Myanmar Round Up: August 2019
Jaideep Chanda, Senior Fellow, VIF
8888 Uprising Celebrations

The month of August holds reverence in the Myanmar political calendar due to the 8888 Pro-Democracy Uprising, named so since the uprising for democracy peaked on 8 Aug 1988 at Yangon University. This eventually paved te way for the creation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in Sep 1988, the party currently in power in Myanmar.

The 31th Anniversary of the event this year, in a departure from the past, was conducted as an outdoor public event at the Maha Bandoola Park, Yangon. The day has now been formally anointed 8888 Democracy Revolution Day1. Ceremonies of a similar nature were also held in various places including Mandalay, Monywa, Myitkyina and Myawady amongst others2. These celebrations are not without significance and have relevance to the current political situation in the country. Although the NLD has been in power since 2015, however the real spirit of democracy has been held hostage to the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar due to provisions which ensure the Defence Services are empowered to resist any constitutional changes and to nominate key ministers in the Government. In a bold move, the 88 Generation students issued a statement highlighting the need to remove the Tatmadaw from politics3. These kind of statements were unheard of in the past and reflect positively on the evolution of democracy in the country.

Chinese Engagements with Myanmar

China to Myanmar air connectivity is set to receive a boost with China having applied to the Department of Civil Aviation, Myanmar, to grant permission to operate more flights from China to Myanmar4. Presently there are 14 airlines operating out of 22 cities in China. As per news reports, there has been a 140 percent rise in tourists from China to Myanmar since the beginning of 2019 on a year-on-year basis. A comparative assessment of air connectivity to Myanmar from India and China can be seen in the infographic below.

Politically, the Chinese have been actively wooing the NLD politicians over the past few years, using ‘soft power’ to camouflage the traditional misgivings and distrust with Myanmar as also to allay fears related to potential debt traps5. The NLD has sent more than 20 delegations on all expenses paid junkets to China since 2016, although the members claim that they have not been overly influenced by these trips.

Further, the Chinese are also actively mediating amongst the belligerents in the fighting that has erupted in the northern regions of Myanmar which has led to cessation of trade between China and Myanmar6. Beijing’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang invited officials from the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) and interacted with representatives of the Brotherhood Alliance comprising Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) at Kunming in China on 20 Aug 2019. He urged the groups to stop the fighting at the earliest. In response the groups placed their demand to stop operations by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine, Kokang and T’aang areas7. The Chinese alacrity in stepping in to stop the fighting is seen as a direct consequence of the substantial impact the fighting has had on China – Myanmar trade route8 which has on an average approximately 1000 trucks plying on it every day. Reciprocally, Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor of Myanmar U Kyaw Tint Swe, in a meeting at Beijing with China’s State Councellor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 27 Aug 2019, pledged to make efforts to maintain peace in the border areas9.

Further, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, has expressed China’s desire to play a constructive role in the Rohingya issue and is likely to have a trilateral meeting with Bangladesh and Myanmar to work out a way forward from the current impasse where no Rohingya was found willing to return10 to Myanmar despite Myanmar ostensibly being willing to take them back11,12. Chinese diplomats were present on ground on 22 Aug 2019, the day the repatriation was to take place but failed due to lack of willingness of the Rohingyas to return13,14. A working-level meeting between the three countries in Dhaka has now been planned at the initiative of Beijing, as a precursor to a proposed foreign ministers meeting at the end of September, on the side lines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), to work out ways to repatriate the Rohingyas15.

Bangladesh is now reeling under the impact of the Rohingya issue which is now showing signs of erupting into a law and order situation with the anger of the over 7,00,000 lakh Rohingyas getting targeted towards Bangladesh, rather than Myanmar16. In an incident in the last week of August, the Bangladesh Police shot dead two Rohingyas accused of killing a ruling Bangladeshi Jubo League party member17,18. A massive rally was also held at Cox’s Bazar to observe solidarity on the 2nd anniversary of the Myanmar Army clearance operations which led to the eviction of the Rohingyas19. The spill over of the Rohingya exodus into India is evident as seen by recent arrest of six Rohingyas from Imphal Airport with fake Aadhar Cards20. These Rohingyas had smuggled into Delhi and had apparently been trained in a Madarssa there and were returning to establish themselves in Manipur.

