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

Myanmar entered a second wave of COVID-19 as the active cases reported as on 30 September 2020 are 12,427, and deaths reported are 284. The outbreak intensified since mid-August, and the maximum cases are reported from Yangon, Mandalay and Rakhine states. The lockdown measures were re-imposed to control the spread of COVID-19, such as, travel ban out of Yangon and restricting all domestic flights until 01 October. Thailand has blocked the Thai-Myanmar border and increased police surveillance in response to Myanmar’s rise in active cases.1 Due to the recent spike in cases, the Myanmar military aka Tatmadaw started treating civilian COVID-19 patients at its Military Medical Corps Center in Yangon’s Hmawbi Township. Previously, the Tatmadaw only provided treatment for military personnel, veterans and their relatives, with assistance to civilians limited to providing accommodation and food for those in quarantine.2

The month marked significant political developments with general elections due on 08 November 2020. The Union Election Commission (UEC) announced a list of 6,969 candidates approved to run in the general election and rejected dozens of applicants due to issues with citizenship, the fabrication of data and other concerns. The UEC stated that any delay in elections due to COVID-19 and the name of constituencies where voting will not take place due to security reasons would be announced in October.

Ethnic Armed Organisations in various parts of Myanmar are facing rising military oppressions, despite a rise in COVID-19 cases. Myanmar military has increased its presence in states like Shan, Kachin and Rakhine. The civilian casualties from the conflict have increased drastically this year, with the majority of clashes in Rakhine (97 per cent within 2.5 miles of villages) according to Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS). It further stated that 350 civilians had been injured since March 23 when Myanmar recorded its first COVID-19 case. Human rights advocates have accused Tatmadaw of using excessive force and targeting civilians in their operations against Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State.

However, AA, as part of the Three Brotherhoods Alliance has extended its unilateral ceasefire until 09 November, one day after scheduled 2020 general election.3 A joint statement by the alliance said that they welcomed China's participation in political dialogue with the Myanmar Government and Army. China has been an active participant in Myanmar’s peace negotiations. In a recent visit of Yang Yi China’s Foreign Diplomat, he emphasised on resolving armed conflict in Rakhine and also announced a 200 million-Yuan (39.33-billion-kyat) grant for western Rakhine state. Myanmar continues to face challenges by armed groups, with a new armed group, named Arakan Rohingya Army (ARA) emerging in north Rakhine state to “protect the rights of persecuted Rohingyas” announced its presence in a statement on 01 September 2020.4

Myanmar continues to engage diplomatically with neighbouring countries, and India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan highlighted the importance of South-East Asian countries and the Indian Government focus on improving the infrastructure and connectivity in northeast India to further connect with Myanmar. Myanmar became part of Russia’s military exercise, Caucasus-2020, which included land and naval exercises.5

Conflicts with Ethnic Armed Organisations

The Tatmadaw has increased its presence in various parts of the country despite a rise in COVID-19 cases. The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) is concerned that fighting might break out before the November elections to create a climate of fear and discourage civilians from casting votes.6 The Tatmadaw sent a formal request on 08 September to the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army (KIO/A) to eliminate two of its military camps in Kachin State as they were built after 1994. The KIO, however, has demanded a resolution through political dialogue. According to the 1994 ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar military and KIO/A, the Kachin army was to live west of the N’mai Hka River but build a military camp on the east side of it. However, the KIO/A claims it as part of their controlled territory. The reason for the dispute is the Chipwi Township, where there are gold and rare earth mines as well as Chipwi Nge Hydropower Plant, which the Tatmadaw wants in their control. Earlier in August 2020, the Tatmadaw informed KIO/A to close its Technical Advisory Team office in Kachin State capital, Myitkyina. The KIO/A has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement but was discussing a possible bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government.7 The Tatmadaw battalions LID-88 and LID-99 have also been conducting clearance operations since 10 September 2020 to drive KIO/A Battalion-36, from Kyukok (Panghsai) sub-township, which is controlled by KIO/A Brigade-6.8

