Crisis Group is monitoring the volatility in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious country during its transition away from military rule. In Rakhine state, longstanding communal tensions and government discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim minority have morphed into a major crisis. In August 2017, following militant attacks, the military drove more than 750,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. This human catastrophe is also a potential driver of transnational jihadist group mobilisation or recruitment. Meanwhile, armed conflict has escalated in both Rakhine and Shan states, and the peace process with some 21 ethnic armed groups has lost momentum as it collides with political and electoral realities. Through field research and advocacy, Crisis Group works to mitigate the impact of armed conflict, strengthen the peace process and promote improved communal relations.
Every year Crisis Group publishes two additional Watch List editions that complement its annual Watch List for the EU, most recently published in January 2020. These publications identify major crises and conflict situations where the European Union and its member states can generate stronger prospects for peace. The Spring Edition of the Watch List 2020 includes entries on Côte d’Ivoire, Myanmar, northern Syria, Yemen and Venezuela.
Fighting between Arakan Army (AA) and military continued at high tempo, leaving dozens dead, while authorities allowed mass release of prisoners, and issued orders to prevent and punish acts of genocide. In Chin State, military 7 April clashed with AA near Nanchaungwa village, Paletwa township, launching airstrikes which left seven civilians dead. UN 17 April said near-daily military air strikes and shelling had killed at least 32 civilians in Rakhine and Chin States since 23 March; Malaysia-based organisation, Arakan Information Center, said total of 45 civilians killed in first half of April in Rakhine and Chin. Amid efforts to expand territorial reach, AA 3 April launched attack on military base in Gwa township, in far south of Rakhine State. Brotherhood Alliance – coalition of armed groups AA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – 1 April extended unilateral ceasefire (which never applied in Rakhine State) until 30 April, referencing COVID-19 concerns; military same day said ceasefire “unrealistic”, questioned good faith of armed groups. World Health Organization vehicle transporting COVID-19 test samples 20 April was struck with small-arms fire in Minbya township, Rakhine State; UN driver next day died of injuries; military and AA blamed each other. Outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee 29 April said military’s conduct in Rakhine and Chin “may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Amid fears of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons, President Win Myint 17 April announced country’s largest ever prisoner amnesty, releasing some 25.000, more than a quarter of total prison population; very few political prisoners included. Ahead of 23 May deadline to submit report to International Court of Justice, Myint 8 April ordered officials to abide by Genocide Convention and to preserve any evidence of genocide. From 8 April, hundreds of detained Rohingya who faced court cases for travelling within country without permission released from prison and returned to displacement camps in Rakhine. Meanwhile, Bangladesh Coast Guard 15 April rescued 400 Rohingya refugees after their boat blocked from landing in Malaysia due to COVID-19 restrictions. Incident raised fears of a repeat of 2015 Rohingya maritime migration crisis (see also Bangladesh).
Conflicts have paused in much of Myanmar, opening a window for the government, military and ethnic armed groups to pursue a holistic response to the coronavirus. The parties should also work together in Rakhine State, where fighting persists, to limit the disease’s spread.
Isolated from the international community, Myanmar is deepening its dependence on China. But closer ties, Beijing-backed megaprojects and private Chinese investment carry both risks and opportunities. Both states should proceed carefully to ensure local communities benefit and avoid inflaming deadly armed conflicts.
Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps.
A trio of ethnic armed groups have escalated their fight with the military in Myanmar’s Shan State. This alliance has long been outside the country’s peace process. With China’s help, the government should pursue bilateral ceasefires – and longer-term rapprochement – with the three organisations.
Myanmar’s 2020 polls are a chance to consolidate electoral democracy in the country. Yet many ethnic minorities doubt that voting gives them a real say. To preempt possible violence, the government and outside partners should work to enhance the ballot’s inclusiveness and transparency.
In 2011, fighting between Myanmar’s military and Kachin rebels displaced more than 100,000 people. Now they might be able to go home. The military and insurgents should both cease fire while the government arranges for the internally displaced persons’ safe, voluntary return or resettlement.
[The drug trade] is a problem of the armed conflict in Myanmar [and] it is also a problem of corruption.
The overall impression is that Myanmar is being cautious about Chinese investment, especially ahead of elections planned later in the year.
[Aung San Suu Kyi] likely feels that she must do all she can to defend the national interest against what most people in Myanmar see as biased and politically-motivated charges.
The Pope was aware that inserting himself too strongly into a situation with a lot of religious undertones could inflame tensions further in Myanmar.
[Buddhist] monks feel the [Myanmar] government is weak on the protection of Buddhism and keeping the morals of the country intact.
The [Myanmar] military and government should be careful not to assume all Rohingya are sympathizers or supporters [of jihadis].
On 10 December, the International Court of Justice convened to hear an opening request in a genocide case filed against Myanmar for its atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey looks at the legal and diplomatic stakes of these proceedings.