In September 2018 a MoU had been signed between China and Myanmar for creation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), extending from Yunnan to Mandalay and further south and west to Yangon and the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine State, respectively21. In continuation of the same, the Framework Agreement Proposal submitted by China to Myanmar has been reviewed by the concerned ministries and is likely to be signed shortly. As per the statement of the Assistant Permanent Secretary and Spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce, U Khin Maung Lwin, the framework covers several agreements including those relating to formation of a bilateral joint committee for the implementation of the cross-border economic cooperation zones; the assignment of management roles for the zones; and types of incentives for investors.

The three Myanmar-China Border Economic Cooperation Zones (BECZ) approved by the Myanmar government include Kanpiketi near Myitkina in Kachin, Chinshwehaw in Laukkai Township of Kokang Self-Administered Zone and Muse in Shan State. The spokesperson allayed apprehensions of the fact that the proposals were made by China and stated that they have been amended to keep Myanmar free from adverse legal obligations. In terms of infrastructure, China has expectedly completed its side of the construction whilst Myanmar is conducting preliminary negotiations for land and transportation. The spokesperson also indicated that the government will call for an Expression of Interest (EOI) after negotiations with the Chinese government on border demarcation. Exhibiting sensitivity towards local sentiments, he declared that the members of the Central Committee for the Establishment and Implementation of BECZs had been directed to ensure that agricultural produce and socioeconomic status of local residents is not jeopardised by these projects and proper compensation including land in lieu be given to residents likely to be displaced by creation of these zones22.

Chinese investments in Myanmar continue on a large scale with an unnamed new Chinese firm showing keen interest in developing an industrial zone in Hlaing Thayar township of Yangon. These parks are being encouraged by the Myanmar authorities and presently 29 industrial parks around Yangon are owned by private firms23.

Brotherhood Alliance

On 29 Jul 2019, the Tatmadaw seized good including drugs worth $10.6 million 96 small jungle camps on the east side of Kutkai Township about 3 km from village Shout Haw. The seizure included 9,000 amphetamine pills, 790 kg of crystal methamphetamine (ice) and equipment and raw materials used to make illegal drugs24.

Apparently in retaliation, the TNLA and the MNDAA jointly launched an artillery offensive against the headquarters of the Infantry Battalion No. 290 in in Tarmoenye, Kutkai Township, Muse District of northern Shan State on 8 Aug 201925. This was followed up by a major coordinated strike26 on the Defence Services Technological Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin in Eastern part of Mandalay, the narcotics check post at Naungkhio Township, the Gote Twin bridge police station and an exit gate at Pyin Oo Lwin. Five 107 mm rockets were fired on the Academy in a stand-off mode from an adjoining hill killing a civilian and injuring an officer27. The combined attacks left 15 soldiers, policemen and civilians dead28.

In a statement29 after the attack, TNLA spokesperson said that the series of attacks by the ethnic alliance was part of a counter, ostensibly against the Myanmar Army’s operations against the Arakan Army in Rakhine and against the TNLA and MNDAA in northern Shan State. He warned of more such attacks in the future. They also claimed to have apparently arrested eight Myanmar Army troops who were travelling to join their units on the front line30. Further the Alliance also halted traffic on the Muse – Mandalay route by setting trucks on fire and blocking the road31 and also destroying a bridge to effect the road block32.

In response, the Myanmar Army has threatened to launch a full scale offensive since the attacks were mostly launched to support drug trafficking and terrorism33. The fighting has resulted in displacement of a large number of civilians34.

