Myanmar Round Up: February 2020
Jaideep Chanda
A round up of selected English open source reports on Myanmar

The Presidential visit by President U Win Myint to India was the major highlight of India Myanmar relationsfor February 2020. Sadly, violence dominated February 2020 in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) and the Arakan Army (AA) slugged it out in Chin and Rakhine States, to the peril of the locals caught in between. Aung San SuuKyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) valiantly attempted to take forward the debate for constitutional amendments to reduce the role of the military. Coronavirus dominated mind-space though February surprisingly passed without a single positive report from Myanmar.

Presidential Visit

President U Win Myint visited New Delhi, Agra and Bodh Gaya on a four day visit to India from 26 – 29 February 2020. The visit, though glaringly glossed over by the Indian main stream media, was a grand success with substantial value based agreements being signed between the two countries and an extremely comprehensive Joint Statement topped off the visit. A detailed analysis of the visit by this author is available
here. A key highlight of the visit was the inclusion of the Rakhine Chief Minister in the Delegation and the signing of four MoUs for the development of Rakhine State.1,2 The leaders of both delegationsalso declared that they wouldnot let any organization use their territory for attacks against the other nation.The joint communiqué issued by India’s Embassy in Myanmar reads, “Two leaders reiterated their pledge not to let any organization use their territory in any hostile action against the other nation.” In addition, India would provide US$5 million in aid for implementing 29 additional projects in the 2020-21 financial year. 3

Violence in Rakhine and Chin
Rakhine Conflict

Eighty one armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army were recorded in February 2020, withmaximum fighting taking place in Kyauktaw and Rathedaung Townships in Rakhine State and Paletwa Township inChin State.4 This included the use of airstrikes and the deployment of heavy multiple rocket launchers.5

Details of some of the major contacts and actions reported by media in February 2020 include:

As a result of the AA shooting at the helicopter carrying two ministers, the organisation issued a statement advising civilians in Arakan State to refrain from using military aircraft, vehicles, and vessels when travelling in conflict zones. The 20 February warning was intended to avoid unwanted civilian casualties, with the ethnic armed group also urging Arakan State residents not to use civilian vehicles and vessels with Tatmadaw soldiers on board.21

Management of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

As a fallout of the violence, management of IDPs and the politics related to IDPs has come to the forefront. Firstly the existing IDP camps based on bamboo and thatch shelters were found to be in need for repair and up gradation since they were made the preceding year.22 Secondly, the numbers of IDPs has increased manifold. The Rakhine Ethnic Congress reported there were more than 98,000 IDPs in Rakhine State as of December 2019, and 106,614 IDPs as of January 25, 2020. IDPs have reportedly increased in Ann, Myebon, Minbya, Rathedaung and Pauktaw townships.23 IDPs in North Rakhinehave been facing food shortages due to non-delivery of rations to these camps. Similarly, food shortages have been reported at Wataung IDP camp in Minbya Township and Pethadu IDP camp in Rathedaung Township.24 More than 700 IDPs who fled their homes in four Arakan State townships and have been sheltered in Sittwe for nearly six months, see little hope for a return anytime soon.25

IDPs currently taking shelter at temporary relief camps in Buthidaung Township have reportedly petitioned Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr. Win Myat Aye to return home ahead of the rainy season for harvesting purposes.26

The Speaker for Rakhine State’s Parliament has asked the Myanmar government to help ethnic Rakhine IDPs before the State Parliament adjourned on 17 February 2020. Speaker U San Kyaw Hla said that IDPs in Rakhine receive only 300 kyats (US$0.21) from the government per day for food, which is not enough. The lawmaker asked the government to let international humanitarian organizations help because, though the government is best situated to help IDPs, it has had problems providing them with enough food.27

Impact on Chin State

Chin State has borne the brunt of the fighting ever since the AA started using Paletwa Township as a base. Chin National Day has been celebrated from the day the bilateral ceasefire was signed in 2012, but efforts to observe it this year have been thwarted by armed conflict. Thantlang was chosen over Paletwa, due to the violence, as the venue for the 72nd Chin National Day on 20 February 2020.28

