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

The month marked a significant breakthrough in thedemocratic transition process of Myanmar. The third general elections were conducted since the initiation of political reforms in 2010. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi registered a decisive victory, winning 396 of the 498 seats in the bicameral parliament (258 seats in the lower house and 138 seats in the upper house), and defeating the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP retained parliamentary seats in eastern and northern Shan State.1 Moreover, the USDP called for a re-run of the elections in coordination with the Myanmar military aka Tatmadaw. However, Major General Zaw Min Tun, Tatmadaw spokesperson, clarified that the USDP did not coordinate with the military for the same. The Union Election Commission (UEC) also dismissed USDP claims and said that any disputes over the results could be addressed through legal channels.

A huge task ahead of elections was to ensure adequate health infrastructure to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure robust economic recovery. Myanmar’s government has made several efforts this week to ease the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s economy. It launched a second Investment Policy Review (IPR) that included several recommendations to improve the investment climate. It includes policy reforms ranging from enhancing responsible investment, establishing more SEZs and strengthening the implementation of environmental impact assessments to foster secure and well-defined land rights, to attract more foreign investment.

The NLD victory is viewed as a tough one as several NLD members were at the receiving end of assaults and attacks during the campaign and after the results of elections as well.2 Htike Zaw, an elected NLD MP, was shot dead by an unidentified gunman in northern Shan state. Also, despite the victory in elections, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to struggle to balance with military’s governance powers in the existing arrangements. Rajiv Bhatia, India’s former ambassador to Myanmar said while the election results came as expected, the modus vivendi between Suu Kyi and the Myanmar Army will prevail.3

Before the general elections were conducted, Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of Defence Services, issued two statements about the voting and warned the government to take responsibility for mistakes on the part of the UEC. Various observers have expressed concerns over those statements and said the military had overstepped its authority by criticising the UEC.4 The spokesperson for the President’s Office said that the statements by Tatmadaw C-in-C are not under the law.

The Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) congratulated the NLD and released a statement that the ethnic alliance was open for negotiations with the NLD government.5 Recognising the importance of the ethnic parties, the NLD sent a letter to 48 ethnic parties, urging them to join hands for the cause of a federal Union. It is not the first time the NLD has invited ethnic parties to its cabinet. After its electoral victory in 2015, the party offered Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) CEC member, Sai Nyunt Lwin, a Vice-Presidential position in its cabinet. But following the Tatmadaw’s objection, the NLD offered Sai Nyunt Lwin the position of ethnic affairs minister instead, which the Shan party rejected. In 2020 the SNLD has won 15 seats in the Union Parliament, and 37 seats in the state parliament, Sai Leik, said that the NLD could prove its political will by appointing ethnic leaders as heads of state governments and devolving greater power to state governments.6

For the Arakan State parliament, the Arakan National Party (ANP) secured 15 seats - four for the lower house, four for the upper house and seven for Arakan State parliament. The Arakan Front Party (AFP) secured three seats—one for the upper house and two for the Arakan State parliament. However, it is unclear as to how the ANP will form a new government in the state parliament. Besides, only 25 per cent of the Arakanese were able to cast votes as the UEC cancelled elections in certain townships wholly and partially, citing security concerns. On 12 November, Arakan Army (AA) issued a statement requesting the NLD government and the military authorities to hold additional polling by 31 December. The Tatmadaw has welcomed AA proposal to hold elections before the end of December. Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special peace envoy visited Rakhine state on 28 November and is pursuing for re-elections in nine Rakhine townships with the UEC.

In addition to this, the Three Brotherhood Alliance -Ta'ang National Liberation Army’s (TNLA), AA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)– released a statement welcoming the victory of the NLD government and also welcomed the Tatmadaw decision to reorganise the Dialogue Committee with the Statement for a Ceasefire and Permanent Peace.7 They announced an extension of its unilateral ceasefire from 11 November to 31 December.8 However, clashes continued between Tatmadaw and other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) Ta'ang National Liberation Army’s (TNLA) in Mandalay Region, and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Shan State.

