manerplaw served as the headquarters of the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), and several other EAOs that have since disbanded. Other EAOs established ‘embassies’ in the area, and the KNU provided refuge, security, and support for NLD members as they worked with democracy supporters among the Burmese diaspora to set up a shadow NLD government. For example, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) was led by a cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi, Sein Win, with the aim of enabling NLD would-be parliamentarians to work from exile and prepare them to govern upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.9

Some of the individuals most instrumental to NCGUB’s set-up and success in securing western funding and support acted in the belief that Aung San Suu Kyi had delegated NLD authority to Sein Win and that the NCGUB was part of her vision for democratic progress during her imprisonment. Only in 2012 did Aung San Suu Kyi inform them that she had never delegated any authority to Sein Win and that the NCGUB purported to represent the NLD entirely without her blessing.10 This revelation, along with the NLD’s subsequent failure to advance key EAO objectives – including the repeal of the 2008 Constitution and the shift to a federal democratic system of governance – during its time in power from 2016 to 2020, raised concerns among EAOs about the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Burman-led party to deliver on the issues of greatest concern to them.

As the CRPH’s new National Unity Government seeks the support of EAOs, its odds for success will increase as it broadens its inclusivity.11 This includes bringing CDM and ethnic civil society leaders to the same table and stepping away from the tarnished image of Aung San Suu Kyi and the narrow path of the NLD.

Finally, EAOs have not forgotten the catastrophic end to their last attempt to support a government in exile. In 1994 the Tatmadaw engineered a schism within the largest brigade of the KNLA, joined forces with a breakaway faction calling itself the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA-Buddhist),12 and launched a brutal months-long assault that toppled KNU headquarters and drove thousands of refugees across to Thailand.13 The KNU and other EAOs will take care to avoid any similar outcome in 2021.

Post-Coup Imperatives

As both the State Administration Council (SAC) led by Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) vie for international recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar,14 the efforts of both hinge on their relationships to EAOs based in Myanmar’s remote jungles.

For the SAC to proceed on its current course of forcibly suppressing the peaceful mass demonstrations of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) without losing control in ethnic conflict areas, it must ensure that the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire agreements with EAOs hold. To transform Myanmar’s urban areas into conflict theaters, the Tatmadaw has also recalled troops from ethnic conflict areas and deployed them across cities in government-controlled areas. This draw-down of frontline positions could jeopardise the Tatmadaw’s ability to maintain its presence and control in contested ethnic areas, particularly if EAO ceasefires break down and hostilities escalate. To ensure ceasefires remain intact – or as intact as they were prior to the coup – the SAC needs EAO collaboration.

Likewise, the CRPH needs direct EAO support if it is to put forward a compelling claim as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Following a confidential high-level March briefing outlining the requirements a government must meet to establish its legitimacy as a matter of law (de jure), or as a matter of established practice (de facto), the CRPH began preparations to make a claim on each basis.15 To pursue a de jure claim, the CRPH abolished the 2008 Constitution on what would have been its members’ final day as elected parliamentarians and published a new Federal Democracy Charter that – if recognized – would grant the CRPH and its National Unity Government16 a legal basis to exercise sovereignty. Admitting that such a claim may be tenuous,17 the CRPH is also preparing a second path to claim de facto legitimacy. As international recognition of de facto governing authorities hinges on control of territory, and as the CRPH controls no territory, neither the CRPH nor its National Unity Government can lay any claim to de facto authority without the support of EAOs that assert authority over much of Myanmar’s ethnic minority-dominated territory.

Both the SAC and CRPH need EAO support to reach their objectives, and their actions to date reflect the high priority each is affording EAO rapprochement. Early SAC efforts have focused on Rakhine State, where it released a prominent ethno-nationalist politician and reportedly entered into quiet ceasefire and cooperation negotiations with the AA.

While the SAC expanded its scope and approached the AA and ceasefire EAOs with invitations to Naypyidaw and offers to join the new regime,18 the CRPH countered by declaring the SAC a terrorist organisation,19 which likely struck a chord with EAOs that the Tatmadaw has frequently decried as ‘terrorists.’ The SAC responded by publicly striking from Myanmar’s official ‘terrorist’ registry the only listed EAO, the AA.20 Days later, the CRPH endorsed the people’s right to self-defense against the SAC’s brutal crackdown21 and outdid the SAC’s ‘terrorist’ delisting of the AA by unilaterally declaring all EAOs ‘abolished’ from ‘terrorist’ and ‘unlawful associations’ lists alike.22 As this move was widely construed as legalisation of all EAOs and an invitation for people to join their ranks,23 the SAC moved swiftly to indicate that it would not block EAO recruitment, but it would not allow anyone to join the CRPH. The SAC then charged CRPH leaders with high treason24 and added the CRPH itself to the list of banned entities under Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act.25 On 31 March, which would have been the last day of their elected parliamentary terms, the CRPH moved to deliver one of the EAOs’ chief priorities: the abolishment of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution26 (which ensured the Tatmadaw’s grip on power in perpetuity) and the proclamation of a Federal Democracy Charter27 to lay the foundation for a National Unity Government28 and a federal democratic system. In response, the SAC declared an extension of its unilateral ceasefire across all ethnic conflict areas, but indicated that security forces would continue to use force against protestors and CDM participants, despite EAO demands for an end to the violence, and warnings of retaliation.29

Most EAOs have made some demonstration of condemnation of the coup, the SAC, and the mass violence it has deployed against civilians. Some have been more vocal in their support for the anti-coup CDM than others. Their support has included issuing public statements, sending armed troops to protect peaceful protesters, and allowing safe passage or refuge to those fleeing the escalating violence of SAC crackdowns in government-controlled areas. In a stark contrast to recent years, all but few EAOs stayed well away from the Tatmadaw’s de facto rollcall of allies at its 27 March celebration of Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw.

Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement Signatories

Ten EAOs are signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA): 

  • All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF)
  • Arakan Liberation Party/Arakan Liberation Army (ALP/ALA)
  • Chin National Front/Chin National Army (CNF/CNA)
  • Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA)30
  • Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA)
  • Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC)31
  • Lahu Democratic Union (LDU)
  • New Mon State Party/Mon National Liberation Army (NMSP/MNLA)
  • Pa-O National Liberation Organisation/Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO/PNLA)
  • Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA).

With respect to NCA signatory EAOs, this paper will start by recapping recent activities of the bloc as a whole before identifying which trends are likely to inform future developments. It will then briefly highlight the role and potential impact of smaller signatory groups whose past and potential political influence considerably outweighs their military capacity. Finally, it will focus on signatory EAOs with sufficient military strength to influence national dynamics vis-à-vis the coup.

NCA Signatory EAOs (NCA-S EAOs) – Key Developments & Trends

To facilitate dialogue and coordination, the NCA-S EAO bloc has conducted frequent virtual meetings since the coup through its Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) mechanism. Behind closed doors, these meetings have highlighted just how divided its members are with regards to whether they should support the CRPH or SAC, or remain neutral. To conceal this discord, the NCA-S EAO bloc has released a series of public statements since 2 February, indicating its unified position on a number of points. These include:

    • Its refusal to recognize the SAC as the legitimate government;
    • Its suspension of all political negotiation with the SAC; 
    • Its condemnation of the coup and violence against protesters;
    • Its demand that the SAC end its ‘massive violations’ and release all detainees; 
    • The demand for peaceful solutions incorporating public consultations;
    • Insistence that the NCA remain intact and that a national ceasefire be implemented immediately;
    • An appeal for international support in the resolution of the crisis; 
    • Its pledge of continued support for the ‘Spring Revolution’ and Civil Disobedience Movement;
    • Its welcome of the CRPH’s abolishment of the 2008 Constitution and the announcement of the Federal Democracy Charter as an effort towards ‘building a Federal Democratic Union.32

Despite public agreement on many fronts, cracks in the bloc’s unity were on display when representatives of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC), and the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) attended the SAC’s celebration of Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on 27 March; the seven other NCA-S EAO members boycotted the event.33 An internal vote among nine of the bloc’s 10 members also revealed that, as of April, there was an even split of three EAOs in favor of collaboration with the CRPH, three in favor of mediation with SAC and CRPH, and three in favor of taking no public stand. Given this split, it is unlikely that any NCA-S EAO would take a strong public stance in support of either the SAC or the CRPH, as it would garner unwanted attention and place a target on its back.

In most areas, the NCA remains as intact or ignored on the ground as it was prior to the coup. Most NCA areas are quiet. However, Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/Shan State Army) clashes in Shan State continue as regularly as before the coup. A crucial exception has been KNU areas, where longtime sporadic fighting in isolated brigade areas prior to the coup has given way to over 200 clashes across all seven KNU brigade areas,34 punctuated by a series of Tatmadaw airstrikes and marked by continued fighting and aerial intimidation despite the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire.

For now, the peace process is at a standstill. The NCA is a tripartite agreement with a three-pillar peace negotiation structure that requires the participation of the GoM, the Tatmadaw, and the NCA-S EAO bloc. The NCA-S EAO bloc refuses to recognise the SAC as legitimate, however, and is unwilling to meet with them as the GoM representative within the NCA process. Without GoM participation, the NCA process cannot move forward.

However, if the Tatmadaw and NCA-S EAO bloc can establish a channel for communication outside the formal three-pillar structure, then NCA-S EAO members can uphold their promise not to recognize the SAC as the GoM while maintaining direct dialogue with the Tatmadaw to ensure that ceasefires remain intact on the ground.35 This would be possible if the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, would accept a bilateral meeting with a senior NCA-S EAO representative. Past negotiations suggest that KNU Chairman Mutu Sae Poe is the EAO leader Min Aung Hlaing would be most willing to meet. Well aware of this, the KNU issued an open letter from Chairman Mutu Sae Poe to Min Aung Hlaing on 22 March, enumerating a set of conditions the Tatmadaw must meet before the KNU would take part in such a meeting.36 There has been no public response from the Tatmadaw, and its conditions have not been met, so a KNU-Tatmadaw meeting is unlikely in the short term. Still, the letter enabled the KNU to reinforce its pro-protestor stance while sending a clear signal to the Tatmadaw that it intends to uphold the NCA and remains open to negotiations under the right conditions.

Key Political Actors

Within the NCA-S EAO bloc, there are several EAOs with limited military capacities that could still wield considerable political influence within the bloc: the Chin National Front (CNF), the ABSDF, and the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation/Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO/PNLA). Despite their limited military capacity, these groups are crucial for two reasons. First, they have highly educated, very experienced, and charismatic leaders who command the respect of other EAO leaders, community elders, youth activists, and politicians – not only within their own ethnic groups, but across Myanmar. They speak excellent English, are staunchly pro-democracy, have strong ties with western states, and are valuable political assets to EAOs seeking legitimacy and support from the international community. Second, they represent some of Myanmar’s largest ethnic constituencies and could potentially raise large armies in a short period of time.37 This may apply less to the ABSDF, whose reputation remains badly marred by an infamous internal purge thirty years ago, but that group is included here to explore the options available to the many ethnic-Burmese youth now seeking to join the armed resistance.

The ABSDF was founded in 1988 by ethnic-Burmese students who took up arms along the Myanmar-Thai border after fleeing the Tatmadaw crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy student protests opposing the military. The ABSDF is the only EAO that does not represent an ethnic-minority group38 or control any territory.39 Its small military presence of 500+ soldiers40 is split among its headquarters, three camps in areas under the control of the KIO/A, three camps along the Indian border, and in all seven brigade areas of the KNU/KNLA.41 The group’s image was badly tarnished in the early 1990s when it conducted a brutal purge of alleged student spies at its Kachin State headquarters, killing 36 people and torturing over 100.42 Although Than Khae, its current leader, was not in charge at the time of the massacre, questions about the extent of his, and other current leaders’, involvement make many in Myanmar fearful of the group.43

Crucially, ethnic-Burmese constitute the majority of both the national population and the highly mobilized youth taking part in the nationwide CDM, and potentially a large portion of the CDM activists fleeing government-controlled areas and seeking to enlist in EAOs in numbers far greater than the latter can accommodate them.

Distrustful of ethnic-Burmese enlistees, EAOs would prefer to send them to the ABSDF than accept them into their own ranks.44 If Burmese youth receive basic training from the KIA or KNLA – as ABSDF recruits have done since its founding – it is likely that trained Burmese enlistees would seek to join the closest ABSDF battalion. This boom in Burmese youth seeking to join the armed revolution could thus revitalize the military capacity of the ABSDF and significantly increase its size. To function, however, armed entities require weapons and resources – not just personnel – and in its current state it is unlikely the ABSDF would be able to equip and maintain waves of new recruits without substantial technical and financial support. If the ABSDF lacks the resources to accommodate them, enlistees are likely to be sent back to government-controlled areas where they could: (1) forego armed resistance; (2) engage in urban guerilla resistance – if sufficient training and explosive material are procured; or, (3) seek to establish a new armed entity to combat the SAC, perhaps branding it as part of the much-talked-about Federal Army. This last option may be particularly appealing to young ethnic-Burmese enlistees wary of the ABSDF’s reputation, unless the ABSDF can make a compelling case that its past is behind it and that its current membership was not involved in the atrocities of 1991-1992.

The CNF/CNA was founded in 1988 by ethnic-Chin students taking up arms along the Myanmar-India border after fleeing the Tatmadaw crackdown on student pro-democracy protests. Although it has not fought with the Tatmadaw since 2003 and maintains only a small military presence of an estimated 250+ soldiers45 in Chin State, its political influence has long overshadowed its military capacity. The CNF has consistently held key leadership positions within EAO umbrella organizations and the NCA architecture.

In recent years, the CNF has come under increasing pressure to violate the terms of the NCA and extend its military presence in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State, to protect ethnic Chin civilians affected by increased AA activity. Viewing Paletwa as both strategically important and historically ethnic-Rakhine territory – part of the ancient Kingdom of Arakan – the AA has sought to exert territorial control over the area. The AA has engaged in numerous clashes with the Tatmadaw and has laid landmines to protect its interests there. Frustrated over these operations and their impact on ethnic-Chin communities, ethnic-Chin youth have volunteered for military service in the CNF’s armed wing, the Chin National Army (CNA), in increasingly high numbers since 2018. For its part, the CNA has avoided military engagement with the AA and provided volunteers with only basic training, often in cooperation with other EAOs, before sending them home.

