CASS Weekly Update

15 - 21 June 2023
20230621_CASS Weekly Update 15-21 June 2023_cover

Contributing information sources to this document include public and non-public humanitarian information. The content compiled is by no means exhaustive and does not necessarily reflect the position of its authors or funders. The provided information, assessment, and analysis are designated for humanitarian purposes only and as such should not be cited.

In Focus

Tensions Rise in Southern Chin State

Matupi Township, Chin State

On 17 June, the Chinland Defense Force Lautu (CDF-Lautu) and the Maraland Defence Force (MDF) reportedly fought near Sapaw village, Matupi Township; the precise origin of the incident is unknown. An MDF source reported that members of the CDF-Lautu left their motorbikes while fleeing the fighting. According to a local source who spoke to this analytical unit, since December 2021 there has been tension between the CDF-Lautu and the MDF in Sapaw village, which is home to both ethnic Lautu and ethnic Mara people, and where the Lautu CDF-Lautu and the Mara MDF have competed for control. Notably, two sources, including a CDF member, claimed to this analytical unit that the Arakan Army (AA) was involved in the fighting or otherwise supported the MDF in the fight. A source close to the CDF also reported that two days before the incident, around 60 AA members arrived in Ngaphaipi village, around 10 kilometres north of Sapaw village. Following the incident on 17 June, two CDF members told this analytical unit that they are deeply disappointed by alleged AA involvement in the fighting; a Chin social influencer also expressed disappointment; and a Chin media outlet statedthat the AA should talk with the Chin National Front/Army (CNF/A) if it wants to operate in Chin State.

Inter-Chin issues

The Maraland Defence Force is something of an anomaly, as a newly emergent armed actor in Chin State that is not coordinating with the CNF/A. It was formed in November 2021, as a merger of the former CDF-Mara and the Mara Army; however, the former CDF-Mara split from the merger following the first Mara People’s Congress due to internal disagreements. Several other Chin State armed actors, speaking to this analytical unit, have privately accused the MDF of not intending to fight the SAC, though the MDF’s leader told this analytical unit that the MDF is preparing to fight the SAC and will do so when it is ready. Since its formation, the MDF is not known to have engaged in any hostilities with the SAC; rather, it appears primarily concerned with securing territorial control, and has fought only with two anti-coup armed actors, the CDF-Mara and the CDF-Lautu. According to one Mara expert, the MDF’s overarching strategic objective is to unify Mara people — spread across Thantlang, Matupi, and Paletwa Townships — under one administration. A similar incident occurred in March 2022 between the CDF-Mara and the MDF in Ngaphaite village, Thantlang Township, where the two groups also seemed to be competing for control; however, there was no reported AA involvement in that incident. The former MDF general secretary-1 told this analytical unit that the tensions were resolved after the CNA mediated between the two groups. Whereas the MDF may have ties with the AA, the CDF-Lautu and the CDF-Mara are close allies of the CNF/A. The incidents raise concerns about civilians in these townships, who have already been affected by fighting between various groups and the SAC. While recent reports have focused on the presence of SAC troops around Hakha and in northern Chin State, the possibility of fighting between different Chin groups threatens further civilian displacement in Thantlang, Matupi, and Paletwa townships.

AA batteries

News and rumours of AA assistance to Chin State resistance groups — especially those that have tensions with the CNF/A — suggest that the AA may be looking to expand its influence in southern Chin State, and not simply to create a buffer between its territory in Rakhine State and central military strongholds. The AA has had a presence in Paletwa Township — on Chin State’s border with Rakhine State — for years, and there was repeated fighting there between the AA and the Myanmar military from 2018–2020. However, beyond Paletwa, the AA’s influence in Chin State is less clear. Several sources speaking to this analytical unit have claimed that the AA expanded its presence in Mindat Township in 2022. Even before the incident in June, on 15 May, local media reported that 60 AA members and 42 newly-trained MDF members entered Heimata, a Mara-dominated village in Matupi Township. Additionally, multiple sources have told this analytical unit that the AA has increased its activities in Chin State, and that the CDF-Mindat, CDF-Kanpetlet, and CDF-Matupi have all received some degree of support from the AA; the latter claim is supported, at least in part, by recent media reporting.