In previous years, Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups have set up military service academies in their territories to professionalise their ranks and advance the technologies and skills of the troops. On 11 September 2020, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), opened a four-year military service academy in Roung Tain village of Pangsang, Shan state. Although the UWSA has not fought against government forces for decades, but has developed its military strength. However, the Myanmar military claims that the military academies run by rebel armies infringe on national sovereignty.9

The Tatmadaw activities are also under the radar as the Amnesty Report titled “Military Ltd – The Company Financing Human Rights Abuses in Myanmar” has provided evidence of how the Tatmadaw benefits from MEHL’s business empire. The head of Amnesty International's Business, Security and Human Rights team - Mark Dummett stated that the military-linked conglomerate –MEHL, and its foreign partners – are directly funding units accused of crimes against humanity. The records show links between MEHL and the Western Command, which oversees operations in Rakhine State, including atrocities committed against the Rohingya population. According to documents obtained by Amnesty, military units, including combat divisions, hold about a third of MEHL’s shares, while serving and retired military personnel own the rest.

The report’s findings support the conclusions of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission report into MEHL, which highlighted the extent to which the military’s business holdings enhance its ability to act beyond civilian control. Amnesty has called on MEHL’s foreign partners to cut their ties with the company, and there are some signs that it might be working. The South Korean clothing manufacturer Pan-Pacific has announced about terminating its business partnership with MEHL. Kirin Holdings, a Japanese company, has also stated it will review its relationship with the firm.10 Earlier, Justice for Myanmar group revealed that two directors at MEHL also held senior official posts. The revelation forced the ex-generals to retire from MEHL’s board of directors. However, the government blocked access to the website of a group of activists working to expose high-level corruption and highlight the military’s business interests in late August 2020.

Clashes with Arakan Army

Eight of the 15 U.N. Security Council members called for an immediate halt to fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) following a closed council meeting on the latest situation in Myanmar. The joint statement said the clashes in Rakhine and Chin states are taking “a heavy toll” on local communities and has urged Myanmar government to set out “a transparent and credible plan” to implement recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission and the Independent Commission of Enquiry. The council members also recognised efforts made by Myanmar government on democratisation and called the November general elections “an important milestone in Myanmar’s transition”.11 On 07 September, the Khumi Affairs Coordination Council (KACC) also called on the Tatmadaw and AA to end their hostilities in Paletwa Township, Chin State, to ensure peaceful holding of 2020 general election.12

The AA Chief - Tun Myat Naing has accused the Tatmadaw of taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation and has expanded the military presence in the region, in addition to tightened travel restrictions. Since 10 September 2020, over 3,000 military troops have been deployed to northern and southern Maungdaw, according to Rohingya boat drivers, who were forced to transport the troops. The Chief accused the Myanmar government and army of “intentionally” spreading COVID-19 for their political and military benefit in Rakhine State.13 However, Myanmar military spokesperson - Major General Zaw Min Tun said the Tatmadaw has been fighting the AA but has denied allegations of building up forces. 14 The following is the details of Tatmadaw attacks in Rakhine state.

A report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights - Michelle Bachelet, based on interviews with more than 80 victims and eyewitnesses, confirmed that the Tatmadaw attacked unarmed civilians in their villages without any provocation by Arakan rebels. Myanmar’s military has also been accused of attacking schools, places of worship and civilian homes as well as detaining minors to extract confessions from them, including through torture. Since December 2018, at least 42 minors under the age of 18 have died; another 135 have been seriously injured by artillery shells, firearms and landmine explosions. Despite ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “governments must do everything they can to protect and care for children affected by war and armed conflicts” and the Optional Protocol on Children and Armed Conflict, whereby states agree to protect children from military recruitment and use in hostilities, the Tatmadaw continues its attacks unabated.16

However, AA is also accused of attacking an 11-member Chin State government officials led by Municipal Minister - U Soe Htet in Paletwa Townshipas they were crossing the Kaladan River from Paletwa to Hakha. They arrived on 05 September to provide food and cash assistance to over 1,000 families affected by the armed conflict.17 The AA has also captured three POWs — a battalion commander, a captain, and a police captain — and urged senior military commanders to secure their release via negotiations according to a video released on 19 September 19.18

While the demand to restore 3G/4G internet services continues in Rakhine, the Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) distributed 400 transistor radios to IDP at camps in Rakhine state to access the latest information on COVID-19.19 The COVID-19 infections have risen sharply in the state, since the first locally transmitted case reported on 16 August 2020. Myanmar government, on the other hand, arrested three students for organising protests earlier this month in Sittwe against the ban on 4G internet in the region and the army's unlawful actions. The students are being charged under the Natural Disaster Management Law, which bans large gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.19 Sixteen student unions sent an open letter to the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) on 19 September asking it to open special offices to field complaints in locations where human rights violations and civilian casualties are reported due to conflict in Arakan State.