Among its lesser-known assets, the CNF holds a pivotal piece of real estate along the Chin-India border, and a long history of mutual support and solidarity with authorities across the border. A small suspension bridge links CNF headquarters directly to Mizoram, India, where the sitting Chief Minister is a former prominent member of the Mizo National Front (MNF), an ethnic-Mizo armed organization that was in conflict with the Indian government before participating in a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process to become a lawful police and political entity. While with the MNF, the Chief Minister lived for years in exile in Chin State under CNF protection.46 Referring to refugees from Myanmar as his “brothers,” the Chief Minister recently defied New Delhi’s orders and refused to push any back to Chin State.47

The open door between the CNF and its powerful allies in India, combined with the daily arrivals of more enlistees than it can accommodate, could present the CNF with the option of quickly scaling up its military capacity. Due to resource limitations, however, it is currently only providing new volunteers with basic training before sending them home.48 Unless the CNF scales up its military capacity considerably – which is unlikely unless it faces a Tatmadaw offensive or the leadership changes course under public pressure from the ethnic-Chin community49 – volunteers turned away by the CNF will face the same three options as those sent back by ABSDF: (1) forego armed resistance; (2) engage in urban guerilla resistance; or, (3) seek to establish a new armed entity to combat the SAC.

The PNLO/PNLA was formed in its current state along the Thai border in 2009. It is the amalgamation of several ethnic-Pa-O EAOs active since 1991, when Pa-O National Organisation (PNO) commanders – unwilling to accept the terms of the 1991 bilateral ceasefire agreement with the military government – broke away from the PNO to continue armed resistance. At the time of signing the NCA, PNLO was the only remaining non-ceasefire Pa-O EAO. Its leader, Colonel Khun Okker, is highly respected among EAO leaders and ethnic-minority communities in Myanmar. Like the CNF leadership, Colonel Khun Okker consistently holds influential positions within EAO umbrella groups and the NCA system. He is admired by Pa-O youth, and the Pa-O ethnic group is among the largest of Myanmar’s ethnic-minority groups.50 Although outdated estimates approximate PNLO forces at 400+ soldiers, this figure could multiply quickly considering the size of the Pa-O community and the extent of Pa-O youth involvement in the CDM protests. However, as with the CNF and ABSDF, equipping and sustaining a large army would pose a serious challenge for the PNLO.

PNLO’s territory in southern Shan State is precariously situated among several powerful EAOs and large Tatmadaw bases, and is not adjacent to an international border. To access the Thai border and develop a line to increase their resources, arms, and ammunition, the PNLO would need to cooperate with the RCSS/SSA and other EAOs. PNLO relations with the RCSS are strained due to disputes over recruitment, territorial boundaries, and landmine use across their overlapping areas of operation. To greatly increase its ranks, the PNLO would have to pursue an approach similar to that of the ABSDF and strike agreements to send recruits, conduct training, and undertake joint operations with large EAOs controlling territory along international borders. Absent such an agreement, there are few viable options for ethnic-Pa-O activists looking to take up armed resistance. Most would likely not be able to undergo any form of basic training and, like the others, would face a decision of whether to: (1) forego armed resistance; (2) engage in urban guerilla resistance in government-controlled areas; or, (3) seek to establish a new armed entity to combat the SAC.

Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA)

The founding of the KNU predates Myanmar’s independence and its armed struggle dates to January 1949. It controls an active army of over 5,000 soldiers between its two armed wings: the KNLA commands 4,000+ personnel, and the smaller Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) comprises approximately 1,000. Both armed entities are currently facing a flood of more volunteers than they can accommodate.51

In a conflict spanning more than seventy years, decisions are not made on the basis of recent events alone. For the KNU in particular, very little in this 2021 crisis is unfamiliar. Although it is likely to remain active and vocal in its support of protestors and developments towards a federal democracy, it is unlikely the KNU will seek to officially side with CRPH or take part in the National Unity Government until it sees concrete benefits that greatly exceed the empty promises of past shadow governments. Meanwhile, the KNU is also facing considerable pressure to distance itself from the SAC and public calls from the ethnic-Karen community to resume full-scale armed conflict against the Tatmadaw.52

Thirty years ago, the KNU welcomed banned NLD officials, persecuted journalists, and student activists of all ethnicities seeking to join the resistance to the military government to its headquarters in Manerplaw. Although it is doing the same now – providing refuge to the CRPH, Tatmadaw defectors, student activists, and CDM participants of all backgrounds – the KNU is also acting with the acute awareness that the last experience ended catastrophically. Then, the Tatmadaw infiltrated the KNU-hosted stronghold by sending a venerated Buddhist monk to create a rift in the KNLA’s largest brigade, triggering the split that launched the original DKBA-Buddhist armed group. Within days, the newly-formed DKBA-Buddhist overran the KNU stronghold, opening the door to a notoriously brutal DKBA-Buddhist/Tatmadaw assault that lasted months, crippling the KNU and driving the entire resistance and thousands of refugees across the river to Thailand. Although the KNU controls less territory than it did in the early 1990s, it is still among the most active EAOs, with enough territory and manpower to implement additional precautions in the current crisis. For example, arrivals centers in all seven KNU brigade areas have been set up for those fleeing the SAC in order to avoid large concentrations of people in areas of strategic military importance.53

The KNU has been consistent and vocal in its support of protestors, its condemnation of SAC violence, its demands for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis, and its welcome of the CRPH’s abolition of the 2008 Constitution and publication of a Federal Democracy Charter.54 Deploying soldiers to protect protesters across its areas of operation, the KNU stands out among EAOs for pairing statements with action.55 On Armed Forces Day, the KNU not only boycotted the Tatmadaw’s Naypyidaw celebration, but the KNLA responded to a series of Tatmadaw assaults in its Brigade 5 area by capturing Tatmadaw bases in Hpapun District56 and allowing photos to circulate on social media of its first graduating batch of ‘urban recruits’ wearing ‘Federal Army’ insignia.57 The Tatmadaw responded immediately with day-long airstrikes targeting ethnic-Karen villages in Hpapun District, and has continued to conduct low flyovers of Karen areas to conduct aerial surveillance and intimidate Karen villagers and the KNU.58 This triggered the fresh displacement of thousands of Karen villagers and augmented the crisis of internally displaced persons that the KNU had been facing even before the coup in both Hpapun district and other areas where clashes were escalating between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw.59

Thailand’s refusal to accept thousands of displaced villagers crossing the Moei river,60 combined with the Tatmadaw’s showcase of increased aerial combat capacity during an assault on the KNU’s most remote stronghold and hardline brigade,61 delivered a blunt message that the current crisis is very different from that of the 1990s. The actions indicate two things. First, that the Tatmadaw has the capacity and will to attack the KNU wherever it deems necessary, and second that Karen civilians have no safe haven to escape future violence if and when the ceasefire collapses. While this puts further pressure on the KNU leadership to reinitiate direct dialogue with the Tatmadaw to keep the NCA intact in its areas, the leadership’s trust in the NCA and Tatmadaw is reportedly vitiated, particularly as offensives have increased across multiple KNU brigade areas in April, despite the Tatmadaw’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire. Increased military pressure on the KNU also ratchets up internal pressure on the KNU’s central leadership by further angering the KNLA’s most hardline brigade commander,62 which in turn exacerbates the gap between his motivation to fight and KNU Central’s need to uphold its ceasefire agreement. The situation also evokes the 1994 crisis by suggesting the Tatmadaw could once again seek to isolate and trigger the possible split of one of the KNLA’s most powerful brigades – an eventuality the KNU will seek to prevent at all costs.

It bears mentioning that the original DKBA-Buddhist now operating as a Border Guard Force (BGF) broke ranks with the Tatmadaw in January 2021, just weeks before the coup. When the Tatmadaw forced the retirement of General Saw Chit Htoo, a very popular leader among BGF troops, BGF commanders demonstrated that their real loyalty lies with Chit Htoo, not the Tatmadaw. Nearly 100 top officers resigned en masse from the 8,000 strong Karen BGF before rescinding their resignations and resuming their posts, at least temporarily. Chit Htoo, for his part, has yet to take a stand on the coup. BGF forces have been largely absent from protests and have not participated in the Tatmadaw’s crackdown.63

Given these ambiguities, it is clear that a rogue armed entity larger than the KNU could prove an influential wildcard in Karen area developments. For months, rumors have suggested that Chit Htoo has been in talks with General Johnny, the KNLA Commander-in-Chief who was once Chit Htoo’s commanding officer in the KNLA, and who had a close relationship with him prior to the DKBA-Buddhist split. It is likely that most BGF forces will try to avoid involvement in the current crisis unless widespread fighting breaks out within KNU Brigades 6 and 7, where most BGF troops are based.64 These areas are also home to the KNU/KNLA-PC, which comprises fewer than 200 troops but is well armed and funded due to its various lucrative business operations throughout southeastern Myanmar. The KNU/KNLA-PC has posted a video to social media of one of its leaders testing anti-aircraft artillery with his brother, General Nerdah Bo Mya, who commands the KNDO, a strong hint that KNU/KNLA-PC will fight alongside the KNLA if large-scale conflict breaks. If Chit Htoo rejoins the KNU and brings with him a significant faction of the BGF’s 8,000 troops and tribute money – and if the KNU/KNLA-PC provides its small set of experienced commanders along with financial and material support – the military capacity of the KNLA could expand considerably overnight.65 As the KNU is short on financial resources, arms, and ammunition, but is overwhelmed with volunteers, an influx of weapons and income could prove a game-changer in terms of KNU capacity to equip new enlistees.

New Mon State Party/Mon National Liberation Army (NMSP/MNLA)

Active since 1958 and armed with a reported 800+ active soldiers and 2,000 more in reserves,66 the New Mon State Party/Mon National Liberation Army (NMSP/MNLA) identifies itself as part of a struggle for ethnic-Mon autonomy that dates to ancient Mon kingdoms67 and first took up arms in the modern era as the Mon People’s Front in 1949. It entered a bilateral ceasefire with the Tatmadaw’s military government in 199568 and later signed onto the NCA in 2018.69 The NMSP’s areas are located in Mon State and Tanintharyi Division of southeastern Myanmar, adjacent to the Thai border, as well as territory controlled by the KNU, the DKBA, the KNU/KNLA-PC, and the Tatmadaw. Several areas are claimed by more than one of these entities, and competing efforts to use disputed territory for commercial activities after the three Karen EAOs signed the NCA have resulted in occasional clashes between them and NMSP in recent years.70 These contributed to the three-year delay in the NMSP signing the 2015 NCA, since its leadership questioned what benefit the NCA would bring the NMSP beyond the terms of its 1995 agreement.71 Intermittent clashes have continued since it did so.72

Although the NMSP did issue a public statement condemning the coup, supporting protestors’ right to peaceful demonstrations, calling for the peaceful resolution of the crisis, and urging the Mon Unity Party – a large ethnic-Mon political party – to reconsider its decision to join the SAC,73 the majority of the NMSP’s recent public communications have come only through NCA-S EAO bloc statements. The MNLA has also thus far avoided involvement in protests or clashes with the Tatmadaw.74 Within the NCA-S EAO bloc, the NMSP has also voted against taking any public stand with respect to the CRPH and SAC, suggesting its leadership remains undecided.75

Due to its limited military capacity and precarious place between larger armed entities, the NMSP has more to lose by going out on a limb to stake a public position vis-à-vis the SAC and CRPH and its National Unity Government. Unless the NCA-S EAO bloc moves collectively towards a pro-CRPH position, the NMSP will likely prioritize preservation of the status quo, protection of its existing ceasefire, and quiet participation in the NCA-S EAO bloc.

Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA)

The RCSS controls the largest and best-equipped military of the NCA-S EAOs with an active force estimated to comprise at least 10,000-15,000 fighters.76 The RCSS emerged under the name ‘Shan State Army-South’ in 1996 under its Chairman General Yawd Serk as a rebranded iteration of the Mong Tai Army following the surrender of famed narcotics trafficker Khun Sa. Creating the Restoration Council of Shan State in 1999 to serve as its political wing, factions of other ethnic-Shan EAOs have merged with RCSS over time, brought by commanders who refused to enter ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw. Despite its recent official founding, RCSS identifies as part of a much older struggle for ethnic-Shan autonomy that began on 7 February 1947.77 The RCSS has extended its presence in northern Shan State since signing the 2015 NCA and has officially dropped ‘South’ from its name. As such, the armed wings of both the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the RCSS are now both known as the Shan State Army (SSA).78

While the official objective of the RCSS is to achieve greater autonomy for ethnic-Shan people within a federal democratic union, critics contend that its more concrete objective is to achieve complete RCSS control over a unified Shan State.79 The RCSS has frequently clashed with the TNLA and SSPP since expanding its presence in northern Shan State. While the RCSS asserts that its aim is to secure and protect vulnerable Shan communities, its expansion also has a pragmatic function. RCSS headquarters and main areas of control are pinned against the Thai border and only accessible from Thailand. In order to ease its dependency on Thai authorities and the Royal Thai Army – with whom it enjoys a very close relationship – the RCSS must establish control over territory where the Thai military does not control the only road in and out.80

As for the recent crisis, the RCSS has been increasingly vocal in its public statements condemning the coup, expressing support for protestors, demanding an end to the Tatmadaw crackdown, calling for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis, pledging protection to CDM participants seeking refuge in its areas, and welcoming the CRPH’s abolition of the 2008 Constitution and launch of a Federal Democracy Charter.81 On Armed Forces Day, for example, Chairman General Yawd Serk elevated the group’s public rhetoric by bluntly telling Reuters: “The Myanmar Armed Forces Day isn’t an armed forces day, it’s more like the day they killed people,” and declared the RCSS would take action if Tatmadaw violence against civilians continued.82 Although the RCSS has provided protection to civilians fleeing to its areas,83 it has not otherwise taken action to back its statements.84

Although the RCSS is a signatory to the NCA and used its 7 February annual Shan National Day declaration to announce a unilateral ceasefire with the TNLA and publicly pledge to ‘join hands’ with Shan EAOs,85 it has also clashed with the Tatmadaw, TNLA, and SSPP in recent months.86 The 2021 incidents before and after the coup have continued the pattern of frequent RCSS involvement in Shan State clashes – a trend evident since the RCSS signed the 2015 NCA and began expanding its presence and operations in northern Shan State.87 The RCSS contends that villagers in these areas welcome and need its protection, and that the RCSS cannot withdraw from northern Shan State due to its responsibility to protect and unite its constituents.88

The RCSS has little trust in the Tatmadaw. This is based on both its continued fighting against Tatmadaw forces during the NCA period and an all-too-recent experience in 2005, when the Tatmadaw compelled a faction of the United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA) to join 1,000 Tatmadaw troops to overrun RCSS headquarters before permanently occupying RCSS territory in southern Shan State.89 The RCSS is almost equally distrustful of the NLD due to its failure to fulfill promises made to ethnic constituencies prior to taking power in 2016.90 Although it will continue to welcome steps toward federal democracy, the RCSS is unlikely to join a National Unity Government unless and until it has an offer of full or substantial RCSS control over an autonomous Shan State. Considering the number of active armed entities in Shan State,91 it is implausible that the CRPH could deliver on any such promise. Although unlikely to trust an offer of such control if presented by the SAC, with enough incentives and an immediate follow-through, the RCSS could plausibly join the SAC if it was presented with a fast and reliable path to deliver on the group’s main objectives.

Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee

The Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) comprises seven members:

  • United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA)
  • Peace and Solidarity Committee/National Democratic Alliance Army (PSC/NDAA92)
  • Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA)
  • Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA)
  • Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA)
  • Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA)
  • United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA)

The FPNCC was formed as a political alliance in 2017, reportedly in response to Chinese pressure to streamline northern EAOs’ participation in Myanmar’s peace process by allowing them to conduct bloc negotiations with the GoM and Tatmadaw to facilitate their signing of the NCA.93 However, the GoM and Tatmadaw have long refused to negotiate with the FPNCC as a bloc due to the wide differences in positions of its members. Instead, the GoM insisted that FPNCC members not join political discussions or multilateral ceasefire talks before entering bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw.94

Intact Bilateral Ceasefire Broken Bilateral Ceasefire No Ceasefire 
SSPP (1989; 2012)95 KIA (1994-2011)96 AA
UWSA (1989; 2011)97 MNDAA (1989-2009)98 TNLA
NDAA (1989; 2011)99

The FPNCC comprises two sub-alliances that provide for military support and coordination among their members:

Northern Alliance – BurmaAA, KIA, MNDAA, TNLA
Brotherhood Alliance100AA, MNDAA, TNLA,

The Northern Alliance members were labeled ‘terrorists’ in 2016 by the Shan State Parliament. Although this designation carried no perceivable legal impact and was widely dismissed as a Tatmadaw-engineered intimidation tactic,101 it did provide the Tatmadaw with a pretext for refusing to negotiate with the FPNCC as a bloc, claiming that it could not meet jointly with both ceasefire partners and ‘terrorists.’ In addition, the Tatmadaw’s consistent use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe the Northern Alliance fits its pattern of seeking to denigrate its enemies and their ethnic constituencies in order to justify the brutality with which it treats them. Typically, the Tatmadaw issues concurrent English-language and Burmese-language statements, describing enemies in English as “terrorists” and in Burmese as subhuman beings, usually monkeys or dogs.102 The Northern Alliance ‘terrorist’ designation also coincided with the Tatmadaw’s increasingly frequent invocation of the term ‘Bengali terrorists’ to describe perpetrators of the alleged Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) attacks on Rakhine State police stations in 2016. Those attacks, the Tatmadaw’s insistence on ARSA’s status as a looming terrorist threat, and Myanmar authorities’ public campaign to dehumanize ARSA and all ‘Bengalis’ served as a pretext for the Tatmadaw’s devastating 2016 and 2017 offensives against ethnic-Rohingya civilians. The NLD government officially designated ARSA as a ‘terrorist’ organisation on 25 August 2017,103 preceding Tatmadaw assaults which killed thousands of ethnic Rohingya,104 drove over 700,000 into Bangladesh as refugees, and prompted the Independent International Fact Finding Mission for Myanmar to declare that the “Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”105

For those in northern Myanmar that did not believe the Tatmadaw’s propaganda campaign claiming reports of security forces’ egregious rights violations in the Rohingya offensive to be ‘fake news,’ the Tatmadaw’s use of the same terminology to refer to ARSA and the Northern Alliance stoked fears that the Tatmadaw would next aim to destroy their ethnic-minority constituents.

Although the FPNCC has remained silent since the coup, the KIA has issued a series of strong independent statements condemning the power grab, demanding an end to the crackdown on civilians, and warning the Tatmadaw of KIA retaliation if Tatmadaw violence against civilians continues.106 Similarly, the AA independently condemned the coup,107 and the Brotherhood Alliance jointly issued a statement condemning it and warning the Tatmadaw that it would abandon its current unilateral ceasefire if the Tatmadaw does not end its violence against civilians.108 True to their word, KIA and the Brotherhood Alliance resumed offensive operations against the Tatmadaw on 11 March and 9 April, respectively, after the Tatmadaw failed to curb its campaign of mass civilian killings. The KIA destroyed a Tatmadaw camp in Mohnyin Township, Kachin State, while the Brotherhood launched a joint assault on a police station in Lashio, northern Shan State.109

The resumption of hostilities by the KIA and Brotherhood Alliance coincides with Tatmadaw efforts to solidify its ties with the UWSA and SSPP.110 Although the Tatmadaw managed to meet with both groups and deliver its message, its attempt to do so highlighted its poor communications and strained relationship with the SSPP. When the Tatmadaw’s helicopter approached SSPP headquarters at low altitude, SSPP soldiers fired upon it and wounded the Personal Service Officer of Tatmadaw commander Yar Pyae, sending the delegation back to Lashio before it could return with more forewarning the following day.111 While the Tatmadaw drop-in may have been sufficient to dissuade the SSPP from taking a public stance on the coup or establishing close ties with the CRPH, it is unlikely it could persuade the SSPP to join the SAC in the short term.112 For its part, when asked if it recognizes the SAC, the UWSA simply reiterated that they maintain “long-standing good relations” with the Tatmadaw.113

Considering the silence of the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the SSPP, the minimalist vague comment from the UWSA, and the highly critical statements and return to hostilities by the Northern Alliance, it is unlikely the FPNCC will take any position as a bloc on the current crisis anytime soon.

Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/A)

Founded in 1961 and equipped with a military force of roughly 10,000 fighters active in Kachin and northern Shan states, the KIO/A is fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic-Kachin people within a federal democratic union. The KIA has been actively engaged in hostilities with the Tatmadaw since June 2011, when the Tatmadaw triggered the breakdown of a 17-year bilateral ceasefire. During this time, several brutal Tatmadaw offensives have forced tens of thousands of civilians into situations of protracted or pendular displacement. Headquartered in Laiza, Kachin State, along the border with China’s Yunnan province, the KIO depends upon at least tacit support of the Yunnan authorities in order to conduct its armed resistance.

In recent years, the Tatmadaw and NLD government placed considerable pressure on the KIO with the aim of accelerating the closure of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps across government- and KIO-controlled areas of Kachin State. Pressure for less-than-voluntary IDP returns was not well received by the KIO or ethnic-Kachin community. Neither the Tatmadaw nor the NLD is trusted by many actors across Kachin State, including within the KIO. Against this background, it was always unlikely that the KIO would enter serious negotiations to join either the SAC or the CRPH’s National Unity Government.

Protests in Kachin State began on 8 February, the same day that Min Aung Hlaing issued a national address via state-owned MRTV insisting that all IDP camps within Myanmar would be closed. The next day, the KIO channeled an early message through the Kachin Peace-Talk Creation Group, indicating that it would not seek involvement in the coup, and issuing a clear warning to the Tatmadaw that it would intervene if security forces engaged in violence against protestors.114 Despite this, the Tatmadaw crackdown on protestors in Kachin State began 14 February.115 The Tatmadaw warned the KIO against involvement on 15 February;116 and the KIO Central Committee responded on 17 February by officially condemning the coup, voicing its support for protestors, and indicating that it would refuse involvement with the SAC.117 Since then, the violence has only escalated.

Following intermittent clashes in February between the KIA and Tatmadaw in northern Shan State118, the KIA captured several Kachin State Tatmadaw positions in March, to which the Tatmadaw swiftly responded with airstrikes,119 and clashes continued throughout the rest of the month. As of mid-April, the Tatmadaw is engaging in airstrikes to retake these positions,120 with devastating implications for civilians and thousands of people newly displaced.

As clashes between the KIA and Tatmadaw continue to escalate alongside the Tatmadaw’s continued campaign of violence against civilians, it is increasingly unlikely that the KIO will enter serious negotiations to join the SAC. Unless the Tatmadaw offers unconditional control of Kachin State areas to the KIO, which is highly unlikely, the KIO is unlikely to negotiate with the SAC. Nor does it have much to gain by joining the CRPH, meaning the KIO is unlikely to join a National Unity Government any time soon.

United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA)

Founded in 2009 with the support of the KIA, the AA was first operational in Kachin State. It has now largely returned to Rakhine and Chin states in western Myanmar, where its well-equipped army of an estimated 8,000 fighters121 is engaged in conflict with the Tatmadaw in pursuit of greater autonomy ‘Arakanese’ people. The AA views its fight as the current iteration of the centuries-long struggle of the Arakanese people against Burmese oppression. Along with its fierce armed opposition to the Tatmadaw, it has no affection for the elected NLD officials who added it to the country’s register of Terrorist Organisations during their time in power. As such, it appears unlikely the AA would seek to join either the SAC or a National Unity Government set up by the CRPH.

Initially, the AA assumed a position of quiet acquiescence to the coup. Despite, or perhaps because of, the two full years of intense fighting between the AA and the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State and southern Chin State since late 2018, the lull in clashes in western Myanmar between the two sides since the 8 November 2020 election has been maintained since the coup. With no allegiance or sympathies towards any Naypyidaw civilian or military administrations, it is clear that the AA senses an opportunity in the coup to consolidate its military and administrative presence in its areas of activity.

The AA has also benefited from the Arakan National Party (ANP)’s cooperation with the SAC. A statement released by the ANP – Rakhine State’s leading political party – in the days after the coup noted several conditions they put forward in return for working with the administration, including the release of detained ANP party member and speaker of the Rakhine State Parliament, the revocation of the AA’s designation as a ‘terrorist’ organisation (in place since March 2020), and the release of Rakhine people arrested for alleged affiliation with the AA. Illustrating the value that the Tatmadaw places on ties with ethnic organisations, the speaker was released on 12 February, and on 10 March the SAC revoked their terrorist designation. The designation of the group as an ‘unlawful organisation’ remains in place, historically only being removed when EAOs sign onto the NCA.

Sources also report that the AA expected other returns for their compliance. In addition to the revocation of the terrorist designation, the AA expected permission to open an official liaison office in the state capital of Sittwe – formalising its presence in the state and facilitating relations with the Tatmadaw and GoM. Not only has the AA made efforts to prevent the emergence of protests or CDM action in western Myanmar, they have also pressured civil society groups who object to the ANP’s cooperation with the SAC from organising street protests, indicating that under current conditions they are unresponsive to civil society expectations.

That being said, the AA’s position is not completely steadfast. In February, its spokesperson stated that AA remains committed to the Northern Alliance,122 indicating that the group is hedging its bets and remaining close to the KIO, now involved in heavy clashes with the Tatmadaw, as detailed above. The AA also spoke out unilaterally against the coup on 23 March,123 and released a joint statement with the TNLA and MNDAA under the Brotherhood Alliance name condemning the coup and warning the Tatmadaw that it would abandon its current unilateral ceasefire if it does not end its violence against civilians.124 When the Tatmadaw failed to comply, the Brotherhood Alliance reinitiated armed offensives against the Tatmadaw, as noted above. However, the AA has not re-started offensives against the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar.

The fact that the AA is operating in close coordination with the three-member Brotherhood Alliance – both in its earlier statements and in its current military offensives – indicates its reluctance to take as hardline an anti-coup position as the KIO. Instead, it prefers to be associated with the quieter TNLA and MNDAA. In the most recent indication of the group’s more nuanced position, AA Commander-in-Chief Tun Mrat Naing delivered an 11 April statement declaring that the CDM as ‘not necessary’ in Rakhine State and, in fact, only complicates other objectives the AA wishes to achieve.125

More than anything during this period, the AA has shown it is a force guided first and foremost by pragmatism. Crucially, this suggests that a change in its position vis-à-vis the coup is very much a possibility. Should the group sense that the Tatmadaw is on the back foot, and there is an opportunity to advance their political or military interests, they may express a stronger anti-coup position. Under this scenario, another escalation in armed clashes in western Myanmar is very possible.

Finally, with the release of popular ethno-nationalist Rakhine politician Dr Aye Maung from prison on 12 February, and his subsequent attempts to reinvigorate the Arakan Front Party, response actors should monitor for new alliances between politicians, armed actors, and the Tatmadaw for increased anti-Rohingya sentiment or policies in western Myanmar.

Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA)

Although the TNLA was founded in 2009 with the support of the KIA, its political wing dates to 1992 and previously controlled an earlier armed faction that disbanded during bilateral ceasefire negotiations with the Tatmadaw.126 Originally operating jointly with the KIA, the TNLA now commands a force of roughly 10,000 and operates both independently and in collaboration with its allies.

