With government support, the Tatmadaw is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a weapon to further its political agenda, according to a policy research and advocacy organisation.
“The Myanmar (Burma) military is making a mockery of the government’s ‘No One Left Behind’ policy for coronavirus prevention. It uses COVID-19 as a cover for its war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic areas,” Khin Ohmar, chair for Progressive Voice, told NMG.
“Without the military committed to ending its attacks against ethnic communities, the government’s so-called comprehensive pandemic response is impossible to implement,” Khin Ohmar says.
Progressive Voice released its report ‘A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19’ on June 2, examining how the Tatmadaw is exploiting COVID-19 to oppress ethnic communities, human rights defenders and journalists.
In early April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on its Facebook page as part of its coronavirus prevention policy “the Government has scaled up its efforts to enhance the provision of humanitarian assistance” during the pandemic, acknowledging that “the intensity of armed conflict since early 2019 has presented considerable challenges in delivering humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected areas.”
Progressive Voice’s report argues that after more than a year of brutal clashes in Rakhine State and Chin State, the Burma Army is increasing military offensives against the Arakan Army, in particular starting in late March after the country recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case.
The Progressive Voice highlighted the Internet’s suspension by the government in parts of Chin State and Rakhine State, while the military seized on this information blackout to intensify violence against civilians.
Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC), told NMG that fighting in western Burma has worsened. “We’ve seen more human rights abuses. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has increased dramatically in Rakhine State. It shows that COVID-19 prevention programs can’t be implemented without a ceasefire agreement.” Without a peace deal, he says, both sides will attack each other and then blame the other.
In the Progressive Voice’s report, it says the Tatmadaw is doing much more than “intensifying its armed conflict in western Burma. It is actively undermining COVID-19 prevention efforts by other EAOs (ethnic armed organizations) in eastern Myanmar (Burma).”
The report cited examples when Tatmadaw burned down two Karen National Union COVID-19 screening checkpoints and attacked the Restoration Council of the Shan State/Shan State Army medics, who were checking temperatures and providing vital health information to civilians in Shan State. Indicating, the Burma Army doesn’t care about protecting ethnic communities during the pandemic.
Against this backdrop, observers say it is difficult for Tatmadaw and EAOs to cooperate on coronavirus prevention.
“Clashes in Rakhine State, Chin State, Shan State, and Karen State are frequent despite the ‘No One Left Behind’ policy,” Saw Nay Htoo, who’s joint secretary of the Ethnic Health Committee, told NMG last month. “In my opinion, this is just a policy, and in practice this policy is not being implemented on the ground.”
Government health and humanitarian aid delivery structures in Burma are highly centralized, says the Progressive Voice report, excluding the most vulnerable ethnic populations, who live in remote, conflict-affected regions of the country.
“While the NLD (National League for Democracy) government announced the formation of a coordinating committee to cooperate with EAOs to prevent the spread of the virus, what’s really happening is that ethnic health services are being undermined and actively destroyed,” Khin Ohmar told NMG. “It is imperative that no restrictions be placed on the provision of health services by local actors and that all humanitarian aid reach them directly.”
Meanwhile, NLD and other political parties with their flashy logos are promoting themselves as benevolent protectors of the people by posting photos and videos of party members distributing face masks and other personal protective equipment on social media, the report says.