Myanmar and COVID-19: an opportunity for peace amidst the virus threat?

Meal distribution at a quarantine centre in a military camp, while officers look on, Yangon, 9 April 2020 Meal distribution at a quarantine centre in a military camp, while officers look on, Yangon, 9 April 2020 © AFP/Sai Aung Main

As some fighting pauses, International Crisis Group’s report says opposing sides must cooperate to battle the pandemic and enable a future peace

In a conflict-affected country with low health spending, weak governance, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and where no single governing group can access to the whole country, the implications of a possible coronavirus outbreak are clear. State cooperation with minority ethnic groups, many of which provide healthcare locally, appears crucial, and current lulls in fighting may provide a chance. One exception is Rakhine state, where escalating conflict endangers human life and humanitarian efforts. The International Crisis Group’s report calls for all sides to take urgent steps to safeguard personnel, facilitate cooperation, and allow humanitarian access to vulnerable populations. The government’s campaign against the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine has possibly claimed thousands of lives, including hundreds this year alone, and has displaced at least 160,000 people. Civilian casualties have risen significantly, prompting charges of crimes against humanity. The killing of a World Health Organization driver, while transporting COVID-19 swabs for testing, highlighted the serious threat to health workers and containment efforts. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal for a global ceasefire on 23 March was embraced by several of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, but the government initially rejected this “unrealistic” proposal. In May the military did announce a purported nationwide ceasefire, but they excluded the AA by suddenly declaring it a terrorist organisation. With other conflicts currently paused, the ceasefire is interpreted as a token political gesture, and the military continues to reject the idea of a ceasefire that might appear to legitimise the AA. Meanwhile the conflict severely inhibits prevention, surveillance and testing for COVID-19. A mobile internet blackout aimed at crippling the AA has deprived vulnerable people of access to life-saving health information, including some 130,000 living in squalid camps with limited sanitation and healthcare. At best, public trust in state health provision and advice is low, and authorities have actually avoided a lockdown-style response due to economic implications. With a ceasefire unlikely, both sides could at least agree to guarantee the safety of medical personnel and humanitarian workers. 

Elsewhere, cooperation between the government and ethnic armed groups seems more likely. The urgent need to respond to the pandemic surfaced during a lull in ongoing conflicts in Kachin, Kayin and Shan states, creating an opening for cooperation. Coronavirus infections in Myanmar may appear limited, but challenges of testing and logistics suggest that the disease may be more widespread than reported, and even a modest outbreak would strain resources. Ethnic organisations operate their own health systems, but there is little institutional cooperation with the government. Minority ethnic groups may struggle to put aside grave political reservations and accept that cooperation is necessary, but it is hoped that effective pandemic response cooperation may help to build future trust. 

An efficient countrywide response to the pandemic will require unprecedented coordination between the government, military, and ethnic groups, but ethnic health services worry that their contribution is not valued and that cooperation will mean subordination to central government. As well as announcing only a largely symbolic ceasefire, central government has restricted donors’ support for ethnic health providers with links to armed groups, but in spite of ethnic tensions resurfacing in the context of the pandemic, both sides have expressed a desire to cooperate. This is encouraging even if no agreement has yet emerged, and if the government does manage to treat ethnic health professionals as genuine partners it is hoped that the scale of the current challenge may help to break down pre-existing barriers. 

Myanmar remains vulnerable to the pandemic, and a response coordinated with the country’s twenty minority ethnic territory-controlling groups is essential. A meaningful ceasefire appears unlikely, and political reservations impede cooperation, but the current emergency has the potential to transcend obstacles that have previously hindered dialogue. The Myanmar government’s actions remain troubling, such as restrictions on donations and the escalating conflict in Rakhine, where the tactical internet blackout blocks life-saving communication. 

The government could clearly do more to facilitate the response and ensure humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and the priority for all sides must be to de-escalate the conflict. De-escalation could take the form of a multilateral agreement to safeguard health workers, with special attention to IDP camps. Effective action requires a holistic approach covering both centrally-governed and ethnically-governed territories, with state, military, and ethnic groups working together to implement a full range of virus-combatting measures. 


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Author: Edward Jarvis

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