As conflict escalates in western Myanmar amid the rise of coronavirus cases in the country, there is growing concern of a deepening humanitarian crisis. As of May 26, Myanmar has recorded 206 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 6 deaths. Clashes between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group seeking greater autonomy for ethnic Rohingya people, have displaced hundred thousand people since conflicts started over a year ago.
Recent spike in conflicts since late March have left 32 deaths, 71 injuries and forced more people to flee their homes. Last month, former UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee accused the Myanmar army of new atrocities and called for investigation into “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the country’s Rakhine and Chin states. Developments in the past month suggest that the situation in conflict-affected areas may further deteriorate and put vulnerable people at risk during the pandemic.
On May 10, the Myanmar military announced a unilateral “ceasefire” with the objective it claimed was to help contain and prevent the spread of the global pandemic. However, the ceasefire left out Rakhine state and Paletwa township of Chin state, where clashes between the AA and the Myanmar military have been intensifying in recent weeks. Earlier in March, the Myanmar government designated the AA as a terrorist group.
The Myanmar military’s decision to keep Rakhine and Chin states out of the ceasefire seems to be driven by its calculation that the pandemic provides an opportunity for it to focus on the AA, as the ceasefire allow it to keep the peace with other ethnic armed organizations in different parts of the country and even explore ways to work together in the fight against the pandemic.
A recent reshuffle of the Myanmar military’s top brass, a report suggests, was primarily aimed at concentrating on the Rakhine conflict. Citing “insiders”, the report claims that “moderate” officers have been replaced in key positions with direct implications on the Rakhine conflict. The visit of Myanmar commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Shan state and his meetings with leaders of ethnic armed groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) are also believed to have links with the development in Rakhine state.
Against this backdrop, UN Security Council closed-door meeting on the situation in Rakhine state and UNSC European member-states’ joint statement expressing concern over the escalation of conflict in Rakhine and Chin states during the coronavirus pandemic has brought a much-needed focus on the issue. However, as in the past, the UN body is unlikely to affect change inside Myanmar. That China reportedly refused to endorse the UNSC European member-states’ document is no surprise.
Having said that, the critical issues raised by the UNSC European member-states could be a starting point for the international community, regional bodies and governments including Myanmar’s partners and friends to urge and nudge Naypyidaw towards meeting some of these goals during the pandemic.
The most critical issue is “an immediate, comprehensive and nationwide ceasefire” that would include Rakhine and Chin states at the time of the global pandemic crisis. The other issue is the need to ensure “rapid, safe and unhindered access” for humanitarian workers who have been providing assistance to the displaced people and others in the conflict zone. In April a World Health Organization (WHO) employee was shot dead while transporting COVID-19 surveillance samples from Sittwe, the capital city Rakhine, to Yangon.
The Myanmar government has formed an investigative committee to probe the shooting of the WHO worker. However, rights activists are apprehensive of the process delivering an impartial investigation. Since January, the Myanmar authorities have imposed new restrictions for humanitarian workers to access several townships in Rakhine state. International NGOs working in Rakhine state have raised concern on the continued conflict that adversely impact the already precarious humanitarian situation.
Undoubtedly, the issues identified by UNSC European members-states need urgent attention. The challenge is how to take the ideas forward and making them work on the ground. A divided UNSC has long been and remains a non-starter in the case of Myanmar. At the same time, to expect the UNSC European member-states to be able to act on these issues also is doubtful in the context of Myanmar’s deteriorating relations with the West over the Rohingya issue in recent years.
Although key regional players have not been very successful with their approach to nudge Myanmar to bring about change in the past, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member-states, India and Japan have maintained cordial relations with Naypyidaw.
ASEAN as a regional institution may have its limitations in raising the issues made by UNSC European member-states owing to geographical and geopolitical factors that link Myanmar to ASEAN. The need to respect regional concerns and to show regional solidary may make Naypyidaw to listen to ASEAN with it is coordinating in fighting the global pandemic. Some of the ASEAN-Myanmar dynamics are at play in Myanmar’s ties with India and Japan.
The global pandemic has been redefining the interactions between global, regional and local dynamics with regional actors playing key roles in the international aid system. Myanmar’s Rakhine conflict may provide an opportunity to channelize international concerns through regional actors to deal with ethnopolitical conflicts where the regional plays the role of a bridge between in the global and the local.