Flying blind: Myanmar in the Covid-19 crisis

Commentary With low testing rates, but rising numbers of infections, Myanmar’s government is virtually flying blind trying to get on top of Covid-19 with a lockdown. The collapse of clothing exports to Europe has led to a sharp rise in unemployment, while armed conflicts continue, mostly in Rakhine State, and critical coverage of it has become a criminal offence.

Lockdown in Yangon

Myanmar is flying blind through the Covid-19 crisis. With little testing, official patient numbers are still very low (151 as at 01/05/2020, with only about 8,000 tests in total), but actual figures could be far higher. At the time of writing, it is anybody’s guess whether Myanmar will be able to get the pandemic under control for the time being, as per the pattern of some other Southeast Asian countries, or is facing a dramatic escalation.

After initial hesitation and certain amount of grossly misleading communication [1], the government has responded to the situation: it was quick to close the long land border with China and to announce the cancellation of the public events to mark the Buddhist New Year Festival, Thingyan (13 – 16/04) this year. Wide-reaching travel restrictions have been in place since mid-March and there has been a country-wide lockdown, with major restrictions on the freedom of movement, since 10 April. In Yangon, streets, apartment blocks and hotels where there have been confirmed cases have been closed off and a general curfew is in place from 10 p.m. every night. Tens of thousands of labour migrants returning to Myanmar from neighbouring countries for the Thingyan celebrations are forced to spend several weeks in the quarantine stations that have been set up along the border and throughout the country by local authorities.[2] All these measures are an expression of a determination to take action, but also of helplessness against the crisis: some measures appear insufficient, others erratic and harsh. As far as it is possible to tell at the moment, the information on Covid-19 cases is at least not being understated by the state institutions (with the possible exception of the military, which remains a black box in this and so many other matters). 

It was reported a few weeks ago that there were only around 200 ventilators available in the entire country. In its most recent comparative ranking from the year 2000, the World Health Organisation confirmed that Myanmar had the worst health care system in the world (190th place out of 190). The situation has improved since then, but when compared to other Southeast Asian countries, the country is still very poorly equipped. Its capacity to deal with the pandemic is therefore likewise limited. Those who can afford to do so usually travel to Bangkok for the treatment of any health issues other than trivial ones, which is no longer an option at the moment because of the travel restrictions in place. Two hospitals in Yangon, which are usually used primarily by expatriates and the local middle classes, ceased to be fully functional as early as the beginning of April, as a result of quarantine measures following infection cases.

Lockdown and economic consequences

In the current lockdown, state and private institutions in some areas are providing food aid. The government has provided limited financial assistance (around US$72 million) to businesses, but this is focused only on the short term; larger financial relief measures are under preparation. In a local tradition dating back to the time of military rule, state benefits are paid partly out of donations given by businesses and individuals.[3] 
In Myanmar, as in other countries with widespread poverty and a large informal sector, such as India, there is a degree of criticism over the appropriateness of the hard lockdown strategy currently being pursued: the poorer groups in the population with no financial backup see their current loss of income as a much more serious matter in the short term than the general risk to their health. Furthermore, a strategy of “flattening the curve” makes less sense in a country with a weak healthcare system, in which many poor people had virtually no access to qualified services even before the crisis, than it does in Europe. But these doubts and criticisms have not so far been broadly debated in Myanmar, and there have been hardly any visible protests against lockdown – even though, realistically, it has been breached countless times already.

Right from February/March 2020, the border closures had a negative effect on trade with China, particularly for agricultural goods (e.g. watermelons), but also on inputs for the garment industry. Demand from the West has now collapsed in this sector, which has led to factory closures, redundancies and bitter industrial conflicts. Workers in this industry (80-90% of whom are women) protested in favour of receiving continued wages payments, while the government is pursuing a difficult balancing act, attempting to encourage businesses firstly to cooperate with measures to support public health (including staggered business shut-downs) and, secondly, to put social safeguards in place for their workers. The European Union, which has been threatening for more than a year to remove the country’s trade preferences under the Everything But Arms initiative because of the severe breaches of human rights in Rakhine State and other parts of the country, has approved an emergency programme with funding to pay the rent and wages of those who have lost their jobs in the clothing industry.[4]

A battle for legitimacy

The government’s Covid-19 policy has not thus far been seriously called into question. The civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is setting an encouraging example with hand washing videos (but not before she had to quash rumours that she had had to be tested for Covid-19). So far, the administration, which was in any case only partly controlled by the elected government, has put up a good enough show that there has not yet been any public power shift to the military. It is sometimes assumed that in the event of crisis, the military could act more efficiently than the apparatus of the state, but it has not so far had the means or opportunity to really prove this. Day to day, the military remains invisible, at least in Yangon. 

However, the political significance of the military in a crisis management context should not be underestimated. The Ministry of the Interior is directly controlled by the military which also plays a leading role in the task force set in place to tackle the pandemic.[5] In the event of a worsening of the epidemiological situation, this tendency could accelerate further. 

The Covid-19 crisis has, more or less tacitly, ramped up the battle between the two centres of power in the country – the elected government and the military – for political legitimacy, especially among the core ethnic Burmese populace.

Warfare and restrictions of press freedom 

Meanwhile, however, the Myanmar military continues its war against armed ethnic organisations, particularly in the north of Rakhine State (where they clearly do so with the express agreement of the civil government under Aung San Suu Kyi). There, they are fighting the Arakan Army (AA), the armed organisation of the ethnic Buddhist Rakhine population, who are fighting for the autonomy of the central state. This is currently the area with the highest intensity of conflict in the country; there is daily fighting and the population of entire areas have been cut off from Internet access for months. The Myanmar army has rejected the general ceasefire on the grounds of the COVID-19 situation offered by some of the other armed ethnic organisations.

In the shadow of the pandemic, the government continues to act aggressively against the media and civil society forces, particularly those with political links to the AA, arresting journalists simply for conducting interviews with representatives of the AA. The legal basis for this lies in the fact that the AA was listed as a “terrorist organisation” on 23 March – a classification not used against other armed ethnic organisations, which considerably restricts the space for any political negotiations.

During the usual Thingyan amnesty, 25,000 prisoners were released, but these did not include recent political prisoners, incarcerated for the satirical “defamation” of the military.

Although the country is in lockdown, Myanmar has not even pressed pause on its conflicts.

The article has first been published on www.boell.de in German. Translation by Alison Frankland.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/myanmar-has-zero-coronavirus-cases-claims-leader-suu-kyi
[2] Current data on this and other aspects of the crisis, based on government figures, are reliably available on the “surveillance dashboard” for Myanmar, https://datastudio.google.com/u/0/reporting/445c1281-c6ea-45e4-9bc0-5d561c511354/page/I44CB
[3] https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/covid-19-could-leave-myanmars-economy-in-ruins/
[4] https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/myanmar-burma/77355/covid-19-rapid-response-eu-creates-%E2%82%AC5-million-emergency-fund-myanmar-garment-workers_en
[5] This was predicted in early April by the renowned observer of Myanmar, Bertil Lintner, in https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/covid-19-restores-myanmar-militarys-lost-powers/