Myanmar Round Up : January 2021
Dr Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

During January 2021, concerns were raised regarding a potential military coup, which eventually came true on 01 February 2021. In the given article, developments in Myanmar in the first month of 2021 have been highlighted. The Myanmar military, aka Tatmadaw scrutinised voter lists in 314 townships and claimed to identify 8.6 million irregularities. The election-related controversies heightened during the month, with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) filing an application of writ in the Supreme Court.

The peace process received a significant push as Aung San Suu Kyi announced “New Peace Architecture” to engage with ethnic parties and establish a federal union with cooperation. The Tatmadaw also undertook measures by negotiating with Arakan Army (AA) and releasing the three National League for Democracy (NLD) members abducted by the latter in October 2020. On 28 January, the Tatmadaw also suspended military operations nationwide except in the places, where terrorists' groups are based, from February 1 to 28. Internationally, Myanmar remained in the news with various high profile visits.

Election-related Controversies

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Democratic Party of National Politics (DPN) on 05 January filled an Application of Writ, accusing the government and Union Election Commission (UEC) authorities of electoral fraud. The Supreme Court accepted the application. Later on 20 January, the Tatmadaw released a 12-point statement outlining the concerns in the election processes, raised since the pre-election period. They accused that the UEC policies privileged the ruling party and there were voting irregularities.

In addition, during a press conference on 26 January 2021, Tatmadaw Spokesperson General declined to rule out the possibility of a coup. He highlighted the necessity of Tatmadaw’s interference in the country’s elections to ensure that the process of moving toward democracy was not derailed. On 27 January, the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hliang stated that the Constitution could be abolished if “one does not follow the law”. The next day, the United Nations and other western nations urged the military to “adhere to democratic norms” and opposed “any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”. However, Tatmadaw rebuked foreign embassies for voicing concerns over developments in the country.

The UEC stated that it had found no evidence of any voting malpractice or fraud. The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw also rejected the call to hold a special parliamentary session to discuss the issue. The proposal was rejected due to the difficulties because of Covid-19 pandemic, and the lengthy procedure to send out invitations. Most importantly, it suggested that the authority to discuss on election-related complaintsis UEC, and therefore, according to the given procedures the complaints should be directed towards it. On the other hand, the NLD continued to show indifference to the demand of the Tatmadaw.1

Hundreds of people attended pro-military protest organised by the Yeomanry Development Party (YDP) against the UEC even though authorities had restricted the event to 29 people. The protest violated the Natural Disasters Management Law, which is used to enforce restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.2 To counter the rally many NLD supporters staged a rally in Yangon on 24 January.

Peace Process and Ethnic Armed Organisations

Aung San Suu Kyi in her New Year’s speech introduced a new approach to the country’s peace process named “New Peace Architecture”, which will seek to strike a balance between representation and effectiveness. She said the aim is to convince the signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and non-signatories to cooperate, which will include both formal and informal dialogues. As 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the Panglong Agreement, she stated tha the country would see signs of progress toward establishing a federal union. She called for a Constitution that aligns with existing peace agreements; and satisfies country’s long-term needs.

The NLD initial effort to reach out to the ethnic organisations was not successful as the local Mon and Kayah political parties could not agree on the meeting venue, and as a result, the planned meetings were derailed. After the election victory, the NLD issued statements calling on 48 ethnic political parties to join renewed talks on federalisation. The party formed a team on 12 December2020 to hold discussions with ethnic parties. Further, NLD-led government has sent out a draft for a bilateral ceasefire agreement to the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B), including all other Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) members.3 President’s Office spokesperson, U Zaw Htay said at a press conference in Naypyitaw earlier this month that the government would hold separate peace talks with each of the four groups on the issues of troop deployments, internally displaced people (IDPs), regional development, and the holding of elections in places where voting was cancelled in November 2020.4

Even the Tatmadaw reached an unofficial ceasefire with AA in November 2020 after fighting for two years in northern Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa. The Tatmadaw secured the release of the three NLD members abducted by the AA before to the November elections, including three Tatmadaw soldiers who needed medical attention.5 On 07 January, the Tatmadaw urged the NLD government to hold elections in nine Arakan State townships and one in Shan State.6 NLD officials demanded that the Tatmadaw and AA must reach “solid” security guarantee before elections are held. At the same time, the party claims that any election would be a by-election, which cannot be held in the first or last year of the government’s five-year term, and therefore will be organised in 2022 only.7

A lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) submitted a proposal to the Rakhine State parliament, urging for the revocation of AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA) status as terrorist groups. However, NLD spokesperson, Dr Myo Nyunt stated that the Tatmadaw must present the results of its talks with the AA to the government to remove the status of the terrorist organisation.

