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

Myanmar is scheduled to conduct the third general elections in November 2020. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services, during the fifth anniversary of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on 15 October stated that election is a necessity in a multi-party democratic system and it is needed to be fair and independent. However, the Human Rights Watch has criticised the upcoming Myanmar elections as fundamentally flawed.1

The recent months have witnessed the resurgence of violent conflicts in many ethnic areas such as Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, which have hampered the election process. According to the New Myanmar Foundation, there were more than 40 incidents of electoral violence since mid-August. During the 2015 general election, there were a total of 28 reported instances of violence. In May 2020, the International Crisis Group warned that the conflict was a "potential health disaster". The fighting which intensified since 2019 further gained momentum since the spread of COVID-19 and declaring the Arakan Army (AA) as an “unlawful organisation” in March 2020.

A significant step for the support of Rohingyas community was initiated during the month. The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees co-hosted a donor conference on 22 October and announced new pledges of around USD600 million in humanitarian funding, which significantly expands the nearly USD636 million in assistance already committed so far in 2020 under the Bangladesh Joint Response Plan and the Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan.2 Japanese Ambassador Naoki Ito and Egyptian Ambassador Walid Ahmed Shamseldin further gave the assurances when they separately called on Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen in Dhaka. Additionally, Gambia filed a more than 500-page Memorial, which also includes more than 5000 pages of supporting material, in its lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), making its case for how the Government of Myanmar is responsible for genocide against its Rohingya population. The Government of Myanmar has three months to file a Counter-Memorial at the ICJ in response to Gambia’s genocide allegations.3

India had made a crucial outreach to Myanmar. It was the first joint visit by the Indian Foreign Secretary and the Army Chief and gave a significant boost to India’s Act East policy. New Delhi's decision to send the Army Chief had caught the attention of political experts. India and Myanmar have agreed to operationalise the strategic Sittwe port in Rakhine state in the first quarter of 2021, and initiate steps to complete India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highways. Other significant developments are discussed later in the article. Due to the prolonged embargo mainly from the U.S. and Europe, Myanmar has been buying mostly Chinese weapons for many years. But due to the reports of defective defence equipment being supplied to countries, Myanmar continues to remain cautious of China’s interest and workings in the country.

Rights group Burma Campaign UK is pressuring scores of international companies on its "Dirty List" to sever links with the military. A.P.Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, agreed to "stop using military-owned ports" from the end of October. The Danish company’s decision was highly significant and would increase pressure on other shipping businesses to do the same.4

COVID-19

Having controlled the first wave of COVID-19 cases, Myanmar is now struggling with the rise in several cases and the dwindling health care system. World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative Dr Stephan Jost called this an "emergency period" for Myanmar. But Jost insisted Myanmar was on top of the pandemic starting in early January, banning flights from Wuhan, cancelling visas-on-arrival for visitors from all of China, and setting up a committee led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi — to coordinate the government's response. He said the "turning point" came in mid-August when a community transmission case was detected in Sittwe. However, Jost appreciated Myanmar for rapidly increasing its testing capacity to 10,000 and 15,000 a day.5

The spike in COVID-19 cases prompted calls from some political parties to postpone voting in populous areas and hotspots. Nevertheless, the Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that it would expand the number of polling stations in areas with large populations, with no more than 1,000 voters at each polling station. There are nearly 42,000 polling stations throughout the country, which will be operated by 564,000 election staffers to assist voters, according to the UEC. The UEC also has collected advanced votes from people 60 years of age and older who were allowed to complete their ballots at home to reduce the number of voters at polling stations.6

Elections 2020

Over the past few months, Myanmar’s electoral body, the UEC has been under fire for its cancellation of votes in 56 townships, voter lists errors, early voting of nationals overseas and censorship of political parties’ speeches. On 16 October, the UEC cancelled voting in 56 of Myanmar’s 330 townships. The vote is cancelled wholly in 15 townships in conflict-torn Shan and Rakhine states and partially in over 500 village tracts in Kachin, Karen, and Mon States and the Bago region. Later, they also called off voting in five townships in the Wa Self Administrative Region and 94 village tracts in Chin state’s Paletwa Township. In response to the UEC’s announcement of the cancellations, five ethnic-based parties released a joint statement on 18 October condemning the revocations. Ten Myanmar civil society organisations also issued a joint statement calling on the UEC to reverse the decisions to disenfranchise ethnic voters and to ensure that people have the right to vote, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.7