Clashes between Tatmadaw and the AA have forced schools in the region to close down since the first week of February. Further, the Chin State Municipal Minister U Soe Htet informed the media that civil servants are refusing to work in Paletwa because of security concerns.There are 384 basic education schools in Paletwa, but 212 schools had already been closed since 2019 due to a lack of teachersbefore the current clashes. 29

Arrest of AA Chief Maj Gen Tun Myat Naing’s family

Myanmar Police investigating the apprehension of AA Chief’s family has approached Thailand and Laos for evidence to prosecute them under a counter-terrorism law. Myanmar police had arrested Maj Gen Tun Myat Naing’s brother-in-law U Kyaw Naing and his wife Ma Ya Min Myat, (the AA Chief’s sister), as she came to Yangon International Airport to receive her husband when he arrived from Thailand in October 2019. 30 In a related development, the wife and two children of Maj Gen Tun Myat Naing have been relocated to Switzerland on 25 March 2020 after the country agreed to accept them following a 12 week detention in Thailand. Ma Hnin Zar Phyu, the wife of the chief and their two children aged 11 years and 11 months had been detained by the Thailand immigration officials in Chiang Mai on 4 December 2019due to visa overstay by one day.31

Violence induced Food Shortages

The Khumi Affairs Coordination Council (KACC) released a statement on 19 February 20stating that due to clashes between the Tatmadaw and AA, communications and transportation for residents of Chin State’s Paletwa Township had been adversely affected and hence residents were facing health issues and shortages of food. It requested both belligerents to provide food to civilians and enable them to return to their homes. 32 Ethnic minority civilians from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state meanwhile are feeling the pinch of dwindling food supplies amid ongoing clashes between Myanmar troops and the AA. The fighting, which has spread into neighboring Chin state, has affected residents of Paletwa township, where the Tatmadaw has imposed restrictions on the transport of rice in an effort to cut off food supplies to AA forces based there.33

Misconduct by AA

In a rare incident, the Myanmar Army has accused the AA of rape wherein apparently four soldiers of the AA raped Bengali women of Theintan Village, Buthidaung Township in Rakhine State. Allegedly the four members of AA met four ten-household administrators on 31 January 20 and demanded Ks 4 million compensation for the removal of four landmines controlled with remotes which had been planted near the village. When the administrators declined, the soldiers in retaliation raped the women. 34

In a separate development, Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson at the Tatmadaw True News Information Team in Nay Pyi Taw raised the issue of designation of the AA as a terrorist organization, on 22 February 2020, based on the fact that the organization indulges in terror acts and war crimes.35

Peace talks with AA

The Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U ZawHtay said on 2 February 2020, during a news conference at the Presidential Palace at Nay Pyi Taw, that despite fierce fighting between the military and Arakan Army, the door was still open for the latter to come to the table for a peace dialogue addressing their grievances.36

As a build up to the peace process, the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), a Rakhine armed group, has asked the government to allow Rakhine people to hold a national-level political dialogue prior to the upcoming Union Peace Conference. If permitted, the public consultations would allow Rakhine people to contribute their views on what shape a future federal union should take, as Nay Pyi Taw engages in political negotiations with the country’s ethnic armed organizations.37

Hope for peace in Mrauk-U

The sound of gunfire, has not been heard in Mrauk-U Township since a proposal to designate the former Arakan’s capital, Mrauk-U a UNESCO World Heritage Site was submitted on 27 January 20. Cautious optimism about a UNESCO driven peace in the area is lingering. Some of Mrauk-U’s heritage treasures, such as its ancient temples and pagodas, have sustained damage during the hostilities earlier.38

Violence in other parts of Myanmar
Kachin Independence Army (KIA)

The KIA has rejected a Tatmadaw claim that 21 KIA deserters surrendered to government forces in Mong Ko, northern Shan State in February 2020.The Office of the Commander-in-Chief reported that the alleged deserters included three captains, and that together they had 10 rifles and nearly 130 rounds of ammunition. The report said that the KIA soldiers wanted to live legally in Myanmar and that they believed in the military’s peace process, so they abandoned their weapons.

