Myanmar Army Extends Unilateral Nationwide Truce, Excluding Rakhine State

By Nyein Nyein 25 August 2020

The Myanmar military has extended its truce in the country until the end of next month—once again excluding Rakhine State, this time on the basis that the truce does not cover areas where state-declared terrorist groups are operating.

In a statement issued on Monday evening, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) said it would continue working to contain COVID-19 and to achieve peace by implementing Part 3 of the Union Accord, which was signed at last week’s fourth session of the 21st-Century Panglong Union Peace Conference.

The Tatmadaw said it would extend its existing ceasefire, which was due to end on Aug. 31, until Sept. 30 and suspend military activities in the country, “except in the areas where the government-declared terrorists groups are active.”

The military’s unilateral ceasefire was initially due to last from May 10 to Aug. 31 in order to allow an effective response to the coronavirus outbreak and promote peace.

The government declared the Arakan Army (AA), which is involved in heavy ongoing military engagements with the Tatmadaw in northern Rakhine State, to be a terrorist group in March. This followed the designation of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) as a terrorist group in August 2017 following its attacks on police outposts. The attacks triggered military operations that led to a mass exodus of Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.

Observers said fighting was likely to continue in western Myanmar, putting an extra burden on local residents and internally displaced persons (IDPs) amid the COVID-19 epidemic. Since November 2018, heavy fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA troops has caused nearly 200,000 locals in northern Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township to become internally displaced and seek shelters at temporary camps.

Since the global pandemic hit Myanmar in late March, the country had reported 474 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, with six deaths and 341 recoveries.

The Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, is currently facing an outbreak of locally transmitted COVID-19 cases. Health authorities in Rakhine have detected 82 COVID-19 cases in Sittwe, Mrauk-U, Buthidaung and Thandwe townships since Aug. 16.

U Maung Maung Soe, an ethnic affairs and political analyst, said, “Peace will remain elusive until a ceasefire is implemented in Rakhine State,” which has become a battleground between the Tatmadaw and the AA. “Unless there is a ceasefire in Rakhine State, effective support for prevention of and protection from COVID-19 is impossible,” he added.

“We urge both sides to stop fighting,” he said, pointing out that both the AA and the military claim not to instigate fighting, but only to act defensively. “It is important that both sides do not start [firing]. As we are not on the ground, it has been hard to say who starts the clashes when they occur.”

He added that another challenge faced by local residents is the government-imposed restrictions on access to the internet in parts of the state. The lack of access makes it hard for locals to receive information on COVID-19 preventative measures, which are widely shared through social media in Myanmar, particularly Facebook.

Local civil society groups have urged the government to allow full access to the internet in northern Rakhine State.

The Rakhine State Civil Society Peace Committee on Tuesday called for both sides to end military hostilities and urged the government to allow access to 4G internet services in northern Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township. The government banned internet access in nine townships from June 2019 to July this year. When it allowed internet access to resume on Aug. 1, only 2G service was available.

“If the fighting continues, the public will face more hardships, while locals are concerned for their health due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Sittwe. It could spread to Minbya, Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw [where most of the fighting is taking place],” said Dr. Min Zaw Oo, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS).

The military announced its first-ever unilateral ceasefire for nine months from Dec. 21, 2018 to Sept. 21, 2019 in five military commands in Kachin and Shan states, and excluding Rakhine State. During his address to the latest session of the Union Peace Conference last Wednesday, army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing raised the topic of the Tatmadaw’s truce, claiming that “those responsible failed to take it seriously”, adding that the Tatmadaw had “designated 2019 as a year of peace.”

He reiterated that the “Tatmadaw had vowed to complete the peace process by 2020 [referring to his pledge first made in October 2018]. As it had vowed, eternal peace would be brought to the hands of the people as they aspired.”

Following the World Health Organization’s designation of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on March 23 urged the suspension of all armed conflicts around the globe.

The Myanmar military said in Monday’s statement it was extending its ceasefire in response to the UN’s appeal on July 1 for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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