Myanmar Round Up: April 2024
Dr Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

In April, the Myanmar military regime continued to face challenges from the opposition forces such as the Arakan Army (AA) and other ethnic armed groups. The conflict has caused displacement and casualties, affecting Rohingya civilians in particular. Additionally, the Karen National Union (KNU) briefly took over Myawaddy before a counteroffensive by the military. Other resistance forces in Kachin, Sagaing and Shan states inflicted losses on the military and clashed with each other. The military escalated conscription tactics and forcibly recruited civilians, including Rohingya Muslims. Furthermore, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Julie Bishop as Special Envoy for Myanmar. ASEAN urged for restraint amid escalating violence, with Thailand proposing Troika meetings to address the crisis. India relocated its consulate in Sittwe due to escalating tensions, with civilians killed in airstrikes near the Indian border. India also assumed control of Sittwe Port, despite challenges in completing infrastructure projects. The article below analyses all these developments and their implications for Myanmar and the region.

Domestic and Political Situation

Myanmar's civil war took a dramatic turn with drone attacks on Naypyidaw's capital. Despite minimal military impact, it's a psychological blow for the regime amidst months of losses by the opposition forces. On 04 April, 29 drones targeted military headquarters, an airbase, and leader Min Aung Hlaing's residence in Naypyitaw. The attack, claimed by the National Unity Government (NUG), showcases increasing usage of drones in the conflict which are challenging the military. Guerrilla groups fighting Myanmar's military have claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Yangon, the country's largest city. Since the 2021 coup, these groups have targeted government and military-occupied buildings and killed administrators enforcing conscription laws. The groups, like Dark Shadow and Yangon Victory Force, cited their "Urban Freedom'' operation as motivation to resist the military regime. They collaborated with the Urban Support Campaign, supplying weapons like grenade launchers. However, the military's struggles extend beyond Naypyitaw and Yangon. It has failed to retake territories lost in northern Shan state and faces resistance from Border Guards Forces in Kayin state and ethnic armed groups elsewhere. The Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Army, and others have made significant territorial gains. Even in the ethnic Bamar heartland, the military's brutal tactics have failed to quell opposition.

The month started with the Arakan Army (AA) declaring an indefinite closure of a vital transportation road linking Ann township in Rakhine State to Padan village in Ngape township of Magway region due to military activities, including troop movements and clashes on 02 April. Fighting between military and AA fighters erupted on March 26 along the road, resulting in casualties on both sides. Intense clashes also erupted between the AA and Myanmar's military forces in Rakhine State's Thandwe Township. Over the past four months, the Myanmar Conflict Map at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, led by Morgan Michaels, confirmed the group's control over eight of Rakhine's 17 townships and one more in the neighbouring state of Chin. Additionally, during the month, clashes between the AA and military-backed Arakan Resistance Solidarity Army (ARSA) displaced thousands of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state. [1]

As the clashes between AA and military continue, over 80 Myanmar military personnel crossed into Bangladesh. Talks were ongoing between Bangladesh authorities and Myanmar's regime to organise their repatriation by the end of the month. Authorities increased patrols and surveillance along the border to prevent further encroachment. Additionally, Bangladesh Coast Guard Director General Rear Admiral Mir Ershad Ali announced that the Coast Guard is on high alert due to the ongoing conflict within the Myanmar border. By the end of the month, Bangladesh carried out a coordinated operation to repatriate 285 Myanmar nationals, , including 261 Border Guard Police (BGP) members, back to Myanmar. The operation involved transporting them from Cox's Bazar town to a Myanmar Navy ship in the Bay of Bengal. This marks the second recent repatriation, following a similar move on February 16 involving 330 officials. But in a sad turn of event, two Bangladeshi fishermen were allegedly shot by the Myanmar Navy while returning from fishing in the Bay of Bengal near Teknaf upazila in Cox's Bazar.