Questions are raised about the selectivity of the regions and the consequences of the decision. Seven of the nine Rakhine townships where voting has been called off are strongholds of the ethnic Arakan National Party (ANP), while constituencies in Kachin and Shan states where voting has been cancelled were won mainly by minority parties in 2015. In response, Myint Naing, member of the UEC, said the decision was based on input from the central government, the ministries of home affairs and defence. The ethnic minority parties have appealed the decisions and the UEC stated during a press conference that it would review the decisions.8 UEC’s censorship of party speeches is another source of dissatisfaction.9 The civil society groups also raised concerns over restrictions on political broadcasts, which required parties to submit scripts of their campaign messages for review and editing before they were broadcast on state-run radio and television.

Also, online application mVoter2020 came under scrutiny as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Sweden based organisation, said in a statement that the content in the mVoter2020 mobile application "is the sole responsibility" of Myanmar's UEC. The controversy involves the inclusion of the categories "race," "religion" and "parents' race" for candidates. In at least two cases, it identifies candidates as Bengali or part-Bengali, a term used by the government for Rohingya. Justice for Myanmar, a civil society organisation, urged the immediate removal of the "race" and "religion" categories from the app.10

Violence and Conflict between Myanmar Military and Ethnic Armed Organisations

In Kachin state, the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Organisation/Army (KIO/A) are in a standoff after the former demanded the latter to remove two military camps in Chipwi Township. In Shan state, the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) clashed with the Burma Army over 20 times from 02-08 October. In another incident, a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) mob attacked a 38-year-old man who tried to stop the beating of NLD youth supporters during the clash between the two parties in Sagaing region’s Kanbalu township. A local administrator raised similar concerns in Myaing Township, where a pro-USDP mob raided an NLD regional member’s house on the night of 03 October.11 Several other election-related incidents of intimidation and physical attacks were also reported in Yangon, Naypyitaw, Mandalay and Ayeyawaddy regions.

On 13 October, clashes broke out between the Myanmar military and AA near Aungtharzi Village in Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township. Earlier on 03-05 October, the two sides engaged in three days of fierce fighting for control of a strategic hill near Aungtharzi between Kyauktan and Hteeswe villages.12 On 26 October, AA attacked a temporary military outpost and police outpost between Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships.13 And on 28 October, a boat hired by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to transport food supplies to IDPs floats in the Mayu River was destroyed by an artillery attack and subsequent fire in Rathedaung Township, Rakhine state. Myanmar’s military later stated that the Navy had fired in response to an attack by AA troops from the boat. The military account contradicted that of the boat operator, Kan Aye Chan, who stated that the boat had only four unarmed crewmen on board and none had any connection to the AA.14

In another major incident, the AA claimed responsibility of abducting three NLD candidates in Rakhine state’s Taungup Township on 14 October.15 Further, the group stated that it would not release the candidates until the government freed all ethnic Rakhine politicians and civilians arrested for affiliation with the AA and student protesters detained for demanding peace. The ten ethnic armed group signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) have urged the warring parties in Arakan State to solve their problems through political means to reduce armed conflict in the state during the fifth anniversary of the signing of the NCA on 15 October.

India Myanmar Engagements

On 01 October, India and Myanmar held the 19th round of Foreign Office Consultations virtually. On 04-05 October, the visit by an Indian delegation led by Army Chief General MM Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Myanmar gave a major boost to India’s Act East policy. India and Myanmar have agreed to operationalise the strategic Sittwe port in Rakhine state in the first quarter of 2021, and initiate steps to complete India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. India announced a grant of USD 2 million for the construction of the border haat bridge at Byanyu/Sarsichauk in Chin State. This strategic haat will enhance economic activity between Mizoram and Myanmar.

As part of India’s contribution to help “friendly neighbour” Myanmar in its fight against COVID-19, the delegation handed over 3,000 vials of Remdesivir to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. India will also be establishing its embassy in Nay Pyi Taw after the formal inauguration of a liaison office in Nay Pyi Taw (India already has its embassy in Yangon). In addition to these, India will also import 1.5 lakh tonnes of Urad from Myanmar till 31 March 2021. The Rohingya issues were also taken into consideration with Indian delegation supporting the safe, sustainable and speedy return of Rohingya refugees from refugees’ camps of Bangladesh.

