Myanmar Round Up: March 2020
Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

A round up of selected English open source reports on Myanmar

March 2020 touched new ground in violence with the Arakan Army (AA) scoring major successes against the Tatmadaw with the routing of a Light Infantry Battalion and the capture of its Commanding Officer. The multi-dimensional retribution by the Tatmadaw, though mostly ineffective, was based on indiscriminate use of artillery and air power. In addition to this, it is attempting to isolate AA by declaring it as a terrorist organization and as an ‘unlawful association’ and target its allies and media persons reporting on it. COVID-19 and its impact and the failed constitutional amendments were amongst the other events that dominated media reports for the month.

Violence in Rakhine and Chin

The Capture of Battalion Commander 7 Light Infantry Battalion

The previous month (February 2020) had seen a severe spike in fighting between the AA and the Tatmadaw. On 10 March 2020, this culminated in a fierce battle in which the AA claimed to have routed the Tatmadaw 7 Light Infantry Battalion which had moved from Phayagyi, Bago Region1 to reinforce the Meewa post in Chin State’s Paletwa Township leading to the capture of the Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Thet Naing Oo along with 20 soldiers and the killing of another 20 soldiers.2 This event is a turning point in the Rakhine Conflict and validates the differences in the quality of leadership, command and control, competence in tactics and the overall morale of the forces, between the AA and the Tatmadaw. As counter-insurgency operations go, the defeat of a regular infantry combat unit and the capture of its unit commander by an insurgent group, reflects the nadir of the force’s capabilities.

This encounter has gone into history for another dark reason. It has seen the first authentic corroborated reportof use of Myanmar Air Force, specifically fixed-wing aircrafts, being used to strafe and bomb the AA, causing massive collateral damage to civilians. According to Mont Than Pyin Administrator, U Kyaw Sein, Myanmar’s military attacked with two jet fighters on 8–9 March, demolishing 62 out of the village’s 66 houses. Expectedly, the AA took it upon them to spread the word through social media and circulated photographs such as the one below.

Fighting was also reported from Phar Pyo village in Minbya Township on 9 March leading to injury to seven civilians and resulting in the burning down about 10 houses.3 One man was killed, and two people were injured in Bwi Ohne village after they were hit by artillery fire and bombs amid heavy fighting near the Mee Chaung Bridge in Paletwa Township, Chin State.4

In three days of fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA on the border of Rakhine and Chin states, killed at least 21 civilians and injured 27 others. Salai Myo Htike, an Amyotha Hluttaw5 MP from Chin, said 12 civilians were killed and 15 were injured in a military airstrike on suspected AA hideouts between Paletwa and Sami towns in Chin on 14 March. Implicitly acknowledging the airstrikes on the AA, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, Secretary of the Tatmadaw’s True News Agency, said he could not confirm or deny the military air strikes, adding that the Tatmadaw has difficulty distinguishing AA fighters from civilians because AA fighters disguise themselves as civilians. He said there are AA members in nearly every village in Paletwa Township. 6 Nearly 20 villages, seven along the east bank of the Kaladan and 11 on the west bank have been reported abandonedon the border of Rakhine State’s Kyauktaw and Chin State’s Paletwa townships as a result of air strikes and artillery shelling.7,8

On 23 March, AA launched attacks on the No. 9 Advanced Training School, a military training school in Minbya Township, Rakhine wherein both sides suffered casualties in the fighting at the site at Kanni Village according to Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military’s True News Information Team. According to the Myawady Daily, the mouthpiece of Myanmar’s military, around 300 AA fighters attacked the school from five directions, and the military found 15 bodies of AA fighters as well as guns from the scene after the fighting. Most of the dead bodies, according to the photos published online by the ‘Myawady Daily’, were not in uniforms, but tracksuits. Officers and troops of the school also were killed. Allegedly the Tatmadaw used helicopters and jet fighters during the clash leading to the death of a nine-year-old and injuring 15 civilians.9,10,11,12,13

