Thailand braces as Myawaddy conflict spills over

No love lost for Rohingy in India's citizenship plan

Hello friends!

This feels a bit too loosely structured and zig-zaggy, but please bear with me. There’s a lot these last few days and I feel a bit Carrie with the paper on her wall in Homeland but it’s all too important and must be included. 

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I’ll be back in premium reader inboxes tomorrow with a Mekong update — busy Cambodia! — but it will be a smidge later than usual.

So let’s crack in,
Erin Cook

How it stands in Myawaddy

A monstrous weekend in Myawaddy, Kayin State, where a fresh flare-up in fighting between the military and resistance forces saw 3,000 locals flee the area, Reuters reported Saturday. According to media reports spotted by Reuters, resistance forces say they dropped 20 bombs on military forces. Myanmar's state-run MRTV reported that the military struck back with aerial bombing — a heavy-handed but typical response we’ve seen in these sorts of skirmishes since the coup.

A reporter for the Irrawaddy currently in Mae Sot, on the Thai side of the border, reports that more than 150 bombs had been dropped by military planes near the Second Friendship Bridge connecting the two towns. ‘At least seven bombs fell near Thai soldiers deployed along the border,’ the outlet reported. 

The use of aerial bombing by the military against its own people has been very alarming for months and this update from Nikkei Asia is an excellent addition to the brilliant reporting on that specifically. 

This piece reveals 21 flights over two days earlier this month — keeping in mind Myawaddy kicked off on the 11th — ”to bomb and for logistics” over the area, a Thai military source told the outlet. “Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, all Russian, were used about 10 kilometres from the Thai-Myanmar border to bomb villages and to deliver supplies and ammo,” they said. 

“The military ties between Russia and Myanmar are at an all-time high since the coup. It is partly because Russia supplies weapons and military hardware to the junta, and partly because the junta wants to balance out China's influence,” a Yangon-based analyst told the outlet on anonymity. 

This is an outstanding and comprehensive piece that ought to be read in full by anyone interested in Myanmar and/or Russia’s influence within the region. As the military becomes more and more desperate for power and air strikes more frighteningly common, this relationship will only be more important. 

How close are we to a collapse of the junta? That is still too big of a question, but when it comes to the future of the junta in Kayin State, at least, there are some clues. The Karen National Liberation Army announced last Thursday that it had intercepted the then-last remaining military group in the area, Infantry Battalion 275. It is believed this incident prompted the big weekend of air strikes. 

On the border

It’s all an expensive mess for the junta, which has seen resistance groups target junta positions in half a dozen border towns in recent months. The chokeholds on these towns are believed to be costing the military regime big, Myanmar Now reports. More than half of the last fiscal year’s trade went through these border spots and was worth an estimated US$4 billion. ‘While the regime still has a hold on 11 other border trading centres, it is clearly facing a major crisis at it struggles to maintain some semblance of control over the country’s economy,’ Myanmar Now writes. 

Good news for Yangon, though. “We might have to move our operations to the Yangon ports from the border areas. Many traders from Mandalay and Muse are already in Yangon,” an unidentified businessman told the outlet. 

Home sweet home, for now

Twin reports from the BBC and the Straits Times on the ground offer some insight into how the town and its new visitors are faring. 

For 23-year-old Sanjay, a pseudonym, living in a temporary home shared with goats and chickens is a much better option than what he has left: “Back home I used to feel afraid every day that they would come to take me into the army. Even though we have very little food here — just rice and vegetables — no one will come to harm me. I feel free here in Thailand,” he tells the BBC.

His experience feels typical. He “never listened” to his mother, and never thought about politics until the coup and his father was rounded up and jailed for resistance. That’s when it all changed for Sanjay, but it wasn’t until possible conscription loomed over his head that he really took notice and planned to leave. “No way was I going to fight for them against other Burmese people.” 

At the Straits Times, Myanmar nationals who have fled across the border say families have split — with half heading into Thailand and the other half staying home to keep an eye on the property. A junta defeat isn’t guaranteed, but it’s not straightforward what a loss means either: ‘Beyond the battles against the junta, locals said they are unsure about the ensuing balance of power in Myawaddy,’ the Straits Times reports.

Both stories delve into the how, as well as the why, people are getting across and then supporting themselves in homes that may or may not be temporary. Fascinating, excellent work and both should be read in full.  

In Thailand

There has, understandably, been a lot of coverage of this in Thai media. That includes the arrest of 15 Myanmar nationals and two Thais along the southern border with Malaysia. The Bangkok Post reports the group had entered the country at Mae Sot and were fleeing to Malaysia for work opportunities, with the arrested alleging they’d paid brokers in Myanmar to plan the journey. I think we should probably expect to see more reporting like this in the coming weeks. 