In the post-election period, Tatmadaw and AA relations improved; their Northern Alliance ally, the KIA has been targeted by the Tatmadaw. On 07 January, the Tatmadaw fired heavy weapons at a frontline KIA 3rd Battalion near Warshaung village, Waingmaw Township.8 The has also been a recent escalation of armed conflict with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).9 The KNU Brigade-5 engaged in more than 20 armed incidents with Tatmadaw troops in the first two weeks of January 2021.10

The United Nations and humanitarian partners in their “2021 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP)”, aimed to mobilise USD 276.5 million for humanitarian assistance and protection services for people in war-torn regions including Kachin, Kayin, Shan, Chin and Arakan states. It stated that about 1 million people in conflict-affected parts of Myanmar need humanitarian assistance.11 In its 31st edition of World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch accused the Myanmar government of violating basic civil and political rights and highlighted its failure to hold the military accountable for its actions.12

Rohingya Crises

At the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations, a 25-point proposal regarding allegations of the alarming extent of human rights violations by the Myanmar military and security forces in Kachin, Rakhine, Chin and Shan states was discussed on 31 December 2020. A total of 130 countries voted against Myanmar, while 26 countries, including India, Bhutan, Japan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, abstained from voting. China, Russia, Belarus, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Vietnam and Zimbabwe voted in Myanmar's favour. Myanmar country representative rejected the UN proposal and stated that human rights are being made a political issue against Myanmar, and the issues being discussed is the country’s internal matter.13

A virtual tripartite meeting facilitated by China, between Bangladesh and Myanmar was conducted on 19 January 2021 and Myanmar agreed to start the repatriation of Rohingya in the second quarter of this year. Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement issued later said: “Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation and reaffirmed Myanmar’s readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements.” He also stated that a Pilot Project is underway for the repatriation of displaced persons, and Myanmar is willing to commence the process with verified displaced persons.

Bangladesh also proposed village-based repatriation of the Rohingya while Myanmar wanted a sporadic collection of refugees currently taking shelter in Bangladesh. The last tripartite meeting was held on 20 January2020 in New York, and since then, Myanmar has been allegedly postponing the bilateral talks. The last two attempts to take back Rohingya under a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017 failed to achieve any results, despite Myanmar’s repeated assurances to commence repatriation.14 Till date, Bangladesh has given details of nearly 840,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, but Myanmar authorities verified only 42,000.

Myanmar authorities recently arrested 34 Rohingya from Mawlamyinegyun Township in Ayeyarwady Region, who reportedly came from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in northern Rakhine. It was the second time Rohingya migrants from Rakhine have been caught entering Ayeyarwady Region. In 2020, a total of 106 Rohingya from Rakhine were caught entering illegally in Ayeyarwady.15 In India, every year refugees’ camps are checked to ascertain the presence of anti-social elements. In Nuh district, Haryana, which hosts about 1500 refugees, 13 Rohingya members were detained by local police. The Delhi police also detained eight Rohingya after they failed to show valid documents.16

Other International Developments

India-Myanmar cooperative efforts achieved success when more than 50 militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang faction) abandoned their base in Myanmar. Sumi, the president of a breakaway faction of the NSCN (K), returned to Nagaland and showed willingness to join the ongoing Naga peace process with India’s federal government. Therefore, the latest crackdown on the NSCN (K) by the Tatmadaw bears a positive outcome of India’s diplomatic effort.17

Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi launched his four-nation tour from Myanmar and promised to provide Myanmar with 300,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine. The visit was to reinstate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects’ interest. Ahead of the trip, China and Myanmar agreed to conduct a feasibility study on the Mandalay-Kyaukphyu Railway project. The two countries also discussed peace and stability on the border, regional cooperation and China’s role in Rohingya refugees’ repatriation. The two nations also signed agreements for economic and technical cooperation and five-year development programme for Myanmar.18

In his meeting with Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the two discussed Tatmadaw’s issuance of statements over the findings in scrutinizing the voter lists as there were inaccuracies. They also discussed the continued implementation of bilateral agreements made during President Xi Jin ping’s visit to Myanmar in January 2020.19 Myanmar has also urged China to remove any new, permanent fences which encroach on the buffer zone between the two countries. There is a border agreement that no side can build permanently within 10 meters of the border on either side, but China started erecting the fence in October 2020 along the border in Kachin and Shan states.20
Russian Defence Minister, General Sergey Shoigu’s visited Myanmar in January 2021and expanded scope of their defence cooperation. Russia agreed to supply Myanmar with Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones, and radar equipment. In recent years, the relations between the two countries’ defence departments have increased, and Myanmar also participated in a joint drill organised by Russia in July 2020.21


The critical developments have led to a political crisis in the country. There is an urgent need to address these crises collectively, rather than by opposing each other. The peace process is getting inordinately delayed, and therefore needs attention from the government and the military. The Tatmadaw needs to take initiatives to reach an official bilateral ceasefire with AA and involve all other EAOs which have not yet reached a bilateral ceasefire agreement. It is often stated that the revocation of the AA status as a terrorist group is the precondition for the two sides to build peace. Myanmar has emerged as an important partner at the international sphere as it received high-level delegations from major powers, such as Japan, China, India, Russia and the US.

  3. NA-B comprises of the AA, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). FPNCC members are NA-B, plus United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP). The four Northern Alliance members held talks with the government six times in 2019 but made little progress towards a peace agreement. Zaw Htay suggested that peace negotiations with the four allies would have three phases. The first would be to sign a preliminary ceasefire agreement between the Tatmadaw and the Northern Alliance, and the draft for the same has been sent. The next step would be to sign a ceasefire with each group individually, while the third stage would be for each group to join the NCA.
  6. On 25 November, the Tatmadaw and AA held online talks, and on 09 December, representatives of the two sides met in Panghsang, Shan State. Both sides discussed holding elections in Arakan State constituencies that were not allowed to vote in the 2020 general election, and ensuring civilian safety and well-being in areas affected by the two-year conflict. On 30 December, two days before the freeing of the NLD members, top leaders from the AA held a 30-minute online discussion with the Tatmadaw’s Peace Talks Committee leaders.

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