“With specific reference to Rakhine State, the Myanmar Weekly Update is divided into three sections. The first section provides an overview of key issues, dynamics and developments this week. The second section provides a comprehensive review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance. The third highlights trends to watch, important upcoming events and key publications this week.”
Information warfare between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army stepped up this week, as the two parties traded accusations of abuses and blame for civilian casualties. At a Tatmadaw True News Team news conference on 3 February, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun accused the Arakan Army of the 25 January launching of artillery into Kin Taung village, Buthidaung Township – something previously widely attributed to the Tatmadaw – and of raping Rohingya women in Thein Tan village, Buthidaung Township. Local sources reported that Arakan Army troops did assault Rohingya women there, but not sexually. The Arakan Army responded by rejecting both accusations in a 3 February statement, accusing the Tatmadaw of “trying to destabilize the present period of racial and religious tranquility”. The statement also claimed the Arakan Army has evidence of mass graves in northern Rakhine State dating from 2017 ‘clearance operations’ against Rohingya communities, and will reportedly share these details with international organisations. Likely in an attempt to stop the flow of information within and from Rakhine State, the government directed telecommunication providers to again block mobile internet services in an additional five townships of northern Rakhine and southern Chin states.
Following the International Court of Justice’s 23 January ruling on provisional measures relating to those 2017 clearance operations, Director General of the State Counsellor’s Office and government spokesperson U Zaw Htay has expressed confidence that the International Court of Justice will not find evidence of genocide in Myanmar. In a 31 January press conference, U Zaw Htay used the government’s Independent Commission of Enquiry final report as evidence to the absence of genocide, and repeated the government’s position that Myanmar will follow its own internal accountability mechanisms. The reimposition of the internet blackout and continuing reports of atrocities against both Rohingya and Rakhine civilians will alarm humanitarian organisations, international observers and courts seeking to protect all civilians inside Rakhine State.
Clashes between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw in Rathedaung and Buthidaung intensified this week as the Tatmadaw reportedly sent in attack helicopters. The clashes are said to have blocked some 57 people inside a village while another 800 fled. The Rathedaung-Buthidaung border continues to be a hotspot for active conflict. Earlier in the week, the two belligerents clashed in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State. In a rare event, clashes approached urban areas in Minbya Township on 5 February.
There were numerous civilian casualties to armed conflict in Rakhine State this week. On 2 February, an artillery shell landed on a house in Pyein Taw village, Rathedaung Township, injuring three civilians. The same day, a landmine killed one 50 year old man in Nga San Baw village in that township as he gathered his cattle. Rakhine civil society organisation Rakhine Ethnics Congress has also reported that the Tatmadaw burnt down houses in Ray Myet Ywar Haung village, Rathedaung Township, after clashes with the Arakan Army nearby. An artillery shell in urban Kyauktaw killed one woman and injured three other civilians. On 2 February an explosion in Mrauk U’s Chaung Thit village killed one youth and injured a woman after the youth reportedly brought unexploded ordnance into the village. Finally, in Buthidaung on 4 February a Rohingya man was shot, reportedly when mistaken for a combatant by Tatmadaw forces, while carrying firewood and is receiving care in Buthidaung hospital. The multiple civilian casualties this week highlight the ongoing impact for people in Rakhine State and reflect the urgent need for education on the risks of mines and other unexploded ordnance.
Some 50 people displaced by armed conflict reportedly arrived at the Sa Hnyin IDP site this week in Myebon Township, despite notice from the Tatmadaw that the site will be moved – as reported in the CASS Weekly Update last week. Those in displacement sites continue to face challenges as access for humanitarian organisations is restricted. The approximately 100 families of Hindu IDPs in Maungdaw Township are facing water shortages, while others IDP sites are reportedly facing difficulties accessing food.