Abductions by AA continued as it took 15 workers from a Paletwa river port construction site in southern Chin State into their custody on 22 March, before releasing them one day later. The AA alleged that the Burma Army had used the site as a point from which to attack them the day before. AA spokesperson, Khaing Thukha clarified that “They attacked us from the top of this construction site. Therefore, we tried to clear the site where the Burmese soldiers took cover last night.” The workers included seven local labourers and eight Indian nationals working on the India-backed Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Project. The initiative involves the construction of a network of roads, ports, and formalization of travel on waterways to connect Sittwe in Rakhine State with the Indian city of Kolkata. Khine Thukha said that AA troops found shells and ammunitions on site, but after taking the people to an area near Kyet-U-Wa village for questioning, determined that they were not involved in the attack. However, the Chin State government spokesperson, Soe Htet told media that the AA soldiers took some 5 million kyats (US$3,550) from the workers. However, Khaing Thukha denied this allegation. 14

Landmine casualties continued in the region with three civilians injured after stepping on landmines in Rathedaung Township of Rakhine State on 29 March. Two of the injured, lost limbs in the blasts. One individual stepped on a landmine while collecting firewood near Mu Nyin Taung Village. His companion phoned Mu Nyin Taung villagers and asked for help. As the villagers went to the scene, two villagers who were walking at the front of the group, stepped on another landmine and were injured. 15

The AA, while reputedly having a better code of conduct than the Tatmadaw, is not above doing whatever it takes to further their cause, ethical or otherwise. It looted part of a shipment of 100 sacks of rice intended for more than 1,700 displaced Chin villagers in Paletwa Township but returned most of it after media reports about the incident were published, according to the Chin State government. AA fighters stopped a truck transporting the rice from Samee to Paletwa, where it was to be supplied to 1,771 displaced people. A community-based committee arranged the shipment in Paletwa and is working to bring extra food to the township. Subsequently, it gave permission for 6000 sacks of rice to be delivered to Paletwa U Kyaw Nyein, Chair of the Khumi Affairs Coordination Council, informed the press.16,17

Declaration of AA as an Unlawful Association and terrorist organisation

The debacle has prompted a reaction whereby the Myanmar President U Win Myint, on 23 March, declared the AA and its political arm, the United League of Arakan (ULA) as an “Unlawful Association” under Section 16 of the 1908 Unlawful Association Act.18,19 The President said that the goals of the armed group pose risks and disrupts the rule of law, as well as, the stability to the nation, including, the peace of its citizens. As per Section 16:-

If the President of the Union is of opinion that any association interferes or has for its object interference with the administration of the law or with the maintenance of law and order, or that it constitutes a danger to the public peace, the President of the Union may, by notification in the Gazette, declare such association to be unlawful.

More significantly, on the same day, i.e. 23 March, the Central Committee for Counter-Terrorism20 with the approval of the Union Government in exercise of the Anti-Terrorism Law Section 6, sub-section (e) and Section 72 (b), accused the AA of torture and killing village officials, civil servants and innocent civilians, thereby declaring it a terrorist organisation. 21,22 The AA spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha, however, refuted the government statement, and said this announcement showed that the Myanmar government is only concerned about the political issue affecting the Burmese ethnic people and not for other ethnic people in the country and thereby neglects the entire peace process.

However, the implications of these two developments are not clear. 23 Prashanth Parameswaran, Senior Editor of The Diplomat states that this development at best, illustrates the growing reliance of the Myanmar government on punitive measures as hopes dim on other fronts and the AA’s attacks on the government continue, which aligns it more with the Tatmadaw’s preference for a military-focused approach. 24 This approach could have worked had the Tatmadaw been militarily capable of taking on the AA. Unfortunately, it is evident that the AA has far exceeded25 the Tatmadaw in capabilities and tactics in Rakhine.26 The immediate fallout of the declaration was an increase in the fighting in the region. Khine Pyi Soe, the spokesperson of Arakan National Party, told media that the government declaration will further destabilize Rakhine state, which has been hit by violence for years. He said the designation would encourage the government forces to increase their operations in the region, furthering the discontent of the minority communities. "Our main concern is Tatmataw targeting the people," Soe said.27,28

Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military’s Information Committee, told media that the AA has “very little chance” of joining the country’s struggling peace process now that the government has designated the 11-year-old force an unlawful, terrorist organization.29,30

Tatmadaw’s attempts to isolate AA

In order to maintain pressure on the AA and to isolate it, the Tatmadaw has warned International and local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) not to support the AA. Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson of the Tatmadaw, said that “It is illegal to link up or support the Arakan Army. If there is no support for the AA, it will be difficult for it to survive as it relies on donations.” He added, rather optimistically, that “The AA has been listed as an illegal group, so all donations are controlled.”31

Tatmadaw’s Northern Command reportedly sent a message on 20 March, to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) through the Myitkyina-based Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG) not to accept any presence of the AA in KIO territory. The Kachin PCG has been working as a mediator between the Burma Army and the KIO. The warning was that the Burmese military would be targeting AA troops, so the KIO should not allow them to remain in their area. “They won’t attack the KIO. They don’t have a problem with the KIO. But AA troops are present in the KIO headquarters, so they will attack the AA troops,” said Lamai Gum Ja of the PCG. According to the PCG, the AA had only undertaken military training in the KIO headquarters in Laiza but does not consider the area its headquarters.32

The Three Brotherhood Alliance comprising the AA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) promptly released a statement declaring its continued support to the AA stating ‘We will continue to implement military and political cooperation with the ULA/AA according to the previous practice while categorically rejecting the government of Myanmar’s unfounded and unwarranted accusation against the ULA/AA.’33 Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo, the General Secretary of the Karen National Union, which is not a member of the Northern Alliance but is signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government said that the current problems with ethnic armed groups are inherently political. “We need to solve political problems by political means. To implement the peace process in this country, there must be a concrete policy for it. In the long term, it will be negative for all of us if they try to solve political problems by means of excessive force,” Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo said.34

Interestingly, the KIA has not yet signed any statement condemning the declaration of AA as a terrorist group, and it is also under pressure from the Tatmadaw to distance itself from AA. The KIA still trains, provides ammunition and supplies food for AA soldiers, but there is a rumour of tensions between the two, with the KIA is asking the AA to vacate its Laiza headquarters. Some ethnic leaders also reportedly told the AA to give up its illicit trade activities. The genesis to this tension is a December 2019 interview with The Irrawaddy, where Maj Gen Tun Myat Naing, criticized some ethnic leaders who have been fighting in the ethnic struggle for 70 years. He lashed out at them, saying that some leaders have been enjoying lives of luxury, drinking wine, and then giving up their fights—that over 15 years of ceasefire, they have had 15 years of living opulent lives, while ordinary soldiers have been left without money or anything to show. This remark angered several ethnic leaders; they asked for an official apology from the AA leader. He relented, but this incident has impacted his relationship with these leaders. 35

Stifling the media, is another tactic the Tatmadaw has adopted to isolate the AA. Police detained and charged U Nay Myo Lin, Chief Editor of Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar (VOM), a local Myanmar media house, under the country’s anti-terrorism law for interviewing a spokesperson for an ethnic armed group the government recently declared as a terrorism organisation. He was arrested on 30 March, charged for violating Section 50(a) and 52(a) of the Anti-Terrorism Law and remanded for contacting AA spokesperson, Khaing Thukha and broadcasting an interview under the title “Peace Process has stopped”. The interview was conducted a few days after the government on March 23, declared the AA as an unlawful organization and a terrorist organization. Under the current anti-terrorism law, organizations and individuals are prohibited from contacting or associating with outlawed organizations, doing so is punishable by imprisonment. If convicted of the two charges, U Nay Myo Lin can be sentenced to a total of 10 years imprisonment.

Even before the declaration of AA as a terrorist organisation, U Bo Kyi, Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said that in February, 33 people were charged under controversial laws that limit free press and freedom of expression. He said four Kachin people were charged under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act, while 12 students were charged under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. He said 17 other people faced charges under Penal Code sections 143, 145, 152, 505(b) and 34, which suppress individual rights. “Basic human rights like freedom of speech, the freedom to organise, the right to criticise the government, and the right to criticise the Tatmadaw should not be criminalised,” he said. “Such actions are not crimes in other countries, which makes us doubtful about Myanmar’s transition to democracy. This damages the image of the nation.” The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law restricts Myanmar citizens, even under the present government, he said.

