Struggling to Live, Struggling to Die

July 23rd, 2021  •  Author:  •  9 minute read
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“With the impact of the junta’s coup that led to the collapse of the health system and the junta’s use of a deadly pandemic to control and punish, Myanmar’s people desperately need urgent help.”

Myanmar is descending into COVID-hell, as the junta callously weaponizes oxygen and medical treatment as a collective punishment on a population resolutely refusing to lie down under military boots. The population is struggling to breathe, and any gasp of air, any attempts to survive, or even attempts to move to the next life, are being strangled by the cruel restrictions on almost every aspect of life.

This is the third wave of COVID-19 in Myanmar since the pandemic spread throughout the world in early 2020. It is by far the worst. Actual numbers are hard to come by, but the figure of 165 deaths reported by a junta spokesperson on Thursday 15 July is a gross misrepresentation. The hundreds of bodies piling up at crematoriums, people dying on the steps of hospitals which are already full, dying at home with no one to help them, found by neighbours days later, and the lines of desperate people queuing to get access to minimal supplies of oxygen, sometimes being shot at by the junta, are indicative of numbers of deaths well into the thousands each day.

The blame for this crisis lies firmly on the shoulders of the Myanmar military, whose unlawful coup attempt on February 1st has destroyed the already fragile and underfunded public healthcare system. Striking medical workers have had to go into hiding, hospitals are short staffed, doctors are in prison or killed. They still practice, but unofficially, privately attending to patients at their homes while trying to go under the radar of retaliatory attacks and arrests by the junta which are continuing today. Shockingly and cruelly, in Yangon on 19 July, the junta resorted to calling a community organization of local healthcare workers, pretending to be civilians in need and asking them to come to a private home to treat someone for COVID. Upon arrival junta troops arrested the three medical workers, and subsequently raided their office, arresting two more doctors and confiscating their oxygen. Furthermore, oxygen supplies are now not allowed to be sold privately without recommendation letters from the military authorities and local healthcare professionals. The military has decreed that only it can procure and sell oxygen in a vain and cynical attempt to wrest control of essential state services that it has, until now not been able to control the governance of due to public defiance against the attempted coup. It is also sequestering oxygen supplies for its own use, and to hell with the people who need it. The Commander-in-chief of the military and leader of the junta, Min Aung Hlaing, has even had the temerity to blame the Myanmar people for hoarding oxygen, claiming that there is enough in the country and people are using it for political gain, all the while weaponizing the crisis and the essential, life-giving air as a form of collective punishment.

This wave of COVID-19 is punishing a population already under the greatest strain. Bit by bit the junta is attempting to restrict, deny and destroy all fundamental freedoms. For example, junta authorities in Yangon have ordered local ward and township administrators to carry out household inspections for overnight guests. This is based on a law that was reintroduced after the junta’s attempted coup in February, requiring reporting and registration at local authorities’ offices for any person spending the night. This is a clear imposition on freedom of movement and a demonstration that the junta prioritizes seeking out and arresting members of the opposition over helping people dying from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Another closing down of space is the cybersphere. The ability for activists, members of the strikes committees, human rights defenders, and participants in the civil disobedience movement to organize through digital technologies is being targeted by the junta through surveillance programmes. Telenor of Norway, a hugely popular telecommunications network in the country is selling its Myanmar business to the M1 Group, a holding company of Lebanese oligarchs, the Mikatis family. M1 Group has long-standing ties with dictatorships around the world, has been embroiled in corruption scandals, and has an established relationship with the Myanmar military through the military-owned telecommunications network, Mytel. Prior to the sale, the junta had ordered all telecommunications companies in the country to implement spyware technology that would allow the junta to intercept calls, messages, web traffic and to track users, a source told a Reuters investigation. As investigative work by the non-profit organization, Lighthouse, has shown, prior to the coup, the Myanmar military had been hiring companies based in the EU for their spyware capabilities. Now, with all telecommunications companies to be owned by either the military or private companies friendly with authoritarian regimes, the mass digital surveillance that the junta wants to implement faces no more stumbling blocks. As activist group Justice For Myanmar put it, “The military’s surveillance will be enabled by the Mikatis’ takeover of Telenor, putting the lives of activists, journalists and anyone opposed to the military junta at greater risk.” As urged by civil society, it is essential that Telenor and the Norweigian government cancel this sale to the M1 Group and conduct thorough due diligence on the human rights impacts of any sale in the future, and consult with Myanmar civil society on any disengagement plans.