On 11 April, the Karen National Union (KNU) seized control of the strategically important trading outpost of Myawaddy in Myanmar. Following their retreat from the town, a group of around 200 Myanmar soldiers retreated to the border near Thailand. They were subsequently attacked by resistance groups using drones on April 12. Later an attempt by military troops to advance on the key town of Myawaddy along the Thai border was repelled. But by the end of the month, the KNU temporarily withdrew its troops from Myawaddy after a counteroffensive by the Myanmar military. As part of the military's national level operation "Operation Aung Zeya", the military sent approximately 1000 troops to take over Myawaddy.[2] After the incident, video footage showed Thai armed forces patrolling near the border in Mae Sot. However, Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara stated that no request had been received from the soldiers to cross over into Thailand. Additionally, Thailand's foreign minister visited the border with Myanmar, emphasising his country's commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty amidst recent clashes in Myawaddy.

During the month, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and its allied group, the Kachin Region People's Defence Force (PDF), reportedly seized a crucial base in Hpakant Township, Kachin State,, following two weeks of intense fighting. The base, situated in Sezin village, was targeted by the KIA and PDF since April 9. The conflict escalated with regime airstrikes on April 20 and 21. Subsequently, a major battle erupted and lasted for two days, resulting in the capture of the base by the KIA and PDF. The KIA announced its full control over Sinbo town in Kachin State after capturing the nearby base of Myanmar's military's Infantry Battalion 141. The operation resulted in the death of a military battalion commander and several comrades, with another commander injured. Additionally, the KIA and its allies controlled the Myitkyina-Bhamo road and Momauk-Loije road, with recent clashes reported in Momauk Township. Earlier, the KIA gained full control of the border town of Lwegel in Kachin State's Momauk Township.

The Northern Brothers People’s Defense Force (NBPDF) launched an attack on the military-controlled airbase in Myitkyina, Kachin State. This marks the second attack on the Myitkyina Air Force base in five months. Additionally, the Freedom Revolution Force (FRF) reported an attack on the Tada-U air force base in Mandalay Region. The attack resulted in the destruction of an aircraft hangar and runway damage. The assault on Tada-U Air Force Base was a collaborative effort between FRF, Kyaukse Revolution Force (KRF), and Sintgaing Township People’s Defense Force. Subsequently, approximately 70 soldiers from the military conducted area clearance operations in the surrounding area.

Additionally, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of Karen National Union (KNU), captured nearly 50 Myanmar soldiers in Tanintharyi, southern Myanmar. This is the first major KNLA victory in the region. The soldiers and their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Aung Hein surrendered. Additionally, two ethnic armed groups in southern Myanmar, the Mon State Revolutionary Force (MSRF) and the Mon State Defense Force (MSFD), [3] have formed an alliance aimed at capturing military outposts and taking control of townships in Mon state. Later, Myanmar's military claimed to have regained control of Kawkareik town and surrounding villages in Karen and Mon states, which were seized by Karen armed groups and allies in late February. Fighting resumed in mid-April, leading to the regime's recapture of Kawkareik on April 22. They urged residents to return as troops conduct rehabilitation and mine-clearance. Kawbein village, located 32 km from Mon capital Mawlamyine, was retaken on April 25. It had fallen to anti-regime groups in March but surrendered to military troops last week due to bombardment and airstrikes.

Furthermore, resistance forces in Sagaing launched an attack on a Myanmar military convoy, resulting in the deaths of 20 soldiers, and the capture of 49 individuals in Ayadaw Township. The seized weapons included small arms, assorted ammunition, bombs, and rockets. This attack coincided with the Myanmar military's intensified military conscription program, which began earlier than originally announced. Tensions also escalated between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Kutkai, northern Shan State, when MNDAA troops objected to the presence of TNLA soldiers at the town's agricultural office. Over 100 MNDAA troops arrested seven TNLA members and seized their weapons. Subsequently, around 30 TNLA troops were detained, but all were released unharmed later. Talks between the two groups are ongoing. [4] This incident marks the first visible friction between the two allies since their joint offensive against military forces.

