Coronavirus Must Not Be A Cover For Human Rights Abuses

April 3rd, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  12 minute read
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Instead of intensifying its offensives in Rakhine and Chin States, the Myanmar government must urgently cooperate with the people, civil society, ethnic armed organizations (EAO), as well as the United Nations and the international community by declaring a nationwide ceasefire immediately and issuing a directive indicating the dedication of all available resources to halting and treating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The threat of coronavirus throughout Myanmar[1] this month has been compounded by ongoing civil war and continued human rights abuses perpetrated by the same state that will be held responsible for responding to the pandemic. Civil society organizations have expressed grave concern about how and if Myanmar’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities will be protected in this landscape of increasing public health risks and intensifying armed conflict, and in which information is being censored and weaponized.

With the number of confirmed cases of the virus questionably low at only 15 on 31 March, the true extent of the pandemic within the country remains unknown and underreported. Just days before the first cases were reported on 23 March, the Kachin State-based Legal Aid Network described the government’s “superficial and inadequate surveillance” of COVID-19 as a “systemic failure,” and that the presence of no or few infections was likely “far from reality.”

The cases that have been announced to the public by the Ministry of Health and Sport have published information related to the patients’ recent returns from travel outside of the country—particularly from the West. There has been notably little mention of China in these admissions, the country where the outbreak originated and with whom Myanmar shares a 1,400-mile border crossed by some 10,000 people daily. Nevertheless, continuing to present the virus as a threat looming from outside further perpetuates the dangerous notion that it is an “imported” infection—not one that can and is being transmitted domestically, thereby putting all the people of Myanmar, particularly highly vulnerable communities such as those in conflict areas, at further risk.

While the world has been strategizing how to fight the pandemic, the Myanmar military has been escalating its offensives in Chin and Rakhine States against the Arakan Army (AA), which it designated on 23 March, 2020 as a “terrorist organization”—a designation it is now using to silence journalists who have carried out interviews with the group in their reporting. Fighting between the AA and government forces has been intensifying since 2018, with the number of people displaced estimated to be as high as 100,000. Indiscriminate airstrikes by the Myanmar military on multiple villages in Paletwa, Chin State, on 14-15 March killed more than 20 civilians and displaced some 2,000. They join the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout Myanmar in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan States. Most of these IDPs live in makeshift camps that do not have the provisions – including a steady water supply and personal protection materials like face masks – to cope with the onset of COVID-19. On 30 March, Human Rights Watch described these IDP camps as “tinderboxes” for transmission of the virus.

Alongside the threat of coronavirus, a government-instituted nine-month Internet blackout persists in western Myanmar. Internet access remains blocked in nine townships in northern Rakhine and southern Chin states, leaving communities in these conflict areas without the ability to receive updates on either the ongoing civil war or the coronavirus pandemic. This type of action has specifically been condemned by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human rights, which described internet access as “critical at a time of crisis.” With no other recourse, in Paletwa, civil society has taken to the use of loudspeakers to announce preventative hygiene measures. Government spokespeople remain resolute in their defense of the internet blackout, saying that they can communicate with local authorities and the public through letters, phone calls, and even telegrams.

Even those outside the areas of the blackout are experiencing the effects of severe censorship. A Ministry of Transport and Communications directive issued on 23 March ordered telecommunications providers to block their users from accessing sites deemed to be spreading misinformation. Military-backed providers Mytel and MPT have since blocked those with their SIM cards from visiting three ethnic media websites reporting on conflict in Rakhine and Karen States: Narinjara, Development Media Group and the Karen Information Center. Both regions have large populations of IDPs and villagers living in conflict areas. Members of Burma News International (BNI) – the ethnic umbrella media coalition that includes the targeted outlets – have likened the move to “putting [the people] in the dark” during a crisis. On 31 March, BNI released a statement calling on the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to “review and reopen” the blocked websites of independent ethnic media. Their call has been met with silence.

It is vital that the government immediately end the blockade on ethnic media as well as the internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States. This is necessary to allow the general public and IDPs access to live-saving information and guidelines regarding coronavirus prevention by relevant and reliable health institutions. Civil society organizations across Myanmar have united in their calls on the NLD-led administration to restore internet access throughout the country and for the military to end ongoing fighting in ethnic areas – more than 50 Myanmar civil society organizations signed on to one such statement to do so on 26 March and over 400 civil society organizations from across Southeast Asia have also made similar calls.