Finally, though this analytical unit cannot verify the AA’s involvement in the 18 June incident, there is an apparent tie between the AA and the MDF; the general secretary-1 of the Maraland Territorial Council (MTC) — the MDF’s political wing — told this analytical unit in 2022 that the MDF had received military training and weapons from the AA. Additionally, the groups that have allegedly received AA support are reportedly not politically or militarily cooperating with the CNF/A; a CNF insider told this analytical unit that these groups have sought out AA support because they did not feel that the CNA could adequately support them in their fight against the SAC. For instance, the CNF insider said, the CDF-Mindat sought support from the AA in April 2021, after a disagreement with the CNF, and has not fought alongside the CNF since.

Multiple individuals from Chin resistance groups and political parties speculated to this analytical unit that the AA could be expanding its presence in southern Chin State for two reasons: (1) the AA has deployed a large number of troops in several camps in Paletwa since 2012, and a buffer zone in Mindat and Matupi Townships and upper western Magway Region (by supporting new armed actors there) would help it prevent attacks by the SAC; and (2) the AA’s vision for Paletwa Township is not only for short term tactical reasons, but is instead intended to “maintain the group’s dominance” in the region. The second point may relate to disputes between Chin and Rakhine people over Paletwa Township, and/or to potential economic benefits of control around the Kaladan River — and the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, India’s largest investment in Myanmar, which is intended to facilitate the transportation of goods between mainland and northeast India.

Public displeasure

News of the AA’s presence in multiple townships of Chin State, and support for some Chin groups, has reportedly been received poorly by Chin civilians and political stakeholders, who have expressed displeasure with the AA’s presence in southern Chin State for years. For example, in July 2019, Chin people in Yangon protested against the spread of fighting between the AA and the Myanmar military into southern Chin State, which had displaced over 4,000 Chin people by that point and led to alleged widespread abuses against them. Presumably to calm these tensions, in July 2020, the AA’s leader explained the nature of the group’s activity in Paletwa, saying “Rakhine state alone is not enough space to make an armed revolution movement. Rakhine and Chin states are geographically connected. We are in Paletwa due to the nature of armed revolution. The AA has no plan or policy to take Paletwa from Chin people”. Tensions and fighting between the AA and the Myanmar military up to 2020 reportedly drove many people from the township, and many subsequently joined the CDF-Paletwa, which has fought alongside the CNA. Likewise, a CNF/A insider told this analytical unit that the AA did not negotiate with the CNF/A about its expansion in the region, and that such expansion affects the integrity of Chin sovereignty. Accordingly, the public backlash against news (or speculation) of AA involvement in Matupi Township seems to reflect existing bias against the AA (based on earlier incidents), rather than concerns about the impacts of the recent alleged incidents. That said, tensions between the AA and the CNF/A — and between Rakhine and Chin populations, especially in Paletwa — are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

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Primary Concerns

1. Despite Evidence, SAC Claims Rakhine Rehabilitated

Rakhine State, Western Myanmar

On 14 June, a top State Administration Council (SAC) member stated, on a visit to Rakhine State, that a month after Cyclone Mocha hit the state, he was pleased to see rehabilitation completed. However, civilians and local responders from across the state have continued to tell this analytical unit that needs remain high; indeed, it was reported on 15 June that Rakhine State residents did not believe the SAC claim. On 19 June, local media reported that, despite the SAC’s promise during a state-level meeting on 27 May to provide a sufficient number of zinc sheets to cover all houses and other buildings destroyed by the cyclone, the SAC had done nothing for communities. Local responders from Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Pauktaw, and Kyauktaw Townships told this analytical unit that the SAC has tried to demonstrate an “effective” response, such as promising to send support to Rakhine State via both its Navy and Air Force, but that the SAC has provided little support other than minimal amounts of rice, oil, tarpaulins, and zinc sheets. A local CSO leader told local media that the SAC’s activities after the cyclone were focused mainly on rebuilding SAC military and administrative structures, and very little on helping cyclone affected people.