Ahead of the Thingyan New Year holidays, Myanmar's military regime released thousands of prisoners, including foreigners. However, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Win Myint, were not released but relocated to undisclosed locations. The move to relocate Suu Kyi and Win Myint has been criticised by the NUG, which demands the unconditional release of all political prisoners. While on the one hand, the military released prisoners, on the other hand, it has intensified its conscription tactics, with soldiers forcibly abducting young men from their homes and streets without prior notice. This shift follows the initial collection of personal details of eligible civilians and the sending of call-up letters last month. Residents in various regions, including Magwe, Bago, Yangon, and Ayeyarwady, have reported abductions since April 18, believed to be for the second batch of conscripts. [5] Human Rights Watch has also reported that the military has forcibly recruited over 1,000 Rohingya Muslim men and boys from Rakhine State. The military's recruitment tactics included promises of citizenship cards and monetary compensation, which were often unfulfilled. Rohingya faced beatings, harassment, and familial repercussions for non-compliance.

International Reactions

On 05 April, UN Secretary General António Guterres appointed former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop as Special Envoy on Myanmar, filling a vacancy that lasted nearly a year. Myanmar's NUG publicly welcomed Bishop's appointment, expressing readiness to collaborate closely with her to establish a federal democratic union based on democratic principles. Tun Aung Shwe, the NUG's representative to Australia, expressed optimism about Bishop's potential impact, citing her diplomatic efforts in securing UN Security Council resolutions for humanitarian aid in Syria as a precedent for addressing Myanmar's situation. However, Myanmar's military criticised the UN for "one-sided allegations" regarding its human rights record and claimed it had not received official communication about the appointment of a new special envoy to the country. However, the UN clarified that the appointment was made through a General Assembly resolution and had been officially announced.

In addition, Myanmar's Ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, appealed for international support during the 2024 ECOSOC Financing for Development Forum in New York. [6] He highlighted the devastating impact of the military coup in Myanmar, leading to economic turmoil, poverty, and human rights violations. He emphasised the urgent need for assistance in areas such as domestic public resources, where poverty rates have soared, and the rule of law has collapsed, leading to rampant corruption and illicit economies. The Ambassador also noted the stagnation of financial sector reforms and the forced conscription of youth by the military junta, causing further instability. He called for conflict-sensitive international assistance to address Myanmar's crises and stressed the importance of ending the military dictatorship to achieve peace, stability, and sustainable development in the country.

ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement on April 19 urging all parties to immediately halt violence and exercise maximum restraint in Myanmar's border areas. They expressed deep concern over recent escalations in violence, notably in Myawaddy and Rakhine State, leading to the displacement of thousands. The statement reiterated support for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) and Thailand's efforts. On April 26, 2024, H.E. Mr. Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, presided over a meeting regarding humanitarian aid for the people of Myanmar. The meeting was attended by representatives from various international organisations in Thailand with a focus on humanitarian assistance, including UNHCR, UNOCHA, IOM, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, and ICRC. Discussions during the meeting centred around sharing information and perspectives on the current humanitarian situation and exploring opportunities for collaboration to enhance humanitarian aid efforts for those in need along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Furthermore, Thailand has proposed ASEAN Troika and Troika plus meetings to address the Myanmar crisis, aiming to engage with the military junta while advocating for humanitarian aid and peace. Laos, the current ASEAN chair, is considering the proposal. Additionally, Thailand's government committee, led by Deputy Prime Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, convened to address the refugee crisis and security concerns arising from the conflict along the Thai-Myanmar border. [7] Thailand plans to offer aid to refugees, mediate peace talks if necessary, and enforce a strict ban on armed groups within its territory. However, by the end of the month, Thailand's Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara resigned unexpectedly following a cabinet reshuffle. His departure comes at a sensitive time, as Thailand grapples with the conflict in Myanmar, where Parnpree had initiated humanitarian efforts and sought to reorient Thailand's policy.

