Myanmar Round Up: August 2020
Dr Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

August 2020 marked significant developments in Myanmar’s political process. The fourth “21st-Century Panglong Conference” was concluded, which was stalled since 2018. The government officials and military leaders along with ten Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) signed Part III of the Union Accord, which includes a framework to implement the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and basic principles to establish a democratic federal union. However, restoring peace in a country affected by ethnic insurgencies is a far distant dream. August 2020 also marked the three years of Rohingya exodus without any justice and accountability for the community. The relationship between the Union and the Rakhine state had become severely strained by heavy military operations against the Rohingya Muslim minority late 2017, and are further deteriorating with little or no significant steps by either military or government to bring justice to them. Moreover, the Myanmar government continues to block Rohingyas from participation in elections.

Myanmar military aka Tatmadaw extended the unilateral ceasefire agreement until 30 September 2020, however, continues to exclude Rakhine and Chin states, where Arakan Army operates. Such exclusion has led to continued attacks from the side of the Tatmadaw even during the times of COVID-19 pandemic. With the elections due in November 2020, controversies related to elections have been part of Myanmar’s political developments. Further, India and Myanmar continue to engage virtually, and India pledges financial aid to continue with the “India-Myanmar Border Development Area” project. In recent months, China’s ‘Big’ Investments have been questioned due to its rising influence in the country’s political and security dimensions.

The Fourth 21st-Century Panglong Conference (19 – 21 August 2020)

The fourth round of the Union Peace Conference aka 21st Century Panglong Conference included representatives from the government, the military, political parties, and ten EAOs that have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) led by the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army did not attend the conference. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a total of 230 participants attended the conference and the duration was also reduced from the usual five days to three with participants joining the opening and closing ceremonies. The song “Essential Peace, Necessary Peace” was performed at the fourth 21st Century Panglong Conference, which features the troubles of those affected by the war.

At the conference, the representatives aimed at ending various ethnic insurgencies that have ravaged Myanmar since its foundation in 1948. They signed Part III of the Union Accord, which was first inked at the 2016 Round of the Union Peace Conference. The accord comprises a framework agreement for implementing the NCA, steps for implementing the peace process after 2020, and basic principles for establishing a democratic federal union.1 Myanmar’s powerful military accepted the concept of federalism after decades of resistance to the idea, signing an agreement on the final day of government-sponsored peace talks to set the stage for building a federal democratic union after 2020. The shift reverses 70 years of military rejection of a federal union for the complex multi-ethnic nation, but analysts said that the latest agreement was thin on concrete achievements.

The ethnic affairs analyst - Maung Maung Soe said that the participants at this year’s Union Peace Conference failed to make headway on forging peace. He said, “Peace will remain elusive until a ceasefire is implemented in Rakhine State,” which has become a battleground between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army (AA). “Unless there is a ceasefire in Rakhine State, effective support for prevention of and protection from COVID-19 is impossible”. The Chair of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) - General Yawd Serk, and Spokesperson of Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) –Brig Gen Mann Shar Htu Wong, urged the government to adopt an all-inclusive policy for the peace process. The Russian Ambassador to Myanmar also expressed regret of non-inclusion of Northern Alliance in the peace conference.2

Further, the RCSS said that the signing of the agreement was partially satisfactory because of certain principles between the Central and State governments on the division of finances, taxation, and revenue and power-sharing, though the details must be negotiated in the future.

State Counsellor - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi claimed it “a new plan for building a democratic federal union beyond 2020” in her closing remarks.3 According to Aung San Suu Kyi, the agreement signed at the conference was more meaningful than the two previous ones because the stakeholders have overcome differences over secession issues and have demonstrated a determination to create a single union. However, she blamed the military for four years of fruitless efforts to end the country’s civil wars. She further claimed that lack of trust among the parties meant that they could not agree on the fundamental terms such as state-level constitutions to be included in a treaty to be signed during the summit. On the other hand, Myanmar’s military chief has blamed the government and EAOs for the failure of the peace process and accused them of not adhering to the basic principles that were agreed upon in previous agreements. The military chief also criticised the NLD-led government for taking the role of mediator between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs.4

Conflicts with Ethnic Armed Organisations

The Tatmadaw and the EAOs who signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) decided to meet individually over troops’ deployment and territorial boundaries. Both parties also decided to hold State-level Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JCM-C).5 On 24 August, the Tatmadaw announced the extension of unilateral ceasefire until 30 September in order to facilitate efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and honour its obligations under recent peace agreements.