SAC-ing the response

At the same time that the SAC claimed to have resolved the situation, SAC forces continued to prevent others from providing assistance to cyclone-affected communities. On 16 June, local media reported that the SAC Navy blocked boats near Sittwe town from carrying housing materials, including tarpaulins, to Pauktaw Township. Local responders (parahita groups) from Rathedaung and Ponnagyun Townships also reported to this analytical unit that SAC ground troops prevented them from carrying food supplies, NFIs, and tarpaulins to communities in remote areas unless they could show permission from township-level SAC members. They told this analytical unit that these groups reportedly did continue their distributions, including by coordinating with the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), but that they fear arbitrary arrest by the SAC. IDPs in northern Rathedaung Township told this analytical unit that SAC frontline outposts have prevented them from entering their villages to get bamboo and wood from their destroyed houses (to build their shelters in camps). Residents from Ponnagyun Township reported to this analytical unit that they were facing difficulties due to lack of job opportunities, rising commodity prices, and worsened living conditions in the aftermath of the cyclone; they said that they will face starvation if the SAC continues restrictions on aid groups coming to their areas. Thus, the SAC appeared not only to misrepresent the situation and its own efforts, but also to stymie others’ response.

Left adrift

Needs reportedly remain high across Rakhine State. On 19 June, local responders in Rakhine State told this analytical unit that cyclone affected communities had not yet fully recovered from the cyclone damage, and that communities still need shelters, schools, religious buildings, other public infrastructure, and support for their livelihoods. This followed other reporting this week that communities remain vulnerable: on 17 June, local media reported that cyclone affected communities in remote areas of Ponnagyun Township had not received any assistance since the cyclone; on 18 June, a woman from the Zaydi Pyin camp, in Rathedaung Township, told local media that people in the camp needed food supplies, shelters, and sanitation; on 19 June, armed conflict-generated IDPs from Nyaung Chaung, Kawei Yardana, and Ya Htar Bu Tar camps, in Kyauktaw Township, reported to this analytical unit that each household there had only received 50,000 Myanmar Kyat (~ 23.58 USD) and one tarpaulin from humanitarian agencies since the cyclone, and that they still urgently needed bamboo and wood to rebuild their shelters. On 14 June, the ULA/AA’s Emergency Rescue and Rehabilitation Committee for Arakan (ERRCA) issued a statement that 30% of cyclone affected communities had received emergency assistance but 70% still had urgent needs. Urban and rural communities reportedly need healthcare services: on 18 June, local media reported the presence of dengue and malaria in armed conflict-generated IDP camps in Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, and Rathedaung Townships. Cyclone-affected rural farmers told this analytical unit that most farmers have not yet planted paddy in time for the monsoon season, as they are now struggling with rebuilding their shelters, and that there is a lack of paddy seeds and agricultural equipment.

Cyclone-affected community members — both Rakhine and Rohingya — stressed to this analytical unit that they feel forgotten in the Myanmar humanitarian response because most affected people have not received aid; they said they are not waiting for aid from anyone to rebuild their lives, but are repairing and rebuilding homes and restoring their livelihoods by themselves. These communities said that aid so far (from a few local and international organisations) has been limited to a small amount of rice, noodles, and biscuits, but has not included essential support to repair and rebuild houses or restore livelihoods (e.g. paddy seeds and planting materials). Community members also said they needed support such as cash, farming support, and bamboo, wood, and zinc sheets to rebuild homes. Communities in northern Rathedaung, southern Buthidaung, and northern Ponnagyun Townships in particular pointed out that both local and international groups have provided assistance for cyclone affected people living in urban and surrounding areas, and asked why rural areas appear to have been excluded. Finally, ethnic Rakhine communities from these areas said they feel that they are excluded from receiving humanitarian assistance because they are not Muslim.

2. SAC Torches 1,500 Houses in Three Days

Sagaing Township, Sagaing Region

During 13-17 June, State Administration Council (SAC) troops raided 11 villages and burned down around 1,500 houses in Sagaing Township. On 13 June, they reportedly raided and burned down around 700 houses in Tharzin village, where they also reportedly burned a 60-year-old to death and abducted 35 people; on 14 June, they torched houses in Ai Ma village and another nine villages nearby. On 18 June, the troops moved from Sagaing Township into Wetlet Township, where they set fire to 180 houses in Pha Yar Pyan village before reportedly moving on to Ayadaw Township. Approximately 15,000 people from Sagaing Township (and another 5,000 people from Wetlet Township) have reportedly been displaced, and most are now reported to be living in makeshift tents or without any shelter. People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) conducted ambushes and other attacks against those troops from 13-15 June, reportedly killing 30 soldiers. Locals reported to this analytical unit that about six PDF members were killed in those confrontations. Local responders told this analytical unit that while some people might be able to construct shelters using materials found nearby, the majority are likely to be unable to, leaving many people without adequate shelter during the rainy season.