Col Naw Bu, who is charge of the KIA’s information department, stated that “The information about 21 deserters surrendering to the army is not true. They are not our soldiers” and wrote off the military’s report as propaganda and alleged that military was in the process of forming a militia in Mong Ko for which they needed 60 soldiers and hence were trying to recruit locals.39

Karen National Union (KNU)

On 27 January 2020, Lieutenant Colonel Aung Kyaw Soe, Commander,708 Light Infantry Battalion was killed in an anti-vehicle mine explosion near Point 3817, Htin-ShuDaung [Mount Pine] while inspecting a road, according to Col. KyawSoe Moe, spokesperson of Southern Command.The landmine exploded in the area of No. 5 Brigade of the KNU but they have denied allegations of being directly responsible for the fatality. A spokesperson for the No. 5Brigade KNU, Major Saw Ka Leh Doh, stated “We have planted anti-vehicle mines on the road. The Tatmadaw came to the place to find those mines. The Tatmadaw soldiers were injured while attempting to detonate the mine. It was not like our Brigade No.5 caused the mine attack.”

The genesis of these landmines being planted by the KNU lies in the fact that as per the four year old Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) the Tatmadaw is not allowed to use vehicles to transport rations for their troops in the No. 5 Brigade KNU area. They are required to either walk or use horses. Off late there have been frequent clashes at the lower levels between the KNU and the Tatmadaw in the area. The Tatmadaw, under the garb of reconstruction of an old road connecting Bago Region’s Kyauk Kyi and Karen State’s Papun, is rebuilding it in violation of the principles agreed in the NCA. The KNU believes the military’s road reconstruction activities will lead to the deployment of more Tatmadaw troops in the area. The prospect has heightened fears among local residents, who have urged that the government, not military engineers, handle road construction work. As a countermeasure, the KNU has used mines to deter vehicle movement. Since 11 November 20, military vehicles using the road to transport rations and for administrative purposes have been hit by KNU-triggered mine explosions three times, while there have also been seven armed clashes, while military troops had stepped on landmines seven times.3

Wa State Army purchases a helicopter

In possibly what is a unique development for insurgent groups in the region, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed organization, confirmed it had acquired a helicopter, making the northeast-based rebel group the nation’s first to possess such an aircraft. A UWSA spokesman denied speculation that the group’s latest acquisition—which was reportedly ordered and delivered from China—would be used for military purposes, insisting it is only for “personal and leisure use.” U Nyi Rang, the UWSA’s liaison officer, confirmed that the UWSA had acquired a four-seater helicopter, adding that it was purchased late last year and is already in use.41

Landmine clearance programme

The government began national-level discussions on the much-delayed landmine-clearing programme, U TunZaw, deputy director general of the Department of Disaster Management informed the media. He said the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Tatmadaw are attended the talks.Thousands of people have been killed and maimed by landmines that litter the conflict-torn countryside. Both the military and ethnic armed groups remain reluctant to give up the use of landmines despite appeals by international organizations. The discussions though still at a preliminary stage, focused on the establishment of a National Mine Action Authority, a mine action centre under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, establishing state and regional level mine-clearing groups by the Ministry of Defence.The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement vowed to provide K200,000 (US$137) and prosthetic limbs for each victim of landmine explosions. Ninety townships or one-third of the countryhave landmine dangers which could take over 20 years to clear.42

Coronavirus

In a continued though unconvincing bid to delay the inevitable, Myanmar suspended visa-on-arrival facilities for Chinese travellers, due to the threat of coronavirus. The facility had been in place for since 1 October 2018 when, in a bid to increase tourism, visa exemptions had been put in place for citizens from Japan, South Korea, Macau and Hong Kong, and visa-on-arrival for China. Since then, Chinese tourists increased and eventually topped the list of foreign travellers to Myanmar. In October 2019, the Myanmar government had extended the visa-on-arrival program for Chinese travellers for one more year.43 Earlier, Myanmar had sent back a Southern China flight from Guangzhou with almost all passengers, after one of them exhibited flu like symptoms.44 Myanmar also suspended six Chinese airlines flying direct flights between Myanmar and China due to the coronavirus. 45

