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

The country reported 353 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six deaths as on 31 July 2020. During the policy briefing on Southeast Asia, the United Nations (UN) positioned Myanmar in the vulnerable category due to a weak health care system and continuing humanitarian problems in the country. The expanding trade deficit and pressure on Kyat exchange rateare some of the immediate effects of the crises. On 13 July, the second Pyithu Hluttaw commenced its 17th regular session. Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) released the Annual Peace and Security Review on the conflicts that occurred in 2019 to provide evidence-based analysis and support the stakeholders in establishing peace and stability.

The preparation for the General Elections to be held on 06 November 2020 has occupied the attention of all stakeholders. Myanmar continues to engage with India and explore dimensions to enhance cooperation. The pressures created by the Chinese government have led Myanmar to move closer to India. Many of the Chinese projects are under scrutiny; however, the military support to China gives leverage for further economic collaborations. The month witnessed Myanmar at the crossroads of the United States and China, with the two countries indulging i war of words.

COVID-19 and Impact on the Economy

The widening trade deficit is hampering Myanmar’s economy. As import surpasses export in about nine months of the current fiscal year (starting October 2019), there has been a trade deficit of over USD 1.73 billion.1 Nearly 76 per cent of export businesses in Myanmar have been moderate to strongly affected, and more than 50 per cent of Myanmar’s companies faced reduced demand from global buyers, according to a recent study by the Myanmar Trade Promotion Organisation (MPTO) of the Ministry of Commerce, Myanmar and International Trade Centre (ITC). The study provides insightful details about the potential impact of COVID-19 and ways to mitigate the same.2

The study identified tourism, textiles and garments and rubber sectors that have been strongly affected. The companies have faced difficulties in the purchase of inputs sourced internationally or domestically; border checks and closures have affected half of the surveyed businesses operating internationally. Along with the challenges, the report suggests that COVID-19 brings new opportunities for Myanmar exporters to innovate and potentially gain critical shares in destination markets. Improving the sanitary measures to ensure quality, focus on ecological transition and green growth, improving market intelligence services for exporters, a transition to digital and e-commerce platforms are possibilities that export sectors need to adopt as part of the recovery. Currently, the government is in the process of finalising the National Export Strategy (2020-25).

The agriculture sector has been “resilient”, and is expected to grow by 0.7per cent for the year 2020, according to the World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor June 2020. The reason behind it is the strong production of crops, such as rice, beans and pulses, but also because of a downward impact on export-oriented agriculture sub-sectors, such as livestock and fisheries. According to Myanmar Rice Federation, despite fears raised in May 2020, the COVID-19 does not seem to have a significant impact on the rice sector as the planting has begun for the monsoon crop. Nevertheless, the Federation has asked the government to take a range of measures, including mitigating the impacts of climate change, particularly flooding and increasing financial and technical support. The government is also stockpiling rice reserves, for the first time since 2011, in case of food emergencies or spiralling of prices.3

The State Counsellor - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi held a videoconference on the impact of COVID-19 on the livestock and fisheries sector. The livestock sector declined by 40 per cent in terms of market value due to the suspension of commodity flow.4 The Ministry of Information organised a meeting with news media organisations to discuss maintaining “checks and balances” among the other three pillars and the media, and the changes in the media sector, especially due to COVID-19. The sector is witnessing disruptions as it is based on printed newspaper; and online media, social media and digital technology which have emerged.5

To address the balance-of-payments and fiscal needs, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved USD 356.5 million emergency assistance for Myanmar under the Rapid Credit Facility and the Rapid Financing Instrument.6 The United States provided an additional USD 3 million to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, bringing the total U.S. support to USD 16.5 million since February 2020.7 Under the arrangement of the World Food Program (WFP), special flights carrying experts and medical supplies arrived at Yangon International Airport.