Taking bilateral defence cooperation to new heights, India announced its intent to deliver a submarine to the Myanmar Navy, a move aimed at securing ties with Myanmar amid concerted efforts by China to increase its influence around India’s periphery.16 Russia’s Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine, the INS Sindhuvir, which was commissioned to the Indian Navy in 1988, has been refurbished by state-run defence shipbuilder Hindustan Shipyard. With a displacement of 3,000 tons, a maximum operating depth of 300 meters and a top speed of 18 knots, the vessel is Myanmar's first submarine. Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava stated that “Cooperation in the maritime domain is a part of our diverse and enhanced engagement with Myanmar," and the move was as per India's vision of "security and growth for all in the region, and also in line with our commitment to build capacities and self-reliance in all our neighbouring countries." The submarine has been renamed UMS Minye Theinkhathu, taking its name from a historical hero in Myanmar, and was showcased during the navy's fleet exercise last week.17

With investments of over USD 1.2 billion, Myanmar has the highest Indian investment in any country in South Asia. India proposed to invest USD6 billion to set up an oil refinery near Yangon which is a significant step in the context of China’s growing footprints in South and Southeast Asia. India is also slowly making inroads into the mineral-rich Kachin state as the visiting Indian delegation attended the virtual inauguration of the Centre of Excellence in Software Development and Training (CESDT) in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, set up under the ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund. Kachin in northern Myanmar, which is located next to China’s Yunnan province, has seen massive Chinese investments in mining, infrastructure and industrial projects in recent years. And, political experts say, New Delhi’s interests in Kachin seem to be guided more by strategic reasons rather than economic ones. According to Avinash Paliwal, Associate Professor, International Relations, SOAS, University of London, the Kachin rebels can “generate critical intelligence for India” in the event of full-scale military hostilities with China in the eastern sector and it “may even empower India’s so-called ‘Tibet card’”.18 During the visit, the two countries stressed over the security of their border areas and agreed to maintain peace and stability. This is because India is concerned over some militant groups which are active in the North-East region and are taking shelter in Myanmar. Myanmar army has launched Operation Sunrise-3 to crack down on various insurgent groups gathered at the Indo-Myanmar border.19

China - Myanmar Relations

China is the fifth-largest exporter of weapon systems, after the U.S., Russia, France and Germany, but much of its equipment sold to various countries is defective, say sources in intelligence agencies. Myanmar’s senior leadership is concerned over the quality of Chinese equipment supplied to them and therefore have started diversifying their imports. In addition to this, earlier this year, the Myanmar military indirectly accused China of supplying high-quality sophisticated weapons (including Surface to Air Missiles) to militant groups AA, the report stated.20

The Myanmar military is also investigating three senior officers for allegedly accepting bribes from the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF) to keep silent about illegal gambling activities at a controversial new city development “ShweKokko project” near the Thai border in Karen State. The project has sparked criticism due to a lack of transparency, land confiscations, confusion over the scale of construction and the growing influx of Chinese money into the area, as well as suspected illicit activity and local concerns about the social impacts of casino businesses. At a press conference, Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said the Tatmadaw had no stake at all in the new city project. However, the Karen State Border Guard Force, like other border guard forces, is under the ultimate control of Myanmar military. In its March 2020 report “Gambling Away Our Lands,” the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) said there is considerable evidence that the Myanmar military backs the city project. In June, the Myanmar government said it had formed a tribunal to investigate the project. The team has been unable to visit the site, however, due to COVID-19.21

Conclusion

Myanmar has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases since August, and its healthcare system is under stress. With the elections scheduled for November 2020, COVID-19 spread has impacted the election procedures and is likely to affect the consequences as well. The NLD is seen to be benefiting disproportionately from the pandemic. The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) survey involving 2,577 interviews with voters in 14 states showed a year-on-year nine-point increase in public trust in leader Aung San Suu Kyi (NLD leader). However, there are differing views as well. Maung Maung Soe, Myanmar political analyst, argued that it will be difficult for the NLD to win more than 50 percent in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and if NLD receives below 50 percent in these ethnic areas, they might have to form a coalition government with the ethnic groups. In addition to this, the NLD’s failure to check military power in administrative matters and ethnic regions have undermined its legitimacy. The opposition party, the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is accused of manipulating the UEC and for creating violence in ethnic regions. The ethnic parties were unable to safely campaign because of rising cases of COVID-19 and the rising violence in areas like Shan and Rakhine states.