China reiterated its commitment to promoting peace and dialogue in Myanmar through various channels. Ambassador Geng Shuang at the UN Security Council, emphasised China's stance on the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine State. He appreciated Bangladesh's efforts in assisting displaced individuals from Myanmar. Ambassador Geng reiterated China's support for the ASEAN-led efforts in engaging Myanmar and providing humanitarian assistance. He opposed imposing sanctions on Myanmar, stating that it could escalate tensions. Additionally, amid escalating clashes in Myanmar, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian during a press briefing called for all warring parties to cease hostilities and engage in peace talks. He also announced that its military would conduct air defence and live-fire drills, which were later conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along China’s border with Myanmar. This exercise marks the third such live-fire drill since October 2023.

Furthermore, Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong met Myanmar’s Union Minister for Home Affairs Lt-Gen Yar Pyae in Beijing and discussed joint efforts in combating telecom network fraud (24-29 April). Wang highlighted the strategic importance of China-Myanmar relations and expressed readiness to deepen cooperation on law enforcement, security, personnel project security, and combatting cross-border crimes like gambling and drug trafficking. China also provided 5 million yuan in assistance to Myanmar's police force and awarded a medal to Lieutenant-General Yar Pyae, marking the first time Beijing has honoured a top general in the current regime. While China inched closer to the military, the NUG urged China to cease its support for the ruling military. Zin Mar Aung, the NUG's foreign minister, emphasised during a Brussels interview the detrimental impact of arms provision on civilians. The NUG has assured China of safeguarding its investments and pledged to support China's one-China principle while restricting activities of organisations posing a threat to regional security.
Finally, during the month, Myanmar military’s national security advisor Moe Aung attended international meetings in Russia, highlighting the regime's diplomatic engagements with key allies like China and Russia. Admiral Moe Aung travelled to St. Petersburg to attend a 12th International Meeting of High Representatives for Security Issues and related meetings, further solidifying the collaboration between the two countries. This visit followed the reception of an international military cooperation award by top military officials from the Russian Defense Ministry. Additionally, honorary titles were conferred on Russian military officers by Min Aung Hlaing, indicating a deepening of ties. Further meetings between Russian and Myanmar officials have focused on trade, direct payments, flights, and cooperation in agriculture, oil, gas, and textiles. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval met with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev on the sidelines of the XII International Meeting of High Ranking Officials Responsible for Security Matters in St. Petersburg. Apart from the meetings on the sidelines of the event, Doval met with his Myanmar counterpart Admiral Moe Aung to discuss the situation in Myanmar and India-funded projects there, as well as recent developments along the India-Myanmar border, including security and refugee issues.

India and Myanmar Engagements

On 12 April, India relocated its staff from its consulate in Sittwe, Myanmar, to Yangon due to the precarious security situation in the region. The Indian consulate in Mandalay remains operational. Amid reports of three Indian youths being kidnapped, the Indian embassy is working on the matter. The situation is getting worsened with the latest airstrike by the Myanmar military on Khampat, near the Indian border, three civilians, including a child, were killed, and ten others were injured. The attack, carried out by a jet fighter dropping a 500-lb bomb, occurred in No. 1 Ward and Sawbwar Yayshin village, damaging houses in the area. Khampat, a strategic trade town, had been occupied by resistance groups since November 2023. Despite a failed counteroffensive by regime troops in December, the military continues to target Khampat with airstrikes in an attempt to regain control.