Curfews, guest registrations, online surveillance, arrests and violent attacks is the context that COVID-19 is ravaging throughout the country. This double, triple whammy is having huge impacts on not just public health but the people’s anti-junta movement for democracy. Those at risk also include the activists, human rights defenders, politicians and members and supporters of the CDM who are in hiding and evading arrest, perhaps many in the same place, who may contract the virus but cannot access medical treatment or oxygen. Already marginalized ethnic minority communities living in armed conflict-affected areas or in displaced persons camps, are at an extremely high risk. The junta is actively making the situation worse, deliberately destroying local agencies and efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19 in ethnic areas. Yet despite this, the defiance of the Spring Revolution continues to be seen and heard as seen in the women’s marches in Yangon, Monywa and Mandalay this past week.

There is an urgent need for humanitarian aid and to combat the COVID-19 catastrophe. With the impact of the junta’s coup that led to the collapse of the health system and the junta’s use of a deadly pandemic to control and punish, Myanmar’s people desperately need urgent help. It is unlikely that the junta, which has been hoarding oxygen tanks, targeting medical workers and weaponizing COVID-19 for their own political gain will be genuine partners in providing a solution to this nightmare. Rather, emergency humanitarian aid and COVID-19 response efforts must be directed from international organizations and donors through organizations affiliated with the National Unity Government and the Civil Disobedience Movement, local civil society organizations, ethnic service providers, and networks of self-help and charity groups that have been established around the country. Not only do they have the legitimacy, but they are best equipped and have the capacity to help the embattled population. Given the failures of the international response and various constraints in developing coordinated action, providing much-need resources should be the low-hanging fruit. The people of Myanmar are being choked by the junta and COVID-19. They need to breathe.

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[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

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar civil society calls on Telenor and the Norwegian government to cancel sale of Myanmar business to M1 Group

By 464 Civil Society Organizations

တယ်လီနောကုမ္ပဏီပိုင် မြန်မာနိုင်ငံရှိ လုပ်ငန်းများအား M1 Group သို့ ရောင်းချသွားခြင်းအား ပယ်ဖျက်ပေးပါရန် နော်ဝေအစိုးရနှင့် တယ်လီနောကုမ္ပဏီကို တောင်းဆိုခြင်း

By 464 Civil Society Organizations

ကိုဗစ်-၁၉ ရောဂါပိုး ပြန့်ပွားနေသည့် အခြေအနေနှင့်ပတ်သက်၍ ဗကသများအဖွဲ့ချုပ်၏ သဘောထား ထုတ်ပြန်ကြေညာချက် – ကြေညာချက်အမှတ် ၈ / ၂၀၂၁

By All Burma Federation of Student Unions

Situation Update on 30 June Prison Releases

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

BROUK Welcomes British Parliament Report Calling for End of Myanmar Military’s Impunity

By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK

“Hate speech” committee threatens more censorship

By Free Expression Myanmar

Japan: Stop Real Estate Project in Myanmar

By Human Rights Watch

Ministry of Human Rights Statement on Covid-19 Response

By Ministry of Human Rights, National Unity Government

Urgent Request for Humanitarian Assistance for the People of Myanmar during the Escalating COVID-19 Crisis

By National Unity Government

Severe Admonishment of the Terrorist Military Council for the Deaths of Inmates in Prisons As A Result of Contracting COVID-19 Disease

By National Unity Government

Myanmar crisis risks damaging entire generation of children, UN Child Rights Committee warns

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Myanmar: UN expert warns of “perfect storm” over COVID, calls for urgent international help

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

သျှမ်းပြည်လွတ်မြောက်ရေးပါတီ/သျှမ်းပြည်ဖယ်ဒရယ်တပ်ဦး ၏ ကြေညာချက် (၃/သဖတ/၂၀၂၁)

By Shan State Front for Federal

The People of Myanmar Need Urgent Assistance As the Junta Weaponises the COVID-19 Crisis

By Special Advisory Council for Myanmar

reports

Reports

Emergency Release: COVID-19 in Burma’s Prison

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

“ဖိနှိပ်ထားသော်လည်း မာန်မချသည့် အာဂအမျိုးသမီးများ” အာဏာသိမ်း အကြမ်းဖက် စစ်ကောင်စီထိန်းချုပ်မှုအောက် ဧပြီမှ ဇွန်လ ၃ လတာ ကာလအတွင်း မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ အမျိုးသမီးများအခြေအနေ သုံးသပ်ချက်

By Burmese Women’s Union

The UK Government’s Response to the Myanmar Crisis: Fourth Report of Session 2021–22

By House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, United Kingdom

MYANMAR – Humanitarian Snapshot (July 2021)

By United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs


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.”

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