The overall impact of the fighting on the trade between China and Myanmar has been devastating35. According to Myanmar Union Commerce Minister Dr. Than Myint, the total trade value through the Muse border trade zone declined 90 percent from around US$5 million per day to around $700,000 per day since 19 Aug 2019, while in the Chin Shwe Haw border trade zone it varied between $2 million to $3 million but has completely halted now. The Chinese involvement in mediation has already been documented in the preceding paragraphs.

Arakan Army

Large scale violence erupted in northern Myanmar with offensives and counter offensives by the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Army in Maungdaw District and Minbya & Mrauk-U Townships of Rakhine State. The Myanmar Army has designated Hpon Tha Chaung of Minbya Township an active war zone36. The fighting which began in end-July 201937, spilled over to Chin State as well. Major Win Myo Aung, the Deputy Commander of 105 Light Infantry Battalion, Myanmar was killed in action in Paletwa Township near the border astride Paletwa and Bangladesh, between border posts 71 and 72. The Arakan Army claimed to have killed at least four soldiers and wounded several others. On the same day, the Arakan Army claims it fought Tatmadaw units in Buthidaung, Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships and killed about 23 soldiers while three of its troops were wounded38. An Arakan Army camp containing a large number of war-like stores was discovered and destroyed near Sittwe by the Myanmar Army on 3 Aug 201939.

Towards end-Aug 2019, the Arakan Army launched a retaliatory strike an army camp on Lin Mway Taung Hill, north of Mrauk U township killing 30 Myanmar Army personnel including a Lt Col and capturing over a dozen Myanmar Army personnel against apparently only two Arakan Army fatalities40. Prima facie, the Myanmar Army seems to have been the worse of in these engagements.

UN ban on Myanmar

On 5 Aug 2019, the United Nations International Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar submitted its detailed report on the economic interests of the Myanmar military and recommended an international ban on trade with companies related to or associated with the Myanmar military41. On its part, the Myanmar government has rejected the report and said it was based on unfounded allegations42. A large number of reputed companies have been named in the report including Infosys and Adani Group from India.

Indian Engagements in Myanmar

India is improving its connectivity to Myanmar with a Myanmar based private airlines, Air KBZ, expressing willingness to operate between Imphal and Mandalay, a route which has recently been approved by the Indian Government.

Four ‘Border Haats’ are also likely to be established in Hnahlan, Zote, Vaphai (Saikhumphai) and Sangau (Pangkhua) in southeastern Mizoram with Myanmar, as stated by Mizoram Commerce and Industries Department Director J. Hmingthanmawia. The detailed proposals have been sent by the State Government to the Ministry of External Affairs for its approval prior to from the Union Industries and Commerce Ministry. A joint survey by representatives of both countries had and identified the locations to set up the Border Haats. In addition the Land Custom Station (LCS) at Zokhawthar, the lone trade route for Mizoram with South East Asian countries, is being proposed for upgradation. Mizoram has an unfenced international border of 404 km with Myanmar.

In continuation of the efforts on defence cooperation, the Indian Army has recently handed over 10 military specification Tata Safari Storme SUVs to the Myanmar Army.

Miscellaneous

The Myanmar media is appreciative of the stand that India has taken in relation to engagement with Myanmar despite the bans imposed by the US on movement of Myanmar Generals to USA43 as per a news report by The Irrawady.

India has stepped up patrolling to prevent drug smuggling along the Manipur – Myanmar border after a recent recovery of drugs worth ₹ 400 crores44.