On 13 June, a PDF leader apparently visited Sataung town, Sagaing Township, with his fighters; video of an interview, in which he explained that the visit was to assess the situation before seizing full control of the town, has since spread widely on social media. Following this incident, ostensibly pro-military civilians criticised the local SAC leader for failing to maintain control over the town’s main road. This follows news reported last week of the SAC detaining its northwest regional commander for losing a police station in Salingyi Township (though he was subsequently released).

Burning through solutions

The SAC’s continued targeting of civilians — including through the destruction of their homes — continues to erode local resilience in Sagaing Region, where support remains limited. As of 31 May 2023, the SAC and allied groups had reportedly burned down 70,324 houses since the coup, 53,816 of which were in Sagaing Region. In Sagaing Township, where the houses were burned down this week, SAC forces burned down approximately 4,000 additional houses in the 2.5 months between 1 April and 17 June. On 16 June, SAC forces raided Kinbya village, Shwebo Township, and set fire to several houses; on 17 June, locals reported having found the bodies of five local men, who were allegedly killed near the village.

The burning of houses has resulted in an increasing number of displaced people, who are now in dire need of shelter during the rainy season; meanwhile, many people are living in shelters that are inadequate. At the same time, accessing and supporting the increasing number of IDPs continues to be a major challenge for local responders and local response mechanisms; as more and more villages are burned or otherwise affected, the ability of communities to help each other is further undermined. Due to frequent displacement during the rice planting period, agricultural activities may be delayed and rice production may be affected. Accordingly, IDPs are in need of external aid in the form of food and medicine. The SAC has also made direct services and distribution by international aid operations difficult; the best solution for international responders remains collaboration with local organisations, including by providing them with financial support.

3. Kachin Resistance Prohibits SAC Schools

Shwegu Township, Kachin State

On 12 June, the Shwegu Defense Force — a People’s Defence Force (PDF) in Kachin State — issued a statement with three points: it prohibited the opening of State Administration Council (SAC)-run schools in southeastern Shwegu Township; it said that parents should not send their children to SAC schools, and that the National Unity Government (NUG) would not recognise the qualifications of students attending SAC schools; and it warned that people supporting the SAC and not taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) (presumably, including by attending SAC schools) would “face consequences”. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with which the Shwegu Defense Force closely coordinates, had already taken similar steps: On 17 May, local media reported that the KIA and Kachin People’s Defence Force (KPDF) had prohibited the opening of schools administered by the SAC in over 20 villages within the KIA’s Battalion 12 area (in southeastern Shwegu Township) and its Battalion 5 area (in western Shwegu Township). In the same report, a parent of a student attending an NUG school was quoted as saying, “We don’t want our children to attend the SAC school under a dictator causing destruction to our community and causing harm to people. We prefer to have the NUG school remain in our area.” It has also been reported that in part of Kutkai Township, Northern Shan State, the KIA is putting pressure on SAC schools to keep them shut, but does not seem to have any alternative schools in place.