When the TNLA first became active, the Tatmadaw refused to accept it as a legitimate EAO seeking increased autonomy for the ethnic-Ta’ang/Palaung people of northern Shan State. Instead, it insisted that both the TNLA and AA were terrorist groups invented by the KIA simply to cause mayhem across KIA areas of strategic interest. Although the Tatmadaw was engaged in bilateral negotiations with each member of the Brotherhood Alliance in the months leading up to the 1 February coup, this only came after years of official public Tatmadaw statements using derogatory ethnic slurs to refer to the groups, not to mention efforts to stir public sentiment against the TNLA through propaganda campaigns describing the TNLA and its Brotherhood allies as sub-human, often equating them to monkeys or dogs. Due to this history, not to mention the violent and gruesome nature of many Tatmadaw assaults on ethnic-Ta’ang communities, there is little affection or respect between the TNLA and the Tatmadaw.127

When the RCSS emerged in northern Shan State after signing the 2015 NCA, the TNLA and ethnic-Ta’ang community perceived its expansion as collaboration with the Tatmadaw, insisting that the RCSS must have had at least tacit Tatmadaw support to move troops across the areas that it did. The RCSS denies these allegations. Since the arrival of the RCSS in northern Shan, the TNLA has clashed frequently with RCSS forces. Although the groups have made public and private efforts to discuss their differences, there has been no resolution to date. The key demand of the TNLA is that the RCSS remove its forces from what the TNLA perceives as ethnic-Ta’ang territory. The RCSS, for its part, does not recognize the territory in question as belonging to the TNLA and insists it cannot withdraw and leave communities in northern Shan State vulnerable to attack by the Tatmadaw and myriad other armed actors that operate across the area. This unresolved dispute will likely complicate RCSS and TNLA participation in any future Federal Army.128

Ethnic-Ta’ang civil society is extremely active and is often quick to put public pressure on the TNLA, and this was the case following the coup. Ethnic-Ta’ang activists led protests across northern Shan State and demanded that the TNLA voice its support. Although it waited to release a statement in conjunction with the AA and MNDAA under the banner of the Brotherhood Alliance,129 the TNLA did respond to protestors’ demands and used them as a pretext for troop movements to the outskirts of Lashio and into the urban center of Kutkai.130 The presence of TNLA forces so close to the economic hub of northern Shan State posed a direct threat to the Tatmadaw.

The TNLA is likely to continue to remain quiet on an individual basis in order not to disrupt its relationship with Chinese authorities adjacent to its Yunnan-border headquarters, and to avoid playing into a Tatmadaw divide-and-rule strategy by taking a public position that could set it apart from its allies. However, it is clear that the establishment alignment of EAOs 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.131

Finally, it is worth noting that prior to the coup, the most common complaint against the TNLA was its alleged forced recruitment across northern Shan State. Following the coup, however, the number of volunteers seeking to join the TNLA are reportedly providing far more manpower than it would normally seek to recruit. Unlike EAOs along the Thai border, the TNLA has relatively easy access to arms and ammunition and is better positioned to equip enlistees. With recruitment now a non-issue, and its force strength growing, the TNLA is poised to enjoy greater public support and military capacity. So long as the TNLA does not disrupt its delicate alliance or anger its powerful neighbors, it stands to benefit in key ways from the current crisis.

Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA)

Founded as the Shan State Army in 1964, the SSPP emerged from the Shan struggle for ethnic autonomy, which it dates to 1958. With an estimated 8,000 active fighters and its leadership coordinating with the UWSA, the SSPP is among the more powerful EAOs in Myanmar. Its main weakness stems from the location of its headquarters’ in Wan Hai, central Shan State, which provides no access to international resources or support. In lieu of direct access, the SSPP is dependent upon the Wa for access to arms, ammunition, and other support.

In the long history of Shan State, there is a bloody backstory of Wa invasions of Shan Kingdoms and Shan forces driving out the Wa. These centuries of brutality have not been forgotten by the ethnic Shan. More recently, Shan civilians witnessed the UWSA overrun RCSS headquarters in 2005 and drive thousands of Shan internally displaced persons to the Thai border, where they remain in remote and inaccessible camps to this day. As such, cooperation between the SSPP and UWSA – a military necessity for the former – has not been viewed positively by Shan civilians. Many Shan communities also object to the frequent clashes between the SSPP and RCSS, resent the fact that there are two ‘Shan State Armies,’ and do not appreciate that the TNLA and SSPP often fight together against the RCSS. Perceived by many to be allied with other EAOs in a fight against their own ethnic-Shan people, the SSPP’s popularity has waned in recent years.

The SSPP is likely to maintain neutral in the country’s broader conflict. Although SSPP representatives quietly contacted a group of protest leaders in Kyaukme Township with a vague offer of protection in February,132 the SSPP has taken no public position on the coup, the violence against protestors, the formation of the CRPH, or any related element of the current crisis. Its main concern is the protection of its own territory, much of which has been taken over by the RCSS and Tatmadaw since 2016. Since the RCSS and UWSA control territory the SSPP covets, it is unlikely the Tatmadaw can induce the SSPP to join the SAC at this stage. Even if the Tatmadaw were to offer the SSPP considerable territory and increased autonomy, to accept such an offer would be wildly unpopular with Shan civilians and would likely provide an easy pretext for the RCSS to immediately attack and seize new SSPP territory. As noted above, there is no sign that the SSPP and Tatmadaw have clear lines of communication, as illustrated by the erroneous SSPP fire on a visiting Tatmadaw dignitary.

Meanwhile, no matter what the CRPH promises the SSPP, the latter remains wedged between the UWSA and the Tatmadaw. It will take more than promises of democracy to tempt the SSPP into taking a public stance that could weaken its ceasefire agreement or destroy its most important alliance.

United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA)

With an estimated 30,000 active troops and 30,000 in reserve, the UWSA is the second-most powerful armed entity in Myanmar after the Tatmadaw. Officially in control of the Shan State (North) Special Region-2 (known colloquially as “Wa State”), the UWSA operates a fully autonomous state within Shan State on the border of China’s southern Yunnan Province.133 Within Wa State, Mandarin is the lingua franca for communicating across different sub-ethnic groups; the Chinese Yuan is the most widely used currency and an economy based largely on gambling, narcotics, and various other economic enterprises thrives.134 The financial resources and political backing that the UWSA enjoys from across the Yunnan border eclipses that of any other EAO. For years, debates have raged about whether the UWSA should even be considered an EAO – considering its close ties and strong support from China. As UWSA support appears to come mostly from Yunnan province and is not always aligned with official Beijing policy, it cannot be considered a direct offshoot of the China’s People’s Liberation Army.135 In its early years, the UWSA did receive arms and training directly from China; at present, it has the capacity to conduct its own training, and is known to produce some weapons and procure others from abroad. Among its most prized assets, in 2020 the UWSA confirmed it has its own helicopter, which it insists is not for military use.136

It has been decades since the UWSA engaged the Tatmadaw in hostilities, a trend it is unlikely to break unless: (1) the Tatmadaw attempts to invade UWSA territory – a nonsensical challenge, considering how overstretched the Tatmadaw is across other ethnic and urban areas as of April 2021; or, (2) the UWSA receives orders to engage from its Chinese backers. This is unlikely, but as China amasses troops along its Yunnan border on a purportedly precautionary basis,137 it is plausible that if they cross to Myanmar, the UWSA would be asked to provide support. Although there are UWSA battalions embedded within certain SSPP field positions – and these soldiers have engaged when attacked in the past – their participation in hostilities has not triggered a broader response from the UWSA to date.138

As a rule, the UWSA avoids involvement in Myanmar politics as much as possible and is unlikely to take a stance on the current crisis. This was illustrated when a group of ethnic-Wa civil society organizations sent an open letter imploring the UWSA to condemn the ongoing campaign of violence against civilians. The UWSA did not respond.139 What is far more likely is that the UWSA could quietly play a pivotal role in training and arming new recruits of other EAOs. This is a role it has often played and would likely be willing to play again.

Conclusions

After more than seven decades of Myanmar internal armed conflict in which coups, governments, governments-in-exile, alliances and international support have all come and gone repeatedly, EAOs have little incentive to rush into any new governance structure.

With respect to the CRPH’s National Unity Government, it is unlikely the CRPH can provide substantial short-term incentives to draw EAOs to join its planned government. EAOs have yet to see Myanmar’s political parties deliver on promises made to ethnic constituencies – and the CRPH has little more than promises to offer at this juncture.

In the face of the SAC’s ongoing campaign of violence against civilians of all ethnicities, EAOs stand to lose considerable public support if they opt to align themselves with the ‘terrorist’ Tatmadaw forces. Only if the Tatmadaw delivers on offers of considerable autonomy and territorial control would any EAO be likely to join or endorse its SAC. Such an offer would be most plausible with respect to the AA. It would be a challenge to fight the EAOs on all fronts, and finding a bargaining chip to neutralize the most active and best equipped of its enemies could free the Tatmadaw to focus on its campaign of urban violence and escalating hostilities in Kachin, Karen, and possibly Shan states.

As the crisis in Myanmar evolves, response actors should expect EAOs to move closer to the CRPH and its National Unity Government. However, in the short term at least, most EAOs will likely strive to maintain a strategic public distance from both the CRPH and SAC. In private, they are likely to work quietly with the CRPH towards a federal democracy while pursuing channels to work with the Tatmadaw towards ceasefire preservation in order to prevent any avoidable campaigns of violence against civilians in ethnic-minority areas – at least until the tangible benefits of formally joining either side outweigh the strategic risks.

CASS Weekly Update 8 – 13 April 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

8 - 13 April 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

Post-Coup Atrocities Worsen

Despite a growing list of atrocities, the Tatmadaw has capacity for further escalation. Humanitarian agencies should prepare for a nationwide response.

On 9 April the State Administration Council (SAC)’s security forces committed their largest massacre since the 1 February coup and subsequent crackdown on demonstrations. In the city of Bago, situated less than 100 kilometres north of Yangon, Tatmadaw troops deployed heavy weapons against largely unarmed demonstrators. Those that were armed carried nothing more than knives and slingshots, and a small number of air rifles.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has confirmed 82 deaths in Bago on 9 April, and notes that the actual number of casualties is likely much higher. Tatmadaw forces reportedly collected the bodies of killed demonstrators, and charged families 120,000 MMK for their return. The massacre in Bago represents the highest death toll in any one single event since the 1 February coup.

The SAC’s shutdown of telecommunications meant that it took days for the reports coming out of Bago to be verified. Crackdowns in smaller towns rarely make it into the media, or are easily lost in the news cycle, days after they occur. In total, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports that over 700 people have been killed and over 3,000 detained since the coup.

Following the massacre in Bago, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar – formed by a team of international experts – have said the country is in a state of ‘terror and lawlessness’, and called for the UN Secretary General to visit the region, if not Myanmar, and convene a special session of the UN Security Council to seek action under Responsibility to Protect.

But China and Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council means any united international approach to stopping the violence remains highly unlikely. Support from these two powerful states, and ongoing relations with other ‘friendly’ neighbours, sends a message to the Tatmadaw that they can continue on their current path and consolidate power – while retaining at least some friends in the region.

Meanwhile, across the country civilians continue to strike back with force of their own. An explosion in Mandalay this week killed a Tatmadaw soldier providing security outside the military-owned Myawady bank, while explosions have also continued in Yangon – although with no reports of casualties. Most reports of armed resistance to the SAC continue to come out of Sagaing Region. Attacks by anti-coup demonstrators and the small armed organisations Kuki National Organisation killed 18 soldiers in an ambush there on 10 April. Residents of Tamu in Sagaing Region killed four soldiers the previous week, and violence can be expected to escalate.

What happens next?

This week is Thingyan, Myanmar’s new year festival. But few will be celebrating. There is no indication that the SAC will restrain its force, and nor are the anti-coup demonstrators standing down. Tatmadaw violence against demonstrators and civilians is instead on an upward trajectory. Deaths and arrests are rising rapidly, and home invasions and other abuses are commonplace. Residential areas of Myanmar are likely to continue to see mass violence for the foreseeable future.

History has repeatedly shown that the Tatmadaw’s capacity to escalate force knows few bounds. This was the case during crackdowns on protestors in 1988 and 2007. Instead, it has repeatedly shown it will use disproportionate force against civilian targets – as shown by the violence against Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017. Aside from brute force, the Tatmadaw has few other tools in its belt.

In another sign that the SAC is not holding back, on 9 April it announced death sentences for 19 people accused of killing an ‘associate’ of a Tatmadaw captain in North Okkalapa, a Yangon Township under martial law, on 27 March. No death sentence has been carried out in Myanmar for decades, but the willingness of the police and military to conduct extra-judicial killings since 1 February may suggest formal executions are not unlikely.

A new humanitarian crisis

The humanitarian response must catch up with this new reality. While all agencies are concerned with tackling the financial shutdown, and planning amid uncertainty about the space for the response going forward, attention should also be paid to the changing situation of humanitarian need in the county. This crisis is no longer one focused on the country’s borderlands, but is increasingly nationwide.

There is certainly no sign that humanitarian needs are falling in conflict-affected peripheries of the country. They are not, and are unlikely to do so any time soon. Rather, as security forces’ abuses and armed resistance all increase in the central areas of Myanmar, displacement, unemployment and other humanitarian needs are also likely to rise.

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1. Cyclone Season Threatens Western Myanmar

Western Myanmar

This week Myanmar arrives in the pre-monsoon cyclone season – stretching from mid-April to mid-May. Myanmar is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, and Rakhine State and its adjoining regions are particularly at risk. Overall, 19 cyclones hit Myanmar over the last 45 years from 1973 to 2017. Of these, the Rakhine coast is the most vulnerable, accounting for 15 cyclones; only four cyclones made landfall in the Ayeyarwaddy region that same period. More than 90% of cyclones made landfall on Myanmar coasts during two main seasons: the pre-monsoon season (mid-April to mid-May), and the post-monsoon season (mid-October to end November).

Dire impacts

Flooding also causes severe issues for crop production in Rakhine State. In 2011, heavy rain and flooding resulted in losses of approximately 1.7 million tons of rice, devastating the regular incomes of most families. In the context of the current economic crisis in the context of COVID-19 and the post-coup crisis, a flood or cyclone would be devastating for many families. Displaced people remain particularly at risk, and most IDP sites are in low lying areas, as shown on the infographics detailing low-lying areas of the state and flood risk mapping below. Some of the strongest civil society groups in western Myanmar grew out of the response to natural disasters before the international response arrived on scale, and any response should ensure that local responders play key roles in planning and implementation. For now, however, agencies should ensure they have sufficient resources for a response, and ensure that best-practice disaster mitigation measures are in place.