Elections 2020

Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) announced a list of 6,969 candidates approved to run in November general election 2020 and rejected 31 candidates after their respective sub-commissions reviewed their eligibility. Most of the rejections are for violations of the election law’s Article 8, which requires that candidates must be born of parents who are Myanmar citizens and must have resided in Myanmar for at least ten consecutive years leading up to the election. Other disqualifying factors include fabricating personal data in an application or seeking to run as a candidate for one party before resigning from another. Current Rakhine State lawmaker - U Pho San application was rejected due to his son’s ties to AA.

Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases and implementation of strict measures, candidates find difficulties in applying traditional campaigning methods such as door to door campaigning and organising rallies and public meetings. The candidates have, therefore, turned to Facebook, the most widely used social media platform in Myanmar. President U Win Myint returned to Facebook for campaigning. State Counsellor - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been active on Facebook since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is also boosting its online presence and has spent millions of kyat on boosting posts ahead of the election.

However, the online electoral campaigning method is not adopted by all the candidates. NLD Yangon Region lawmaker - U Wai Phyo Aung of Thaketa Township, said he is concerned that his messages will not reach his constituents as not all constituents are using social media platforms. Candidates in Rakhine are finding it harder to engage with voters due to the ongoing armed conflicts and low bandwidth of 2G internet services. Mai Su Su Hlaing - an independent Chin ethnic Parliamentary candidate, from Myebon Township, admitted that in Rakhine, the internet service is poor and therefore, they are unable to use the social media space for campaigning. U Naing Soe, an independent candidate for Rakhine State Hluttaw from Sittwe township constituency echoed similar problems.20

Concerns are raised about the conducting of free and fair elections, as Thomas Andrews argued during his address to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on 22 September, that the election could not be considered free and fair as long as the Rohingya minority were prevented from participating. He questioned the government will or preparedness to facilitate the right to vote for Rohingya located in Rakhine state or refugee camps in Bangladesh. At least a dozen Rohingya applied to run as candidates in the election, but six were rejected.21

A climate of fear has also erupted as two hand grenades were found at the residential compound of Thein Htwe - Chairman of the Naypyidaw Election Sub-commission. Such incidents were not reported in previous elections and no group or individual has claimed responsibility for the grenades.22 The increasing presence of troops in Kachin and Shan states have also raised concerns about double voting and increasing votes in favour of the military-backed USDP. For example, in Shan state, a Myanmar military unit from Infantry Battalion 256 arrived at the Namtaung village on 13 August and registered 100 soldiers to vote. The 100 are among a total of 1,003 soldiers stationed in 13 village tracts of the region and have registered to vote. Representatives from several political parties in Shan state also said that several soldiers from military-backed militias had been included on two separate voter lists.23

The Myanmar military is also under severe criticism for circulating six-point guidelines on candidates to vote for the election. The voting at military bases is another point of criticism, which the Myanmar military has tried to correct in November elections. Previously, in 2015, soldiers and their families voted at 844 military bases. This year, 632 polling booths are being set up for Tatmadaw soldiers and their families outside of military bases to provide election observers with unrestricted access.24

Mounting Rohingya Crises

Bangladesh Prime Minister - Sheikh Hasina in a pre-recorded speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly stated, “More than three years have elapsed and not a single Rohingya could be repatriated”. She urged the international community to play a more effective role for a solution to the crisis.25 Bangladesh Foreign Secretary -Masud Bin Momen also expressed frustration at the UN’s failure to ensure the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar at an international webinar.26 Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee President - Shahriar Kabir called upon the UN to take steps for a third country relocation of the Rohingyas. Shahriar alleged that China was the "root cause" behind the Rohingya crisis, and therefore has the responsibility to ensure that Myanmar takes back the Rohingya refugees.27