Concurrently, the government is moving ahead with plans to close camps hosting mostly-Rohingya populations displaced by violence dating to 2012. A meeting regarding camp closure was held in Kyauk Phyu on 4 February and attended by the Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr Win Myat Aye and Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu. The government seeks to close this camp under its national strategy for camp closures. Attendees at the meeting reported to Narinjara news agency that negotiations are underway for the return of Rohingya to their places of origin in urban Kyauk Phyu. The report cited member of Rakhine State parliament U Phoe San’s comments that local elders objected to the plan and that if the Muslims did return, a repeat of the rape and murder which sparked the 2012 violence could not be ruled out. Comments under the article were critical of Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, and raised concerns that the government was attempting to create discord between Rakhine and Rohingya – now a widespread narrative.
Rakhine State and Southern Chin State
On 3 February the Ministry of Transport and Communications directed all telecommunication operators to reimpose a blackout on mobile internet services in five townships: Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Myebon townships of Rakhine State, and Paletwa Township in southern Chin State. Mobile internet access was disconnected in the aforementioned five townships together with Minbya, Mrauk U, Kyauktaw and Ponnagyun townships of Rakhine State on 21 June 2019, but came back online in the five townships on 31 August 2019. The other four townships have been offline since 21 June. In total, eight of Rakhine State’s 17 Townships are offline, in addition to Paletwa Township in southern Chin State.
Analysis: Two questions are critical in regards to the internet blackout. First, why now in these townships? These five townships have faced a heightened security situation in recent weeks and months. Myebon has increasingly been the site of intense armed clashes through November and December 2019, while Rathedaung, Buthidaung saw intense fighting this week. The high incidence of civilian casualties – followed by graphic photos widely shared on social media – is also likely a factor. Importantly, as noted in the previous CASS Weekly Update, international media assigned blame to the Tatmadaw for a shell which was fired into a Rohingya village on 25 January, killing two civilians and injuring seven more. Just hours before the internet blackout was imposed, the Tatmadaw’s True News Team held a press conference in which Tatmadaw spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun complained about a “biased” Reuters article which blamed the Tatmadaw for the deaths, and said that the case would be referred to the Myanmar Press Council. This indicates that the blackout is motivated at least in part by a desire among both civilian and military authorities to limit the spread of news of abuses and atrocities both within Myanmar and abroad. The second question is: what impact will the blackout have? This will affect communities’ abilities to access information regarding services, as well as that pertaining to security. One contact in Buthidaung noted that the blackout was already affecting business and driving uncertainty. The blackout is also likely aimed to limit the Arakan Army’s ability to communicate with segments of its support base. However, the discontent with the state that the reimposition of the blackout will drive will surely be greater than any negative impact to the Arakan Army’s legitimacy. One Arakan National Party member took to Facebook to ask “what do they [the government] want the youth to hold if not laptops and phones?” Finally, this development makes the unlikely prospect of refugee return from Bangladesh even more remote.
Minbya and Buthidaung Townships, Rakhine State
Several incidents this week have brought the inter-communal aspects of the conflict in Rakhine State to the fore. On 31 January, Ro Nay San Lwin, a prominent Rohingya activist posted on Twitter that on the afternoon of that day a group of Arakan Army soldiers assaulted women and men in Phayar Pyin Thein Tan village, southern Buthidaung Township. On 2 February, the website of the Tatmadaw’s Commander in Chief reported that “Arakan Army Insurgent Terrorists” entered the village and raped women there. As noted, the allegation was repeated in the Tatmadaw True News Team’s press conference on 3 February. Local sources report that no rape occured. Additionally, local Rakhine media has reported that on 1 February in Minbya Township a group of criminals from a Rohingya village abducted three Rakhine men, assaulted them and stole their belongings before a Muslim relgious leader stepped in and returned the men to their village. Local sources and Rohingya exile media, however, report that the incident stemmed from the Arakan Army’s abduction of a number of Rohingya criminals who are thought to be responsible for a recent spike in livestock theft on the border of Mrauk U and Minbya townships. Rakhine and Rohingya communities in the affected villages have reportedly self-segregated and the situation remains tense. Local sources report that the two Rohingya men remain in Arakan Army custody.