In a significant development to further the country’s peace process, a five-member committee headed by Lt-General Yar Pyae has been set up to hold peace talks with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, according to a statement issued by the Tatmadaw on 09 November. The committee would engage with both signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and non-signatory ethnic armed groups. Some lawmakers in Arakan State welcomed the formation of the new committee but noted that the conflict dynamics between the Tatmadaw and AAhad not changed. The NLD government viewed favourably the formation of a separate committee headed by military generals, said Dr. Myo Nyunt, a party spokesperson, despite the government-led National Reconciliation and Peace Centre already in place since 2016 with similar objectives.9 The Tatmadaw has been negotiating with the leaders of Arakan National League (ULA) and AA through intermediaries, as stated by General Zaw Min Tun, Chairman of Tatmadaw True News in a press conference held on 27 November. The Japanese envoy is also mediating between the Tatmadaw and AA for a ceasefire.10

Besides this, a new terror proxy, IS-Arakan, announced its arrival on the eastern frontier of Myanmar, pledging allegiance to IS-Central (IS-C). On 06 November, a pro-IS Indonesian Telegram channel announced the formation of IS-Arakan. At the same time, there is no confirmation yet from the IS-C accepting the formation of this affiliate. However, sources in the security establishment said the conflict in Arakan has no synergy with IS’s goal; instead, they are at the receiving end of proactive instigation and radicalisation by Pakistan-sponsored terror groups. A case in point is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the only Muslim militant group in the Rakhine state. Its stated goal is Rohingya nationalism, but with Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) making early inroads into Rakhine by doling out relief measures post the 2004 tsunami, intelligence sources say LeT cadres have radicalised the Rohingya youth to pick up arms. There are reports of Lashkar-e-Taiba is organising the training of Rohingyas in explosives and providing them with ammunition. An Arakan media centre is created on Rocket.Chat, the preferred channel for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, on 09 November. It is yet another indicator of the genesis of IS-Arakan.11

Another positive development in Myanmar elections was the participation of one thousand women candidates in the national elections. Around 37 per cent increase from the previous election is the result of advocacy and sustained pressure from Myanmar’s feminist movement by organisations, such as SWAN.12

India-Myanmar Engagements

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, appreciated the election process in Myanmar and congratulated Suu Kyi’s win as a “successful effort in the ongoing democratic transition” in Myanmar. On 24 November 2020, 7th Joint Trade Committee Meeting of India and Myanmar was held via video conference. Both countries reviewed bilateral issues ranging from trade, investment, banking, connectivity, capacity building and upgradation of border infrastructure. Both countries reviewed their preparedness to meet the COVID-19 challenges and expanding cooperation in the pharma sector and health sector,including traditional medicines. The Project Agreement on the establishment of a modern Integrated Check Post at Tamu (Phase I) was finalised, which is being developed under Indian grant-in-aid. The countries also agreed to work closely for early establishment of border haats for the benefit of the local communities and promote people to people connect.

On the occasion of 71st Constitution Day, 34 Indian nationals were released from different jails in Myanmar and were handed over to the authorities in India. Similarly, 28 Myanmar nationals lodged in different jails in India were also released by India. The prisoners were exchanged between both the countries at the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate at Moreh in Manipur.13

The Indian Railways' helpline No. 182 helped detect 14 illegal Rohingya entrants to India from Bangladesh. The incident took place on the Agartala-New Delhi Covid special train after a passenger complained on the helpline of misbehaviour by some passengers. During the investigation, it was found that 14 passengers, who had boarded the train at the Badarpur station, were detected by the train superintendent for not having legal documents or identity of being Indian citizens. After interrogation, it was revealed that they had fled from a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.14 After four days of the incident, another group of eight Rohingyas were arrested from a house in South Assam's Hailakandi district, who had illegally entered India. Over 100 Rohingya refugees have been arrested in Assam and Tripura in the past few months.15

Assam Rifles troops intercepted nine Myanmar origin two-wheelers plying illegally in Indian territory along the Moreh-T’Minou-New Samtai road on 26 November. In recent years, it has been identified that China has been using Myanmar rebel groups against India. For example, AA is working against the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project by India, and China supports AA. In addition, insurgent groups from Kachin, Karen, and some other ethnic groups are harbouring militants from northeast India, who receive arms and other support from China through Myanmar rebels. India has increased cooperation with the Myanmar military, but China, which provides support and financial support to ethnic rebel groups in the rest of Myanmar, stillinfluences Myanmar’s military.16

Other International Developments

Ichiro Maruyama, Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar, in an interview with Irrawaddy stated that given the COVID-19 crisis, the conduct of the election was a complete success. He visited ten polling stations in Yangon with Yohei Sasakawa, the Japanese government election representative. Mr Sasakawa, as stated earlier, had conversations with the C-in-C, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the peace process. Japan has also been offering economic development assistance to Myanmar since 2011. There are several priority sectors for development assistance. For example, transportation, energy and electricity and the development of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. In addition to these, Japan is also assisting in various sectors including, rural areas, health, and education sector.17 Japan has decided to invest in the full-phase implementation of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in southern Myanmar. The USD 8-billion project is set to be Southeast Asia’s largest industrial complex.

Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) approved six new projects focused on arable farming, livestock and fisheries, manufacturing and other sectors to boost job opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis.KB Financial Group, South Korea financial conglomerate, announced that it would set up an office in Myanmar. It said it would open at least ten branches, including in Yangon and Mandalay, to provide loans to promising businesses and real estate finance. The United States car rental company, Avis, announced additional investment worth USD 4 million in Myanmar for the coming year.18 Saudi Arabia and the US signed an agreement virtually to implement a multi-sector refugee support program in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. The agreement aims to build housing for refugees with a total value of USD 2 million and it will be managed by the World Food Program (WFP).

Conclusion

The victory of the NLD government has a lot of opportunities and challenges ahead. The government must ensure a robust economic recovery and provision of adequate health infrastructure to address the COVID-19 crises. The country needs to undertake effective measures to ensure peaceful national reconciliation process. Elections must be conducted where voting was cancelled. In recent weeks, hopes are raised as there was de-escalation of clashes between the Tatmadaw and AA after the former welcomed 12 November statement. The statements from the Tatmadaw and AA hold the potential to help bring peace to Rakhine state. Thousands of IDPs in Rakhine State have returned to their homes, following a halt in fighting between AA and Tatmadaw, according to relief workers. Myanmar needs to continously engage with international players, like, India and Japan, to ensure that it is solely not dependent on China. A diversified and balanced foreign policy is the need of the hour.

Endnotes
  1. In the 2015 general election, the USDP emerged as the largest party in the Shan State parliament with 31 seats. But in the 2020 elections, the NLD took 33 seats, followed by the SNLD with 27 seats and the USDP with 24 seats.
  2. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/nld-2020-poll-sweep-tough-victory.html
  3. https://theprint.in/diplomacy/india-plans-to-steer-myanmar-away-from-china-amid-democratic-transition-after-suu-kyi-win/543705/
  4. https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/myanmar-militarys-criticism-union-election-commission-provokes-concern-possible-threat-coup.html
  5. The FPNCC’s members are not signatories to the NCA. The Northern Alliance members are also FPNCC members along with United Wa State Army, Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army and National Democratic Alliance Army.https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/fpncc-open-negotiations-nld-govt-members-need-bilateral-ceasefire
  6. https://www.irrawaddy.com/elections/myanmars-ethnic-parties-cautiously-optimistic-outreach-victorious-nld.html
  7. https://www.arakanarmy.net/post/statement-1
  8. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/election-ends-fighting-resumes-northern-shan-state
  9. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/tatmadaw-creates-new-committee-hold-talks-ethnic-armed-groups
  10. https://www.narinjara.com/news/detail/5fc25e3270dbab04832dcf45
  11. https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/11/21/new-islamic-state-proxy-is-arakan-on-radar-of-intelligence-agencies.html
  12. SWAN is one of five women’s rights organisations in Myanmar supported by IWDA through Women’s Action for Voice and Empowerment (WAVE): a five-year women’s leadership program that aims to increase the representation of women in diverse leadership positions in Asia and the Pacific. Through WAVE, IWDA has supported SWAN, the Women’s League of Burma, Ta’ang Women’s Organisation, Women’s Initiative Platform, and Akhaya Women, to promote women’s political leadership https://iwda.org.au/inside-the-womens-movement-sweeping-myanmars-election/
  13. https://northeastlivetv.com/2020/11/26/34-indian-nationals-released-from-myanmar-jails-in-prisoner-exchange/
  14. http://www.daijiworld.com/news/newsDisplay.aspx?newsID=775264
  15. https://www.deccanherald.com/national/east-and-northeast/8-rohingyas-held-in-assam-district-close-to-bangladesh-921056.html
  16. https://www.thenortheasttoday.com/current-affairs/states/manipur/chinese-covert-warfare-9-illegal-myanmar-origin-bikes-seized-in-manipur
  17. https://www.irrawaddy.com/in-person/no-change-commitment-support-myanmars-economic-development-japanese-ambassador.html
  18. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/irrawaddy-business-roundup-46.html

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