Myanmar is one of the last nations to acknowledge Covid-19 cases within its borders. But the exiled human rights activist, Khin Ohmar, is skeptical of the 248 Covid-19 cases reported in a country whose healthcare systems in 2000 was ranked by the WHO as one of the world’s worst–and with a deep-rooted custom of “saving face.”
Over 100 ethnic groups comprise the 54 million Southeast-Asian country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) that borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.
The 74-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi–human rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate turned politician– leads the National League for Democracy (NLD) and has placed the military to lead the country’s Coronavirus emergency response. Suu Kyi’s NLD and the military-backed party politicize pandemic prevention as part of their November re-election strategy by distributing supplies and cash donations with their campaign insignia.
The government hails its Myanmar Leaves No One Behind in its Fight Against Covid-19 campaign. Meanwhile, in western Rakhine and Chin States, ethnic Rakhine, Rohingya and Chin communities are subjected to Myanmar military’s air strikes, torture, extrajudicial killing, rape, and mass displacements–and attacks on the ad hoc groups distributing preventive supplies to ethnic communities.
In 2017 the world watched in disbelief as 740,000 Rohingya Muslims fled into neighboring Bangladesh to escape Myanmar military’s genocidal atrocities–while the Nobel peace laureate leader remained silent.
The military legitimizes the year-long Internet blackout (longest in the world) in Rakhine and Chin states, the media office closures as pandemic prevention. Yanghee Lee, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar’s human rights situation, offered a scathing review of Myanmar’s human rights violations as “war crimes and crimes against humanity” affecting over 150,000 mostly ethnic Rakhine people, hampering humanitarian efforts and independent monitoring.
The recent country report A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar’s Weaponization of Covid-19 by Progressive Voice (which Ohmar founded and now chairs) outlines Tatmadaw–the Myanmar armed forces–tactics of using the pandemic “to terrorize civilians in conflict areas and silence critics to ensure its long-term vision for a Bamar-Buddhist hegemony” with NLD standing as a “silent partner.”
“The civil society is very concerned about the upcoming rainy season–amidst a man-made climate change created by years of sell-out deforestation by the military,” says Ohmar. “The coming months can see an unstoppable pandemic outbreak–as Buddhist communities continue to hold large gatherings, while tens of thousands of migrant workers returning home are quarantined in local monasteries and schools lacking appropriate conditions.”
Myanmar’s Tumultuous History
Following its independence from the British in 1948, Myanmar’s democracy was upended with the 1962 coup by Burma Socialist Programme Party military. Successive military juntas ruled Burma until 2010, when a general election installed a symbolic civilian government–out-ruled by the military regime.
As a 20-year-old senior at Rangoon Arts and Science University, Ohmar joined the organizing of “8888 Uprising” –the August 8, 1988 nationwide pro-democracy protests. With the military crackdown–shutting universities and unleashing mass arrests–Ohmar escaped to the Thai-Burmese border to join the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) revolutionary student army. Leaving ABSDF soon after joining, she became a U.S. political refugee, graduated from Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts, worked with Refugees International in Washington, DC. to internationalize Myanmar’s atrocities, and testified before the U.S. Congress and UN human rights bodies.
Returning to the Thailand/Burma border, Ohmar continued to campaign for Burma’s democracy. As a founding member of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), advancing women’s status toward a peaceful, just and democratic union of Burma, she coordinated WLB’s Women Peacebuilding Program and formed Burma Partnership regional campaign network, and Progressive Voice. Ohmar holds the American University’s Capital Area Peace Maker Award, Refugee Leader of Promise Award (Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children), the Anna Lindh Award, Global Leadership Award for Human Rights (Vital Voices), and the International Young Women’s Peace Award (Democracy Today).
After Myanmar’s semi-opening to the world in 2011, Ohmar, no longer blacklisted, returned home. She was under ceaseless surveillance. When she called for an investigation into the 2015 rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers, the military came looking for her. She narrowly escaped arrest and now lives in exile.
“The grave mistake Aung San Suu Kyi made in 2015 was caving in to the ultra-nationalist groups’ demands and expelled thousands of Muslim members of her party who had stood with her against the brutal regime. She failed to hold the torch of moral leadership and responsibility to ensure equality and unity in diversity toward our multi-national country,” Ohmar is disappointed that for the first time in Burma’s history there are no Muslim parliamentarians.
But anti-Muslim campaigns in Burma date back to the 1962 coup, when military commander Ne Win gradually excluded Muslims from all government sectors. In 1992, the Rohingya’s were pushed out, their citizenship stripped–and allowed back only after UNHCR’s intervention. Their promised citizenship was never granted.
“With the UN investigators blocked out, I’m gravely concerned. It’s my priority to ensure that the international community remains vigilant on Myanmar. The government lacks political will to protect the Rohingya,” Ohmar continues to monitor military abuses against the civilians. “Amidst the pandemic, I continue my online advocacy to keep the international momentum and to hold Myanmar accountable for grave international crimes, either through a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal.”
The interview was conducted following Ohmar’s “A Day in the Life of Women Peace Builders in Time of Covid-19” testimony, submitted to Armenia-based Democracy Today NGO.