Analysis: These incidents highlight the extreme vulnerabilities of Rohingya communities who remain in Rakhine State. Furthermore, this reveals the inter-communal dynamics at play in the Arakan Army-Tatmadaw conflict. Alongside simliar comments in an Arakan Army statement, Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thuka responded to the Tatmadaw’s allegations of rape with claims that the Tatmadaw was attempting to provoke “racial tensions” between the Rakhine and Rohingya and that the Tatmadaw was “using Muslims to instigate riots”. Meanwhile, a politician in Sittwe active on social media took aim at ‘the Bengali lobby’ for spreading false allegations. This raises three key considerations for humanitarian responders. First, the capacity for the Arakan Army to displace blame for abuses against civilians by citing a Tatmadaw conspiracy should be noted. There are documented cases of Arakan Army troops committing abuses against civilians, not limited to the Rohingya. Second, the narrative invoked by the Arakan Army frames the Rohingya as tools of the military, arguably legitimising violence against them. This framing will appeal to many communities in Rakhine State, as it aligns with a widespread narrative which posits that the Rohingya have been used by the military to keep the Rakhine ‘weak’ and to stop them from mobilising against the union government. Finally, amid the risk of escalating hate speech, existing conflict mechanisms between Rakhine and Rohingya villages – which reportedly were put into gear this week in Minbya – will be crucial for strengthening social cohesion at a village level and should be prioritised over the creation of new structures.
Bago Region and Kayin State
Lieutenant Colonel Aung Kyaw Soe, commander of Light Infantry Battalion No. 708, died when an anti-vehicle mine exploded at 3pm on 27 January near Nat Taung Village in Papun Township of Kayin (formerly Karen) State. The Tatmataw accused the Karen National Union and its political wing the Karen National Liberation Army, of targeting the Tatmadaw battalion commander in the mine attack because he was serving as part of a unit providing security for a road-building project that the Karen National Union opposes – an allegation denied by the Karen National Union. The highly sensitive road project – to redevelop an old road connecting Bago Region’s Kyauk Kyi Township and Karen State’s Papun Township – was started by the Tatmadaw in early 2018. The resulting fallout of intermittent clashes since then have dramatically increased tensions between the Karen National Union and Tatmadaw. The temporary suspension of the project by the Tatmataw in May 2018 after bilateral meetings between top leaders of the two parties calmed the tensions briefly. However, in mid-November 2019, the Tatmataw resumed its road construction work. The Karen group has responded with targeted anti-vehicle landmine attacks which injured Tatmadaw troops and damaged military vehicles transporting goods to security forces and engineers. Recent high-level and local-level meetings since December 2019 aimed at cooling tensions between the top leaders as well as the commanders on the ground do not seem to have reached any significant agreements, but have kept bilateral communication alive.
Analysis: Why is this road project so sensitive and what are the underlying root causes? That a military actor is constructing a militarily strategic road in territory controlled by an ethnic armed organisation is interpreted by the Karen National Union as a violation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Despite objections, the Tatmataw has continued the project, with the potential to severely set back advances in trust-building between the Tatmadaw and a wide array of ethnic armed organisations. The Karen National Union evidently suspects that the Tatmadaw has pushed for the road project to reinforce its military strategy in the region. The road traverses territory under the control of the Karen National Liberation Army Brigades 2, 3 and 5 and could be utilised by the Tatmadaw for future military operations. Reports of land grabs have also emerged in relation to the project. Regular reports of clashes between the Tatmataw and ethnic armed organisations, signatory to either the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement or bilateral ceasefire agreements, are caused in no small part by a lack of clear demarcation of territories in the agreements. There are concerns that the recently heightened tensions between the Karen National Union and the Tatmataw may lead to fresh delays in the recently resumed peace process after stalling for over a year. The Karen National Union’s formal suspension of involvement in the formal peace process since late 2018 up to its recent participation in the 8th Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting in January 2020 contributed to the standstill of the entire process, reflecting how crucial the group’s involvement is to the agreement. A similar suspension and impact to the peace process cannot be ruled out – some actors within the Karen National Union wish to refrain from participation in the formal peace talks until the concerns on the road project are addressed.
