Covid-19 Special: News analysis

Myanmar's unity on virus fight fast losing steam

For a country with over a dozen rebel armies like Myanmar, the coronavirus pandemic offers a rare chance to find common ground. That possibility is now dimming amid allegations of political opportunism by key powers.

Myanmar yesterday recorded a total of 181 cases of Covid-19 infections, with many of the infections clustered around the biggest city of Yangon.

Despite considerable efforts to quarantine jobless migrant workers streaming home from neighbouring Thailand and China, much less is known of the health condition of communities in remote border areas controlled by Myanmar's ethnic armed groups.

Government peace negotiators appeared to try for a more unified approach when they revealed last week that they had reached out to even the Arakan Army (AA) to join its "no one left behind" campaign against the virus.

It raised eyebrows. The ethnic Rakhine armed group, fighting a bitter war against Myanmar's military in Rakhine and Chin states, was just two months ago officially declared a "terrorist group". Myanmar-based journalists have been prosecuted for interviewing AA leaders.

But the civilian government's overture was effectively nullified by the military's May 10 declaration of a nationwide ceasefire which excluded areas where "terrorist groups declared by the government take positions".

"The peace commission is saying one thing, but the Tatmadaw is rolling out universal ceasefire except in areas where Arakan Army operates. It's going to be status quo," said Mr Sai Wansai, an ethnic Shan political commentator, referring to the Myanmar military by its local name. "Nothing changes."

The AA was scathing in its reply to the Tatmadaw. "The hidden agenda of (the military's) statement is to launch the full-scale war targeting and focusing only on the Arakan Army and the people of Arakan," it said in a press statement. Arakan is the former name of Rakhine.

On the same day that the Myanmar army declared its conditional ceasefire, its commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing met officials from the United Wa State Army and National Democratic Alliance Army, presenting them with personal protective equipment, masks, gloves, infra-red thermometers and foodstuff to aid their Covid-19 containment campaign.

Analysts noted that these two armies, which control territories bordering China, were ironically among the richest ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. Neither of them is a signatory to the 2015 nationwide ceasefire signed by eight ethnic armed groups.

Peace talks to widen this deal to include more groups have stalled. Yangon-based political analyst Yan Myo Thein said: "Trust building is quite important. We cannot use a 'divide and rule' with the ethnic armed groups."

Deep mistrust currently poisons any attempt to shape a nationwide response to the pandemic. In the weeks leading up to the military's declaration of the conditional ceasefire, the Myanmar military appeared adamant that ethnic armed groups not make political or strategic capital from their pandemic containment efforts. This applied even to groups that had signed the 2015 ceasefire deal.

Deep mistrust currently poisons any attempt to shape a nationwide response to the pandemic.

According to Shan Herald Agency for News, the Myanmar military on April 12 clashed briefly with troops from the Restoration Council of Shan State, which says it was trying to perform medical checks and share coronavirus prevention information with villagers. Last week, a Karen media group alleged that the military destroyed two Covid-19 screening posts set up by the Karen National Union.

Meanwhile, as Myanmar counts down to its next general election scheduled for November, the Tatmadaw has been busy putting its own anti-Covid-19 efforts in the spotlight.

"If you look at the website of the commander-in-chief, it's full of what they are doing for Covid-19 all over the country. It's like a campaign," said Mr Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a think-tank.

Conferred de facto autonomy by the Myanmar Constitution, the Tatmadaw has long competed for political legitimacy with the National League for Democracy-led government.

Still, as the pandemic draws on, exacting an ever larger toll on health and economy - including more than 6,000 jobs lost in the Yangon region - some remain upbeat about the possibility of rival parties joining hands.

"It's a ray of hope," said Mr Khin Zaw Win. "Let's hope that people have enough sense to expand this towards cooperation for peace."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2020, with the headline 'Myanmar's unity on virus fight fast losing steam'. Print Edition | Subscribe