Fifty-nine of 63 Myanmar students stranded in Wuhan were evacuated to Mandalay on a chartered flight on 1 March 2020. Four students were left behind due to two of them having fever, one travelling outside Wuhan and one having problems with travel documents. 46 Subsequently two students were later evacuated by an Indian Air Force Globemaster along with 76 Indians, 23 Bangladeshis, and nationals from the Maldives, the US, China, and South Korea. 47 All Myanmar evacuees were kept at Kandawnadi Hospital in Mandalay under surveillance by a special health team. Ironically, as reported by Global Times, China, as per the Myanmar Ambassador to China, as on 10 February 2020, Myanmar had no plans to close its border despite the outbreak of the coronavirus. Myanmar Ambassador to China U Myo Thant Pe allegedly told the Global Times that there were no need for measures that "unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade" in order to halt the spread of the coronavirus! 48

On the other side, Myanmar announced its plan to donate rice to China to tide over the coronavirus crisis.49

Impact on Economy

Exports of watermelons and muskmelons to China dropped leading to prices plunging by over 50% as per U Naing Win, chair of the Myanmar Watermelon and Muskmelon Producers and Exporters Association. Myanmar exports more than 800,000 tons of watermelons and 150,000 tons of muskmelons every year. As on 2 February 2020, only 200,000 tons of watermelon and a small volume of muskmelons had been shipped to markets abroad.50 Myanmar’s desire to hedge its exports have not met with any major success.51 The tourism industry too has been badly hit.52

Kachin state reported food shortage especially of rice due to increasing costs after China closed down border to check the coronavirus break out. Over 20,000 citizens in Chipwi and Hsawlaw areas face shortages as per Khaw Marwu, of the Lisu National Development Party from Hsawlaw constituency.53 Overall the China Myanmar bilateral border trade dropped by US$209 million from 23 January to 18 February 2020 compared to the same period last year as per U Khin Maung Lwin, assistant permanent secretary for the Ministry of Commerce. 54 Similarly, garment factories are reportedly on the brink of closure due shortage of raw materials. Automobile industry is also facing the pain due to shortage of parts from China post coronavirus blockades. 55,56 Reportedly the worst hit exports are watermelons, muskmelons, seafood and tissue-culture bananas including, surprisingly, in the Sagaing and Kachin regions where the farm labour has not been paid by their Chinese employers. The farmers in Sagaing had rented out land for growing watermelons and muskmelons to Chinese.57 In another development, China and Myanmar have decided to collaborate in fighting against wildlife trade to combat coronavirus.58 The 57th Jade and Gems Emporium to be held in Nay Pyi Taw in March has been postponed by theMyanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association because of the outbreak.59

Adding to the risks of infection, a large number of migrant workers from Myanmar returned to Myanmar due closure of the factories as a result of the coronavirus.60

Kyaukphyu

In December 2019, the Central Economic Committee of Myanmar issued an order for development of 4300 acres of the Kyaukphyu zone. Out of this about 608 acres were for the deep sea port project, 2450 acres for an industrial zone and 1250 acres for high-end housing. The Ministry of Home Affairs said the government has already confiscated about 1850 acres of land for the project, in Ramree Island. Deputy Minister for Commerce U Aung Htoo said people who lost their crops and land due to the project will be compensated. He said. “We will also give corporate social responsibility compensation apart from compensation for land and crops.” The Special Economic Zone and the Deep Sea Project will be developed by the CITIC Consortium and Myanmar-Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone Holdings Groups of Company composed of 42 local private companies from Myanmar.61,62

Appointment of new Home Minister in Myanmar

The Home Affairs Ministry is one of three whose ministers are nominated by the Commander-in-Chief, rather than the President. The other two ministries are Border Affairs and Defence.63