However, such efforts fail to bring peace in the country. The regular clashes between the military and EAOs have contributed to the forced displacement of local people, as well as other human rights abuses including indiscriminate shelling, death, arbitrary arrest, and detainment. These actions show a lack of commitment to the already faltering peace process and dialogue on meaningful reconciliation.

Despite the unilateral ceasefire declared by Myanmar military on 10 May 2020, the military has continued to expand its operations and have steadily increased troops in the Shan state. Against the backdrop of the conflict, there are over 500 villagers displaced in Kyaukme. The Myanmar military has admitted that its soldiers were responsible for the killing of a civilian amid a clash with Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) in Shan state on 29 June, which prompted a protest by thousands of residents demanding justice. Also, Myanmar's military stated that two soldiers accused of killing a woman from an ethnic minority community in Karen state would face a court-martial. The Ta’ang civil society groups and the relatives of three ethnic Ta’ang villagers who went missing and were later found dead in Namhkam Township in Shan state have accused the military of the killing. However, the military denied responsibility for the same killings.6

For several decades ethnic Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan civilians and others have been subjected to widespread attacks, indiscriminate killings, destruction and looting of property, shortages of food supplies and critical services. Ethnic women’s organisations have also reported widespread sexual violence as a part of a deliberate and systematic pattern of targeting women and girls in their communities by the Tatmadaw. The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (UNIFFM) also reported the sexual and gender-based violence as a “hallmark of the Tatmadaw’s operations against ethnic minorities in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states.” Despite clear findings of grave human rights violations, accountability for crimes against ethnic minorities is virtually non-existent.

Continued attacks on Arakan Army

Myanmar’s President Spokesperson - U Zaw Htay stated that the military and government peace negotiators would discuss how to pursue peace talks with the Arakan Army (AA). However, Political analyst - Maung Maung Soe said that the government should have invited all non-NCA signatory EAOs so that peace talks could move beyond the conference.

Under the Anti-Terrorism Law, the military continues to arrest villagers in custody in suspicion of them maintaining ties with AA. Recently, seven men were taken into military custody on 14 and 15 August. Earlier on 9 August another villager was arrested in Taw Pan Sinin Kyauktaw.7 The military is keeping a healthcare worker at an unknown location after detaining him with two of his colleagues near Ann Township, Rakhine state. Another incident of grave violation of human rights was reported as a resident in Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U Township died in the Myanmar military’s custody. Even if the accused is guilty and has ties to the AA, Rakhine State lawmaker U Tun Tha Sein stated that “he must be punished in line with the law, but extrajudicial execution is not the way”.8 A Rakhine woman has also filed a case with Sittwe police against three Tatmadaw soldiers on accusations of gang-raped on 29 June.9

The members of AA are also accused of committing crimes. They abducted two Buddhist monks and two novices in Mrauk-U Township on 18 August for allegedly recruiting for Arakan Liberation Party (ALP).10 In another incident, AA released two senior members of ALP and three civilian medics, which AA had earlier abducted on 10 August in Ponnagyun Township of Rakhine.11

The AA along with Brotherhood Alliance has repeatedly declared a unilateral ceasefire to facilitate the combating and prevention of the spread of Coronavirus. However, the Myanmar military continues to carry out military operations by firing heavy weapons attacks from its artillery bases and warships.

