A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19

Introduction

With the endorsement of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the Myanmar military has weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic and used it to intensify its repression of ethnic communities, rights defenders, and the media, all while advancing a vision for the country in which its own permanent role in politics is ensured.

Progressive Voice’s desk-based research for this paper relied on a review of media reports and civil society and government statements from 23 March until 10 May on COVID-19 response strategies, the intensifying civil war, and the diminishing tolerance for dissent in this increasingly dangerous context. Both international and local news sources were consulted, with a notable reliance on coverage by independent ethnic media outlets whose websites are now being blocked by a government order issued during the pandemic that has classified them as “fake news.” Due to the community-based nature in which they operate, ethnic media outlets have often been the only media organizations able to provide updates on the human rights abuses and the combined political and health crisis currently facing Myanmar’s most vulnerable communities, some of whom are also struggling with a state-imposed internet blackout. Their documentation and reporting have been invaluable.

The content of this analysis is divided into seven sections:

  1. COVID-19 and Myanmar’s Securitized Response
  2. One Day, Three Declarations
  3. Government Declarations Give Way to Arrests
  4. Ethnic Responses to COVID-19 in the Context of Government Exclusion, Resistance
  5. Coronavirus and the Civil War
  6. Political Exploitation of the Virus: ‘Fake News,’ Misinformation, and Hate Speech
  7. Same Centralized Health System, Same Aid Structures, New Virus

March 23 was chosen as the starting point in organizing the data because it is the day in which the government made three major announcements that later proved to empower the military: the confirmation of COVID-19 in the country; the declaration of the Arakan Army (AA) as a terrorist organization; and the issuing of an order by the Ministry of Communications and Transport (MoTC) to telecommunications providers to block the websites of alleged “fake news.” The March 23 declarations set into motion a series of shutdowns and arrests of voices critical of the military, including a block on multiple independent ethnic media sites reporting from conflict areas and legal charges against their editors. The crackdown highlights a pattern in which the government issues a directive demonizing a perceived Myanmar military enemy, and state security forces use it to selectively silence their critics. It serves as a warning to anyone even remotely associated with – or who may have had contact with – ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that they could be the next target of repressive measures.

Within days of the announcements, the military was placed at the head of the country’s COVID-19 emergency response committee, a team with no representation from the Ministry of Health and Sports, and powers to prosecute anyone deemed to be spreading “misinformation.” In signing the committee into action, the NLD essentially offered up a path through which the military could continue its operations and further restrict rights and freedoms in the name of fighting the virus.

That is what the Myanmar military did. It amplified its offensives against the newly minted “terrorist” AA after more than one year of brutal fighting in Rakhine and Chin states. During the short span of this report, it was found that more than 30,000 people had been displaced in the violence and at least 40 civilians killed. Former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has described the military’s targeting of civilians in the region during the pandemic as potentially “amount[ing] to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar state has crafted a narrative in which it claims to be utilizing all available resources to care for vulnerable communities, in spite of efforts by EAOs to destabilize them. With no offers of support from the government for COVID-19 prevention for more than one month, EAOs launched their own respective health campaigns in their territories to fight the virus. These activities have been met with Myanmar military obstruction that ranges from threats against civilians for accepting material support from EAO medics to the destruction of their medical checkpoints. Meanwhile, international assistance continues to flow to the central government – and by default, the military – in the name of pandemic response, while ethnic health organizations serving conflict-affected communities are sidelined by existing humanitarian aid structures.

It is critical to emphasize that the repression and violence outlined here are not new tactics used by the Myanmar government or the Myanmar military. The state has long been accused by civil society and UN investigatory bodies of violating international law and humanitarian law during its seven decades of civil war. Most recently, Myanmar is facing a case brought against it by The Gambia at the International Court of Justice in violation of the Genocide Convention for its grave human rights violations against the Rohingya in 2017. At the same time, Myanmar is also facing alleged crimes of deportation, persecution, and other crimes that have been committed which fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Despite these cases that are being brought against Myanmar, Myanmar military offensives and clashes have continued on multiple fronts in Shan, Karen, Rakhine and Chin States during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite calls for a nationwide ceasefire by civil society and nearly every political actor in the country except, notably, the NLD government. The military dismissed the demands until 10 May, when it finally declared its own ceasefire – but, like previous declarations, it was accompanied by preconditions that effectively excluded the country’s primary battlegrounds.

This paper provides an overview of the strategies in which the military has taken advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak to terrorize civilians in conflict areas and silence critics in an effort to ensure its long-term vision for a Bamar-Buddhist hegemony. At best, the NLD administration has remained a silent partner in these crimes – at worst, it has offered up legal statutes that facilitate continued human rights abuses by the Myanmar military during the greatest public health crisis of our time.

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