As the outbreak figures of the corona virus have increased in neighbouring China and the virus has emerged in several countries around the world, Myanmar has also been experiencing its impacts increasingly day by day. In terms of outbreaks and suspected cases, impact to the country has been little thus far – seven people suspected of having coronavirus symptoms have been quarantined at hospitals across the country. Notably, among them is a man in Minbya Township, who has been admitted to Minbya hospital with symptoms of the coronavirus after he returned from China via the Muse-Shweli border crossing in northern Shan State on 20 January. The man is undergoing further tests.
On the other hand, the economic impact created by the corona virus scare in Myanmar has been huge, especially for the tourism sector, the agriculture sector and some local trading businesses, including the e-commerce retailers, and particularly those that export or import products from China over the border trade. Local tour operators, hotels and airlines reportedly received up to 20 per cent mass cancellations of bookings, largely from Chinese tourists, who account for nearly a third of the total tourists visiting the country. Likewise, melon farmers and traders are losing their investments due to the outbreak of the virus and the resulting restrictions of inter-province movement of goods inside China, coincidentally right at the peak of trade season to the main Chinese market. As time prolongs, other additional economic stakeholders in Myanmar are expected to suffer since China has been by far the largest trading partner – for both export and import – for Myanmar.
The Myanmar government has taken serious measures to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak. The Myanmar government’s mission, on 2 February, of airlifting fifty-nine of 63 Myanmar students stranded in Wuhan earned praise from the public on social media. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the suspension of visas on arrival for Chinese travellers from 1 February until the outbreak subsides. The country’s health minister even reportedly said that the government is also considering temporarily closing the border with China. It is important to take note that every month over a million people use Myanmar’s 20 border crossings between 10 townships in four states and regions along the 1,700 kilometre shared border with China. There are reportedly fewer people crossing the border since the coronavirus outbreak. Authorities in Myanmar turned back a China Southern flight from Guangzhou with almost everyone on board – except for two Myanmar nationals who agreed to isolate themselves at their homes – on 31 January after one of the Chinese passengers was found with flu symptoms similar to the coronavirus and was taken to be quarantined at a hospital in Yangon. Myanmar does not have the capacity to test for the virus in-country, and is sending samples from suspected patients to neighboring Thailand.
Construction of the Paletwa-Matupi bridge, southern Chin State, will be complete by the end of March 2020, according to state media. That outlet reports that the bridge will improve mobility from southern Chin State into central Myanmar, as well as through Rakhine State, increasing local peoples’ ability to access health and education services and livelihood opportunities in all seasons of the year. The bridge is part of the Indian-backed Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Trasport project, and construction was halted in March 2019 after the Arakan Army attacked a cargo ship carrying supplies for the bridge – delaying its completion. Armed conflict continues in the southern township as the Arakan Army continues to cement its influence. Partners report that 1,823 people are displaced in Paletwa Township
In the refugee camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya Christians subject to attacks in previous weeks remain in UNHCR transit camps. The wide array of hate speech which emerged online towards the minority group among extremist elements in the camps and further abroad reflect the risks that this community faces. Many of the comments take issue with the Christian group identifying as Rohingya, suggesting that being Muslim is integral to how many Rohingya experience their identity – and the apparent threat to that identity when confronted with difference. Relatedly, with few exceptions, few Rohingya leaders have spoken out to call for unity.
Still in Bangladesh, local Rakhine media have reported that an ethnic Rakhine veteran ‘freedom fighter’ of the Bangladesh Liberation War, U Maung Yine, who passed away at age 67, has been laid to rest with a state funeral in Cox’s Bazar. Narinjara news report that the force which seized independence for Bangladesh against Pakistan was a diverse one, consisting of Rakhine, Hindus and Maramargyi, as well as Bengalis. In the current context, as the Arakan Army seeks to gain greater autonomy for ‘Arakan’, deeply divided in recent history, references to such unity are highly significant.
On 27 January, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture submitted its nomination to UNESCO for Mrauk U to become recognised as a World Heritage Site. While Mrauk U was a hotspot for conflict throughout much of 2019, there have been few clashes in December 2019 and January 2020.
The Community Analysis Support System (CASS) provides operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to Myanmar. CASS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.