The government resumed mobile internet services in nine townships of Rakhine and Chin states in early August 2020, but the network is limited to 2G service, and the residents are unable to access educational messages and real-time information issued by the Ministry of Health and Sports (MoH&S) about COVID-19. Rakhine State parliament lawmaker-U Tun Tha Sein of Mrauk-U said that the residents have to rely on phone calls and have barely any access to real-time information about the pandemic. The AA has accused the government of committing a grave crime against humanity by continuing to limit access to the internet during the pandemic. In a statement released, the AA stated that “there is an urgent requirement to speed up the flow of information and to release accurate news in a timely manner. Portraying only slow dysfunctional 2G internet lines instead of launching a high-speed 4G telecommunication network that needs to be informed public is the racial oppression and ethnic cleansing collaboratively committed by the Myanmar government and its military”.

The Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) report was submitted to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the situation in Arakan State. The report said that while the conflict between the Myanmar military and AA continues to escalate, the government of Myanmar added another blockage in establishing peace in Arakan, that is the election controversy. A candidate for the State Hluttaw for Kyaukphyu - U Pho San, has been reportedly removed from the Hluttaw candidate list stating that violates Section 10(d) of the Electoral Law.13 He is the current State Hluttaw representative from Kyaukphyu Township Constituency No. 2 and his son - Aung Myint Soe, formerly a Major in the Tatmadaw, currently serves in the Arakan Army.14

Further, due to continued armed conflict between the military and AA, preliminary voter lists could be displayed in only 50 out of 120 wards and village-tracts of Paletwa. Even in places where voter lists have been posted, there are complaints from voters about errors in personal information such as birthdates and addresses. The Rakhine State Election Commission also failed to release the voters’ list in 46 Rakhine villages in Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Ann Townships due to continuous clashes.15

Amidst the military atrocities and government misdoing, the rising COVID-19 cases are a cause of concern in the Rakhine. The disease has recently surged in Sittwe, and prevention plans for the region are almost non-existent due to the lack of internet facilities and awareness, and material supplies. With a total of 399 cases in Sittwe, the Myanmar government has declared a partial lockdown in Rakhine state. The State General Administration Department issued a curfew order restricting people movement between 9 pm and 4 am, which will be enforced until 21 October.

Thousands of villagers who had to flee due to continuous fighting are living in “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPs) camps leading to overcrowding of IDPs. Even though the government has promised construction of new shelters, U Myint Naing, MP for Rakhine Constituency 5 has stated that over 4000 do not have shelter. He also stated that there had been shortages of food in these camps. Myanmar’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged enough food supplies and financial support for Rakhine State, where more than 3 million people are under partial COVID-19 lockdown.

The conflict in northern Arakan State has delayed the delivery of medicines. Because the Rathedaung-Ponnagyun motor road is currently closed, transport of medicines and emergency patients have been delayed due to reliance solely on waterway routes, said Dr Tin Myint Oo, a Rathedaung Township medical officer. Hospitals in conflict zones also struggle to provide medical treatment in adverse conditions, and there have been multiple reports of emergency patients dying en route to hospital care or in medical facilities ill-equipped to handle their healthcare needs.

Three Years of Rohingya Crises

The year 2020 marked three years since the Myanmar military committed grave crimes against Rohingyas community. According to James Rodehaver- Human Rights Officer at the South-East Asia Regional Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “conditions inside the country have deteriorated and little has been done to create viable conditions for their safe return” three years after the 2017 violence that forced over 700,000 Rohingyas from their homes in northern Myanmar. Further, the conflict between the Tatmadaw and AA has negatively impacted civilians throughout the Rakhine state, including the members of the minority Rohingya community.

The UN investigators said that Facebook played a role in the violence in Myanmar that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee their homes to Bangladesh, and now it is the responsibility of the online social media platform [Facebook] to help them get justice. The head of the United Nations Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar (UNIIMM) - Nicholas Koumjian, said that Facebook had not released evidence of “serious international crimes”, despite vowing to work with investigators looking into abuses in the country, including against the Rohingya Muslim minority. However, Facebook has said it is cooperating with the UNIIMM. The company says it is working to stop hate speech and has deleted accounts linked to the military including senior army officials, but preserved data. Facebook Director for Human Rights - Miranda Sissons had a call with representatives of the Voice of Rohingya (VOR), Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), Rohingya Youth for Legal Action (RYLA), and Rohingya Women for Justice and Peace (RWJP).