References:
  1. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/8888-commemoration-be-held-public-first-time.html
  2. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/31st-anniversary-of-8888-pro-democracy-movement-commemorated-across-myanmar
  3. http://mizzima.com/article/88-generation-says-tatmadaw-must-be-removed-politics
  4. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/chinese-airlines-request-dca-to-allow-more-flights-from-china
  5. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/3021735/boozy-dinners-and-shopping-sprees-china-woos-myanmars-nld-free-trips
  6. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/china-condemns-myanmars-ethnic-rebels-shan-state-fighting.html?fbclid=IwAR24uyqPMvlPgdWASsUVqFYrYpnFFh8iV6h5ZjpWd9bvOaGgQ6lVMixYmng
  7. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/talks-china-beijing-urges-myanmar-rebel-groups-stop-fighting.html
  8. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/mandalay-muse-trade-route-hit-insurgent-attacks.html
  9. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/amid-fighting-suu-kyis-office-minister-pledges-border-stability-china.html
  10. https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/aug-22-repatriation-rohingyas-doubts-linger-over-voluntary-return-1787551
  11. http://www.nagalandpost.com/myanmar-ready-to-repatriate-over-3-600-rohingya-from-b-desh/201951.html
  12. http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/rohingya-crisis/2019/08/29/envoy-china-to-play-more-constructive-role-to-resolve-rohingya-crisis
  13. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/refugees-decline-latest-repatriation-myanmar.html
  14. https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2019/08/22/why-rohingyas-do-not-want-to-return-to-myanmar
  15. http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/rohingya-crisis/2019/09/02/bangladesh-myanmar-china-to-discuss-rohingya-crisis-during-unga
  16. https://epaper.thestatesman.com/2303813/Kolkata-The-Statesman/28TH-AUGUST-2019#page/7/2
  17. https://www.thedailystar.net/top-news/bangladesh-jubo-league-leader-murder-2-rohingyas-killed-in-gunfight-1790092
  18. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/bangladesh-police-kill-2-rohingya-men/article29247040.ece
  19. https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2019/08/25/call-for-end-to-persecution-as-rohingya-refugees-demand-justice-on-black-day
  20. http://www.ifp.co.in/page/items/60454/six-rohingyas-from-myanmar-arrested-at-imphal-airport/
  21. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/govt-signs-mou-beijing-build-china-myanmar-economic-corridor.html
  22. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/myanmar-set-ink-pact-china-border-cooperation-zones.html
  23. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/chinese-firm-talks-develop-industrial-zone.html
  24. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/military-nets-16-billion-kyat-drug-haul-northern-shan-state.html
  25. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/tnla-mndaa-attack-myanmar-army-base-n-shan-state.html
  26. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-insurgency-idUSKCN1V50EH
  27. http://mizzima.com/article/death-toll-northern-alliance-attack-reaches-15
  28. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/rebel-forces-attack-military-defence-academy-pyin-oo-lwin.html
  29. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/more-joint-rebel-attacks-to-come-tnla-warns-myanmar-military.html
  30. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/rebels-detain-8-alleged-myanmar-military-troops-shan-state.html
  31. https://southasianmonitor.com/myanmar/civilian-vehicles-torched-amid-fighting-between-rebels-and-myanmar-army/
  32. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/tnla-destroys-bridge-targets-myanmar-military-battalion-shan-state.html
  33. https://southasianmonitor.com/myanmar/myanmar-army-warns-of-full-scale-war-in-shan-state/
  34. http://mizzima.com/article/myanmar-clashes-between-army-and-rebels-force-thousands-home
  35. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/ongoing-fighting-decimates-myanmar-china-border-trade.html
  36. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-restricts-movement-northern-rakhines-minbya.html
  37. http://mizzima.com/article/clashes-rakhine-force-thousands-more-flee
  38. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/deputy-commander-military-battalion-killed-clash-aa-chin.html
  39. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/army-occupies-a-training-camp-of-aa
  40. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/arakan-army-raids-myanmar-military-base-northern-rakhine.html
  41. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/calls-sanctions-arms-embargo-myanmar-army-190806011519378.html
  42. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/govt-rejects-un-report-calling-boycott-military-tied-companies.html
  43. https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/editorial/myanmars-balancing-act-moves-india.html
  44. https://nagalandpage.com/drug-peddling-security-stepped-up-along-manipur-myanmar-border/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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