Human Rights Violations

Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) released ‘Annual Peace and Security Review-2019’ report in July 2020.8 The report revealed an increase in the clashes by 176 per cent in 2019, compared to the previous year. The conflict is distributed in a specific geography and limited to specific groups. The Western frontier (Rakhine) and North Eastern part (Northern Shan) accounted for escalation of the conflict; while areas like Kachin and South-East part saw relatively few armed conflicts, reflecting de-escalation of tensions. According to the same report, “The rise in armed conflict in 2019 was driven primarily by two conflicts: that between the Arakan Army (AA) and Tatmadaw, and that between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Tatmadaw; together accounting for 81 per cent of all armed clashes”. By mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put a firm halt to peace talks. The report pointed out that gaps in the technical expertise on the government side are one of the reasons for the frozen peace process.9

Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission held meeting with Fundamental Rights of the Citizens, Democracy and Human Rights Committee of Amyotha Hluttaw, and discussed cooperation works on human rights affairs. With scores of children killed and maimed each year, the government is setting up a national complaint mechanism for reporting violence and sexual crimes against minors in regions under conflict. The United Nations (UN) June 2020 Report on Children and Armed Conflict has mentioned that Myanmar military has been delisted for the violation of child recruitment and use, but would continue to be listed in the report’s annexe for the violations.10 Moreover, the United States report on “2020 Trafficking in Persons” has placed Myanmar in Tier 3 list, which states that the government are not making significant efforts to comply with minimum standards. Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has raised concerns as it fails to reflect the country’s initiatives in combating human trafficking.

The involvement of Myanmar military in “systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities” has led the British government to impose sanctions on the Myanmar military’s Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and Deputy C-in-C, Vice Senior General Soe Win, along with another 47 individuals and organisations.11 Also, A.K. Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister has appealed to Spain to urge the international community to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar so that the country abides by its commitment for repatriation of Rohingya refugees.12 The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Japan to cancel plans to donate financial grant to the Myanmar Police force. On 02 July, Japan’s Foreign Ministry announced a grant of 100 million Japanese Yen (approx. USD 946,000) to “strengthen the Myanmar police’s ability to carry out public security measures”. However, the police force, which operates under the auspices of the military, has a well-documented record of serious human rights violations.13

In a statement issued on 09 July, HRW criticised Myanmar government for disregarding international legal obligations to provide accountability for military atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities in conflict areas. The HRW asked the government to work with international bodies to address allegations of rights abuse and failures in the run-up to the Southeast Asian country’s next “Universal Periodic Review” in January 2021. Thomas Andrews - the UN’s new Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, also urged the government to cooperate with existing international justice mechanisms to ensure accountability for alleged crimes. He voiced particular concern over escalating fighting in Rakhine State. Furthermore, a group of Myanmar religious leaders have appealed to all civilians, ethnic armed groups, political parties and other religious figures to jointly work for peace, unity and consolidation of democracy ahead of the country’s general election.

Clashes with Ethnic Armed Organisations

On 02 and 04 July, the government and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) -signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) held their fifth coordination meeting to sign the part three of the Union Accord at the Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong. There are 13 agreements, which include two framework agreements and 11 other agreements.14

Despite holding of coordination meeting and Myanmar military’s declaration of unilateral ceasefire violence in Northern Shan continues. On 10 July, more than 10,000 residents staged a protest against shooting in Pan Kin Village during fighting between Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Myanmar military on 29 June. Thirty-six Shan civil society organisations released a joint statement calling on Myanmar’s military to hold the perpetrators accountable. Though the investigation team was appointed and reached Kyaukme; the investigation team alleged that the RCSS opened fire five times on 14 and 15 July to disrupt the investigation. Since the clashes renewed on 27 June, over 700 civilians in Kyaukme Township have fled their homes.15

In Papun District of Karen State, over 1500 locals staged a protest on 22 July, calling for an end to the military’s presence in the region after the recent killing of a civilian by two soldiers on 16 July. Since 2018, the Myanmar military’s reconstruction of a road in Papun has sparked tensions between the military and the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, but the clashes continue over territorial disputes.16

Arakan Army: Clashes Continue

Under the “Three Brotherhood Alliance” -the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA) signalled their openness to join the Union Peace Conference under the leadership of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) on 21 July. Earlier, during a press conference on 17 July, U Zaw Htay, the presidential spokesperson said it would be difficult to invite the alliance members due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but later clarified that the government would negotiate with the Northern Alliance — which includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the “Three Brotherhood” — to attend the conference.17

However, Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun continues to blame the AA for abductions of village administrators, and AA’s plan to replace civil administrations. The Khumi Affairs Coordination Council (KACC) has also accused AA of the death of U Hla Kyaw, the head of Tone Ma Wa Village, Chin State.18 The Chin National Front (CNF) issued another warning to AA to withdraw from Chin State’s Paletwa Township.19 Both Tatmadaw and the AA have denied responsibility for landmine explosion on 02 July in Rathedaung township.20