Displaced people due to flooding per year in Rakhine State

Years

Displaced people

2019 (up to mid-July)

9,500

2018 (June – Sept)

13,921

2017 (up to 25th July)

1,100

2016 (up to July 1st)

24,306

2015 (up to August 24th)

111,568

2014 (August 31st)

6,400

Total

142,489

2. Threats Rise for Kachin IDPs on the Chinese Border

Kachin State

Alongside the civilian protests following the coup on 1 February, fighting between ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw are now escalating in minority ethnic areas of the country. Although the Tatmadaw announced an extension of its unilateral ceasefire on 31 March, intense armed clashes are continuing across Kachin State. On 10 April Tatmadaw troops attacked the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Alaw Bum Mountain outpost near KIA headquarters in Laiza with jet fighters and heavy artillery, and the offensive has continued up to the time of writing. On 11 April, the KIA seized a Tatmadaw post in Momauk Township. In retaliation, the Tatmadaw launched artillery and air strikes near the post, striking neighbouring villages. The report of civilian casualties due differs – but are estimated to include between five and seven fatalities, including the mother of a three-month old baby and a monk, alongside several wounded. As the fighting intensified, thousands of villagers from 20 nearby villages fled the area to take shelter in religious buildings. According to the spokesperson of the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A), clashes are likely to continue in Kachin State with further military offensives planned. The Tatmadaw is reinforcing troops, conducting airstrikes on KIA posts, shelling villages with heavy artillery, blocking transport routes into KIO/A areas, and repeatedly frequent surveillance drones over Laiza. On 12 April, Kachin communities in China reported that Tatmadaw jets were using Chinese airspace to shell KIA-held territory. If true, this is likely being done to minimise the risk of shells accidentally falling inside Chinese territory. Such reports will feed perceptions that China is supporting the Tatmadaw to consolidate its power. Despite these efforts, on 12 April six artillery shells fired by the Tatmdaw towards the Alaw Bum outpost reportedly landed in Chinese territory.

Pushed to the brink

The coup and its backlash have prompted an escalation of armed conflict in Kachin State, threatening again the most vulnerable people in areas of the state most-affected by armed conflict. In urban areas, young people are losing their enthusiasm for exclusively peaceful protest, and are instead looking to the KIO/A’s armed opposition to the military. Many have been inspired to join the armed group and prepare for a widening civil war. This in turn has drawn the Tatmadaw’s attention away from the protests and towards the KIA/O, and conflict between the two is escalating quickly. Humanitarian agencies and traders alike face increasing difficulties in accessing IDP camps located in areas controlled by the KIA/O. The options for IDPs are therefore narrowing. Last year, China erected a barbed-wire fence along its border with Myanmar. While IDPs would have previously fled into Chinese territory when airstrikes began, this option is no longer on the table. The IDPs say they don’t know where they will be able to flee to this year. Moreover, many phone lines in non-government-controlled areas (NGCAs) are disconnected. People in the KIO/A controlled areas mainly use Chinese telecommunications, but one humanitarian worker there reports that some Chinese phone lines have been cut since the coup. Many IDPs in camps within NGCAs are concerned for their safety, due to the Tatmadaw’s excessive force, its deadly airstrikes, and the recent border restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities. If fighting between the Tatmadaw and the KIA continues to intensify, thousands of IDPs would be caught in the crossfire, with few options for safe refuge. Humanitarian agencies and donor countries should preposition aid to prepare for this eventuality, while ensuring their concerns about a worsening humanitarian emergency in Kachin State are heard by all stakeholders.

3. New Support for ‘Anti-Coup’ EAOs in Northern Shan

Lashio Township, Northern Shan State

On 10 April, armed actors under the banner of the Brotherhood Alliance attacked a police station just a few kilometres from urban Lashio, killing between 10 and 14 police officers and burning the station to the ground. The attack took place along the Mandalay-Muse road  —  Myanmar’s main trade link to China. The Brotherhood Alliance consists of the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. The attack follows the Brotherhood Alliance’s 30 March statement, which condemned the coup and warned the Tatmadaw it would abandon its current unilateral ceasefire if the Tatmadaw does not end its violence against civilians. While most active in western Myanmar, the Arakan Army continues to maintain troops in both Kachin and Northern Shan states, where they are mostly embedded with Kachin Independence Army or Ta’ang National Liberation Army troops. This week, high-level Tatmadaw negotiators flew by helicopter to Northern Shan State by helicopter to meet representatives from the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Progress Party. Shan State Progress Party troops fired upon the incoming helicopter, but the group later explained this was a mistake and apologised. Meanwhile, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Shan State Progress Party have continued clashes with the Restoration Council of Shan State in Namtu Township this week, displacing almost 900 people into religious buildings.

Evolving context

Relationships with ethnic armed groups are incredibly important to the State Administration Council, and armed groups will play an important role in determining Myanmar’s path forward. As such, ethnic armed organisations find themselves in powerful positions. There are three key takeaways for humanitarian agencies operating in Northern Shan State amid this changing armed conflict landscape post-coup. First, the Brotherhood Alliance is increasingly and publicly positioning itself against the Tatmadaw. The fact that the groups publicised the attack under the name of the ‘Brotherhood Alliance’ is significant, even if the Arakan Army’s role was minimal on the day. Notably, the Lashio attack took place on 10 April – Arakan Army Day, marking 12 years since the group was established in Kachin Independence Organisation/Army territory in Laiza. However, the Arakan Army has not yet escalated clashes in western Myanmar – suggesting the fighting in Northern Shan State may have as much to do with territory and control of resources as it does the coup. Second, the alliances’ attacks on security forces reflect the fact that public trust in the three armed groups in Northern Shan State is increasingly growing. This lies in contrast to the Shan State Progress Party, which is seen as too close to the United Wa State Army. However, the Shan State Progress Party, the United Wa State Army and Brotherhood Alliance members are all members of the Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee, reflecting the fact that there is no one set negotiating position for that bloc. Finally, new dynamics around forced recruitment may also be expected. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army in particular has long been criticised for its forced recruitment of young Ta’ang people. However, with a large number of young and active Ta’ang people now seeking to join the armed resistance, a voluntary mode of recruitment appears to be open to the armed group.

4. The Rise of Armed Clashes Lead Uncertainty for Peace

Southeast Myanmar

On 8 April, the Karen National Union (KNU) released a statement declaring that fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – its armed wing – and the Tatmadaw has resumed in all seven brigade areas under its control since the 1 February coup, with more than 200 clashes counted within two months. The KNU said more than 30,000 people have been displaced due to the Tatmadaw’s air and artillery strikes. Anthony Davis, a Thai-based military analyst, remarked that the Tatmadaw was bombing local villages in retaliation for the deaths of 10 soldiers, including a deputy battalion commander, during a KNLA attack on the 394th Light Infantry Division base, Southern Command, on 27 March. However, the spokesperson of KNLA Brigade 3, Saw Alstar, said it was the KNLA who were retaliating due to the Tatmadaw’s violation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) through its opening of new military bases inside KNU territory and unannounced patrols into KNU-controlled areas. Locals say that armed clashes are likely to continue as there have been ongoing military tensions between the two armies and Tatmadaw reinforcements moving towards KNU areas. In the meantime on 4 April, the Peace Process Support Team (PPST) – made up of the 10 signatories to the NCA – demanded the junta stop killing civilians and welcomed the repeal of the 2008 constitution by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH).

Does the NCA still exist?

At present, although the KNU has not officially announced its withdrawal from the NCA, the current clashes between the Tatmadaw and KNU/KNLA harms the entire peace process. Sources close to the KNU say that KNLA field commanders have demanded their KNU political leaders withdraw from the peace agreement. However, KNU leaders are reluctant to do so, partly because the KNU has taken such a leading role in facilitating the participation of other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) participation in the peace process since 2011, but also because a formal agreement with the CRPH and other pro-democracy forces has yet to be settled. The discussions with CPRH around forming a federal army has also encouraged many EAOs, including the KNU, to reignite their armed opposition to the Tatmadaw. As highlighted in this previous Weekly Update, discussions around a federal army were commonplace at the start of the NCA process early last decade, but became increasingly rare. However, the Tatmadaw’s Special Administration Council is likely to want to continue the peace process, particularly with the 10 NCA signatories in order to buy time to consolidate their power and administration, while also extending their relationships with non-signatories. However, the escalation of armed clashes has destroyed any illusion of the Tatmadaw’s desire for peace, and the Tatmadaw’s containment strategy to mitigate military pressures from ethnic armed groups is plainly failing. If the Tatmadaw cannot resolve the current political crisis through dialogue, the PPST may declare the cancellation of the NCA, risking a widening of armed conflict across the country. Such a scenario would see humanitarian needs escalate sharply country-wide, and the imperative for humanitarian agencies to prepare for this eventuality is clear.

5. What’s Down the Line, When the Lines are Down?

Whole of Myanmar

Since the 1 February coup, the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) has increasingly restricted the right of the media to access and broadcast information and the right of the people to access information. Although the military on 8 March revoked the media licenses of five media outlets, two of the banned outlets – Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) – continued to document and share updates of security forces’ violence against demonstrators through broadcasts on the PSI network – a Thai-based satellite TV network. As a result, the junta banned the dishes on 8 April. On 8 April, township administration councils across the country declared the use of PSI satellite dishes as illegal and demanded they be handed over to ward administration offices. Locals from Kyaikto Township, Mon State and Paungbyin Township, Sagaing Region, told Radio Free Asia that police troops have been patrolling neighborhoods, threatening to destroy the PSI satellite dishes if they are not removed. According to Mizzima, PSI satellite dishes are also being dismantled by authorities in townships across Ayeyarwady Region. One local in Monywa Region stated that the general public can only access ‘real’ news through independent media outlets such as Mizzima and DVB. However, on 8 April, Thailand’s PSI Corporation removed the Mizzima and DVB channels from its network to prevent further seizures of its satellite dishes – suggesting they are more interested in business continuity than in taking any explicit political position.

Back to the dark age (again)?

Amid growing restrictions on independent media, Myanmar appears to be increasingly heading back to an information ‘dark age’. Many people are left with few options apart from state media for information. Under the internet restrictions across the country, access to reliable information has become more challenging. The SAC disabled mobile internet on 14 March, and on 30 March turned off all wifi services apart from fibre connections – leaving most of the country in an information blackout. In an effort to monitor communications, local authorities in some areas have compiled lists of which residences are still accessing the internet through a fibre connection. Efforts to avoid digital invasions of privacy are also arousing suspicion. This week reports emerged from Yangon of civilians being fined by Tatmadaw troops for not carrying phones. Looking forward, the SAC is likely to apply amendments to the existing ‘Telecommunications Law’’ to block public access to information even further. According to that law, no one is allowed to own or sell electronic devices without permission. Section 67 of the Telecommunication Law states that: “Whoever keeps in possession or uses any Telecommunications Equipment restricted as requiring a license without having such a license shall, on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or with fine or with both. As the public increasingly avoids using telecommunication devices due to fear of arrest, access to accurate and reliable information is becoming increasingly challenging. The arbitrariness of the application of the law should be of most concern. Vaguely worded and randomly applied laws such as this install a sense of insecurity in the population, and allow authorities to take action on political, not legal, motivations. This is not the rule of law, but a violent rule by law.

6. Drug Trade Thrives After the Coup

Whole of Myanmar

In the last week of March, the border between Myanmar and Mizoram, northeast India, saw the largest methamphetamine seizure of the past year. Indeed, from India in the west to the Mekong region in the east, the drug trade is growing as a quick way to generate cash for armed groups and the Tatmadaw. This is an economic activity that cannot be easily disrupted by the Civil Disobedience Movement. Myanmar, and in particular part of Northern Shan State around the ‘Golden Triangle’, is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, and remains the main supplier for east and southeast Asia and Australia. The trade is dominated by the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups, which has now shifted towards synthetic drug trade and production, particularly methamphetamine – a highly profitable commodity. Most common is ‘yaba’, a tablet based on methamphetamine and caffeine, and its crystallised version, ‘ice’ or ‘crystal meth’. The 1 February coup comes on the back of a COVID-19-driven increase in domestic drug smuggling and use. Methamphetamines are widely used in the mining sector, allowing workers to cope with long and draining working hours. Clashes between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups are rising, and boosting the drug trade is a fast way to finance militarisation on both sides.

Smuggling and power balances

The downturn in the formal economy across the whole country is making drug smuggling the go-to business for militarised parties. Response actors should expect a drastic increase in the drug trade to finance conflict, and a possible disruption to current power balances as illicit profit patterns shift. Due to COVID-19, the Free Movement Regime across the India-Myanmar border has been suspended, resulting in an increased smuggling of illegal goods. Following the 1 February coup, both Thailand and the Mekong region are also reporting an increased influx of drugs from Myanmar. Border Guard Forces (BGFs) are another party that benefits from the drug trade, due partly to the strong link between them and the Tatmadaw. Myanmar, however, is facing emerging competition in drug production from Afghanistan that, in this time of instability, could disrupt BGF profits and their allegiances to the Tatmadaw; if the BGFs no longer think their alliances are going to pay dividends, they might seek new allies in order to survive. The drug trade could soon determine which faction some militias will choose in the clash between the Tatmadaw and its opposition, playing a fundamental role in defining power balances.

But drugs are not the only products that can be smuggled for consistent revenue. Hair, currency, cigarettes, arms and, more importantly, jade, gold, hardwood and wildlife are all lucrative commodities. Demand for these goods is high, especially teak, an abundant resource for ethnic armed groups that is highly valued by Chinese consumers. Illegal logging and wildlife smuggling are already widespread, and disrupting traditional livelihoods in Kachin and Northern Shan states. With the accompanying biodiversity loss and the elimination of natural weather barriers, they present dire environmental consequences for one of the world’s poorest countries most vulnerable to climate change. Human rights, livelihoods, security and the environment are all interconnected, and international actors must address each of these fundamental dimensions in any response.

Other Developments

On 7 April an Arakan Liberation Party member was reportedly abducted by Arakan Army members in Ramree Township, Rakhine State. The Arakan Army has frequently targeted Arakan Liberation Party members in recent years, as the group – a Nationwide Ceasefire Signatory – was seen as closer to Naypyidaw actors than Rakhine communities. The Arakan Liberation Party was one of only three ethnic armed organisations to attend the Tatmadaw’s ‘Armed Forces Day’ celebrations in Naypyidaw on 27 March.

Late last week, Union-level officials from the State Administration Council visited communities from the Kyauk Ta Lone camp, Kyaukphyu Township, Rakhine State, where they dissolved the Camp Management Committee and appointed a new one. Sources report that the new committee is aligned with the military regime, and community members report threats of arrest if they oppose the site’s relocation as part of the ‘camp closure’ process.