Class dismissed

As the SAC, the NUG, and other actors vie for their political objectives, children remain in danger of missing out on basic education. Students, who had already suffered setbacks in their education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now face additional disruptions amid the ongoing political competition between the SAC and the NUG. On 28 May, the NUG Ministry of Education declared that the NUG would not recognise qualifications from SAC-run schools and encouraged students and parents to pursue education elsewhere. However, despite efforts to resist the SAC schooling system, there is not an obvious alternative in areas under SAC or mixed control, where frequently neither SAC nor anti-SAC actors can safely or effectively operate schools. For example, on 11 June, it was reported that local residents in Hpakant Township had asked the NUG to establish a school in their villages so they would not need to send their children to a school controlled by the SAC. However, the practicalities of implementing such a solution remain uncertain. During the 2022-2023 academic year, the NUG reportedly operated over 30 schools, attended by over 7,000 students, in Shwegu Township; for the 2023-2024 academic year, security concerns meant that only around 10 schools were able to open, in the southeastern part of the township — though the NUG is allegedly taking measures to open or reopen schools elsewhere in the township as well. On 14 June, local media reported that around 700 students had enrolled in the NUG’s Myitkyina Federal School. While actors may intend build their own legitimacy by disrupting the SAC education system, for now, efforts to replace the SAC education system with alternative schools — by pressuring academic staff to join the CDM, force school closures, and declare non-recognition of education in SAC schools — are having a pronounced negative impact on many civilians, especially as a replacement education system has not yet materialised in many areas.

4. SAC Roadblock Leaves Villagers Trapped in Forest

Lashio Township, Northern Shan State

On 17 June, local media reported that over 50 IDPs, from 17 households in Man Pang village, Pang Huong village tract, Lashio Township, were trapped in the forest due to a State Administration Council (SAC) roadblock: SAC troops reportedly remain stationed in the village, through which villagers would need to pass to travel by road to Lashio town. Some of the 50 are reportedly getting sick due to rainy weather and the presence of mosquitoes. According to the report, these people fled their village due to armed violence between the SAC and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) on 11-16 June. In addition, 48 individuals from the village are reportedly taking refuge at the Lashio ward 2 church, and around 40 others are staying with their relatives. Ten residents from Loi Hsar village are also taking refuge at the church, and they are reportedly in urgent need of food and medicine. A local responder told local media, “The SAC is now stationed in Man Pang village, and prohibits the use of roads. Due to the potential escalation, villagers from surrounding villages are also fleeing. Those who are trapped in the forest are surviving with meagre resources.”

Tree house

Yet again, violence between the SAC and an armed group has resulted in displacement and hardship. The armed confrontation between the SAC and MNDAA started on 2 June, the same day that representatives from the Brotherhood Alliance (which includes the MNDAA) met with the SAC’s National Solidarity and Peacemaking Negotiation Committee (NSPNC) in Mongla, or Shan State Special Region 4. On 2 June, the SAC attacked a temporary MNDAA outpost in Hseni Township, after which fighting between them escalated; this was followed by intermittent fighting from 5–16 June in Lashio town and Man Pang, Lashio Township, and in Laukkaing Township, in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone. An MNDAA spokesperson said, “The tension between them [the SAC] and the MNDAA has only been intensifying rather than diminishing since 2015.” The tension between the two sides could escalate more, given their recent fighting in several locations in Northern Shan State. Meanwhile, this roadblock could potentially intensify the vulnerability of local populations, making it difficult both for IDPs to escape the forest and for humanitarian support to reach them. According to an IDP who had been in the church, unexploded ordnance is also preventing movement and posing risks to those in the forest, in addition to the SAC roadblock.

5. Towns in Hpapun Struggle to Access Food

Hpapun Township, Karen State

On 17 June, local media reported that since the beginning of June, people in Hpapun and Kamamaung towns have been unable to buy food due to transport and travel restrictions on roads and marinas by the State Administration Council (SAC) and Border Guard Forces (BGFs). Civilians there reportedly have shared rice and oil with each other to mitigate the impact of the blockade, as prices have more than doubled; at times, travel restrictions have reportedly prevented people from even accessing markets where they could purchase rice at high prices. Local sources told this analytical unit that the fighting around Hpapun and Kamamaung intensified in 2021, and that restrictions on civilian travel also began in 2021. They said that both sides — the SAC/BFG and the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) — try to restrict the ability of the other side to travel and conduct military activities, but that this affects civilians; for example, if the KNLA closes down routes important for the SAC, the SAC retaliates against the KNLA by closing off roads used by civilians. A local told this analytical unit that there is currently little support reaching communities from any organisation, and few ways for local responders to reach these communities with supplies.