Despite the accusations mentioned above, Rakhine residents welcomed the AA presence and formation of Rakhine People’s Authority in December 2019 to levy taxes on businesses to fund the army's operations and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), and to administer areas under its control in Rakhine State. Maung Maung Soe -the political analyst, has said that the AA’s efforts to establish its administration is nothing new in multi-ethnic Myanmar, where several ethnic armies manage territories.21

Amnesty International interviewed more than two dozen ethnic Rakhine and Chin people in May and June 2020, affected by military operations, including airstrikes and shelling; and reported that Myanmar military is committing “war crimes” in the region. Amnesty International was not able to document operations and abuses by the AA due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and limited access to conflict-affected areas and witnesses. However, the report suggests AA has continued a pattern of abuses - including endangering the lives of civilians, intimidation of local communities, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. At the end of July 2020, Tatmadaw based in Paletwa Township has been firing heavy artilleries along the Paletwa border. There were more than 100 artillery attacks took place on29 July alone.22

Further, the government-imposed internet shutdown in these regions leads to little credible information about the severity and scale of the violence.23 Telenor Myanmar revealed the government added more websites to the blocking list, expanding a clampdown that commenced in March 2020.24 Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) during a meeting with civil society organisations on 17 July stated that it would hold talks with concerned officials about restoring internet access in Arakan State ahead of the 2020 General Election. The ongoing hostilities between Tatmadaw and AA have raised concerns about the ability to hold the election in the State.25

The General Elections 2020

The Union Election Commission (UEC) invited candidate registration from the 96 registered political parties from 20 July to 07 August 2020. The nationals living abroad are directed to register by 05 August to be able to cast advanced ballots in the general election. The UEC held a coordination meeting on 15 July with relevant Union ministries and allocated works to different ministries. The UEC held a meeting with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and urged the CSOs to conduct voters’ awareness campaigns.

The National Democratic League (NLD) has announced that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will contest from Yangon’s Kawhmu Township. A senior party leader, Zaw Myint Maung also stated that the NLD party would field ethnic people in ethnic states from its party. However, the party is facing difficulties to choose candidates in conflict-torn Rakhine State.26 The People's Pioneer Party (PPP) will also participate in the election, which has severely criticised the NLD government. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) faces challenges from the Pa-O National Organisation party (PNO), which has ended its alliance with the former ahead of the election.

To avoid vote-splitting, several ethnic parties have merged such as Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), the Karen National Democratic Party (KNDP), the Chin National League (CNL), the Kayah State Democratic Party (KSDP) and the Mon Unity Party (MUP). The new parties have agreed to make alliances with other ethnic parties to form a coalition government.27 The four Karen political parties - KNDP, the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party (PSDP), the Karen National Party (KNP) and Kayin People’s Party (KPP) - are coordinating their electoral campaigns to prevent the splitting of votes between parties in a single constituency.28

However, there are concerns about another Muslim-free Parliament; therefore, a 16-member team has been formed to assist Muslim candidates in campaigning in their constituencies. The Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) has urged the Myanmar Government to grant full citizenship rights to the Rohingya people and compile a Rohingya voter list based on the “household list” of 2010 and give them the right to participate in the 2020 elections. 29 Despite the United Nations Resolution 69/248 in 2014 which called upon the government to give “equal access to full citizenship for the Rohingya minority”, Myanmar deprived the Rohingya of their right to vote in 2015.

India-Myanmar Engagements

The Consul General of India in Sittwe called upon U San Kyae Hla - the honourable Speaker of Rakhine State Parliament has instilled hope about India’s interest in the stability of the State. Both parties discussed the ways of strengthening of Parliamentary cooperation and implementation of socio-economic development projects in the State.30 Further, the Manipur government has issued a notification to resume the issuance of Inner Line Permits (ILP) for outsiders intending to travel in the State after four months of temporary suspension.31

The growing discontentment with China's pressure on Myanmar to implement Belt-Road-Initiative (BRI) projects and its strategy of arming rebel groups has led to Myanmar’s shift towards India- to expedite India-backed infrastructure projects and widen security ties. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, C-in-C of Myanmar military met India’s Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) Rajnath Singh in Russia and explored opportunities in Myanmar-India defence cooperation. Both have also discussed security cooperation to ensure successful implementation of the India-funded “Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport” project across the Mizoram border.32