On 12 April, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Tatmadaw clashed in Mogoke, Mandalay Region, firing heavy artillery near the town. No displacement was reported. The two sides previously fought in the area in late November 2020, when some 1,000 people were displaced. The fighting reflects the potential for more escalation of conflict in Northern Shan State.

A 9 April letter released by Khaunglanhpu (Rawang) People Militia says it is aware of armed campaigns against the State Administration Council in Putao Township, Kachin State, and that it will not tolerate such activity. The group urges communities to support the Tatmadaw’s government. This people’s militia – allied to the Tatmadaw –  was formed in 2006 and is led by a military-linked crony who won a seat for Naungmon Township in the 2020 election as a USDP candidate. Many young people in Putao disagree with the sentiments expressed in the letter.

In the evening of 11 April there was an explosion near a police barracks in Le Kone ward, in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina. Another explosion took place inside the military-owned MyTel telecommunications office on 12 April in Tat Kone ward, at approximately 8.30pm – after the 8pm curfew, suggesting to many that the Tatmadaw staged the attack amid intensifying fighting in Kachin State. Many in the state’s capital lie in fear of nightly explosions, and are concerned about the spread of active fighting to urban areas.

Anti-coup street protests continue day and night in Hpakant Township, Kachin State, where two protesters were killed by security forces last month. Unknown actors attacked a Tatmadaw convoy with explosives on the road between Aye Mya Thar Yar and Maw Taung village on 13 April. The Tatmadaw responded by firing live rounds into residential areas.

CASS Weekly Update 1 – 7 April 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

1 - 7 April 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

Bank Freeze Threatens Aid Flow

Some answers to the financial impasse may lie with existing systems.

The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and its anti-coup strikes have paralysed the Myanmar banking system in an effort to isolate the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) from economic resources. The CDM has mobilised in reaction to the Tatmadaw’s 1 February coup, and is not naive about the risks this approach carries for the country’s economy and financial system.

In addition to the financial standstill, efforts by the SAC to control the finances of international and national NGOs have prompted new difficulties for the humanitarian response. The impetus is on humanitarian agencies to navigate these uncharted waters. While some lessons can be drawn from other humanitarian response contexts, the Myanmar response will have to identify its own context-appropriate mechanisms.

The SAC takes on the banks

In reaction to the financial shutdown, the SAC has all but declared war on the CDM. Its first priority: open the banks. The SAC has thereby imposed severe conditions on banks that cannot resume operations and stay open, and has threatened to seize deposit accounts and transfer them to state-owned banks. Banks that fail to comply could face weekly fines of up to 21,000 USD. The SAC has also demanded lists of employees that refuse to stop protesting. To comply, banks are calling their employees back from striking – sparking criticism of the banks from protest groups. Some branches are starting to reopen, and officials of banks still closed are being arrested.

Aid under scrutiny

The SAC has also threatened to scrutinise national and international NGOs’ financial transactions. This may be done in part to track down and cut any support to anti-coup efforts, but also fits into the larger picture that the regime is trying to paint to justify its seizure of power. This is a story about foreign interference in Myanmar’s politics, with the complicity of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD).

On 12 March, the junta requested banks hand over details of all accounts and money transfers of national and international NGOs since 2016. On 19 March, the finance director of philanthropic organisation Open Society Myanmar’s (OSM), a branch of George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, was detained for ‘financial misconduct’ – and remains in custody – while the Yangon office was raided and sealed. The same week, SAC-controlled media published images of George Soros together with Aung San Suu Kyi, although no evidence has been presented linking Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD to any wrongdoing. The SAC has subsequently stepped up financial restrictions and scrutiny for all NGOs. Four NGOs, including Oxfam, have been ordered to undertake financial audits and submit financial details.

Impacts for agencies

The financial shutdown  is compromising the capacity of local and international NGOs to mobilise resources and pay wages. Few organisations are left with any sizable amounts of cash on hand. As cyclone season approaches, there are questions about the capacity to respond to any new crisis. The pre-monsoon cyclone season spans from mid-April to mid-May, and Rakhine State is the most vulnerable part of the country to cyclones: having been hit by 15 of the 19 cyclones to hit Myanmar over the previous 45 years. With over 200,000 displaced people remaining in camps, the vast majority in low-lying areas, the risks of a new humanitarian disaster are high.

At the same time, the SAC has sought to instrumentalise international agencies. They have claimed to meet with INGOs to discuss the renewals of Memorandums of Understanding, and on a separate occasion with the European Union in Myanmar. All the INGOs, and the EU, denied having met with the SAC. The SAC clearly recognises that international agencies provide them some legitimating function. This suggests that the regime may allow agencies to remain in the country, albeit under tighter restrictions, but there are questions about whether agencies can accept the politicisation of their presence, and indeed whether they can accept intensifying levels of oversight, including on their financials.

With an impaired economic system, increasing unemployment and a resurgence of armed conflict, humanitarian need in Myanmar is rapidly rising. Responders need to identify new mechanisms for financial transfers in spite of burgeoning financial restrictions and oversight. For now, the only reliable channels for transfers are informal channels.

Earlier this month, camp residents went online to blame the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army for a fire which destroyed multiple shelters and UNICEF schools. Some community members suggest that the Bangladesh government turns a blind eye to the violence, in order to encourage returns to Myanmar. If that is the objective, contacts in the camps say it is working.

Out with the old, in with the new

While these are difficult circumstances, they are not unprecedented. Humanitarian agencies operating on or in Syria will be familiar with informal money transfer systems, and prior to the last decade the Myanmar response also relied on informal channels. While some parallels can be drawn with other responses, agencies in Myanmar should also recognise that Myanmar will require contextualised responses: and there remains room for manoeuvring still.

As private businesses are facing the same financial difficulties experienced by humanitarian agencies, greater coordination with international chambers of commerce should also be stepped up, as answers to this impasse may emerge from information sharing.

More and more responders are considering Hundi networks as valid means to transfer money, ideally disaggregated into smaller transactions to minimise risk. Collaboration with trusted business partners for transfers is also increasingly becoming recognised as best practice. When transferring via Hundi networks to national partners and local responders, it is almost always the case that the recipient will be able to recommend a trusted Hundi agent. While Hundi networks are novel mechanisms for many international responders, they have long been used by civil society. International agencies should follow this local knowledge.

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1. New Fighting Fears in Rakhine

Western Myanmar

The military removed the Arakan Army from its list of designated terrorist organisations on 11 March, feeding speculation that the Arakan Army had struck a deal with the junta, just as other ethnic armed groups were condemning it. The position of the Arakan Army was therefore unclear in the initial weeks after the coup. However, on 30 March, the three ethnic armed groups of the Brotherhood Alliance — the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army — issued a joint statement threatening retaliation against the military junta, insisting that it must stop the mass killing of civilians. Otherwise, the alliance said they would side with the people taking part in the Spring Revolution to defend them against the military if it continues its deadly campaign against anti-coup protesters across the country. This statement serves as a warning that the situation in Rakhine State could degenerate into active civil war again. Although the Tatmadaw extended their unilateral ceasefire up to 30 April on 31 March, the Brotherhood Alliance has allowed theirs to expire.

New clashes impending?

The Brotherhood alliance may have expressed solidarity by declaring such a statement at this time, but renewed clashes in western Myanmar would bring new negative impacts for civilians. While no new clashes have been reported between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw in western Myanmar, other Brotherhood Alliance groups have clashed with the Tatmadaw in northern Shan State. Prior to the coup, the Brotherhood Alliance members had been negotiating ceasefires with the Tatmadaw, who in turn declared several unilateral ceasefires in support of the negotiations. Now, the Brotherhood Alliance is considering renewing armed conflict. Since 1 April, increasing Tatmadaw navy vessels can be seen along the Mayu river near Rathedaung town, and more Tatmadaw checkpoints have been erected along the main road connecting Rathedaung with Ponnagyun following their recent, brief removal. The Tatmadaw has deployed more troops near the Dar Let Chaung area in Ann Township and near Sa Nyin village in Myebon Township, while increased Tatmadaw activity has also been reported in Paletwa Township. The Arakan Army has now also re-deployed its troops in previously war-torn areas throughout northern and central Rakhine State. Since late March, the Tatmadaw outposts near Kyauktan village tract in Rathedaung Township have renewed their artillery shell exercises, and returned IDPs have left their homes again to return to displacement sites, fearing new fighting. The new troop movements from both sides have led local communities to express concern about a re-escalation of armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army. Agencies should collaborate with local organisations to prepare to respond to new displacement likely to result in the event of renewed conflict, and prepare for renewed protection issues including arbitrary arrests, landmines and violence against civilians.

2. What the KIA Hopes to Gain by Going on the Offensive

Kachin State

This week, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) raised the intensity of its offensives against the Tatmadaw to their highest level since the coup. Clashes have been seen across Kachin State in Hpakant, Tanai, Injanyang, Kamaing, Mogaung, Namti, Puta-O, Sadaung, Sein Lum, Sumprabum, Waingmaw and Shwegu townships and sub-townships, with at least 2,000 persons displaced. Significant incidents this week include the KIA attacking a Tatmadaw convoy carrying reinforcements from Myitkyina, and an ambush of a Tatmadaw vehicle in Namti Township. In Tanai Township, the KIA also torched a building and vehicles belonging to Yuzana company – known for its close ties with senior regime and former military leaders, and for seizing over 400,000 acres of land from farmers for cassava and sugarcane plantations. The Tatmadaw responded with artillery shells fired from their bases to villages in Mogaung and Hpakant townships. On 28 March it was reported that the KIA attacked and killed over 30 Myanmar security forces who had taken refuge inside jade mines. Jade companies in Hpakant Township are now flying white flags within their compounds to inform the KIA that soldiers and police are no longer present. In normal times, the premises of companies close to the Tatmadaw are protected by its forces. Reflecting the potential for further escalation, the KIA has warned of retaliation in urban areas if security forces continue to harm anti-coup demonstrators. The KIA, and its political wing the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), are also aligning themselves with the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and providing training for demonstrators to protect themselves against security forces.

Now or never

This is perhaps a moment of unprecedented unity across Myanmar, and people are united in opposition to the military. The KIO/A remains committed to its goals of self-determination and genuine federal democracy — both politically and militarily. As the tension between the two armed forces intensifies, people across Kachin State are on high alert, as many are calling for more KIA attacks against the Tatmadaw to express solidarity with the strikes across the country.  Due to its strong resistance against the junta since the coup, the number of people seeking shelter and taking military training in the KIO/A controlled areas is growing. To represent Kachin political aspirations, both international and domestic Kachin organizations have formed the Kachin Political Interim Coordination Team (KPICT) as a coordination body. The KPICT is in regular consultation with the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH) working towards mutual political interests, including the legitimacy to end authoritarianism and promulgate a genuine Federal Union. The spokesperson for KPICT urged all ethnic armed groups to put aside their resentments for now, to finally bring genuine federal democracy to Myanmar, as promised in the Panglong Agreement. While raising hopes for political change, some challenges remain. The KIO/A had a difficult relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. There are therefore many doubts and questions about the CRPH’s legitimacy and what would happen when Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior National League for Democracy leaders are released. Meanwhile, many Kachin IDPs and rural communities are deeply concerned about being caught in the crossfire, and fear an increase in the number of people displaced. International agencies need to continue monitoring the situation in Kachin State and preparing for an emergency response to an already vulnerable population caught in the throes of an intensifying armed conflict.

3. Shan State Tensions Remain High

Shan State

On 30 March the Tatmadaw informed Thai Authorities at the Tachileik Township Border Committee in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, that they will launch attacks against the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) headquarters in Loi Tai Leng along the Thai-Myanmar border. Five IDP camps and an estimated 6,000 IDPs living near RCSS headquarters are under threat of airstrikes, and IDPs are starting to build bunkers or fleeing into the jungle for their safety. The Shan State Refugee Committee (Thai Border) has urgently requested the Thai government to allow IDPs to cross over into Thailand if and as soon as attacks start, and to provide them with safe refuge, shelter and access to humanitarian aid.

Expected escalation

Actors in Northern Shan State continue to expect an escalation in armed clashes. While there are no significant new strikes between the RCSS and Tatmadaw, armed clashes have continued elsewhere. Near the border of Northern Shan State and Kachin State, Kachin media reported that 28 houses have burned down following armed clashes between the RCSS and Shan State Progress Party on 29 March and 4 April in Panlong village tract, Namtu Township, resulting in around 1,000 displaced people in Northern Shan State who are now urgently in need of immediate assistance. In addition, some villagers are still trapped within their villages due to Tatmadaw offensives. New displacement has also been reported in Hsipaw Township, where inter-EAO clashes have continued. Local responders are facing the same financial difficulties that international responders are, and coordination is more important now than ever to ensure that available resources are being delivered to those in need.

4. Spectre of Civil War on the Horizon

Whole of Myanmar

After weeks of peaceful protests, demonstrators are increasingly fighting back against the atrocities and extreme violence of the Tatmadaw with violence of their own. Military-linked businesses, policemen, police stations and ward administration offices are becoming targets. On 1 April, anti-coup protesters led an attack on policemen in Sagaing Region, killing six. In the same region, seven policemen were held captive by protesters before being exchanged with nine people detained by security forces for breaching curfew. From 1 April to 5 April, local media reported that a series of fires broke out at ward administration offices in Sanchaung, North Dagon, Insein, Dawbon, and Thaketa townships in Yangon Region, Taunggyi Township in Shan State, and Taungdwingyi Township in Magway Region. On 7 April, a series of explosions were reported in Yangon, including in front of at least one ward administration office and another government office. No one was injured, and images from the blasts suggested the materials used had limited capabilities.

The road to civil war

Protesters’ violence does not come close to reaching the scale of the violence perpetrated by Tatmadaw security forces, and civilians are left with few other options but to fight back in the face of unrelenting force. But in the absence of internal Tatmadaw upheaval or mass defections, this escalation may take Myanmar in the direction of civil war. Of course, Myanmar has been in a state of civil war since independence in 1948, but the Tatmadaw’s offensives on communities in recent months threatens to engulf the entire country on an unprecedented scale. The UN’s Special Envoy to Myanmar warned last week that Myanmar was heading towards civil war and may soon be a failed state, and Crisis Group has also reported that a state collapse is a scenario approaching.  In this case, the death toll would achieve a whole new level of magnitude, and the humanitarian response would have to deal with a whole nation at war.