Demands such as these are strengthening both within Myanmar and globally, imploring armed conflict actors to stop fighting and consider the public health emergency. On 23 March, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, called for “an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world” to focus on the “true fight” against COVID-19. It has been echoed by the Karen National Union, which released its own statement three days later urging the Myanmar government and the Myanmar military to declare a nationwide ceasefire in order to dedicate all resources to halting the spread of the coronavirus. The Karenni National Progressive Party also issued a similar call, as did the Three Brotherhood Alliance of the AA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which endorsed the global ceasefire and extended its own unilateral ceasefire until 30 April, 2020. KNU general secretary Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo told local media that with the ceasefire “we can focus on fighting this epidemic, and our people won’t have to flee.” He pointed out that such a move by the Myanmar government and the military would also support national reconciliation and peacebuilding. In response, the Myanmar military has rejected the recommendation, dismissing a ceasefire as “not practical.”

Instead of intensifying its offensives in Rakhine and Chin States, the Myanmar government must urgently cooperate with the people, civil society, ethnic armed organizations (EAO), as well as the United Nations and the international community by declaring a nationwide ceasefire immediately and issuing a directive indicating the dedication of all available resources to halting and treating the COVID-19 pandemic. This must be implemented without any political prejudice or discrimination, especially towards minority communities already marginalized through state-sponsored oppression and ongoing armed conflict. The coronavirus crisis has been exploited by the government and military to attack ethnic armed organizations, silence media and civil society, and further increase the vulnerability of civilians – particularly those in conflict areas – and this must be stopped. The NLD administration must ensure that the panic and fear surrounding this pandemic are not used to veil the systematic silencing of dissonant voices.

A rejection of the growing calls for a ceasefire essentially demonstrates a lack of political will by the government and the military to protect people’s basic rights not only to security and healthcare during this outbreak, but also to information, freedom of expression, and democratic space. Anything less than a commitment to ending this war, as has been demanded by EAOs and civil society, is an abuse of power and a death sentence for many of the country’s most vulnerable. The international community must treat it as such.

Note for the readers

Our Weekly Highlights publication is on an irregular schedule as we are adjusting our work in response to the latest challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are trying our best to get back to our regular scheduling of Weekly Highlights as soon as possible. Until then, thank you for your understanding and continuing support.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

သဘာဝပတ်ဝန်းကျင်အရေး တက်ကြွလှုပ်ရှားသူ စောသာဘိုးအား တရားစွဲဆိုထားမှုအပေါ် ကရင်ပြည်နယ်အခြေစိုက် အရပ်ဖက်လူမှုအဖွဲ့အစည်းများ၏ သဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

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Joint Statement of the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) and Civil Society Organizations

By 335 Civil Society Organizations, Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability

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Myanmar: Drop Charges against Karen Environmental Activist Saw Tha Phoe


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By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Myanmar: Regional MPs Call for Withdrawal of Criminal Defamation Case against Lawmaker, News Agency

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By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK

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By BNI Multimedia Group

Humanitarian Disaster in the Making: CHRO Calls for Unconditional Ceasefire and Urgent Humanitarian Intervention in Chin and Rakhine States

By Chin Human Rights Organization

CHRO Calls for Immediate Ceasefire Between Tatmadaw and Arakan Army (AA) as a Sharp Increase in Civilian Death and Casualties Mount in Paletwa Township, Chin State

By Chin Human Rights Organization

Tatmadaw Airstrikes Kill 3 and Injure 7 in Paletwa Township

By Chin Human Rights Organization

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By Chin National League For Democracy

Myanmar: Government Continues to Use an Array of Laws to Silence Its Critics


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Myanmar: Drop charges against Reuters and Lawmaker Maun Kyaw Zan and Repeal Criminal Defamation Laws


43rd Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar


Myanmar: End Impunity and Violence Against Ethnic and Religious Minorities

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Myanmar: Restore Internet Services in Rakhine and Chin States, Promote Access to Information for All

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KNU Statement Concerning the COVID-19 Pandemic

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KWO Condemns Burma Army’s Indiscriminate Firing on Villagers in Rakhine and Chin States

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Karenni National Progressive Party’s Appeal to Myanmar Government, Tatmadaw, and all Relevant Ethnic Armed Resistance Organizations

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Legal Demand to Cover Medical and Living Costs of People While Fighting Against COVID-19

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Statement by Members of the European Burma Network

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Burma Army Kills Forest Worker and Reinforces Mu Traw District

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မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ လူ့အခွင့်အရေးအခြေအနေ အစီရင်ခံစာ (၂၀၁၉ ဇူလိုင်လမှ ဒီဇင်ဘာလထိ)

By Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”