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In Myanmar, the Coronavirus Gives Nationalists an Opening

In its delayed response to the pandemic, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government prioritizes the country’s ethnic majority.

By , a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
Firefighters spray disinfectant in Yangon, Myanmar.
Firefighters spray disinfectant as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 21. SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty Images

In Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, a short-lived street mural this month showed health care workers fighting to save the planet from a virus cast by death personified. It featured a Myanmar flag and a call for unity amid the coronavirus pandemic: “Stay at home, save lives,” it said. “We fight together.”

In Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, a short-lived street mural this month showed health care workers fighting to save the planet from a virus cast by death personified. It featured a Myanmar flag and a call for unity amid the coronavirus pandemic: “Stay at home, save lives,” it said. “We fight together.”

Before it was painted over, the mural was intended to raise awareness about COVID-19. Instead, its creators were charged in a case that is emblematic of Myanmar’s inadequate response to the pandemic. The three artists who painted the mural were accused of blasphemy after Buddhist nationalists complained that Death’s robe resembled that of a monk. The arbitrary censorship mirrored larger trends. Slow to acknowledge the coronavirus crisis, Myanmar authorities and leaders are instead stoking nationalism, a trend that both undermines public health efforts and puts vulnerable ethnic groups at risk.

Largely due to lack of testing, it wasn’t until March 23 that Myanmar confirmed its first case of the coronavirus: a Myanmar citizen living in the United States who had recently returned for a wedding. The announcement brought an end to weeks of government bragging about Myanmar’s supposed lack of cases. Nearly two weeks later, the doctor who examined the first patient revealed that no one who had come into contact with him was tested. Health officials then scrambled to administer tests and found that the patient’s mother and a few other contacts were also infected.

When testing was moderately expanded in April, there was a correlating surge in confirmed coronavirus cases. In five days, the number of confirmed cases jumped from 27 to 85. As of May 1, Myanmar has still only administered around 8,300 tests. It has confirmed 150 cases and six deaths.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

That Myanmar would be hit by the coronavirus was inevitable—but the government did not take action quickly. The country shares a nearly 1,400-mile border with China, with an estimated 10,000 migrant workers crossing on a daily basis until late January. Direct flights traveled from the coronavirus’s initial epicenter in Wuhan, China, to Myanmar’s three international airports on a weekly basis before they were suspended that month. Over 320,000 Chinese tourists visited Myanmar in 2019.

Despite the transport links and high risk, the government didn’t acknowledge that Myanmar’s lack of confirmed cases was likely due to a lack of testing. Officials instead came up with explanations that would make epidemiologists shudder. On March 14, government spokesperson Zaw Htay said that “lifestyle and diet” protected Myanmar citizens from the infection, alluding to the nationalist perception of the country as rooted in tradition. He also claimed that limited credit card usage in the country stopped the virus from spreading.

Myanmar has two national-level COVID-19 response committees, one led by the civilian government and one with significant military representation. Community quarantines were established in areas with returning migrant workers, but they are often run by locals with little government support. Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, imposed a lockdown during the Thingyan holiday from April 10 to April 19, which prevented people from gathering in large numbers to celebrate. During that time, the number of cases roughly quadrupled, with the majority in Yangon. Restrictions remain in 10 neighborhoods, but they are poorly enforced at the community level.

Meanwhile, Buddhist monks have rained down prayers from an airplane, and Investment Minister Thaung Tun has touted Myanmar’s “whole of nation” approach—as if social distancing and quarantines were a strategy unique to Myanmar. As is often the case in Myanmar, the “nation” doesn’t seem to extend beyond the ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority. Diagnostic testing for the virus is only available in Yangon, a relatively wealthy, Bamar-majority city, with swab samples transported from other parts of the country. And as the government distributes food aid in Yangon to cope with the economic effects of lockdown, the military continues to wage war in ethnic minority states, devastating communities trying to prepare for a potential outbreak.

Fighting continues in Karen, Shan, Rakhine, and Chin states despite domestic and international calls for a cease-fire, which Myanmar’s military has rejected. Thousands of people have been displaced by the conflicts. Human Rights Watch warned in March that overcrowded displaced persons camps are “tinderboxes” for disease. Fighting is most severe in Rakhine and Chin states, where internet blackouts and media shutdowns have cut civilians off from vital information about the coronavirus. On April 20, a World Health Organization staffer was shot and killed while transporting test swabs from Rakhine state to Yangon. Both the Myanmar military and the rebel Arakan Army blamed each other for the attack.

While government officials speak of unity and protecting Myanmar’s people, ethnic minorities face the familiar experience of being ignored or having their own preparations undermined.

“All these actions by the government and military show a glaring double standard,” the Karen Peace Support Network said in a statement earlier this month. Community-led preparations in Karen state are supported by a local armed group, the Karen National Union, and are opposed by the military because of the group’s involvement, according to the Karen activist Wahkushee Tenner. Tenner told Foreign Policy that should a widespread outbreak occur in Karen state, there would be a humanitarian crisis due to the lack of testing and shortages of personal protective equipment. “Death rates would be very high,” she said. People in Shan state also report that civilians there were threatened with arrest if they accepted equipment from the local armed group.

Myanmar’s health care system has been delusionally irresponsible. Even in developed areas, such as Yangon, health care is poor. Hospitals were almost at capacity before the coronavirus outbreak. The World Bank estimated in March that Myanmar only has 249 ventilators, though more are being donated. But on March 14, the Ministry of Health and Sports announced its goal was “to prevent a single citizen from contracting COVID-19 and for a zero-mortality rate.” A doctor told the New York Times that Myanmar was lucky to be Buddhist and was protected by monks’ prayers. The health ministry appeared unprepared to accept that coronavirus could already have been in the country, as some epidemiologists theorized. In late March, the government at last said that any symptomatic patients should be tested—not just those with recent travel history—but it had already lost valuable time.

Responding to a crisis with a mixture of denial and fervent nationalism is not a new strategy in Myanmar. It resembles the Rohingya crisis in 2017, when Myanmar carried out a campaign of mass atrocities against the country’s Muslim minority. During and after the crackdown, the government refused to acknowledge direct evidence of military killings, and those who questioned the official version of events faced public criticism.

Social media became a fertile ground for ultranationalists to spread dangerous hate speech and conspiracy theories around the Rohingya. It has shown flashes of the same during the coronavirus crisis. For example, when the British Embassy urged citizens to leave Myanmar because the health care system wasn’t able to handle a large outbreak, the Facebook post went viral among an army of nationalist zealots. One user suggested that people in Myanmar have particularly strong immune systems, and another urged Myanmar citizens to avoid British citizens. Even Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations got involved, tweeting that nobody should “smear” Myanmar when it did not have any confirmed coronavirus cases.

John Quinley, a senior human rights specialist with the organization Fortify Rights, said that Myanmar’s government must not “use nationalist rhetoric as a pretext for exclusion” and called the charges against the artists in Kachin state “outrageous.” “Any national action plan for COVID-19 must include everyone without discrimination,” he said in an email.

But the government has shown no indication of inclusivity. A state that engages in ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation cannot be trusted to protect ethnic minorities from a pandemic. Even more grimly, the coronavirus crisis could represent an opportunity for Myanmar’s ruthless military. If the coronavirus were to weaken ethnic-minority regions, it would aid the military’s quest to wrest control from local armed groups—which still seems to be its main priority even amid the pandemic.

Andrew Nachemson is a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
 Twitter: @ANachemson

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