Still, so far, in English-language reporting at least, the Mae Sot border is being framed as a humanitarian exercise rather than an immigration crisis. The Ministry of Public Health told media that 1,686 people crossed into Mae Sot from Myanmar on Saturday, with around half elderly people and children. Local authorities have vowed to step up checks on those entering the country. Alarmingly, the same article reports that a stray bullet found its way into a Mae Sot residence, though did not harm anyone. 

Holiday amnesty disappoints

The traditional prisoner amnesty offered each Myanmar New Year included hardly any political prisoners, Political Prisoners Network-Myanmar told the Irrawaddy. It found that of the 3,303 prisoners released, just 101 were political prisoners. Of the 900 releases from the notorious Insein, just 18 were believed to be political prisoners.

‘The number of political prisoners in Myanmar has surged to an historic high since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup. Prior to this date, the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners had about 3,500 verified political prisoners in its database. Now it has about 30,000,’ the Irrawaddy reports. 

“I noticed that only a few political prisoners were released today. The majority of the over 3,000 people released were criminals. I am sure most of the political prisoners released were charged under Section 505 of the Penal Code and had nearly completed their terms,” one former political prisoner from Mandalay told the outlet, referring to the section that covers incitement charges. 

ASSK, Win Myint transferred to house arrest

Not quite freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi, however. The former leader has instead been moved from her Naypyidaw jail cell to house arrest with junta officials citing health concerns. Win Myint, the former president, was also transferred. 

“Since the weather is extremely hot, it is not only for Aung San Suu Kyi … For all those, who need necessary precautions, especially elderly prisoners, we are working to protect them from heatstroke,” Major General Zaw Min Tun told media last week, as reported by Al Jazeera. The whole region has been hit with a tremendous heatwave with temperatures in Myanmar pushing 40 degrees.  

Don’t call it humane, family says. Kim Aris, the London-based son of ASSK, is not very convinced by the junta’s public intentions. “I think they have their own reasons for moving her, namely that they'd like to use her as a human shield or a bargaining chip,” he told Reuters last week. “As the fighting's getting closer and closer to the military strongholds, I think they may just want to keep her close to use as a human shield, or they might like to negotiate with the resistance forces on her release, trying to gain some sort of, you know, footing for the future.” 

It’s a step in the right direction, Thailand says. Let’s take it a bit further and set her free? Transferring ASSK and Win Myint is “a positive step in responding to the concerns of the international community,” Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said in a statement as reported by Radio Free Asia.

Win Myint has reportedly been sent off to the Bago region in central Myanmar, but it’s still unknown where ASSK has ended up.

Hell for the Rohingya

Very grim report here from the Irrawaddy on the junta using Rohingya recruits to ‘boost ethnic hatred’ in Buthidaung town, Rakhine State. More than 1,000 homes and the local offices of Doctors Without Borders have been razed in the last few weeks, though the military has denied involvement. “Since April 12, the army and the Rohingya had been burning the town down together,” a resident who lost their home and shopfront told the outlet. 

Rohingya rights activist Ro Nay San Lwin told the Irrawaddy that, following the forced conscription of Rohingya locals by the military, Rohingya are being used as ‘human shields on the frontlines to spark communal hatred’: “In Buthidaung, the Rohingya were forced to take part on junta orders. Then the junta wants others to say Rohingya people were responsible.”

It’s very unclear what is actually happening in Buthidaung. Ro Nay San Lwin alleges the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and Arakan Rohingya Army are responsible and in bed with the junta. Either way, residents have fled the area, including into Bangladesh, the Irrawaddy reports.

United Nations, now what?

The new United Nations Special Envoy Julie Bishop is “deeply honoured” to take on the role. Personally, I think she did a good job rebuilding the Indonesia-Australia relationship in the aftermath of the Bali Nine executions in 2015 when she was Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Tony Abbott. That’s literally the nicest thing I can say about her. Absolute disinterest in the fate of Rohingya refugees in 2017 does not bode well.  

“Australian foreign ministers adore spouting their adherence to the rules-based international order, but only the rules they like. Australia’s abhorrent record of incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers goes back decades. During Bishop’s tenure, the government established a gulag for refugees on Manus Island, which wasn’t much of an improvement on the Rohingya camps outside Sittwe,” writes David Scott Mathieson for the Irrawaddy. Hear, hear. 

Sounds like a nightmare job, if you ask me. But the ‘ooh how special is this’ out of the Australian political class is making me gag. 

Asean, now what?

