Myanmar Round Up: December 2019
Aakriti Vinayak, Research Associate, VIF

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s spirited though controversial visit to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), The Hague, to defend her nation, its armed forces and its conduct leading to the Rohingya Crisis, was the predominant event in December. Internal violence was on the rise and saw no relief for civilians repeatedly caught in the cross fire. The Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar as a precursor to the visit by Xi Jinping, scheduled next month in January 2020. The visit of the Bangladeshi Army Chief to Myanmar opened a new channel of communication that was expected to provide dividends for Bangladesh-Myanmar relations. India-Myanmar relations saw continued engagement with the conduct of 18th round of Foreign Office Consultations between India and Myanmar in New Delhi.

Violence

December witnessed multiple instances of violence between various insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). The month began with violence spilling over from the November 2019 where the Tatmadaw clashed with the troops of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) near Man Wah village, in northern Shan state. Both forces had columns patrolling the region and failed to relay the information to each other and thus clashing inadvertently.1

The Arakan Army (AA) attacked a landing craft allegedly carrying government troops on a river in Rakhine State. The spokesman for AA said that they will not tolerate any activities that are “aimed at supporting the Tatmadaw”.2 The AA was also involved in another incident where it attacked a ferry carrying iron beams and other construction materials for the Paletwa bridge project in Kaladaan River.3 In another incident concerning the Paletwa bridge project, the AA attacked the landing craft Marine Princess carrying heavy machineries including bulldozers in Rakhine State4. In total, six vessels were attacked by the AA within a week. The Tatmadaw and the AA also clashed in Sanyin, Hinkhayaw and Tote Chaung villages in Myebon Township. According to the AA, the Tatmadaw resorted to using civilian vehicles for carrying out the attacks and killed 12 of its personnel.5 The AA further attacked army bases in Minbutaung, Nonbu and Paletwa as well as the Rarmaung bridge guard post, Yotayoke police outpost and an army column providing security for Yaw Bridge. The attack began with about 200 AA forces attacking the Nonbu army base in Paletwa Township first. They then reinforced and attacked the army base again the next day.6

Adding to the growing pressure on civilians in the warzone, a mother of three children was killed and her two sisters were injured when an artillery shell exploded near their homes in Man Wah village, Namtu Township, in northern Shan State7. In a similar incident that occurred in the Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U Township, five civilians including three children were injured as a result of shelling by military troops8. In another sad incident a 9-year-old boy was killed by gunfire allegedly from the Tatmadaw troops temporarily stationed at a monastery in Kyauktaw Township’s Pike in Rakhine State.9 A third grade student who was returning from school was hit by bullets shot by Myanmar soldiers on the road next to Shwe Kyaung Monastery.10 Two civilians including a toddler were killed and seven others were injured when an artillery shell hit a passenger vessel sailing in the Kaladan River in Chin State’s Paletwa Township. The vessel was enroute from Paletwa to Taungpyo with 18 passengers on board when it was hit by an artillery shell near the village of Noune Bu. 11

A Kachin Independence Army (KIA) temporary camp was seized by the Tatmadaw leading to the recovery of a cache of weapons and ammunition and related equipment including one 107mm launcher made by KIA with one live shell, one 60mm mortar, four 60mm artillery shells and four M-22 assault rifles, amongst others. 12

Striving for Peace

With the 2020 general elections looming large, the hopes of resolving all conflicts have been renewed. If successful, these general elections can be the beacon of light that the people of Myanmar are hoping for and this can become an instrument in resolving conflict. The Arakan (Rakhine) State which is the epicenter of clashes between the AA and the Tatmadaw could be seen leading the way. The speaker of Arakan State Parliament said that the general elections would be held in the Arakan state despite clashes. In 2015, when the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was in power, they had manage to conduct the elections and the incumbent NLD led government shall also strive for the same. There are 11 political parties, 21,000 polling stations and around 1.4 million eligible voters in the 2020 general elections in Arakan State. Observers will monitor about 1,000 out of 21,000 polling stations especially in 17 townships where disputes might occur, according to the Arakan State election monitoring group. 13