The outgoing incumbent Lt Gen Kyaw Swe, resigned from government and returned to the army. Newly-appointed Home Affairs Minister Lt Gen Soe Htut, 59 vowed to ensure rule of law in the country, which is facing conflicts with ethnic armed groups and a huge drug problem. The new Home Minister graduated with Intake 64 of the Defence Services Academy, and became head of the Office of Military Security Affairs in 2016. 64 He is the son of late Brigadier General Lun Maung, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta, and for this reason, he led a life of ease as a junior officer in the military, according to a former major general who served as a regional commander. “He is a hard worker. He also tries hard in schoolwork. But he is not an outstanding fighter. His combat capability is sort of so-so. As his father was a senior military officer, he was able to rise comfortably in the Tatmadaw with the support of his father,” said the officer. His father, Brigadier General Lun Maung, was killed in a helicopter crash in 2001 along with SPDC Secretary, Lieutenant General Tin Oo and other high-ranking military officials. Lt-Gen Soe Htut continued to receive favour from the military leadership as a son of a senior military officer who died in the line of duty. His command appointments include command of 101 Light Infantry Division, Pakokku, central Myanmar, 88 Division, Magwe and regional commander of Eastern and Central Commands. In 2016 he was appointed Judge Advocate-General on promotion to Lieutenant General and thereafter took over as Chief of Military Affairs Security, reflecting the trust the Senior General bestowed upon him. The Home Ministers appointment is crucial to improving civil-military relations and it is understood that the Military Chief would nominate someone he considers trustworthy and loyal.65,66,67

Peace Process

Government officials and representatives of ethnic armed organizations that have signed the NCA held a coordination meeting at the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC) in Yangon on 2 February 2020. The meeting was aimed to implement the eight points of resolution adopted at the 8th Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM) on Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. At the coordination meeting, Vice Chairman of NRPC Union Attorney-General U Tun Tun Oo made an opening remark, saying the eight points of agreement made in recent 8th JICM included holding the 4th Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong during the first four months of 2020; discussions about possible framework agreement to implement NCA; signing Part 3 of Union Accord and implementing JICM’s resolutions.

The government proposed a timeline for holding meetings to implement JICM resolutions.The Union Attorney-General suggested prior preparations for the 4th Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong as planned and coordination of all stakeholders in building a Federal Democratic Union that can ensure a lasting peace which is a common goal of the government and EAOs. He added that the needs of thorough discussions to make agreements on expectations in NCA and implementation process, peace process beyond 2020 General Election, exchange of views on security affairs in NCA in addition to enforcement of ceasefire, building mutual trusts among the stakeholders and making successful negotiations in both political and military affairs. All the parties in NCA have agreed to amend the Constitution and the relevant laws, based on the resolutions in 21st Century Panglong.68

Facebook in Myanmar

Facebook has held an exalted status in Myanmar due to the absence other major social media platforms due to the lack of Unicode in Myanmar till October 2019. Thus for long, Facebook formed 85% of internet traffic in Myanmar.3 Hence the conduct of Facebook is expected to have a major impact on the elections scheduled in November 2020. In this regard Facebook and Ooredoo (a mobile and internet company) have sent two vans carrying trainers across remote areas of Myanmar in the last two months of 2019 and educated people on how to use internet safely and responsibly as part of the nationwide “Internet 101” digital literacy programme. During November and December, 2019, two vans with the “Internet 101” logo visited villages in 26 townships.70

Based on the concern that Facebook might have on the elections, U Myint Naing, a member of the Union Election Commission (UEC), at a press conference held at the UEC office on 6 February 2020, stated three key points. He stated that firstly, a committee would be formed to monitor Facebook posts; secondly, discussions were undertaken to remove content that would harm the election and promote hate speech and thirdly an agreement was made to delete posts that Facebook found to be harmful and to delete posts at the request of the UEC.

On the other hand, Facebook claimed that it has been preparing for the 2020 election by employing over 100 Myanmar language speaking staff who would be able to sift through all written content, according to Rafael Frankel, Facebook’s Director of Public Policy for Southeast Asia. He also said that the Myanmar staff had been familiarized with Facebook’s community standards and are qualified to review whether content is in line with said standards. He further claimed that services of third parties would also be utilized to decide between true and false news, which would be decided based on Facebook’s community standard.71,72 Facebook on 13 February 20, removed 13 accounts and 10 pages promoting Myanmar military-back telecom operator Mytel for violating its policy against using its services to manipulate people and engage in “coordinated inauthentic behavior”. It said individuals used fake accounts to manage pages posing as independent telecom consumer news hubs. The Myanmar audience-focused activities originated in Myanmar and Vietnam. Facebook said that “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to two telecom providers—Mytel in Myanmar and Viettel in Vietnam—and Gapit Communications, a PR firm in Vietnam.”73