Even old cases are being revived to pressurise the media. A senior editor from The Irrawaddy, Ye Ni, was charged with defamation over an April 2019 article about fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA. The article, written by reporter Moe Myint, gave a first person account of fighting in the ancient town of Mrauk U that contradicted official claims made by the Tatmadaw. It was originally published in English, but it was the Myanmar translation of the article, published on Ye Ni’s watch, that triggered the lawsuit.36,37,38

The banning of internet is another method of isolating the battlefield from access to information warfare. As a response to the violence, the government imposed an internet blackout in several cities in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin state. The move was condemned by activists as a violation of human rights. Both the Myanmar military and the AA were accused by human rights organizations of not abiding by the law of war and putting civilians at risk. 39 The Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC) on 18 March demanded the immediate end to a months-long internet blackout in parts of Arakan and Chin states, in order to give residents timely access to information on the coronavirus pandemic. REC chair, Ko Zaw Zaw Tun, said most people living in the affected area do not have TVs and in the past would instead rely on mobile internet access to connect them to the wider world. With the Myanmar government primarily using online and television channels to communicate information about the deadly virus and advice on what people should and should not do to mitigate the risk of contagion, the REC said, the internet ban could have deadly consequences for residents of the nine affected townships. 40

Impact on Chin State

The Chin National League for Democracy has urged the Tatmadaw and the AA to sign a ceasefire agreement as soon as possible, after allegedly more than 20 people were killed and many more injured when military fighter jets apparently strafed villages in Chin State. A large number of people continue to get displaced due to the fighting.41,42 In a statement on 17 March, the party denounced the Tatmadaw’s weekend airstrikes on three villages in Paletwa Township.43 On 19 March, another Chin organisation, the Chin National Front (CNF)44 asked the Tatmadaw and the AA to immediately cease hostilities in Chin State, and demanded the pullout of the AA from Chin State’s Paletwa Township, which borders Rakhine State. However, this was categorically rejected by AA spokesperson Khaing Thukha, who stated that since the Tatmadaw is waging a war against the AA, Paletwa Township’s geographical and strategic importance, does not allow AA troops to withdraw from it. “Only when the Tatmadaw does not launch attacks will hostilities between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army be reduced. If the CNF wants to halt the fighting, the group should demand that the Tatmadaw stop the clashes,” he said.45,46

Recruitment in AA

Yun Sun47 of Stimson Centre writes that the economic and political appeal of the AA has enabled it to recruit increasing numbers of troops. One of the most important factors in the rise of the AA has been its steadily increasing popularity among the Rakhine people, who are the fundamental source of its legitimacy, strength and sustainability. The Rakhine people are disappointed by what they regard as the denial of their political rights and are disillusioned by the democratic process. In the general election in November 2015, the Arakan National Party won 22 of the 35 elected seats in the 47-member Rakhine Hluttaw. But the Bamar-dominated NLD exercised its right under the Constitution to appoint one of its own as Chief Minister, despite winning only nine state Hluttaw seats. She goes on to highlight the bitterness among the Rakhine over the sentencing of former ANP leader Dr Aye Maung to 20 years’ imprisonment in March 2019 for high treason over a speech in which he reportedly accused the NLD of treating the Rakhine people like “slaves”. The long prison term eliminated any hope of a negotiated solution to ethnic reconciliation in Rakhine.

She goes on to state that this political disaffection has increased support for the AA, and the people’s support for the AA has strengthened it. The AA no longer lives off the patronage of larger groups. Instead, it is gaining legitimacy as the representative of the Rakhine people, who comprise the majority of the state’s population – a much higher percentage than the number of Kachin in Kachin State. The support of the people who comprise most of the state’s population is the most important reason for the sustainability and tenacity of the AA.

In addition, the disruption to the studies both in Rakhine48 and Chin due to the cancellation of exams as a result of the violence has increased the number of young recruits for AA. An unconfirmed photograph received from sources show young children enrolled for training at Laiza for the AA.

Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) blast

In an incident which could symbolise the resurgence of the ARSA, the organisation ambushed a group of ethnic Rakhine nationals at Maungtaw Township, Rakhine State, on 30 March 2020, killing two using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and injuring nine others.49

Constitutional Amendments

The Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) met on 10 March 2020 to decide the fate of proposed changes to the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar. Earlier, from 25 February to 5 March 2020, Hluttaw representatives had debated the proposed amendments.50. With the agenda to reform the 2008 Constitution, the National League for Democracy (NLD) took an approach similar to that adopted by Thura U Shwe Mann, Speaker of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw during the 2014 Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP) government, and appointed a 45-member Constitutional Amendment Committee, which was tasked to prepare a draft bill to amend the charter.51 The Committee submitted its plan, but Tatmadaw MPs objected to the Committee as being unlawful and submitted five of their own amendment bills.The NLD’s 114 proposals and the military lawmakers along with the USDP’s 21 other proposals, were voted after debating over a 17-day session.

A few of the significant amendments that were proposed are highlighted below. Firstly, the NLD proposal to amend Article 109-(b) and Section 141-(b), which reserves 25 per cent of parliamentary seats in the Amyotha and Pyithu Hluttaws for Defence Services personnel nominated by the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services. The amendment proposed to reduce the percentage from 25 per cent to five per cent over 10 years. Tatmadaw and USDP lawmakers have consistently rejected this reduction as they claim that there are continuing challenges to the rule of law and security because of internal armed conflict and foreign interference. Secondly, the demand to amend Article 436 of the Constitution, that requires the approval of 75 per cent of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw was debated. The NLD firmly opposed this provision and placed the bill for further amendments with a two-thirds majority.

Thirdly, the NLD proposed to change the make-up of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) by replacing the Tatmadaw-appointed Minister of Border Affairs with the deputy speakers of the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw, which would give civilian appointees a majority on the council. Amyotha Hluttaw MP U Sai Than Naing (USDP, Kayin-5) proposed a counter amendment which envisaged an enhanced role for the 11-member NDSC, on which the Tatmadaw formally has a majority with six seats. The fourth proposal by Tatmadaw MP Brigadier-General Maung Maung was to reduce the rights and authority of the President. He proposed that the provisions in Section 59-(f) of the Constitution, the clause about eligibility for appointment as President or Vice-President, be applicable to eligibility for Union Ministers and the Chief Ministers of states and regions. The NLD, however, wanted Section 59-(f) to be abolished. The fifth bill submitted proposed that Chief Ministers of the states or regions be elected by their respective Hluttaw and not be appointed by the President. There was also a bill to amend Article 396-(b) which stipulated that at least one per cent of the original voters of the constituency concerned need to submit complaints, if any, to the Union Election Commission, be increased to 20 per cent. All these significant amendments were voted down.

Apart from these, there were few minor proposals that were also placed in the Parliament for debate. One of the proposal called for addition of the phrase, “in accordance with the will of the people”, to Article 6-(f), which states that a consistent objective of the Union “is enabling the Defence Services to be able to participate in the National political leadership role of the State”. There was a further proposal to amend Article 8, which seeks to add “democratic federal” in front of “Union system”, saying it is the term also agreed upon at the Union Peace Conference. There was also a proposal to amend Article 437-(a), which concerns the state flag. The proposed design, a red flag with a blue square, in which 14 smaller stars surround a single white star, which apparently corresponds with the current path the nation is taking towards genuine democracy.52

However, with the outcome substantially predetermined, only four minor proposals were passed out of the total 135. Those proposals approved were Article 32 (a) and (b); Article 344; and Article 262 (a), which were concerned with only changes of words or vocabularies in Burmese language for the three former ones; and deleting of a phrase in the latter one. The changed wordings in Article 32 (a), (b) and Article 344 include “Oh Min Ma Swan” (frail elderly) to “That Kyi Ywe Oh” (advance aged elderly) and “Ma Than Ma Swan” to “Ma Than Swan”, both of which mean “disable” except deleting a “Ma” which was doubly used and has a meaning of negation. But it was merely a different choice of words and no alteration of meaning in any sense, and in that sense superfluous. Article 262 (a) stated the Chief Minister of the Region or State shall be “from among the Region or State Hluttaw representatives or from among persons who are not Hluttaw representatives concerned”. This phrase was agreed to be deleted since it was unnecessarily added and could be deleted without changing the article intention.53

