Silent streets for water festival in Myanmar lockdown

A nearly empty street in Yangon on the first day of Myanmar's New Year water festival, on April 12, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's New Year festival of Thingyan is the country's biggest public holiday - normally a week of nationwide celebration and water-fights, with soaked revellers partying late into the night.

But this year, in an echo of cancelled Easter celebrations elsewhere in the world, the country's commercial hub Yangon is locked down, with residents confined indoors because of the coronavirus.

Food delivery bicycles and rickshaws have commandeered the city's usually traffic-choked streets after the government ordered people to stay home unless for essential food and healthcare needs.

By Sunday (April 12), Myanmar officially had just 38 confirmed cases - including three deaths - but many fear the low number of tests mean the real figures are likely many times higher.

Images from last year's holiday show a different city, hoses drenching cheering crowds dancing to deafening techno beats pumped out from mammoth loudspeakers.

This year, the silence is broken only by the cawing of crows and cooing of pigeons, and the motor of an occasional taxi searching for custom.

"Thingyan's in the heart of every Myanmar person," a sad Soe Moe Aung, 36, told AFP.

Both the public holiday and lockdown is due to end next Sunday, but efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus could be extended.

Yangon-based public health expert Dr Frank Smithius warns any sustained lockdown would be "devastating" for Myanmar - and other under-developed countries in the region - where many live hand-to-mouth.

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