Indian Engagement in Myanmar
Aid

While the total aid to countries has decreased by about Rs 56 crores from Rs 6,963crores revised estimates of 2019-20 to Rs 6,907crores in Budget 2020-21, allotment to Myanmar per se, saw a hike in allocation from Rs 170 crores in 2019-20 to Rs 300 crores for the next fiscal.74

Visit of Chief of Naval Staff of India to Myanmar

The Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, visited Myanmar from 17 - 20 February 2020 to consolidate and enhance the bilateral maritime relations between India and Myanmar. During his visit, the CNS held bilateral discussions with Admiral Tin Aung San, C-in-C Myanmar Navy and also called on H.E. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, C-in-C Defence Services, and other senior Government officials. He visited the National Defence College in Nay Pyi Taw, and also inspected the Naval Dockyard and Training Command of the Myanmar Navy in Yangon. He also met Daw Aung San SuuKyi, State Counsellor and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 18 February 2020. During the meeting, they exchanged views on matters pertaining to the promotion of bilateral relations and cooperation including human resources development and natural disaster management.75,76,77

Imphal-Mandalay Bus Service

A trial run of an Imphal-Mandalay bus service had been carried out in December 2015 wherein a 27-member team of officials from both State and Central Governments had studied the condition of the 579-km long route.The much awaited bus service will finally begin in April 2020 as per Manipur’s Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s statement in the Legislative Assembly during a discussion on the transport department. The bus service will initially be operated thrice a week and could be turned into a daily service depending on demand. U Nay Lin Oo, an executive of Shwe Mandalar Express Co Ltd, said the 14-hour trip could be made possible by a partnership with India’s Seven Sister Holidays Co Ltd. The agreement between the two companies was signed on Friday, he added, and the inaugural trip is set for April 7.

U Nay Lin Oo said a 27-seat first-class buses will be used for the inaugural trip. ShweMandalar Express will provide service from Mandalay to the border town of Tamu in Chin State, and Seven Sister Holidays will provide service from Tamu to Moreh and Imphal. The journey from Mandalay to Tamu will take 11 hours, while Tamu to Imphal will take two hours. U Nay Lin Oo said that once road repairs are completed in India and Myanmar, the trip from Mandalay to Imphal would take only five hours.78,79

Presentation of Engineering Equipment

An Indo-Myanmar engineer equipment presentation ceremony was conducted at Moreh Integrated Check Post (ICP) on 17 Feb 2020, wherein the Indian army gifted 3 CR TR size II (BD80), 3 CR TR size IV (BD80), 3 excavators (JCB 3DX), 3 Backhoe loader (BEML), 3 motor graders (BG605), 10 boat assault, 10 Out Boat Motor (OBM) and 50 rescue life jackets etc. Senior military officials from both sides were present during the ceremony. 80

Vice Senior General attends DefExpo India – 2020

A Tatmadaw delegation led by Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Commander-in-Chief (Army) Vice-Senior General Soe Win attended the 11th Defence Expo of India (DefExpo India-2020) to be held in the Republic of India from 5 – 8 February 20.81

Visit by Chairman of the UEC of Myanmar

Chairman of the UEC of Myanmar, U HlaThein led a delegation to India to observe Delhi Assembly elections. He met CEC of India to further strengthen bilateral Institutional linkages. The delegation observed the Delhi Assembly Elections held on 8 February and stayed in Delhi till 12 February 2020.82

Request to open border trade at Pangsau Pass

Arunachal Pradesh, Nampong MLA LaisamSimai emphasized the need to “formally reopen” border trade in Pangsau Pass for the benefit of both India and Myanmar.The MLA was participating as a panellist at a conference on ‘Indo-Myanmar trade connectivity’ in Delhi on 3 Feb 2020. The conference was organised by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).83