5. CRPH Abolishes 2008 Constitution, Publishes Federal Democracy Charter

Whole of Myanmar

On 31 March, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) published a ‘Federal Democracy Charter’, announcing the formation of a ‘National Unity Government’ in the first week of April. On the same day, the CRPH released a statement abolishing the 2008 Constitution which it said was intended to prolong military dictatorship and hamper the emergence of a federal union. The statement reads that the 2008 Constitution had to be repealed because the Federal Democracy Charter had been ratified based on the principles of the abolition of dictatorship, the establishment of a federal democratic union and the formation of a people’s government. The general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), Sai Leik, welcomed the announcement, and remarked that all stakeholders needed to be generous and enthusiastic about the emergence of a federal union. In contrast, the chairman of the Arakan National Party (ANP), Thar Tun Hla, said he was concerned about the legitimacy of the statement despite the fact that the ANP never accepted the 2008 Constitution. The Union Solidarity and Development Party chairperson Dr Nandar Hla Myint criticized the CRPH’s statement as unrealistic, and argued that the 2008 Constitution was drafted by representatives (including more than 100 lawyers), approved by referendum, and gives the right to amend the law in accordance with the wishes of the people. However, the CRPH remains designated by the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) as an unlawful association, and the SAC has accused the organisation and anyone associated with it of disturbing the ‘peace and stability’ of the country. A long struggle will likely remain before the CRPH’s charter can be put into effect.

Challenges in forming the National Unity Government 

Although various pro-democracy groups welcomed the abolishment of the 2008 Constitution, the CRPH is likely to face many challenges in forming a ‘National Unity Coordination Council’ or an interim government, as promised in their Federal Democracy Charter. The first challenge is the trade-off between inclusiveness and a quick response. With so many representatives from different forces opposing the coup, it was a challenge to reach a consensus in choosing the members of the ‘National Unity Consultative Council’, which is created by the charter and will be a key coalition body to facilitate the political process among pro-democracy forces. Its membership has not yet been made public. In addition, any acceptable interim government must include people from different political backgrounds, but clear procedures for its functions are lacking, making decision-making difficult. Although many international governments have condemned the coup for violating the provisions of the 2008 Constitution, it will be a challenge to legitimise the interim government with the international community. The formation of an interim government will also include the establishment of a federal army, but this cannot be expected to move quickly. Ethnic armed group leaders’ will have concerns about leadership and management. Only by addressing these challenges can an interim government become a strong and effective opposition to the coup.

6. The Central Bank Struggles For Banknotes

Whole of Myanmar

On 31 March, the German Company supplying banknote products to Myanmar suspended deliveries in response to growing violence in Myanmar. In a statement, Giesecke+Devrient said the company restricted its supply of raw materials, supplies and system components in recent weeks. Although the junta has not commented, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) issued a statement welcoming the company’s decision and saying that “the action taken by Giesecke+Devrient will create a ripple effect, encouraging more companies to take a similarly principled stand in support of democracy restoration”. With the financial system at a standstill, and basic good prices quickly rising, the shortage of raw materials needed to print banknotes will accelerate financial difficulties in the country – potentially sparking a cash shortage, although suppliers in China may quickly fill the gap. A decline in public confidence in the banking system has led to an increase in the demand for cash, resulting in longer and longer queues at the few ATMs still stocking cash. One source in the sector reports that daily cash withdrawals are now restricted by the central bank to only 300,000 MMK per day, and this is likely to be reduced soon. As more and more households are demanding cash, both the central bank and many private banks are struggling to address the cash shortage. Indeed, the sustainability of the banking and financial sectors are increasingly under threat amid the political crisis.

Implications 

The coup has severely disrupted banking services and put certain banks at risk of a run. Many bank branches have closed due to staffing shortages as a result of the Civil Disobedience Movement, affecting routine banking functions. The junta’s disruption of mobile internet lines has furthermore debilitated online payments. If such a cash shortage persists and public confidence in the banking system declines, many private banks could become insolvent, or the SAC may resort to nationalisation. In the event of the collapse of the banking and financial sector, it will not be easy to obtain investment loans across the entire business sector, and many existing businesses will struggle to continue operations. The decline of the private sector has led to a shortage of jobs, and declining personal and household incomes is accelerating popular sentiment against the junta.

On the other hand, due to limited foreign reserves, an overprinting of banknotes could lead to inflation, resulting in a devaluation of the kyat. As a consequence, the price of imported goods, including medicine, agricultural inputs and other commodities are likely to rise quickly. This will have implications for humanitarians, both in terms of humanitarian need and procurement. International agencies should raise their concerns now about the long-term implication of the mobile internet shutdown, while monitoring the potential impact on vulnerable families and displaced people during this growing economic crisis.

7. Investors Forced to Give Up The Ghost

Whole of Myanmar

Foreign businesses are being pressured to cut ties with Myanmar military-owned companies as investors are increasingly opening their eyes to the ethical implications of operating in Myanmar. On 25 March, French energy giant Total was pressured to stop engaging with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), controlled by the State Administration Council (SAC). Similar requests have been made to Chevron, Posco and PTT to safeguard responsible investing commitments. Total decided to push back, stating that production and power supply are in the best interest of Myanmar citizens and that it will not halt operations. Moreover, it has said it will pay taxes to the junta in order to not endanger its staff, but promised to donate the same amount to human rights organisations. This, however, is not enough for protesters, who accuse Total of contributing to crimes against humanity.

Business as unusual

While international firms contemplate whether or not to pull the plug, Myanmar people are taking drastic measures to shut down military-owned businesses. Last week, military-controlled enterprises Gandamar Wholesale and Ruby Mart, and a Mytel Bago regional branch were hit by fires and explosions – although many in Myanmar allege that – since some fires were lit during curfew hours (while CNN reporters were visiting the country) – the Tatmadaw lit the fires itself to defame demonstrators. Several companies have already decided to halt operations in Myanmar in the aftermath of the coup, and have condemned human rights abuses: Giesecke+Devrient, a German supplier of raw materials for banknotes; EDF Energy from France; Suzuki from Japan; Benetton and H&M from the European clothing industry. Kirin, one of the largest brewing companies, announced already on 5 February that it will pull out of its Tatmadaw-linked joint venture. It is clear that investors have the potential to influence businesses’ stances on Myanmar. Additionally, socially conscious consumers across the globe will react to companies’ positioning and alleged engagement in human rights abuses.

Other Developments

Amid rising food prices and little access to remittances, Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine State continue to fear impending food shortages and hunger. With few other options for the Rohingya to fall back on, international agencies should ensure that modes of food delivery to vulnerable communities remain functional, despite expectations of new fighting in northern Rakhine State.

On 6 April local media reported that money transfer services like Wave money have ceased functioning in most cities in Rakhine State, because of persistent internet blackouts and limited cash flow from the private banking system. This has negatively impacted many local businesses, and households are increasingly concerned about household incomes and access to remittances.

Many IDP camps located in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation  have been facing food shortages and loss of livelihood. They are now reported to be in urgent need of food aid as delays to humanitarian aid are being caused by difficulties reaching the camps since the coup.

Tatmadaw forces raided Christian churches in Myitkyina and Mohnyin townships, Kachin State, on 3 and 6 April. The soldiers surrounded the property and searched the premises without giving any reason. In spite of the Tatmadaw explaining its reasons for staging the coup to the Myitkyina Christian Council early on, they remain unconvinced by its claims of electoral fraud.

According to local sources, gold mining has increased on the banks of the Malikha River above the Myitsone-Irrawaddy confluence. The area has reportedly been newly designated as a gold mining area by the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council. Despite (or perhaps because of) the political turmoil, natural resource extraction, including rare earth mining, in government and Border Guard Force controlled areas are on the rise in several townships across Kachin State.

On 5 April Myanmar security forces and soldiers collected the personal information of money changers and money launderers in Muse Township, Northern Shan State. The soldiers warned the money changers to inform them if someone tries to exchange US dollars. The inspections follow the detention of a Hundi agent in Kachin State last month, and illustrate the Tatmadaw’s concerns about foreign currency transfers.

On 5 April, at least four people were abducted by soldiers whilst helping to put out a fire in the Nyaung Phyu Sa Khan ward office in Southern Shan State’s Taunggyi. Two people were also shot and killed trying to extinguish a fire at the Court and General Administration Department in Pinlebu Township, Saging Region on 5 April. As considered in last week’s Weekly Update, the Tatmadaw has shown a disregard for human life, and international law, and continues to target emergency responders – including with lethal force.

Displacement and civilian casualties continue to rise in southeast Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw is shelling Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army areas. There is no sign of de-escalation, with the Karen group taking a strong anti-coup position. Humanitarian needs are likely to grow quickly.

The death toll at the hands of the military regime is increasing daily. According to media reports, more than 560 people have died in the 63 days after the coup. At least five people were killed and more than two dozen protesters were arrested by security forces on Sunday 4 April. Despite this, anti-coup demonstrations continue in several towns and cities across the country, illustrating a determination in the face of atrocities.

CASS Weekly Update 25 – 31 March 2021

Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

25 - 31 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

Emergency Responders Under Fire

The Tatmadaw’s escalating use of force against emergency healthcare responders nationwide foreshadows greater neglect of international law and civilians’ rights, and increased risk for all responders.

In recent weeks, a clear pattern has emerged of Myanmar security forces targeting emergency healthcare responders responding to crackdowns against demonstrators. Videos of Tatmadaw troops firing on volunteer aid workers wearing outfits clearly identifying them as such went viral early in the unrest. When CCTV cameras caught police violently beating unarmed ambulance workers in Yangon on 3 March, the video went international, but the violence against emergency responders has only increased since. This week, in Myeik town, towards Myanmar’s south-eastern tip, security forces commandeered an ambulance and used it to drive around town while firing at demonstrators and other civilians.

What has perhaps been most disturbing is security forces’ opening fire on emergency responders or others attempting to retrieve injured or deceased people fallen casualty to the Tatmadaw’s crackdown. Individual bodies lying lifeless, sometimes in pools of blood, can be seen in the streets across the country during crackdowns, and their images fill Facebook and Twitter feeds. Emergency responders are unable to retrieve them, as security forces will open fire on anyone who comes close.

The targeting of civilians, including healthcare workers, by security forces has already had deadly implications for people’s right to access health care. This right is protected under the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention of the Rights of the Child – all of which Myanmar has signed and ratified. There are also protections under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Myanmar has not signed, but which is recognised as customary international law. In claiming to be the legitimate government of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw has an obligation under international law to protect civilians’ rights to access healthcare.

One result of this war on health workers is rising death rates. Those with treatable injuries are left to bleed out and die unattended. Some injured demonstrators have managed to take shelter in the homes of strangers, but emergency responders have been unable to reach them because they too have become a target. Many have died as a result.

This is a trend seen across the country – from Yangon to Mandalay to Shan State and the southeast – and is therefore likely directed from high levels of Tatmadaw leadership in Naypyidaw. The objective appears clear: to raise the risks of demonstrating and control the population through fear. The tactic is combined with a range of other abuses including extrajudicial killings of civilians uninvolved in the protests, the threat of sexual violence against female demonstrators, and the extended detention of demonstrators on trumped-up charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Alarmingly, the Tatmadaw’s targeting of healthcare workers indicates an escalation in Tatmadaw tactics. There is little precedent for this campaign. While the Tatmadaw has an established record of targeting civilians in the borderlands of the country as part of their operations against ethnic armed organisations, there has been no pattern of violently targeting emergency health care responders in any systematic fashion. Occasional incidents do occur, such as when a Myanmar navy vessel shelled an ICRC-contracted boat in Rakhine State in October 2020. But until now, there has been no pattern of such deliberate and violent targeting of first responders.

The Tatmadaw’s use of violence against emergency responders may well foreshadow an increasingly dangerous and difficult period for humanitarian responders nationwide. The Tatmadaw has shown its regard for International Humanitarian Law has dropped even further from an already low standard, and the space for civil society and the national humanitarian response is rapidly disappearing. Restrictions on humanitarian actors itself does constitute a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

The international response faces challenges to engaging with many of the local responders in urban areas in hotspots such as Yangon and Mandalay. While national and international groups have built relationships in the borderlands where humanitarian needs have traditionally been higher, few relationships exist in the Burmese heartland where communities and responders are now under threat.

For now, documentation of abuses and violations of international humanitarian criminal law will be crucial. It will also be vital for international groups to rapidly scale up their engagement with national responders in urban areas, and listen to how agencies can best support them.

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1. Rakhine Meltdown: Services Cease as Economy Grinds

Western Myanmar

According to a 16 March briefing from the UN Myanmar office, rising food and fuel prices present a looming threat across the country, hitting the poorest communities the hardest. Price rises have been aggravated by the near paralysis of the banking sector, slowdowns in remittances, and widespread limits on cash availability. Political unrest is starting to affect markets, and transport of most food items have been delayed, especially between Yangon and Rakhine State. The slowdown in commodity flows is causing many employers to lay-off daily labourers. Rohingya are particularly vulnerable, as food aid is limited and COVID-19 restrictions have limited their access to markets. Rohingya in Maungdaw are now increasingly worried about the current political unrest. Before the 1 February military takeover, one bag of rice cost 20,000 MMK (14 USD) but has now jumped to 27,000 MMK (19 USD) per bag. Rohingya communities are worried about food shortages over the coming weeks or months.

The nationwide internet shutdown has disproportionately impacted those communities relying heavily on remittances. Because of the limited cash flow within the country and from abroad, the normal financial support for Rohingya during Ramadan has effectively stopped this year. One religious leader living in Mrauk U told this analytical unit that the money, beans and rice they would normally receive during Ramadan from donors in Yangon and Malaysia has now stalled, causing hardship for many. As the momentum of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) grows across the country, people in Rakhine State are increasingly concerned that healthcare services are becoming harder to access. The CDM has compromised the ability of communities to access both public and private healthcare facilities, particularly those Rohingya reliant on private clinics. As doctors remain on strike, even the Rohingya middle class are having to turn to local pharmacies or traditional healers for healthcare.

Double burden 

Food insecurity and challenges to access health care are not new phenomena for either Rakhine or Rohingya communities, but the current situation is now forcing some poor families to forgo one meal a day. Although the current political situation in Rakhine State appears relatively stable, the current unrest across the country is threatening already precarious livelihoods. Restrictions imposed by the authorities, security concerns around accessing markets, and limited market integration with regions normally producing a surplus is making the plight of Rohingya communities in Rakhine State particularly dire.