In the security dimension, India has requested Thailand and Myanmar authorities to share findings of the recent interception of a huge consignment of illegal arms and ammunition on 23 June 2020, which has its origins in China. According to Intelligent sources, the weapons seized belonged to the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and were ultimately destined for Rakhine State, where the Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) operate. According to the Karen sources, Rakhine and Indian insurgents based along with Indian border are two of the main buyers of arms from various sources in the region.33

Economically, India’s low demand for pulses and beans has brought a fall of Kyats 25,000 per tonne of the black bean prices in Myanmar market. Regarding the importation of 400,000 tonnes of black beans for the next fiscal year, India has narrowed the import volume due to the spread of COVID-19 infection.34 Further, the weaving businesses in Kalay Township of Myanmar is severely affected because of the closure of the India-Myanmar border, including Tamu-Moreh border and Reekhorda-Zokhawthar border leading to lack of raw materials in the India’s imported market. The clothes from Kalay township are exported to India as well as to other countries.35

Myanmar-China Relations

The border trade between Myanmar and China has registered a decrease at all five borders due to the trade suspension and tight security measures imposed. Myanmar merchants are facing difficulties in exporting goods to China through the legitimate channel as the taxes levied by China are too high.36 Illegal Chinese migrants are another issue, with Myanmar officials arresting three Chinese illegal migrants in Phop Phra district, who had crossed the border through a natural passage in Moo 1 village of Tambon Valley in Phop Phra without travel documents and had overstayed their visas for 106 days.37

The Chinese projects and investments in Myanmar are under criticism. An embankment in Mandalay’s Amarapura Township - a construction project by Chinese companies along the Irrawaddy River collapsed on 19 July. Even though Chinese construction companies will take responsibility, it has forced more than 12,000 residents to leave their homes.38 During the Parliamentary session, U Sein Bo, a Lower House lawmaker from Myawaddy constituency, raised a question on the progress of the Shwe Kokko New City project in Karen State.39 In previous months, the Myanmar government formed a tribunal to investigate irregularities in a controversial China-backed city development project, which has sparked concerns due to the links to criminal networks and illicit activities of the Chinese enterprises involved.40 Another project - the Myitkyina project by the Chinese enterprise YTHIC is under scrutiny. The Kachin government spent about USD 60,000 to hire lawyers from Singapore to ensure the contract terms did not infringe on state sovereignty or economic interests.

Despite the abovementioned criticisms, the Myanmar military Chief Senior, General Min Aung Hlaing, assured military support for China’s BRI projects during a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai on 16 July.41 Recently, the two countries planned to promote cooperation on the digital economy and cross-border e-commerce systems during an online meeting.42

The month also witnessed a war of words between the Myanmar embassies of the US and China. On 18 July, an article by George N. Sibley, Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Myanmar, claimed that China continues to disrespect the sovereignty of ASEAN countries, including Myanmar.43 In response, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar rejected Sibley’s argument and defended China’s “Pauk-Phaw” or “brotherly” relations with Myanmar.44

The Way Forward

Myanmar needs to leverage its geographical and economic advantages to open opportunities for exports as the World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor in June 2020 pointed out the importance of exports as a pillar for the country’s economic recovery. The removal of the country’s name from the UN’s list of nations that use and recruit child soldiers has brought encouragement to continue its efforts in a positive direction. However, human rights violations in the country continue to pose significant questions over government working. On 30th June, twenty-one international humanitarian organisations urged the Myanmar government to protect civilians and to adhere to international humanitarian laws. They also urged Myanmar to follow the call by the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire and to stop the conflict between Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army

The general elections in Myanmar are scheduled for 06 November and hold enormous opportunities for all the stakeholders to bridge the gaps and ensure social and economic development of the country. The formation of new parties and political alliances has the potential to split NLD’s and USDP support base. The ethnic parties need to work together to realise the full potential of democratic elections to be held in the country.

  8. Note: The review is a month-wise statistical compilation of conflicts related to drug trafficking, impact on civilians, security and conflict situation specific to various ethnic armed organisations, the status of the dialogue process and stakeholders perspectives.
  39. Note: The Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) approved US$22.5 million (about 31 billion kyats) in investment for the Shwe Kokko urban development project, including for the construction of 59 villas, within three years on 10.3 hectares of land in Myawaddy Township in 2018. In 2019, the project was temporarily suspended for breaching investment regulations following on-site investigations by Karen State authorities
  40. .


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