A Whitewash of a Truce and the Covid-19 Pandemic

May 25th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
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“When we look at the structure of the government’s COVID-19 coordination committee, there are only four members. In practice, this will create difficulties in implementation, because the Burma Army has restricted activities for COVID-19 prevention carried out by EAOs’ medic teams in ethnic regions.”

Saw Nay Htoo, joint secretary of the Ethnic Health Committee

Despite the Myanmar[1] military’s announcement of a supposed unilateral ceasefire, the situation on the ground in the past few weeks in Myanmar has been one of tension. Meanwhile, the public’s fearful responses to coronavirus has become somewhat chaotic due to the government’s prevention measures that are deeply flawed, random and sporadic. To top it off, the Myanmar military’s recent ceasefire announcement did not include Rakhine and Chin States where the conflict has become further intensified in recent months and civilians affected by conflict are on the rise. Moreover, ethnic armed organization’s (EAO’s) work on coronavirus prevention has been restricted by the military, contradicting the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government’s announcement of the formation of a coordinating committee to cooperate with EAOs to prevent the spread of the virus, thus making a mockery of the government’s ‘no one left behind’ policy.

The Ethnic Health Committee (EHC) stated that in practice the government’s new formation of the COVID-19 Prevention Coordination Committee and its ‘no one left behind’ policy are not realistic and there is more to do in order to effectively collaborate with EAOs. They suggested that the government and military must first stop attacks in ethnic areas and cease obstructing the work of EAOs on coronavirus prevention. Saw Nay Htoo, joint secretary of the EHC said “When we look at the structure of the government’s COVID-19 coordination committee, there are only four members. In practice, this will create difficulties in implementation, because the Burma Army has restricted activities for COVID-19 prevention carried out by EAOs’ medic teams in ethnic regions.”

As the government is unable to cover all parts of Myanmar for coronavirus prevention, some EAOs have been conducting activities to prevent the virus from spreading in their ethnic own area by setting up checkpoints to scan people passing through. The Karen National Union (KNU) has set up nine coronavirus testing checkpoints in Thaton District alone. Instead of appreciating these efforts from the EAOs – who are also signatories of the nationwide ceasefire agreement – and cooperating with them to fight against the pandemic, the Myanmar military has ordered their troops to be stationed near the KNU medical team checkpoint in Htoh Boe Lay Village and pressured the KNU to remove three testing checkpoints on 30 April 2020. While the KNU initially remained resistant to removing the checkpoints, as the tension increased between the KNU and the Myanmar military grew, they later removed the three checkpoints. On 6 May, 2020, the Myanmar military burned down two KNU coronavirus screening posts in Mutraw District. According to Padoh Saw Nyunt Win, head of the Karen Department of Health and Welfare in Mutraw District, their health workers were forced to leave by the Myanmar military soldiers before burning down the post. The increased tension between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – the armed wing of the KNU –  and the Myanmar military, has led to armed clashes, which have displaced more than 480 villagers.

The Myanmar military have taken a similar approach in other ethnic areas such as Mon and Shan States. Myanmar military troops pressured the New Mon State Party (NMSP) to remove one of their COVID-19 checkpoints near Three Pagodas Pass in Mon State. Likewise in Shan State, the Myanmar military prevented local villagers from accessing testing and medical treatment from the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) medical teams and threatened imprisonment if villagers accepted.

For a month and a half, the Myanmar military remained silent despite mounting calls for a ceasefire, including a call for global ceasefire from the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in March 2020, as well as from EAOs and Myanmar CSOs. It was only on 9 May 2020 that the military issued a statement announcing a unilateral ceasefire from 10 May to 31 August, but the announcement excluded areas where there is ongoing intensive fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the military – in Rakhine and Chin States. The exclusion of AA in the ceasefire has raised many concerns among EAOs and CSOs, particularly over the Myanmar military’s intention behind the ceasefire’s announcement. For instance, the KNU Concerned Group stated that the ceasefire announcement by the Myanmar military does not display a “sincere desire for peace” but rather it is a strategy to dominate and control EAOs, while allowing fighting to go on against the AA, referring to the exclusion of AA in the ceasefire and the military’s obstruction over EAOs’ activities on coronavirus prevention. In addition, the Brotherhood Alliance also stated that the ceasefire announcement could be “just for show” to the international community, especially since the timing of the announcement was close to Myanmar’s reporting to the International Court of Justice, and doubted that the announcement will contribute to actual peace. The statement by the Karen National Union (KNU) on 15 May 2020, also raised concerns that the Myanmar military is taking advantage of the ceasefire to double their military strength in the Karen ethnic areas.

The government’s formation of the new committee to work with EAOs and the ceasefire announcement by the Myanmar military excluding the AA, is also seen by many domestic stakeholders such as ethnic groups and civil society, with close monitoring and full understanding of the ground situation, as no more than a superficial quick-fix to whitewash their negative image. Implementing the peace process with genuine political will and full commitment is still not the priority for either the Myanmar government or the military. To be able to fight against coronavirus effectively without using force and causing further armed conflict, tension, and misunderstanding, the government should engage with the EAOs and other relevant healthcare, service providers and community-based organizations in good faith. Armed conflict and human rights violations must be ceased immediately throughout the country. The ceasefire declaration excluding Rakhine and Chin States is an empty gesture. The coronavirus does not discriminate, and a State clearly should not negatively discriminate between people and places when combating this virus. As said in its own statement, Myanmar must do what is necessary to ensure no one is left behind.


[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.

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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.”