Both the nations – Myanmar and Bangladesh have deployed more troops at the border. Since 25 September, the Bangladeshi military has deployed troops in Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh along Myanmar’s border. Further, Myanmar’s military spokesperson - Major General Zaw Min Tun, said Myanmar’s military was taking action to maintain border security and increased security along the border due to activities by the Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). However, both nations summoned each other’s ambassadors and raised their concerns. Bangladesh also sent a complaint to the United Nations Security Council. Whereas, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Bangladeshi ambassador in Yangon to say the military operations were not intended to threaten Bangladesh but part of the normal security operations in Rakhine State.28

The international community, however, are slowly rising to support the Rohingya crises and ensure justice is served to them. In his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte announced that they are ready to accept Rohingya refugees.29 Further, on 02 September, Canadian Foreign Minister - Francois Philippe Champagne and Netherlands Foreign Minister - Stef Blok said the two nations would formally join The Gambia’s legal bid to hold Myanmar accountable over allegations of genocide against Rohingya minority. Nevertheless, Myanmar military spokesman - Major General Zaw Min Tun said the two army soldiers who were taken to The Hague, Netherlands, for the same case after confessing to committing atrocities against Rohingya civilians should be returned to Myanmar, claiming that it is an “intervention in the national judicial process.”30

India’s Engagements with Myanmar

Highlighting the importance of North East India as a link between two fundamental pillars of India’s foreign policy - "Neighbourhood First" and "Act East", Indian Foreign Secretary - Harsh Vardhan, stated that the Indian Government is focussing on improving the infrastructure and connectivity in north-eastern states to facilitate greater regional integration. He addressed a seminar on "Self-Reliant India: Reimagining the North East India in terms of Employment and Skill" organised by Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI) University, Sikkim on 10 September. In Myanmar, India is working on the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project connecting northeast India with Myanmar and Thailand. The former will give the northeast access to the sea. The second will provide land connectivity with South East Asia. “Two international entry-exit points were inaugurated at Tamu-Moreh (with Manipur) and Rih-Zowkhawthar (with Mizoram) to increase connectivity with Myanmar," he pointed out. He also focussed on identifying the prospects of air connectivity and highlighted the potential of at exporting the surplus hydropower of the northeast to Myanmar.31

Due to persistent action by the Myanmar Army over the last few months, the Hindustan Times reported that the Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) operating from Myanmar, particularly ULFA-I (United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent), NSCN-K (National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang), led by its current chairman Yung Aung, and NSCN-IM (National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak Muivah), are trying to relocate their bases near the border. The reports have come at a time when the Indian government’s peace talks with NSCN-IM have failed because of differences between the insurgent group and the Centre’s interlocutor - R N Ravi. Earlier in September, the NSCN-IM had reiterated its demand for a separate flag and a constitution for the Nagas.32

China’s Intervention in Myanmar

China’s member of Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and director of the committee’s Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission - Yang Jiechi, visited Myanmar in September 2020. He sought reassurances on the implementation of China’s ambitious -One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects in Myanmar and announced a 200 million-Yuan (39.33-billion-kyat) grant for western Rakhine State. He met separately with Myanmar State Counsellor - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President - U Win Myint. During the meeting, Yang reaffirmed China’s commitment to supporting Myanmar’s initiatives in addressing challenges in Rakhine state, and facilitate the Rohingya repatriation process. Yang also met with the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s military -Senior General Min Aung Hlaing but the details of that discussion were not leaked out.33

Despite constant pressure from China to move forward with its BRI infrastructure projects in the country, the Myanmar government has subjected few projects to extra scrutiny. The Myanmar Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations (MIFER) announced that the government had signed an agreement with Roland Berger Co. Ltd. to provide consulting services to finalise a Swiss challenge tendering process for the new industrial park and ancillary infrastructure in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon. The project has been under controversy due to its flood-prone location, accusations against the company engaging in corruption and bribery, and reducing the size and cost of the industrial estate project.34