Upon analysis, it is seen that rather than the results, the fight itself was critical to the NLD as it faced public criticism over lack of intent to pursue its promises made during 2015 election campaign. Surprisingly, even the USDP Lower House Lawmaker, U Thaung Aye, remarked that the voting down of the amendments would lead to a negative image of the Myanmar military in the international community.54 The disappointment with the NLD is particularly intense in outlying areas with large ethnic minority populations as the government has made little progress on amending the constitution especially since the Constitutional Amendment Committee was formed after four years of being in power since 2015, and resolving ethnic strife. 55

In a significant boost to the moribund national peace process, on 12 March, the Tatmadaw gave the green light for ethnic armed groups to draft their own state and regional charters. The 10 ethnic armed groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) had been fighting for the right to draft their own state or regional constitutions as part of implementing the federal union in Myanmar. This was also discussed in the Peace Talks held at the Federal Affairs and Policy Center (FAPC), in later February 2020. However, the Tatmadaw insisted that the state and regional constitutions permitted to be drafted, must be in line with the 2008 Constitution.56,57

There have been several petitions earlier to cancel the 2008 Constitution, which were rejected by the Dekkhinathiri Court in 2017, by the Mandalay Division Court in 2018, and by the Supreme Court in July 2019. Daw Htu May, an Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) legislator from Rakhine State, called on the Parliament to draft a new constitution to replace the military-backed 2008 charter that the Parliament failed to amend. She called on the legislators of the ruling NLD, the Tatmadaw and ethnic group leaders to unite in drafting a new charter to move the country forward.58 Recently a group of former legislators submitted a petition to the United Nations asking it to nullify Myanmar’s military-backed 2008 Constitution. U David Hla Myint, General Secretary of the Unity National Democracy Organisation (UNDO), said they want the UN to help cancel the constitution.59

Coronavirus

Early in March 2020, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi stated that the country stands out as a global exception with zero cases of COVID-19. Zaw Htay, a government spokesperson went on to state that the life style and diet of Myanmar citizens were beneficial against Coronavirus. As the month proceeded, the first case was reported and by 31 March, there were 10 COVID-19 cases and a death reported by the authorities.60 Along with this there were increasing social media reports about respiratory-related deaths in parts of the country as well as the mysterious death of 20 people as reported by popular 7days news channel in a village near Kutkai - a trade channel connecting Shan state and China. The suspicion was that COVID-19 had already afflicted Myanmar, but the government was apparently in denial. On the other hand, ethnic armed groups called on aid agencies to help them fight COVID-19 in their territories. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) said the group cannot afford such things as face masks or hand sanitisers.60

To address the concerns of rising cases across the world, on 13 March, the government prohibited all huge gatherings until 30 April, including all forms of events related to the Thingyan Festival, the most celebrated in the country. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement ordered the closure of all preschools and nurseries starting on 15 March as part of the efforts to protect people from COVID-19 pandemic.62 Further it issued quarantine restrictions on 15 March for travellers from Italy, Iran, France, Spain, Germany, China and South Korea, which were further extended to other countries such as the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), Switzerland and the Netherlands. Much like other regional countries, it closed its land borders to foreigners on 19 March, and stopped issuing visas on arrival and e-visa facility until end of April 2020.63 A few quarantine sites have been set up in selected hospitals, meditation centres as well as boxing stadiums in Yangon and other places.64 There has been an awareness campaign through public health messaging over media and social media platforms about washing hands and maintain hygiene. Singapore and China has sent 3000 and 2000 testing kits respectively. 65