Nevertheless, Facebook said it could not comply with Gambia’s request and blocked a bid raised by Gambia to obtain posts and communications by members of Myanmar’s military and police. The social media giant urged the US District Court for the District of Columbia to reject the demand, which it said would violate a US law that bars electronic communication services from disclosing users’ communications.16

In an interaction between Japan and Myanmar Foreign Minister, the Japanese Minister stressed the importance of steadily implementing the order on provisional measures issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), promptly repatriating displaced Rohingya persons and creating an environment conducive to the repatriation of displaced persons.

Elections 2020

The country’s powerful military continues to wield considerable power. Myanmar’s Senior General - Min Aung Hlaing met 34 political parties in Nay Pyi Taw on 14 August. Concerns were raised about conducting free and fair elections and incapacities of UEC, and demand was also raised to replace the current chair and members of the UEC. The meeting has drawn widespread criticism as a move aimed at increasing the military’s involvement in politics. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) voiced concerns that the election or any political issue should not be raised with the military chief. Instead, the political parties should have approached the President.17

Another issue which has marred the credibility of the elections is the systematic exclusion of the Rohingya community and the members of Rakhine state. The Rohingya community that has voted and served in the national and state assemblies (including the military’s assembly) for many decades, the government continues to disenfranchise Rohingyas from electoral process banning them from participating in the upcoming national election. The UEC has been accused of discrimination after rejecting several Rohingya candidates who applied to contest seats in the upcoming election. The committee said it blocked the candidacies of five men because when they were born their parents were not citizens of Myanmar, but lawyers and activists say that claim is false. The head of the Rohingya-led Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) - Kyaw Min, has been barred from running in the national parliamentary elections in November this year. He won a seat in the country’s 1990 elections, but the military junta annulled the results, and he joined up with the pro-democracy shadow legislature of Aung San Suu Kyi.18 Two other DHRP candidates were disqualified because their parents were allegedly not citizens as required by election law.19

Further, People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), an independent group of election monitors in the country has been barred from observing polls set for November 2020. This move has raised questions about the credibility of elections, which is a crucial test of democratic reforms in the country. Even the Foreign observer missions, who have been permitted, are likely to be given limited travel restrictions and quarantine requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group said.20

India and Myanmar Engagements

In the early August 2020, online celebrations of Rakha Bandhan (an Indian festival)were organised by Sanatana Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh.21 On 27 August, the Indian Ambassador to Myanmar - Saurabh Kumar met Myanmar’s Deputy Minister for Industry, Dr Min Ye Paing Heing in Nay Pyi Taw and discussed critical bilateral issues. On 28 August, during an interactive call between H.E. Lt Gen Ye Aung, Minister for Border Affairs, Government of Myanmar and Amb Shri Saurabh Kumar, the latter handed over a cheque amounting USD 05 million for the third year of the “India-Myanmar Border Area Development”.22

Due to Myanmar’s military engagement in cleaning up the camps of North-Eastern militants inside Myanmar, the militants assume that India is backing the operations. On 29 July, the Indian Army unit had launched an area domination patrol in Khongtal, and when the patrol team was returning, insurgents detonated an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and opened fire on the patrolling team. Around six soldiers have sustained minor injuries. In another incident an ambush in Manipur’s Chandel district was conducted by India’s three outfits - Manipur Naga People's Front (MNPF), Revolutionary People's Front and United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) in which three soldiers of Assam Rifles were killed and six other were injured.23

Myanmar and China

Dr S. Chandrasekharan in his article “Myanmar In Tight Grip Of China”, has portrayed the picture of how Myanmar is politically and economically beholden to China. He claimed that China’s “Big” investments would necessarily bring “Big” influence in Myanmar. Myanmar’s previously ruling military junta gave away major economic projects to China, and the NLD government, too, has allowed China to advance its economic interests. In the aftermath of the 2017 Rakhine conflict, Myanmar needed China’s help on the UN Security Council. In addition to the Yangon New City project, China has signed agreements to open three cross-border cooperation zones in Shan and Kachin states. China has made clear its intention to secure a foothold in the Indian Ocean through the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project. Dr Chandrasekharan suggests that Myanmar needs independent research institutes and centres to study China’s geopolitical strategy and aims.24