The use of online media and the continuing conflict in the region has created interest for further research, and the Asia Foundation came out with areport “Conflict & Fragility and Technology teams, Violent Conflict, Tech Companies, and Social Media in Southeast Asia”. The report presents the mounting evidence that both violent nonstate groups and governments in the region are using social media to promote inflammatory public narratives, whip up discrimination, raise funds, recruit fighters, and organise acts of violence.22 In Myanmar, hundreds of propaganda pages operated by the military were taken down by Facebook in the second half of 2018. Recently, Facebook also removed nine Facebook accounts, eight Pages, two Groups and two Instagram accounts for coordinated inauthentic behaviour in Myanmar and focused on domestic audiences.23 Social media also enabled the emergence of armed groups in the country, including the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that used messaging apps to organise and prepare for assaults on police forces, and the AA, a much better equipped and trained ethnic Rakhine armed organisation.

Endnotes
  1. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/05/myanmar-election-fundamentally-flawed
  2. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075992
  3. http://unb.com.bd/category/Bangladesh/the-gambia-v-myanmar-proceeding-on-the-merits/59736
  4. https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/maersk-stop-using-myanmar-military-162827243.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAEvYu4xOuN6bDp_Gq8U0ZYg2g5n9yP6kLvuemUyAzkMpoHJSPI60Ch1cZ_23Ypb74z7Ob50xqrlKqxDb3sQ6884T958ew-5y2ra7BqA0lBhWNKJzU6Lvnwg_svzhZgmczfKMmVmD8zMZRUhrGuDqurHLN1XUsbplcrs3MhzvoL0h
  5. https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/soaring-myanmar-covid-19-cases-test-long-neglected-health-care-system
  6. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/voter-safety-10272020185339.html
  7. The groups include the Arakan Information Center, Free Expression Myanmar, Center for Social Integrity, Htoi Gender Foundation, Kachin State Women’s Network, SMILE Foundation, Tampadipa Institute, YMCA-Mandalay, ShweMinn Thar Foundation-Myanmar, and the Mandalay Justice Law Firm.
  8. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/ethnic-regions-10282020172335.html
  9. https://www.irrawaddy.com/elections/myanmars-election-body-faces-crisis-confidence-ahead-election.html
  10. The UEC along with the Asia Foundation and STEP Democracy, an EU-funded project implemented by International IDEA in Myanmar, launched the app and its companion website to provide voters with information about candidates and the voting process
    https://www.startribune.com/ethnic-identifiers-in-myanmar-election-app-criticized/572597612/?refresh=true
  11. https://globalvoices.org/2020/10/30/myanmar-general-election-violence-on-the-rise-as-november-vote-nears/
  12. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-calls-jets-attack-arakan-army-rakhine-state-mountains.html
  13. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/arakan-army-kills-govt-troops-raid-near-myanmar-bangladesh-border.html
  14. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/boat-10292020220012.html
  15. The three are Daw Ni Ni May Myint, who is running for a Lower House seat; Daw Chit ChitChaw, who is running for an Upper House seat; and U Min Aung, who is running for a seat in the Rakhine State parliament. The abduction was the third involving NLD members since 2019. In November 2019, U Whei Tin, an NLD Upper House lawmaker for Paletwa in Chin State, was kidnapped. In December 2019, a local NLD chief in Rakhine’s Buthidaung Township office died while in AA custody. And February 2000, U Zeyar Min, an executive committee member and treasurer of the NLD’s Yanbye Township chapter, was abducted by unidentified armed people and was later released in June 2020.
  16. https://www.irrawaddy.com/elections/three-ruling-party-candidates-abducted-armed-men-myanmars-rakhine-state.html

  17. https://www.livemint.com/
  18. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/With-an-eye-on-China-India-gifts-submarine-to-Myanmar
  19. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-kachin-connection-in-myanmar/
  20. https://zeenews.india.com/india/myanmar-army-launches-operation-sunrise-3-to-crackdown-insurgent-groups-at-indo-myanmar-border-2320204.html
  21. https://www.siasat.com/faulty-military-equipment-raises-questions-over-chinas-tech-prowess-2005947/
  22. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-probes-bribery-claims-officers-tied-china-backed-gambling-hub.html
  23. https://asiafoundation.org/2020/10/28/in-southeast-asia-violent-conflicts-move-online/
  24. https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/facebook-removes-fake-networks-targeting-us-myanmar-ahead-of-elections-120102800232_1.html

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