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.