Weekly Update for Humanitarian Responders

18 - 24 March 2021

Contributing information sources to the CASS Weekly Update include public and non-public humanitarian information provided by open traditional and social media sources, local partners, UN Agencies, INGOs, and sources on the ground. The content compiled by CASS is by no means exhaustive and does not necessarily reflect CASS’s position. The provided information, assessment, and analysis are designated for humanitarian purposes only.

In Focus

An Arakan Against Dictatorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will be reading about:

1. Intra-Communal Tensions in Pauktaw

Pauktaw Township, Rakhine State

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

Cohesion calamity

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

2. Demining Motivations Remain Obscured

Rakhine State

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

Mine your own business

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

3. Lashio Explosions Hint at New Unrest

Lashio Township, Northern Shan State

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

Violence on the rise

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

4. Land of Jade at a Critical Juncture

Hpakant Township, Kachin State

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

Public on alert

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

5. Public Healthcare In Jeopardy After Coup

Myitkyina Township, Kachin State

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

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

Treatment options narrow

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

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

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

6. Federal Army Expectations Rising

Whole of Myanmar

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

Mobilising forces

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

7. Tatmadaw Attempts to Silence the Media

Whole of Myanmar

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

Controlling the media 

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

8. New Sanctions Against Military Leaders and Units

Naypyidaw

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

Tightened sanctions, relaxed oppression?

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

Other Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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