Khin Ohmar, Chairperson of Progressive Voice the group behind the report said the army and government used the pandemic to distract attention away from ongoing offensives in ethnic regions. “The Myanmar military is making a mockery of the government’s ‘no one left behind’ policy. It is using COVID-19 as a cover in its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic areas, particularly in Rakhine where hundreds have been tortured and killed.”
Ms Ohmar said the government’s response to the pandemic was a nothing more than a charade.
“Without the military committing to end its attacks against ethnic communities, the government’s claimed comprehensive pandemic response is impossible to implement on the ground.”
The report – A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar weaponization of Covid-19 – was launched on June 2, 2020 by Progressive Voice – a rights-based policy research and advocacy group, highlights how the military is using the pandemic to intensify its repression of ethnic communities, rights defenders and the media, while also taking advantage of the situation for its political gain.
The report claims the National League for Democracy (NLD) government has endorsed, and is party to the COVID-19 pandemic been ‘weaponized’ by the military for its political benefit.
The report released, organization also call for the halt to all violence against ethnic nationalities and declare and implement an immediate, meaningful and comprehensive nationwide ceasefire.
The report is based on a comprehensive review of reports and statements from media, civil society, government and ethnic armed organizations’ (EAOs’) made between 23 March to 10 May, 2020. The project involved collecting information on and analyzing the government and EAOs’ COVID-19 response strategies, the intensifying civil war, and the diminishing tolerance for dissent during the pandemic as well as the impact of the highly centralized aid and funding structures in Burma.
The report highlighted the increase offensives against the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin States by the Burma military since the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the country. The report explained the Burma Army “seized an opportunity to intensify its violence rather than protect the remaining Rohingya, with Rakhine and Chin people now bearing the brunt.”
The report pointed out that in addition to intensifying armed conflict in western Burma, the Burma Army is actively undermining COVID-19 prevention efforts by EAOs in the country’s East. This included burning two Karen National Union COVID-19 screening posts, attacks on Restoration Council of Shan State health workers, who were raising community awareness and running temperature checks in Shan State.
The report pointed out regional communities in Burma are discriminated against as existing government health and humanitarian aid provision structures in the country are highly centralized, excluding the most vulnerable ethnic populations who live in remote, conflict-affected ethnic regions. Progressive Voice’s report allege international COVID-19-related aid is distributed through these centralized structures, rather than going directly to ethnic health providers and ethnic community-based organizations and is unlikely to reach those who need it the most.
Ms Ohmar said this discrimination is destructive. “The NLD government’s announced the formation of a coordinating committee to cooperate with EAOs to prevent the spread of the virus, in reality ethnic health services are being undermined and actively destroyed. It is imperative that no restrictions are placed on the provision of health services by local actors, and that humanitarian aid reaches them directly.”
The report accuses the political parties are using the pandemic to bolster their profile before the 2020 elections. “The NLD government and other political parties—particularly those allied with the military—are using this pandemic as an opportunity to project an image as benevolent protectors of the people. Likely with an eye toward the upcoming national elections, much of the coronavirus-related activity, such as the distribution of masks, is well branded, accompanied by flashy logos and ample social media promotion.”
Ms Ohmar said the military has continued its war on ethnic people despite the COVID-19 pandemic. “If the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide of which the Myanmar state stands accused had not already made apparent the military’s intentions toward its own people, the air strikes, artillery shelling, arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings during COVID-19 has,”
Ms Ohmar stressed the importance of making the military face justice. “Myanmar must be held accountable for these grave international crimes, either through a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal,” she added.
The report demanded the government end restrictions on humanitarian aid and necessary COVID-19 response assistance to all ethnic areas and immediately cease all threats against and obstruction of efforts being made by EAOs to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It also called on the government and military to recognize the importance of the role of ethnic health organizations (EHO) and to provide financial and material resources in line with federal democratic principles.