Hpapun lockdown

Restrictions from multiple sides appear to be preventing civilians in Hpapun Township from accessing basic needs. According to local sources, the KNU only allows civilians to travel two days a week, while the SAC and the BGF only allow civilians to transport large shipments of basic food items approximately five days per month — though they reportedly announced that they would reopen roads around Hpapun and Kamamaung in July (after imposing restrictions in April). While the highway to Hpapun and Kamamaung has been closed intermittently over the past few years, due to COVID-19 and then fighting, both sides reportedly restricted its use for much of 2022. Now, because main trade routes are closed and cargo trucks cannot transport goods, the prices of basic food items and other goods have increased. Moreover, people cannot go back to work, which makes it more difficult for them to afford these ever more costly essentials. Hpapun Township remains out of reach for most international responders, though Karen civil society organisations are generally able to reach the area and were able to do so until just this month, a local source told this analytical unit. Cooperation with these and other local responders continues to be the most effective way for international humanitarian organisations to reach people in need in the township.

6. PDF Attacks Pyu Saw Htee Village as Hunger Grows

Myaing Township, Magway Region

On 14 June, two People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) used heavy weapons (firing 60 and 80mm shells) to attack around 50 State Administration Council (SAC) soldiers and Pyu Saw Htee members from Kanni village, Myaing Township, who were reportedly trying to find food south of the village. A Pyu Saw Htee member reportedly said that SAC troops in nearby Myaing town did not provide food for them or help them find it. A spokesperson of one of the resistance groups told local media that after hearing that the Pyu Saw Htee and SAC members were looking for food and there were relatively few SAC soldiers left in the village, the PDFs perceived those left in the village as vulnerable and fired at them.

As a reputed Pyu Saw Htee stronghold, Kanni village continues to be a target for PDFs and a source of abuses against nearby communities. SAC members have reportedly trained new Pyu Saw Htee members there since 2021, and PDFs have attacked the village during at least one training. SAC troops and Pyu Saw Htee members from Kanni village have also harassed the residents of nearby villages, including by patrolling, torching homes, looting property, and killing livestock. Resistance groups have repeatedly conducted attacks on Kanni village since 2021; on 16 June 2023, two local resistance groups reportedly fired ten rockets at Kanni village from around two miles away, killing two Pyu Saw Htee members and injuring many others — though the full impact has not yet been confirmed.

Kanni fire

The Pyu Saw Htee and SAC members’ search for food illustrates the way in which the Myanmar military has long operated: using local resources and supplies as a means of self sufficiency, often by preying on the local population. Granted, it is possible that the Pyu Saw Htee and SAC members’ efforts to secure food is a result of specific challenges they face in an area with growing PDF presence and control, adverse to their interests; PDFs have repeatedly attacked Kanni village, and food trucks headed for the Pyu Saw Htee members have reportedly hit explosives on the way to Kanni village several times, including as recently as 14 June. However, reports suggest that the larger food situation is growing worse, SAC troops destroy crops (as did Cyclone Mocha recently), fighting and tensions prevent movement of goods including food and farming inputs, and the economy continues to suffer. UN OCHA projected in January 2023 that 15.2 million people will experience food insecurity, and 17.6 million people will need humanitarian assistance, in Myanmar in 2023. Furthermore, a shortage in Kanni village could result in further looting, and possibly other types of abuse, particularly if the Pyu Saw Htee and SAC members continue to be attacked by PDFs. SAC troops have frequently responded to attacks by targeting civilians and their homes, resulting in deaths, injuries, losses of property, and unprecedented displacement; as of 1 June, there were reportedly 205,400 people displaced in Magway Region, where there had been no reported displacement prior to the coup. Meanwhile, there is a dearth of established response mechanisms and means of providing aid to the many people in need in Magway Region— though networks providing such relief have grown since the coup, and established development and social groups have pivoted to meet rising humanitarian needs. As the rainy season begins and living standards degrade further, people are likely to face even greater challenges, raising the importance of international actors working with local responders to address the decreasing availability of food.

For purposes of clarity and consistency only, CASS typically utilises geographic terminology adopted by MIMU. However, CASS publications now employ the terms “Karen State” and “Karenni State” preferred by local actors most affected by and most actively responding to the current crises across these states. While CASS is a neutral analytical unit, a key part of its mission is to amplify local voices. To fulfil this objective and reflect the preferences of local stakeholders, CASS has adjusted its terminology with respect to the names of these states.