Local parahita groups and humanitarian agencies also face significant funding and commodity restraints after the coup. It has forced many to cancel humanitarian activities in northern Rakhine State. These livelihood struggles have the potential to lead to not only inter-communal tension, but also intra-communal conflicts among various communities. International agencies could help mitigate such tensions by directing food aid support to communities in remote areas, focusing on those with limited access to marketplaces. International agencies should take immediate action to assist those in northern Rakhine State before they face severe food shortages.

2. Terrorists and Terminology: What’s in a Name?

Western Myanmar

The Brotherhood Alliance – consisting of the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – turned the terrorist card around this week, referring to the Tatmadaw’s attacks on civilians as ‘a terrorist shootout’. The rival government, Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), declared the Tatmadaw a terrorist organisation on 1 March, while the Tatmadaw announced on 11 March that it would no longer refer to the Arakan Army by that name. Facebook users now regularly refer to the Tatmadaw as a terrorist organisation. In a 30 March statement, the Brotherhood Alliance has also warned of escalating violence if the Tatmadaw continues to kill civilian demonstrators. While the group may seek to escalate fighting in Northern Shan State, the statement suggests they will avoid an escalation in western Myanmar.

No clear path forward

In a more ambiguous reference to terror, the Brotherhood Alliance has also said they will continue to cooperate with relevant organisations for border stability, COVID-19 prevention and ‘international counter-terrorism’. This is likely designed for a hardline audience, who will read it as a reference to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the security of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. The text also suggests that the Arakan Army is continuing to flirt with the idea of making a deal with the Tatmadaw – likely the only organisation they would cooperate with for border security. This week’s statements by the CRPH have put the Arakan Army in a difficult position. The CRPH has spoken of welcoming the Rohingya back to Myanmar, and of empathising with their plight. Rakhine politicians and activists have taken issue with these statements, pushing back against the return of the Rohingya to Rakhine State, and the very use of the nomenclature ‘Rohingya’. Meanwhile, Rohingya communities have responded in a largely positive manner to the CRPH’s statements. However, some influential Rohingya social media users have suggested that the Arakan Army is taking an increasingly confrontational approach to the Tatmadaw because they are concerned that Myanmar society will turn against the Rakhine people for abuses committed towards the Rohingya over the last decade. These controversies should be a reminder to all parties of the immense challenges to any unified front in Myanmar. Although this moment of crisis may present an opportunity for a radical realignment in Myanmar society, it may also present an opportunity for hardliners to exploit. While armed conflict isn’t set to spike in western Myanmar yet, the potential for further deterioration and terror is very real.

3. Apologies to the Rohingya Hint at Social Revolution

Whole of Myanmar

On 27 March — the most recent bloodiest day of the Spring Revolution so far — the Student Union of Yangon’s University of Medicine 1 apologised for their ‘mistake’ of not previously recognising the Rohingya crisis or speaking out against the atrocities and genocide committed by the Tatmadaw in ethnic areas. The student union promised to listen to the concerns of oppressed ethnicities. Similarly, the student committee of University of Medicine 2, and the student unions of Eastern Yangon University and Mandalay Technological University have issued similar apologies to ethnic groups. The Rohingya Youth Association in refugee camps in Bangladesh wholeheartedly welcomed the apologies. One young Kachin youth activist also told this analytical unit, “We welcome some Burmese students’ changing attitudes towards the ethnic minority groups and Rohingya. For national reconciliation, they (Burmese) must apologize on behalf of their leaders who have been holding Burmanization and have committed atrocities against minorities over six decades so that we all can come together to end the military dictatorship and come in peace.”

Seeking unity

These examples illustrate how the current attempts to take down the military dictatorship is not only a political revolution, but also a revolution of social attitudes and a shift towards resolving tensions along religious and ethnic lines. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 521 civilians have been killed by security forces as of 30 March. Comments of social media and posters held by demonstrators in the streets indicate that the violence has convinced a growing number of Burmese people living in urban areas to sympathise with ethnic minority and Rohingya communities who have suffered severe human rights violations at the hands of the Tatmadaw for decades. Many people, especially young people fighting against the coup, say they have come to recognise a sense of social cohesion in which everyone is uniting to fight against the coup regardless of ethnicity and religion. In the past, Myanmar’s ethnically divided society meant many ethnic communities only paid attention to issues affecting their community. Now, united in opposition to the military, many are beginning to realise a shared experience. Significantly, this has resulted in many communities praying for and supporting relief efforts for war-affected people in Kachin and Kayin States, amid the backdrop of political upheaval and unrest across Myanmar. In order to achieve the goals of the current revolution, it will be essential to build trust and unity among Myanmar’s diverse ethnic minorities by accepting the truth and acknowledging the past. This will require international supporters to recognise this rapid shift in emphasis and priorities, and try to maintain a neutral stance towards the various factions opposing the military takeover. Ultimately, it will be up to the Myanmar people themselves to build a better understanding between all communities.

4. Uptick in Shan Fighting Rumoured

Northern Shan State

Rumours of an imminent uptick in armed conflict in Northern Shan State have spread through the international response community in the days leading up to 1 April. Fuelling these rumours have been reports of troop movements from various ethnic armed organisations and the Tatmadaw, and the impending end to both the Tatmadaw and the three member Brotherhood Alliance’s unilateral ceasefires on 31 March. On 31 March, the Tatmadaw extended its unilateral ceasefire from 1 April to 30 April, but noted that it will continue to use force to defend against disruption to government security and administration. The Brotherhood Alliance (consisting of the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) is yet to extend its ceasefire. Instead, on 30 March the Brotherhood Alliance released a statement demanding the Tatmadaw “immediately stop violently cracking down on peaceful protesters and killing innocent civilians”, and threatening they would join with other ‘oppressed brethren’ waging revolution against the Tatmadaw if the killing did not cease. Chinese authorities have also reportedly shut border crossings in Northern Shan State, suggesting to many that China also expects a spike in conflict.

Crisis protracted

There is a potential for Northern Shan State’s protracted humanitarian crisis to worsen in coming weeks and months. Ethnic armed organisations and militia groups, some of whom fight each other as often as they fight the Tatmadaw, may well sense that the coup and growing instability nationwide present them with an opportunity to expand their territory and influence. Townships such as Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Namtu townships may again find themselves at the centre of new fighting, as these townships have seen intense competition between the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Shan State Progress Party and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in recent years. Troop movements near the area’s economic hub, Lashio Township, have also been reported in recent weeks, and new violence may also be expected in rural areas there. International groups should ensure they are in regular communication with local responders to monitor rumours of an uptick in fighting, and to preposition aid in the event of new displacement.

5. Kachin State on the Brink

Kachin State

On 27 March – Tatmadaw Day – military forces shot and killed five people and injured several others during crackdowns on demonstrations against the coup in Kachin State. Nationwide, over a hundred people were killed, and the crackdown has continued since. In Kachin State, on 29 March, security forces arrested two journalists, then killed a 23-year old the following day. Security forces also burned down a house, rammed two civilians with a vehicle and destroyed public belongings. At night, gunfire and explosions can often be heard, including some targeted at police stations. Meanwhile, the Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) 8th Brigade has threatened to escalate its fight if the Tatmadaw does not cease attacks on civilians. Also this week, the KIO/A claimed to have seized a prominent Tatmadaw mountaintop camp, several other camps located between Laiza and Mai Ja Yang, four police battalions in Hpakant, and one police station in Shwegu. In retaliation, Tatmadaw forces launched heavy artillery and airstrikes on KIA posts and towards IDP camps and villages. As a result, over 200 local and migrant workers in Hpakant Township and many households along the Ledo road in Mogaung Township fled to churches and villages to shelter after some sustained injuries. Many people working in banana and watermelon plantations in Waingmaw Township have fled to non-government controlled areas (NGCAs), and recent IDP returnees have once again taken shelter in camps. Anti-coup protests and nightly violence by security forces continue in the towns while fighting between Tatmadaw and the KIA becomes more intense across Hpakant, Waingmaw, Puta-O and Mogaung townships.

Bad to worse

The ongoing brutal crackdown by security forces on peaceful protests in urban areas of Kachin State has led to aggressive armed escalation between the KIA and the Tatmadaw. In the cities, the junta is using disproportionate tactics to spread fear among the public, while journalists are hunted down to prevent the flow of information. In rural areas, civilians are caught in the crossfire of armed groups. There has been a rapid increase in displaced people into urban and peri-urban areas, and their livelihood prospects and access to healthcare are deteriorating daily. IDPs in Myitkyina are in a state of paralysis as the military troops are now checking camp records and the number of IDPs staying overnight. The IDPs are far from being able to return home, and those living in NGCAs are so afraid of Tatmadaw shelling and airstrikes they have been building bomb bunkers as an emergency precaution. Villagers and migrant workers who fled to NGCA areas are having difficulties finding food and shelter due to the recent armed clashes. The worsening situation in Kachin State should be monitored closely by humanitarian agencies, who should prepare with local organizations to provide urgent emergency assistance and protection for people in need in both government and non-government controlled areas.

6. How Will Neighbouring Countries Respond to Myanmar Migrants?

Whole of Myanmar

Fleeing crackdowns and armed clashes, Myanmar people are starting to cross international borders. For now, migrations are being triggered by specific events, such as Monday’s airstrike in Karen State. However, these isolated movements are forecasted to grow and turn into a full-blown exodus for which neighbouring countries are bracing; some preparing shelters and some increasing border security and engaging in forced repatriation.

Myanmar shares a 2,400 km border with Thailand, and there is a history of Myanmar people escaping the Shan and Karen ethnic conflicts across it. Bangladesh and India have been involved in years of negotiations with Myanmar on Rohingya refugees. China has consistently seen significant influxes of Myanmar migrant workers and refugees from conflict-affected Kachin and Shan states. All these neighbours have been struggling with formal and informal movements of people and now face renewed pressure as a consequence of the violence following the 1 February coup.

Not all of these countries are signatories of the UN Convention on Refugees and some have yet to take an explicit stance on the Myanmar coup. If they choose to support the State Administration Council (SAC), they may persecute migrants and start turning them over to the Tatmadaw. Irrespective of their political stance, they might refuse to carry the burden of such a constant flux of refugees and keep their borders closed. Lastly, if they are willing to provide shelter to Myanmar people, they might be in need of urgent international support to face such a challenge.

Borderline behaviour

Both local and international actors should prepare for a dramatic increase in migration from Myanmar towards its neighbouring countries. These migrants might face closed borders, insufficient support, and persecution. There is a need for the prepositioning of aid, and the opening of a discussion with the countries concerned regarding need. Financial resources, political will, international criticism and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic will all determine responses.

Myanmar civilians and defecting police officers have sought refuge in India in recent weeks. However, Manipur, ArunachalPradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland refused to offer shelter. Manipur recently withdrew this order but hundreds of Myanmar citizens in India still fear repatriation. Bangladesh is also reluctant to accept more refugees, claiming that other countries should open up. But some others are considering moving towards a more humane response. Malaysia, which had a policy of the repatriation of migrants back to Myanmar, put its deportations on hold on 24 March, citing safety. It will postpone a final decision until after an ASEAN special summit to discuss a clearer stance on Myanmar, having requested such a meeting together with Indonesia and Singapore. Thailand says it is keeping its Myanmar borders closed until the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. It has furthermore been accused of supporting the SAC by supplying rice to Tatmadaw troops trapped near its border. Thailand has denied as such, in a vague statement which called the rice delivery “regular trade”. On the other hand, after thousands of Karen people crossed over to Thailand due to the 29 March airstrikes, Thailand’s Prime Minister declared that the country, despite its unwillingness to be a destination for the exodus, is preparing for welcoming Myanmar refugees, although struggling for capacity. However, it is still unclear whether 2,000 migrants have been forced back into Myanmar. Thai authorities are denying the event but local officials have spoken of returns. Others have migrated to China from border towns in Myanmar, and China has beefed up security in border towns.

Responders should mobilise support for countries preparing for an increased influx of refugees and open conversations with other neighbours about sharing the burden of the expected movement of people. Cross-border programming will be necessary for an effective response, and healthcare considerations continue to be key during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Other Developments

Just before daybreak on 30 March, a Rohingya armed group attacked Myanmar border guard police on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in northern Maungdaw Township. While authorities reportedly told village leaders to report any Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army movements after the attack, locals report that the organisation responsible for the attack was actually the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, a long-established armed group seeking a resurgence. There is no indication that casualties are as high as initially reported.

On 30 March, Tatmadaw authorities verbally announced a 10pm to 5am curfew in Rohingya communities of Sittwe Township, central Rakhine State. No explicit reason was provided for the curfew, but some Rohingya speculate it is related to the 30 March attack by a Rohingya armed group in northern Rakhine State. Last week, authorities requested Rohingya in the township to report any Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army movements.

Media has reported that some 500 Tatmadaw troops arrived in Sittwe by air on 31 March, fueling concerns among communities of new armed clashes.

Fighting between the KIA and Tatmadaw erupted in Puta-O Township, Kachin State, on 31 March. The Tatmadaw and Rawang People’s Militia maintain a heavy presence in that township, yet fighting has been less intense when compared to other townships in Kachin State, and few IDPs have been emergent.

Protests continue in Mohnyin Township, Kachin State, where three protesters were killed by the security forces on 25 and 27 March. On 31 March, around 4pm, unknown actors detonated an explosive on a bridge along the ring road of Mohnyin town.

On 31 March, the Tatmadaw extended its unilateral ceasefire from 1 April to 30 April, but noted that it will continue to use force to defend against disruption to government security and administration. This suggests the Tatmadaw wishes to see a continuance of the low-intensity fighting with ethnic armed organisations in the hills, without ceasing its violent repression of demonstrators and the Civil Disobedience Movement.

On 31 March the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw announced the abolishment of the 2008 Constitution, and declared a new Federal Democratic Union.  It has also pledged support to the Civil Disobedience Movement. Presumably, much of this will be financial support for those foregoing salaries. A GoFundMe page dedicated to the group has gathered almost 10 million USD. However, some ethnic communities are concerned that the committee’s makeup may lack representation.