Speaking of, Asean is “deeply concerned” about the recent uptick in violence along the border with Thailand. In a statement issued by the foreign ministers of the bloc, Asean called on “all parties for an immediate cessation of violence” with a focus on the Myawaddy clashes. It’s been echoed by UN human rights chief Volker Turk, who focused on Rakhine State and fighting between the military and the local ethnic armed organisations there. “The alarm bells are ringing, and we must not allow there to be a repeat of the past,” he said, referring to the state’s terrible history of genocide and mass kilings.  

Along the India border

The news from India is too far out of my comfort zone to wade in too much, but two reports from the Hindu and Al Jazeera have been very illuminating. 

The Indian government ended the Free Movement Regime along the border it shares with Myanmar earlier this year. The ‘decades-old visa-free movement policy’ came to an abrupt end amid concerns in India about demographic changes and ethnic violence in Manipur state. It’s a flash point in India’s enormous election after ethnic violence flared up last year between the Kuki-Zo people, who share links with the peoples in Myanmar and Bangladesh (and for whom the FMR was initially devised), and the majority Meitei community. 

“No matter how hard anyone tries, we will not let anyone divide Manipur,” Union Home Minister Amit Shah said last week, as reported by the Hindu. “I know that in this state, intruders are coming in and conspiring to change the demography of the State,” he added. He also alleged the FMR was being used to traffic drugs into India. 

These comments come after the attempted deportation of Myanmar nationals in the state last month was effectively abandoned as the Myanmar government refused to help. Indian officials again pointed to conflict between resistance forces and the Myanmar military along the border last week as holding back deportation efforts. That’s cold comfort for those seeking something nearing refuge in India. 

“​​The news of deportation has certainly triggered a panic button among most of the Myanmar nationals living in India as nobody knows who would be the next to go out and face the same horror of violence and bloodshed,” Muhammad Hamin, a Rohingya student living in Delhi, told Al Jazeera

Now a new citizenship law, that grants Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who have arrived in India prior to 2015 has twisted the knife. A Rohingya Muslim trying to escape violence at home? Not a chance in Modi’s India. 

Along the China border

A bit quiet on the China-Myanmar beat lately, after that stunning flurry of Kokang reporting in the first quarter of the year. Still, that doesn’t mean nothing at all is happening. Chinese military drills along the border are underway for the second time this month. The military will “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, border stability and the safety of people's lives and property,” China's Southern Theater Command leadership said ahead of the exercises, as per Reuters.

‘The exercise is in accordance with the country’s annual training plan and aims to test the reconnaissance and early warning, air defence amongst other capabilities,’ the Global Times reported last week. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lin Jian told media that Beijing’s stance on Myanmar has not changed: “China calls on all parties to stop the fighting, resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation and in peaceful means, and avoid any escalation of the situation,” Lin Jian said.  

Further reading

I’m always struck by the bravery of those who speak with media after escaping scam compounds, whether in Myanmar or elsewhere in the region. This BBC report is full of testimony of just how dire and disturbing the practices of tricking and then forcing people to stay and work in the compounds.

The group ended up in Myawaddy - a town at the centre of recent fighting between the military regime which seized power three years ago, and allied anti-coup forces.

From there, they found themselves in a camp run by Chinese-speaking gangmasters, surrounded by tall walls and barbed wires, with armed guards protecting the entrance around the clock.

"We were terrified. About 40 young men and women, including Sri Lankans, individuals from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and African countries, were forcibly detained in the camp," he said.

What the heck happened here.

When Dr Sharad Joshi first read about the case he almost couldn’t believe it was real.

“It seemed more like a screenplay than anything else,” said the professor who researches and teaches about nuclear issues and terrorism in Southeast Asia at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in the United States.

“Everyone seems to be involved, you have the regime, you have insurgent groups, some of whom are aligned with the regime, and you have the Yakuza. I find it really puzzling. I would have dismissed the whole thing but then I saw the actual indictment document.”

This is a tough one to quote from because it’s the gorgeous photographs that make it such a stunning piece. 

Parkitny traced the way outsiders perceived the Chin tattoos through historical texts. "The British documented how the Chin conducted warfare and how they were structured as a society, but they didn't give a second thought to facial tattoos and described them as ugly, period. The Revolutionary Union Council, the supreme government body of Burma from 1962 to 1975, banned facial tattooing, officially out of health concerns. They wanted to suppress and assimilate these groups. And both Christian and Buddhist missionaries discouraged the Chin from continuing the practice. In the mid-90s, the authorities threatened Chin women with prison if they continued marking their faces. So, the youngest woman with face tattoos that I have met was tattooed in 2000 when she was 12."

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