In the ongoing case of the family of the AA Commander Maj Gen Twan Mrat Naing who were arrested in Thailand, the Thai officials released a statement saying that they will delay the deportation of the wife and children while the authorities carry out a full investigation.14 Adding to this, an ethnic affairs expert warned that the AA may resort to kidnapping the families of Myanmar government officials and military officers in retaliation for the family of the ethnic armed group’s leader being arrested in Thailand and that arresting the family of an AA top commander is detrimental to the peace process.15 The AA also continues to hold a Chin state parliamentarian who has been in AA custody since 3rd of November. An AA spokesperson said that they were not planning on releasing the parliamentarian until and unless the situation is stable.16

An important step towards achieving peace that occurred in December was the preliminary coordination meeting at the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC) in Yangon. This meeting occurred between the Government delegation and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement -Signatories (NCA-S). Both parties agreed to organize the 8th Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM) on Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in January 2020. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Chairperson of NRPC, disclosed the three points for the future of the peace process at the 4th anniversary of NCA. The first point was on how to proceed with 21st Century Union Peace Conference. This was proposed by the leaders of EAOs that had signed the NCA. The second was to attract all the stakeholders into the peace process, to reduce conflicts with the armed organizations which have not signed the NCA. The third one was to ensure all the people enjoy the fruitful results of peace and to fulfil the needs of people in conflict-affected areas.17

International Court of Justice Case

Last month saw three separate cases being filed against Myanmar in a span of four days in what seemed like a coordinated attempt by the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to prosecute the Myanmar government for its involvement in the ongoing Rohingya crisis. As a result of this, in December 2019, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took the stand at the ICJ in The Hague to rebut allegations that her country’s systematic persecution of its Rohingya population amounts to genocide. Suu Kyi who was revered as a big proponent of human rights saw herself on the wrong end of the international judicial system. Suu Kyi found herself in this uncharted territory owing to her government’s “counter-terrorism ops” as a result of which thousands of Rohingyas are unaccounted for and are fleeing the State en masse. 18 Besides defending the army, her government rejected any cooperation with the international community to investigate crimes and hold individuals responsible for the murder and forced displacement of almost a million Rohingyas from the country. As she has come under international pressure to bring justice to the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has been accused of becoming more authoritarian and less tolerant of dissent.19 Further, in her closing arguments at the three-day hearing at the ICJ, Myanmar's de facto civilian leader issued a stark warning to judges that allowing Gambia's case against Myanmar to go ahead could "undermine reconciliation".20 The ICJ has announced that it will issue a preliminary judgment in the case on Jan. 23. In a recent statement, the Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou asked the judges to "tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings, to stop these acts of barbarity that continue to shock our collective conscience, to stop this genocide of its own people". He added that "another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it", referring to the 1994 Rawandian genocide.21 This effort is also being criticised as selective, since no similar efforts are on to address the Chinese incarceration of lakhs of Uyghurs in Xingiang, China.

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), AA and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDA) who are members of the ‘Northern Alliance’ showed their solidarity by releasing a joint statement, saying the group endorsed the attempts to take action against the Tatmadaw at the ICJ by Gambia and at the ICC by Bangladesh and also Argentina’s move to sue Myanmar leaders. The AA spokesman said that “the move to take appropriate legal action against guilty war criminals is a must. Only when action would be taken against war criminals, will justice and peace be achieved.” 22

Support for Daw Suu came from ordinary citizens and also a few ethnic rebel groups, mostly major rebel groups based in Shan state such as United Wa State Army, National Democratic Alliance Army, Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and RCSS. Ahead of Suu Kyi’s trip to The Hague for the first hearing at ICJ that was on Dec. 10, loyalists had been organizing a series of rallies in commercial city of Yangon and several major cities to show their support of Suu Kyi. 23 Suu Kyi’s retaliation to the charges and the narrative she followed in her defence can be seen following an exceedingly ‘anti-Muslim’ rhetoric. Suu Kyi upon returning from Hague made a speech on national television addressing the nation. She used her speech to play to Buddhist nationalist sensibilities. Many among the common masses of Myanmar seem to believe that the Western powers, following instructions from the oil-rich nations of the Islamic world, are ganging up on a poor little Buddhist country. Suu Kyi tried to capitalize on this very sentiment by assuring her listeners that “we will overcome every challenge with our seamless unity, solidarity and bonds of blood.” 24