During the month, the Assam Rifles conducted a successful operation along the Manipur-Myanmar border, resulting in the arrest of a suspected KYKL cadre in Yangonupokpi village, Tengnoupal district. The operation recovered currency notes from India and Myanmar, documents, and ammunition. The Assam Rifles also conducted a successful operation in Nagaland's Mon district based on specific intelligence, seizing a significant cache of military-grade arms, ammunition, and other war-like items near the Myanmar border. Among the haul were 11 mortar tubes (81 mm), 4 tubes (106 mm), 10 pistols, 198 hand-held radio sets, a satellite phone, a motorcycle, a vehicle (Bolero), and other military supplies. One individual was arrested during the operation.

To secure its economic interests, the Indian government approved India Ports Global Ltd. (IPGL) to assume full control of Myanmar's Sittwe Port, making it the second international port managed by IPGL after Iran's Shahid Beheshti Port. The extended lease agreement includes renewal every three years. The Sittwe Port is a key component of the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), approved in 2008, designed to handle deep-sea vessels and facilitate trade between India and Myanmar. However, challenges persist in completing the road segment of the Kaladan project, which aims to link Kolkata and the Bangladeshi market to Mizoram via Sittwe Port. India is adapting its approach by initiating dialogue with ethnic armed groups to ensure the smooth execution of its connectivity projects.

Furthermore, the government of India urged importers from Myanmar to utilise the Rupee-Kyat trade mechanism for faster imports of pulses like tur and urad. This system involves the use of a Special Rupee Vostro Account through Punjab National Bank, eliminating the need for multiple currency conversions and reducing associated costs. The Central Bank of Myanmar had issued guidelines for this payment procedure in January 2024. India had previously entered into a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar for the import of urad and tur annually through private trade. The government is taking measures to ensure transparency in pulse imports, including enforcing stock disclosure and warning against forward trading.

Conclusion

The situation in Myanmar remains deeply troubling marked by ongoing violence. The military attempts to solidify its power through actions such as the conscription law have only intensified the resolve of anti-coup forces and ethnic armed groups. While the UN has appointed a new Australian envoy, her role will be looked at carefully. Thailand has proposed a Troika-plus framework which has been considered by Laos. India faces many security challenges which the Indian authorities try to address from time to time. Assuming the control of Sittwe port was significant by India. But as the country faces an increasing crisis, there is a need to engage with all stakeholders to ensure the cessation of violence and return to normalcy.

Endnotes

[1] The military has reportedly been collaborating with ARSA, a Rohingya insurgent group previously responsible for attacks that triggered a brutal military crackdown in 2017. Available at https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/rohingyas-04152024133327.html
[2] The military's counteroffensive in Myawaddy was aided by the Karen National Army (KNA), a regional militia previously aligned with the military but now asserting independence. The KNA's former commander, Saw Chit Thu, has commercial interests in Myawaddy and surrounding areas, including gambling and scam operations.
[3] Both groups were formed after the 2021 coup and are members of the Mon State Federal Council. They agreed to share equipment and fight together to remove the military from power. They have discussed expanding their alliance to include the New Mon State Party-Anti Dictatorship (NMSP-AD), which broke away from the NMSP due to disagreements with the military.
[4] Kutkai fell to the Brotherhood Alliance, of which TNLA and MNDAA are members, in January, with TNLA establishing its administration. However, tensions arose during recent discussions over town administration control. Despite this, TNLA continues its efforts in rebuilding Kutkai's infrastructure, including communications and power facilities.
[5] The first batch of 5,000 conscripts underwent military training after being sent to 15 training centres across the country starting March 27.
[6] Despite the junta's insistence that he no longer represents Myanmar, the country's UN envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, appointed by Suu Kyi's government, remains in his post.
[7] The committee, which includes Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang and Interior Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, aims to monitor Myanmar's situation closely through the National Security Council and collaborate with international organisations. uring an inspection in Mae Sot district, where nearly 1,000 refugees are sheltering, the committee emphasised three key objectives: safeguarding Thailand's sovereignty, preventing actions against the Myanmar government on Thai soil, and adhering to humanitarian principles.

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