Rakhine Townships to benefit from Indian Aid

Displaced people in strife-torn Buthidaung and Kyauktaw townships in Rakhine State will be the first to get assistance donated by the Indian government, a senior state official said on 5 February 2020. Colonel Min Thant, Rakhine’s Security and Border Affair minister, said the relief goods have been transferred to the two townships. They also plan to transfer donated items for internally displaced people in other townships through a quota system, he added. The Rakhine government would manage and distribute the donations. Relief goods worth US$235,456, including 20,000 bags of rice, cooking oil, toor dal, chana dal, white pepper, turmeric, and salt, were turned over to the Rakhine government on January 21. 84

Internet restrictions

Myanmar government has ordered telecom companies to re-impose an internet shutdown in parts of conflict-torn western Myanmar despite criticism by the UN, businesses and civil society.The shutdown went into effect at 10.00pm local time on 3 February and affects services in five Rakhine and Chin townships viz. Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Myebon and Chin’s Paletwa townships for three months. Apart from these, Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Minbya townships have been facing an ongoing blackout for over half a year.

The Transport and Communications Ministry had directed telecom companies to “temporarily” suspend internet, citing security requirements and public interest in the ministry directive. These areas were previously under an internet ban from June to August 2019.85

Elections 2020

Nine minor political parties have formed a political alliance ahead of the general election scheduled for November.The United Political Parties Alliance (UPPA) is intending to push for changes through collective strength for the betterment of the country, said party leaders as they launched the alliance in Yangon on 5 February 2020.“For small- and medium-sized parties, it is better to go to the 2020 election collaboratively with mutual understanding, rather than go through independently. We believe this will bring about better results, and a fairer and freer election,” said general secretary U Myo Nyunt of the Democracy and Peace Party.The alliance is made up of parties that were formed only after the 2015 general election and are yet to win a seat.It also includes the Party for People, Public of Labour Party, Yeomanry Development Party, Myanmar People’s Democratic Party, People’s Party of Myanmar Farmers and Workers, National Prosperity Party and the Union of Myanmar Federation of National Politics. Some six more parties are still in the process of discussion to join the nine-member bloc. And the bloc will also cooperate with other alliances, said U Myo Nyunt. The UPPA plans to contest across the country, but will give priority to ethnic candidates in ethnic-majority areas, said chairman U Htay Kyaw of the Myanmar People’s Democratic Party. 86

In another input, workers and farmers say they will contest the 2020 general election as independent candidates in order to better promote and protect their rights.Ten civil society organizations, including the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) and Myanmar Infrastructure, Craft and Service (MICS), as well as labour rights defenders held a press conference in Yangon on 5 February 2020 to unveil the election campaign.The independent candidates will contest seats in both houses of the Union Parliament and in Hlaing Tharyar Township in the Yangon regional parliament. The township houses the largest industrial zone and migrant population in Myanmar, according to CTUM president U Maung Maung.The National League for Democracy had largely ignored the rights of farmers and workers in amending labour and farmland laws since taking office in 2016, said U Maung Maung. And lawmakers had not done enough to improve their constituencies, he said.87

Constitutional Amendments

Military members and their families will have to vote at polling stations outside of their barracks in this year’s general elections after MPs passed amendments to election by-laws on 20 February 2020. Previously, soldiers voted inside military bases under the supervision of their superiors, which meant election monitors were unable to get access. The change is one of eight amendments that the Union Election Commission presented to parliament in October. Lawmakers were not required to vote on or discuss the amendments, which would have gone into effect after 90 days if there had been no objections. But several military MPs and some ethnic lawmakers submitted objections, triggering a vote in the Lower House. MPs also approved a change on Thursday that allows people to vote in a new constituency after living there for 90 days. The military argued that soldiers could be exposed to attacks from armed groups if they vote outside their bases.88