China Myanmar Relations

Myanmar’s relations with China seemed to hit a new high in December 2019. With the 70 year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between these two countries coming up in 2020, the relations between them are only poised to grow further. One major factor that came to light as brought out by analysts was that China’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council – and its veto vote – makes it a valuable ally as Myanmar faces intensifying scrutiny over its treatment of the Rohingya.

The Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the country and met with Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Both sides agreed to strengthen economic cooperation and speed up peace process in northern Myanmar. The Chinese Foreign Minister also lauded the Myanmar Army and said that the army is an important force in preserving the country's peace and stability as well as the friendship between China and Myanmar. This visit also hinted on the fact that China is going to take this opportunity and push forward the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

What remains clear is that China is committed to ensuring peace and prosperity in Myanmar, especially in Northern Myanmar as it becomes the gateway to China’s presence in Myanmar. This became evident with the Chinese foreign ministers actions where he called upon various rebel groups operating in northern Myanmar and urged them to arrive at a peaceful settlement.25

In lieu of this overwhelming support the Tatmadaw received, Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Min Aung Hlaing said that the Army is committed to the government and that it wholly supports China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and it will promote the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). He further said that China is Myanmar’s “pauk-phaw” brother and “trusted friend forever”. He also promised that the Tatmadaw will leave no stone unturned in its attempt to secure and maintain peace in the Myanmar-China border areas.26 Myanmar President U Win Myint also met with visiting the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Naypyidaw, the country's capital, with both sides pledging to strengthen high-level exchanges to push bilateral ties to a new high. The Myanmar president expressed gratitude to China for its long-term support for Myanmar's sovereignty, dignity and socio-economic development.27

China also hosted peace talks when it hosted Myanmar government officials and representatives of the four ethnic armed groups of the Northern Alliance. The two sides agreed to resume truce negotiations in the last week of January.28

Bangladesh

The recent visit of the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen to Myanmar, saw new headways being made in the relations between these two neighbours. The Rohingya issue remains the biggest bone of contention between these two countries. The minister also insisted that Myanmar is a friend of Bangladesh. He also shed some light on the visit of the Bangladeshi Army Chief to Myanmar and said that the visit of very fruitful and a new channel of communication that was opened during that trip would be good for Bangladesh.29 On a separate occasion, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought out the Rohingya issue whilst addressing the three-day ‘Dhaka Global Dialogue-2019’ urged the world community to take appropriate action realizing the gravity of the situation that the 9,00,000 Rohingyas who have come to Bangladesh since 2017 are a threat to its security. The Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Benoit Préfontaine also chimed into this and said that Canada were using all tools at their disposal, including sanctions, against Myanmar leaders and companies as well as diplomatic efforts to help find a solution to the Rohingya crisis.30

India

In a big boost to bilateral defence cooperation, Myanmar is set to soon commission its first-ever submarine after it is formally handed over by India. The Indian Navy is set to transfer the Russian-origin INS Sindhuvir as part of India’s continuing policy to counter China’s strategic inroads into Myanmar. The 3,000-tonne INS Sindhuvir may be 31 years old but it has undergone regular refits in India and Russia over the years, with the latest modernization work being undertaken on the diesel-electric boat at Hindustan Shipyard Limited in Visakhapatnam.31 The 18th round of Foreign Office Consultations between India and Myanmar was held in New Delhi on 6 December 2019. The Indian delegation was led by Foreign Secretary, Shri Vijay Gokhale and the Myanmar delegation was led by Permanent Secretary, U Soe Han. The two sides reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations, the status of India’s ongoing projects in Myanmar, capacity building initiatives, bilateral trade relations, border cooperation and plans to enhance implementation of bilateral agreements. Foreign Secretary reiterated the priority India attaches to its partnership with Myanmar, a neighbour and an ASEAN partner which is at the intersection of our ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies. The Myanmar Permanent Secretary equally reaffirmed the high priority his Government attaches to relations with India, which were based on historic and civilization contact. 32

