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.
De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to win Myanmar’s 8 November elections. The next test will be whether the result entrenches minority grievances that fuel armed conflict or revives reform efforts to give minorities a fairer deal alongside the Burman Buddhist majority.
Clashes between Arakan Army (AA) and security forces continued to inflict heavy toll on civilians. In Rakhine state, military 1 Sept allegedly shot and killed villager in Kyauktaw township; 3 Sept reportedly burned down nearly 200 homes in Kyauktaw and killed two villagers it claimed were AA insurgents. Two police officers went missing 5 Sept in Maungdaw township, mutilated body of one found two days later. Artillery shelling 8 Sept reportedly killed five villagers in Myebon township. Unidentified gunmen 10 Sept shot and injured police officer in Minbya township. Artillery shelling 11-17 Sept killed one villager and injured seven more in Rathedaung and Kyauktaw townships. Military 29 Sept announced extension of its nationwide COVID-19 ceasefire until end-Oct, but continued to exclude Rakhine state and Paletwa township. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet 14 Sept said military’s alleged targeting of civilians in Rakhine and Chin states may constitute “war crimes or even crimes against humanity”. Canada and Netherlands 2 Sept issued joint statement indicating they would support Rohingya genocide case filed by Gambia against Myanmar at International Court of Justice. International news outlet The New York Times and NGO Fortify Rights 8 Sept reported on video testimony of two Tatmadaw deserters confessing to army-directed atrocities against Rohingya, both fled Myanmar in Aug and are believed to be in The Hague in the Netherlands and to have been interviewed by International Criminal Court; military questioned credibility of confessions and called for soldiers to be returned to Myanmar to face justice. Ahead of Nov general election and amid rise in COVID-19 cases, campaign period kicked off 8 Sept; several opposition parties called for postponement of polls in light of deteriorating COVID-19 situation but Union Election Commission (UEC) 14 Sept rejected calls; unknown individual threw two grenades at residence of UEC official in capital Naypyitaw 19 Sept; neither exploded.
Ethnicity and conflict are tightly linked in Myanmar, as communal groups take up arms to press grievances for which they have found no other recourse. The problem calls for dialogue and deep reform, but meanwhile authorities can take smaller steps to indicate their positive intent.
The polls approaching in Myanmar are an opportunity for the government and ethnic armed groups to re-examine their positions in the country’s peace process. All parties should use the election-related hiatus to ask why talks have not succeeded and how to make them more productive.
Fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine State is taking a rising toll. It will hinder any effort to contain COVID-19 or resolve the Rohingya crisis. Rather than trying to defeat the Arakan Army, Naypyitaw should negotiate with ethnic Rakhine, endeavouring to convince them of electoral democracy’s benefits.
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.
As Myanmar starts to consolidate a system of electoral democracy after so many decades of authoritarianism, observers play a key role in giving the elections credibility.
[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.
Overlapping crises – displacement, conflict escalation and COVID-19 – threaten the already vulnerable Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to work closely with other donors in pushing for government accountability while remaining engaged in critical humanitarian and development support.