The armed groups in ethnic areas along the Sino-Myanmar border are under Chinese influence. A Myanmar deputy government minister accused China of interfering with the country's peace efforts by controlling the rebel alliance, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which includes the two largest and strongest rebel groups, referring to United Wa State Army, the country's largest ethnic armed group based on the Myanmar-China border. 25

In the first week of August, the Myanmar government’s investment agency approved the registration of a joint venture between a Chinese company and a government-backed committee to develop China’s Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and deep-sea port project in western Rakhine State.26 China expressed support for Myanmar’s move to investigate irregularities surrounding a controversial city development project near the Thai border in Karen State run by Chinese investors who are accused of illegal casino activities in Cambodia and the Philippines.

The Way Forward

Despite international pressure, the situations remained unchanged. The ethnic minorities across Myanmar – the Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Kachin, Mon, Rohingyas and others have been targets of military attacks. Param-Preet Singh –the Associate Director at the International Justice Program (IJP) highlighted the need for a strategic, cohesive and sustained action by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to protect the ethnic minorities in Myanmar.27 The United Nations OHCHR has urged the government of Myanmar to embrace the upcoming elections in November 2020, and utilise the opportunity to establish democracy and address the root causes of abuses suffered by ethnic minorities. The unilateral ceasefire announced by the Tatmadaw must include Rakhine and Chin states, and the military along with the government, must initiate talks with the Arakan Army to ensure peace in the country.

The November 2020 elections offer the chance to restore political rights to the Rohingya, who were able to participate in all votes until 2010. This continuing process of disenfranchisement effectively prevents Rohingya from enjoying their fundamental rights. The authorities also need to demonstrate the commitment to the process of returns for displaced Rohingya and to take necessary measures to address the root causes that led to the crisis, including amending the 1982 Citizenship Law to restore their nationality and ensuring accountability for crimes committed against them.

  1. The first two parts of the Union Accord, with 51 basic principles for a federal union, were agreed at the 2017 and 2018 conferences, respectively.
  11. The ALP has accused the AA of detaining party members on four occasions, twice in 2017 and twice this year. A total of 12 ALP members were detained in those incidents, and two managed to escape. Based along the borders with Bangladesh and India, the ALP and its armed wing, the Arakan Liberation Army, are an ethnic Rakhine revolutionary group formed in 1967 to fight for equality. The ALP signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015 and is participating in the peace process.
  12. Table 1.: Attacks by Myanmar Military against Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin States
  13. Section 10 (d) includes a person who has strong evidence of contact with armed insurgent groups or their members opposing the state.
  18. In 2005, Kyaw Min was arrested along with his family and spent seven years in prison before being released in a 2012 amnesty. Before the 2015 national elections, the government for the first time stripped Rohingya of the right to vote, and the election commission rejected Kyaw Min’s candidacy along with that of 14 others from DHRP.
  22. In 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on India-Myanmar Border Area Development was signed during the visit of Prime Minister of India to Myanmar. According to this MoU, India would grant US$ 5 million per annum for the basic infrastructure and livelihood development of the Chin State and Naga Self -Administered Zone. Under the third year projects, 9 roads/ bridges and 5 schools have been constructed in Chin State. Similarly in Naga Self-Administered Zone, 14 roads/ bridges and 6 schools and 1 healthcare centre have been constructed in around 3 township areas covering 80 villages. Overall in the third cycle of India-Myanmar Border Area Development, so far 141 projects of construction of roads/ bridges, healthcare centre, schools in Chin State and Naga Self-Administered Zone have been implemented or are in advance stages of implementation.
  23. The anti-talk faction of the ULFA, the Khaplang faction of the NSCN and Manipur-based militant outfits have their camps at Taga inside Myanmar.
  24. Dr Chandrasekharan article was published in SAAG, a South Asia Analysis Group

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