The recent episode where five Indians were abducted by the AA and four of them were subsequently released (one died of cardiac arrest while under custody) could possibly mark a new trend by the AA where it is believed by many observers and diplomats that the AA was after recognition and validation from the Indian government and that monetary gains is not what drove the AA. But the fact remains that since the AA has already been listed as a terrorist organization by the government of Myanmar, it is highly unlikely that India will be recognizing them or even heed to their demands. 33

End Notes
  1. http://www.mizzima.com/article/tatmadaw-has-engagement-rcss-namtu
  2. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/arakan-army-claims-responsibility-ferry-attack-rakhine.html
  3. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/aa-attacks-vessels-carrying-materials-for-paletwa-bridge-project
  4. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/aa-attacks-vessel-carrying-heavy-machineries-for-paletwa-zorinpui-project
  5. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/fighting-myebon-township-results-casualties-tatmadaw-says
  6. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/aa-attacks-troops-in-paletwa-and-minbya
  7. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/artillery-shell-lands-village-killing-woman-injuring-2-sisters-injured-shan.html
  8. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/5-civilians-injured-mrauk-u-myanmar-military-shells-village.html
  9. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/nine-year-old-schoolboy-dies-alleged-myanmar-military-gunfire-rakhine-state.html
  10. https://www.narinjara.com/news/detail/5debcbe6049682041f925716
  11. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/2-killed-7-injured-artillery-shell-strikes-ferry-chin-state-myanmar.html
  12. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/myanmar-troops-seize-ethnic-group-camp-waingmaw.html
  13. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/govt-pledges-hold-2020-general-elections-arakan-state
  14. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/12/09/asia-pacific/thailand-delays-deporting-family-rakhine-insurgent-leader/#.XgCfB9IzbIU
  15. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/analyst-says-arakan-army-may-retaliate-after-arrest-leaders-wife-children.html
  16. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/arakan-army-will-continue-detain-paletwa-mp-until-situation-stable
  17. http://www.mizzima.com/article/peace-process-talks-resume-january
  18. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/15/aung-san-suu-kyi-must-be-held-account/
  19. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/choosing-defend-military-against-charge-genocide-aung-san-suu-kyi-going-broke
  20. https://theaseanpost.com/article/suu-kyi-warns-un-not-reignite-rohingya-crisis
  21. https://www.livemint.com/news/world/myanmar-s-suu-kyi-told-to-stop-the-genocide-of-rohingya-muslims-in-un-court-11575983062553.html
  22. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/northern-alliance-trio-endorses-legal-action-against-tatmadaw-icj
  23. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/genocide-lawsuits-prompt-mixed-reactions-in-myanmar/1665573
  24. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/15/aung-san-suu-kyi-must-be-held-account/
  25. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-12/08/c_138615455.htm
  26. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-chief-praises-china-trusted-friend-forever.html
  27. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2019-12-08/China-Myanmar-pledge-to-boost-ties-to-new-high-MfoRnWanRu/index.html
  28. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/myanmar-northern-alliance-negotiators-meet-china.html
  29. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/rohingya-crisis/2019/12/15/rohingya-crisis-momen-says-myanmar-s-attitude-has-softened
  30. https://www.unb.com.bd/category/Bangladesh/using-all-tools-against-myanmar-for-solution-to-rohingya-crisis-canada/37272
  31. https://m.timesofindia.com/india/china-on-mind-india-set-to-hand-over-sub-to-myanmar/amp_articleshow/72431384.cms?__twitter_impression=true
  32. https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32175/18th+IndiaMyanmar+Foreign+Office+Consultations
  33. https://thewire.in/south-asia/ethnic-armed-group-in-rakhine-wants-india-to-pay-taxes-for-kaladan-project

(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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