In another development, a debate on the proposed amendments to the 2008 Constitution started in the Assembly of the Union on 25 February 2020 with legislators sharply divided over its pro-Tatmadaw (military) provisions. U Nay Lin Aung, the National League for Democracy’s MP for Mindat township, Chin State, in the Phyithu Hluttaw (Lower House), criticised the provision that reserves 25 percent of parliament seats for military appointees.“Under this Constitution, the public elects only 75pc of MPs, and the rest are appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services,” he said. “This provision can only be amended by more than 75pc of MPs, which means it is impossible.” “Section 436(a) should be changed because the constitution cannot be amended despite the people’s wishes,” he added. But military MP Major Htet Lin objected, saying the country’s democratic transition is only nine years old and peace remains elusive in many parts of the country. He warned that some groups seek to infringe on Myanmar’s sovereignty, taking advantage of internal unrest and because of “foreign instigation.” “The Tatmadaw is a pro-democracy institution, and is participating in politics to positively contribute to the development of a multi-party democracy [system],” MajHtet Lin said.89

Rohingyas
Repatriation

Apparently over 624 Rohingyas have voluntarily repatriated to Myanmar on 29 January 2020. They returned to Myanmar of their own accord and have been accepted after scrutiny, according to Maungdaw District General Administration Department. Some Bengalis from Bangladesh are coming back as they wish and they are being accepted under Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD) programme. 90,91

Involvement of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)

On 8 February 2020, in the hilly jungles near the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, Bangladesh police forces were involved in a gunfight with a criminal gang. Local news sources reported that the police rescued three Rohingya who were kidnapped and held for ransom. Earlier that week, a clash between two armed groups in the camps injured 14 Rohingya refugees. It has long been a theory that external forces have been trying to fish in these troubled waters and spread extremist sentiment. Recent reports by Indian newspapers indicated that some of the efforts may have Pakistani links. A Times of India report claimed in January 2020 that Indian agencies had issued a fresh warning to the country's armed forces and border guards that Pakistani ISI is involved in providing training to 40 Rohingya people in Cox's Bazar.They are providing this training through Jamaat-ulMujahideen of Bangladesh (JMB), a Bangladeshi terrorist organization, claimed the report. It also reported that ISI provided JMB with a first instalment of 10 million taka ($117,000, €107,000) that was funnelled through Saudi Arabia and Malaysia for the training.The report went on to say that India's intelligence agencies fear that these terrorists will be pushed into their country from Bangladesh after Pakistan has failed to do so through the Line of Control between Pakistan and India in Jammu and Kashmir where border protection has been strengthened.

The Director of Research of Brussels-based think tank South Asia Democratic Forum, Siegfried O. Wolf, explained that "There is clear evidence that Pakistan, via its ISI in conjunction with the military, is giving protection, training, strategic planning, financial assistance and equipment to terrorist and insurgency groups to destabilize neighboring countries, foremost Afghanistan and India”. He added that besides the "physical hurdles" due to the new international attention on Kashmir, it will be more difficult to keep its cross-border terrorism activities secret and subsequently deny its involvement. As such, the "third country" option is gaining more significance in challenging India.92

Conclusion

Though February 2020 has been a tumultuous month, the coming months are likely to be worse especially with the onset of the coronavirus, now becoming an inevitability. The critical issue now is to control the violence and prevent it from spiralling out of control. Writes Bertil Lintner, journalist and author, about the Arakan Army:

‘Myanmar’s “new” insurgents are highly mobile and, unlike the country’s older generation rebel groups, maintain few fixed positions, using instead hit-and-run attacks that have rendered the Tatmadaw’s traditional frontal assaults increasingly ineffective.The situation is in many ways similar to the one the United States faced in the Vietnam War: an invisible enemy which strikes from the shadows, making counterattacks more likely to hit civilians than enemy combatants.That’s all conspiring to undermine the Tatmadaw’s leverage and clout against ethnic armed groups that rely on local population support to sustain their insurgent fights.

Previously, Myanmar’s myriad rebel groups aimed to control large swathes of territory protected by fixed and often well-armed installations…The AA and TNLA are highly mobile forces which, at least for the time being, do not openly strive to control territory but rather carry out demoralizing guerrilla attacks and then withdraw after accomplishing their missions. Neither group has any permanent military bases, operating instead through temporary hideouts, a mobility which allows them to strike targets where the Tatmadaw are often caught off guard.’

He has effectively summed up the military essence of the strategy being adopted by the Arakan Army to address the Tatmadaw. Till the time the Myanmar Armed Forces do not find a way to break out of this predictable cycle, they will continue to bleed and bleed heavily.93

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