However concerns are still rampant as it shares 2100 km border with China, and some citizens cross the border regularly for work and trade. Another neighbouring country, Thailand reported as many as 499 cases as on 22 March. Further, Malaysian authorities are scrambling to track down about 2,000 Rohingya men who attended a Muslim religious gathering (tablighi) that has led to a big spike in coronavirus cases across Southeast Asia, a security source and two other people told Reuters. Nearly 600 coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia have been linked to the gathering, including 513 in Malaysia, 61 in Brunei, 22 in Cambodia, at least five in Singapore and two in Thailand.66

The Myanmar government has announced an initial stimulus package to cushion the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s economy, including 100 billion kyats (nearly US$70 million) worth of loans, eased deadlines for tax payments, and tax exemptions for Myanmar-owned businesses that have been hit by the global pandemic. In the announcement the government said it had created the COVID-19 fund with 100 billion kyats to assist CMP (garment and manufacturing) and hotel and tourism businesses, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises owned by local business people. The government has recognized those sectors as priorities for state assistance, based on their vulnerability to COVID-19, it said. The interest rate on loans provided by the fund will be only 1 percent with a loan period of one year.67

Similarly, Myanmar Tourism Entrepreneurs Association (MTEA) has proposed a plan to take a loan of around Ks 50 billion from the government in order to avoid the unemployment of thousands of skilled workers in the COVID-19 hit local tourism industry, said U Naung Naung Han, Chair of the MTEA, at a meeting on the economic remedy for Covid-19 at UMFCCI on 17 March. “Currently, tourism companies have no jobs for six months. The industry sees economic impacts. There is no way to recover. Tourism companies can continue to survive if the government bolsters up them. During this period, they need around Ks 50 million to pay salaries. They will be okay if the government grants loans to them. Even if they get loans they may face difficulties in repaying their loans to the government,” he added. 68

Elections 2020

Local groups in North Myanmar Kachin State are collaborating with ethnic parties to defeat the NLD in elections later in the year. They believe that local ethnic parties will get more votes than they did in previous elections and have become an emerging force. On 4 March, three Kachin parties held a joint seminar in the Myitkyina to go over choosing prospects, funding event tasks, as well as creating approaches to win the elections.69 In another significant development, the Wa National Unity Party, Wa Democratic Party, and Wa Liberal Democratic Development Party, which are active in the self-administrative areas, have reportedly joined forces to form a single Wa National Party ahead of the 2020 elections. 70 Also, Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army, will hold voting in four townships of its self-administered region for the first time with help of Central Government, when general elections are held later this year, said USWA spokesman Nyi Rang from the group’s liaison office in Lashio, eastern Shan state.

Of the six townships in the region, two are under the control of the central government, with the remaining four under the UWSA’s control. Myanmar’s 2008 constitution granted roughly 500,000 Wa the right to administer what is known as Special Region 2, comprising the six townships of Hopang, Mongmao, Pangwaun, Matman, Namphan, and Pangsang (Pangkham) in northern and eastern Shan state. The group is led by ethnic Chinese commanders, along Myanmar’s border with China. Residents of the townships could not participate in previous national elections (2010, 2015) because the country's Union Election Commission (UEC) said it could not conduct free and fair elections in the areas due to security concerns. UEC chairman Hla Thein went to Pangsang, a border town in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state that serves as UWSA headquarters in the Wa self-administered region, on 27 Feburary, to engage in negotiations with top ethnic army leaders for general elections to be held in Mongmao, Pangwaun, Panghsang, and Namphan townships.

India’s Engagements in Myanmar

After the Myanmar President Win Myint’s four-day official goodwill visit to India in Feburary 2020, the Indian government announced on 19 March that it would purchase an additional 400,000 tonnes of black gram beans, known locally as matpe, from Myanmar for the fiscal year of 2020-21. “They likely increased their quotas since the visit of President U Win Myint to India earlier this year,” said Myanmar’s Pulses, Beans and Sesame Seeds Merchants Association Secretary U Min Ko Oo.71

