Southeast Myanmar Field Report: COVID-19, armed conflict, killings and sexual violence, July to December 2020

Situation Report
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This Field Report analyses information collected by KHRG field researchers during the period between July and December 2020.

As the COVID-19[1] pandemic entered into the second wave of infections in August, rural communities in Southeast Myanmar faced new and increased restrictions that impacted their livelihood situation. Unable to access their plantations because of local lockdowns, sell their cash crops and goods, or find work as day labourers, many rural villagers are struggling to find alternatives to provide for their families. Although some financial and material aid is being provided by the Myanmar government, the Karen National Union (KNU),[2] and other organisations, that aid remains uneven in its distribution, often failing to reach those most in need. Access to education has also been heavily impacted by the second wave of COVID-19. Ongoing school closures in most areas, and policy and procedural changes for schools that do remain open have raised concerns among parents about increased school dropouts and the educational future of their children. Access to healthcare remains limited, with healthcare workers unable to access some areas, and villagers often unable to travel to the clinics closest to them. Several positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported in KHRG’s operational area. With limited access to testing and medical services, local villages are often left to figure out on their own how to best handle and contain the situation.

The Tatmadaw[3] maintained a strong presence in the northernmost KNU-defined districts over the reporting period, and kept supplying troops, weapons and ammunition to its army camps. It also resumed military road construction works in Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaunglebin) and Mu Traw (Hpapun) districts,[4] leading to an increase in tensions and sporadic fighting with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).[5] In December, the security situation in Meh Wai, Mu Traw District deteriorated dramatically after repeated Tatmadaw incursions into areas controlled by the KNU. The resulting skirmishes between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw forced dozens of households to flee their village. Fighting reportedly spread to nearby village tracts[6] and continued in early 2021. KHRG also documented several instances of indiscriminate shelling by the Tatmadaw on civilian areas in Kler Lwee Htoo and Mu Traw districts. These incidents resulted in casualties and further displacement; and also damaged livelihood areas, houses and water distribution installations in at least one village.

KHRG continued to receive information about sexual violence against women. It documented four instances of rape during the reporting period: two against children and two against adult women. Although all those cases were reported to either local leaders or the Karen National Police Force (KNPF),[7] none of the perpetrators had been formally convicted under rape charges at the time of drafting. Local authorities and law enforcement often struggled to establish the facts in the absence of witnesses or confession, resulting in lengthy investigations or the dropping of rape charges. This suggests that limited investigation capabilities are one of the main barriers preventing survivors from accessing justice. In addition, some of these cases confirmed the tendency to resort to compensation to settle sexual violence cases in Southeast Myanmar. They also highlighted other barriers to justice, such as a lack of legal awareness among village authorities and weak rule of law.

Lastly, KHRG documented three killing cases and one instance of forced labour.[8] Five civilians, including four children were also injured in the explosion of unexploded ordnance over the reporting period. This highlights that remnants of war continue to pose an unacceptable threat to villagers in some areas. In parallel, natural disasters have translated into livelihood difficulties for villagers reliant on small-scale farming in Dooplaya and Mu Traw districts; while entire communities had to leave their villages due to floods in Mergui-Tavoy District. In Kler Lwee Htoo District, large-scale gold mining operations along the Klaw Myaw, Puh Loh Kloh and Kaw Ka Loh Kloh rivers have resulted in water pollution, thus threatening the livelihoods of riverside communities. Reports from Mergui-Tavoy District also showed that ethnic villagers from remote areas still struggle to get ID cards due to discrimination from Myanmar government staff and difficulties in obtaining supporting documentation.