China is also establishing military facilities in 14 countries, including Myanmar, according to Pentagon annual report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China (PRC) 2020”. These potential Chinese military logistics facilities are in addition to the Chinese military base in Djibouti, which is aimed at supporting naval, air and ground forces projection. Similarly, the Pentagon said that China is using OBOR to expand global transportation and trade linkages to support China’s development and deepen its economic integration with nations.35


Myanmar government has the responsibility to ensure that the general elections are fair and inclusive. The European Parliament’s suspension of Aung San Suu Kyi from the group of former winners of its top human rights prize Sakharov Prize awarded in 1990 because of her “failure to act and her acceptance" of the oppression of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group should act as a warning for the government to ensure justice is served to the ethnic minorities and their participation in the political and economic affairs of Myanmar

Further, Thomas Andrews urged the Myanmar government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. He also referenced the International Court of Justice that is assessing Myanmar’s compliance with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.36 The clashes in the Rakhine state must be bought to a ceasefire, and efforts must be made to restore peace and stability in the region. Voices are also raised about the government imposing “vague and subjective criteria” to restrict the right to freedom of expression for political candidates. The students and the protestors must be released and there should be a full restoration of 4G internet in Rakhine State.

The Tatmadaw is trying to improve its acts and bring justice to the table. In a statement released a statement on 16 September, it stated that the military would take action under the military justice system against three soldiers for the gang rape of a woman in Ugar village, Rathedaung Township on 29 June 2020.37 The delayed confessions and actions, however, deteriorate the trust in the justice system. Additionally, the secrecy of military court proceedings deprives victims their right to a fair and transparent trial. The Tatmadaw being a major participant of the political and economic activities in Myanmar has a greater responsibility to ensure peace and stability in the region. The recent Amnesty report must be taken as a warning for the military and its activities in the country.

  3. The Three Brotherhoods Alliance is the Arakan Army (AA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Three Brotherhoods Alliance member groups are also part of the Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC).
  6. RCSS/SSA signed a Union-level ceasefire in 2012 and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015. However, despite this, over the years the ethnic armed organisation have fought the Burma Army multiple times, as well as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in northern Shan State
  9. The UWSA is one of seven non-signatory groups that comprise the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), an alliance of some of the largest of rebel armies that have been at war with the central government for decades. The FPNCC has proposed a confederate system in Myanmar that allows ethnic organisations to maintain their own armed forces. Other ethnic armed organisations with military training schools or institutes are Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the KIA, the AA, and the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA).

  11. Founded in 1990, MEHL now has its presence in every sector of Myanmar’s economy, from beer and tobacco to mining, banking and garment manufacturing. The rights group identified eight companies that operate jointly with MEHL in Myanmar: Ever Flow River Group Public Co., Ltd, (EFR), a Myanmar logistics company; Kanbawza Group (KBZ), a Myanmar conglomerate with jade and ruby mining operations; Kirin Holdings, a Japanese beverage company; INNO Group, a South Korean property developer; Pan-Pacific, a South Korean manufacturer and exporter of clothing; POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker; RMH Singapore, a Singaporean fund with a tobacco operation in Myanmar; and Wanbao Mining, a Chinese metal mining company.
  12. The eight countries — United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Dominican Republic and Tunisia. The Rakhine Advisory Commission was headed by the late former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan and the Independent Commission of Inquiry, established by Myanmar’s government was concluded in January 2020.
  18. Previously, the AA has attacked government ministers. On 19 February 2020, it attacked a military helicopter carrying Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr. Win Myat Aye and Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, who were traveling from Sittwe to Buthidaung to assist civilians affected by armed clashes.
  26. The military’s six guidelines to voters are: select the candidates who will serve the interest of the country, and the region based on empathy towards the Tatmadaw, and those who can conserve the national, religious and Sasana in a correct and systematic manner, and those who are not under the influence of foreign organizations and the foreigners.
  32. The two former soldiers, Myo Win Tun, 33, from Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 565, and Zaw Naing Tun, 30, from LIB 353, confessed in the videos shot by the AA to taking part in atrocities committed by the Myanmar army against Rohingya people in 2017.
  37. The other countries are Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan


(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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