The Indian embassy at Yangon revealed recently the gist of three new projects that are currently being implemented in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The project for the construction of 250 prefabricated houses in Rakhine state was completed last year (2019) and the second phase has been launched under the Rakhine State Development Programme. Under the second scheme, the Indian government will provide 40 computers for use by students at Sittwe Computer University. The third project aims at boosting the agricultural output of Rakhine State with a focus on rice and lentils. Fifteen tractors along with accessories and an equal number of crawler harvesters have been provided to the government in Rakhine State. The new schemes unveiled by the Indian government follow some earlier projects like the construction of schools in Rakhine state after the 2012-13 riots with a grant of USD one million, which was followed by the donation of medical equipment to Sittwe General Hospital two years later.72

The Indian government has also provided rice and other food items worth more than UDS 235,000 for IDPs in Arakan State over the years. In a recent move, food and non-food items were donated by the Indian government for people internally displaced (IDPs) by conflict in Arakan State are being distributed in Buthidaung town. More than 11,000 refugees taking shelter at 22 IDP camps in Buthidaung town were provided the relief aid supplies beginning on 05 March, said Buthidaung Township’s Administrator U Shwe Hla Aung.73 The number of IDPs in Arakan State after more than a year of armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and AA has reached about 130,000, with many of the displaced taking refuge at monasteries or makeshift camps.

In another development, the Indian government allowed two Myanmar students evacuated by India from Wuhan in China, to return home after a 14-day quarantine period followed by the screening tests of COVID-19 at a hospital in New Delhi, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said. Two students were left behind when Myanmar evacuated 59 students from Wuhan on 01 February because they had fever, one of the symptom of COVID-19. On 27 Febuary, the Indian Air Force transported medical assistance to Wuhan; evacuated 112 people from the city, including two Myanmar students, and held them in quarantine at a hospital in New Delhi.74

Miscellaneous

In January 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) came to an unanimous decision of imposing emergency “provisional measures” on Myanmar, instructing it to prevent genocidal violence against its Rohingya minority and preserve any evidence of past crimes. In a recent move, the Maldivian government and The Gambia that have united in seeking justice for Myanmar’s 2017 persecution of Rohingya Muslims, have appointed celebrity Lebanese-British barrister specialising in international law and human rights, Amal Clooney to represent their case. Earlier, she also represented Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who spent more than 500 days in prison in Myanmar. The reporters were working on an investigative piece, looking into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in Rakhine state. They were convicted of breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, but with the help of Amal, they were freed in May, 2019.75

In a typically clichéd move, the City of London Corporation revoked an honour granted to Aung San Suu Kyi over the treatment of minority Rohingya Muslims. She had initially been awarded the honour, in May 2017. 76 However, following her appearance as Myanmar’s civilian leader, at the ICJ, Hague, in December to defend her country against allegations of rape, arson and mass killings against Rohingyas, a London-based rights group in its annual “The Freedom House” report downgraded Myanmar to ‘Not Free’ in political freedom as armed conflicts intensified between the military and ethnic rebel groups. Also, members of the Rohingya minority who remained in the country after years of persecution and mass expulsions continued to face the risk of genocide and the government has also restricted Internet access in parts of the region.77 In a developing report at the Human Rights council, Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur urged the UNSC to establish an international tribunal “to adjudicate the crimes against humanity and war crimes” in Myanmar.78

Conclusion

As can be seen, the month has been bloody, politically active and constitutionally eventful. Depressing though it may seem, it is the political and constitutional events that hold out hope for Myanmar. The battle with the AA conclusively revealed the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Tatmadaw. As mentioned by one of the authors in his article on the regional impact of the Rakhine Conflict, ‘a distinct pattern is evident where the Tatmadaw is at the lower end of the operational learning curve whilst the AA comes across as more agile, confident and competent in various forms of warfare, including on the perception front. The Tatmadaw may have the luxury of disregarding unprofessional conduct by its soldiers, however, unless it gains control over its frontline troops and changes the ethos of its counter-insurgency strategy, it is doomed to flounder.’ Overall it would be in the interest of all stakeholders, including India, to drive the agenda for peace to ensure the insurgency does not spiral into an uncontrollable cycle of violence that engulfs the region. 79

Refrences
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