Commentary

COVID-19 Unmasks Myanmar Regime’s Callousness and Incompetence

By DAKKHA 2 August 2021

Thanks to coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, thousands of Myanmar people have died and many more are dying of COVID-19 each day as the country marks six months of military rule; the grim milestone was reached on Sunday.

The coupmaker’s activities over the past five months have borne all the hallmarks of a regime leader clinging to power, whatever the cost to the country and its people. The first four months of the takeover saw bloody crackdowns and mass detentions of protesters that resulted in 840 deaths and 5,554 arrests by May 31. At the same time, a deadly civilian armed resistance emerged upcountry and in some ethnic areas, and guerrilla-style attacks erupted in urban areas. Both have inflicted serious casualties on the regime, forcing Min Aung Hlaing to admit that he has yet to bring the country fully under his control, after his coup left it shattered across all sectors. Then came the third wave of COVID-19, which has fully unmasked the regime’s incompetence, mismanagement and lack of vision.

Coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing

The latest wave of COVID-19 has brought Myanmar to its knees. By the time the new, more contagious variants of the virus started to hit the country in late June, Myanmar’s health system had already collapsed due to the regime’s crackdowns on striking health workers. Officially, in July alone 6,000 people died, making it the deadliest month so far. On Saturday, Myanmar’s official data showed another 392 deaths and 4,725 new infections. According to Our World In Data, a project based at Oxford University, the country’s seven-day rolling average of deaths per 1 million people rose to 6.77 on that day, surpassing those of Indonesia and Malaysia to become the highest in the region. The July death toll is widely believed to exclude the many people who died gasping for breath in their homes, without oxygen. Congratulations, senior general!

Better days

When Myanmar experienced the first and second waves of COVID-19 under the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy government prior to February this year, cooperation between the government and the people in response to the disease was excellent.

In government hospitals, beds were reserved, oxygen cylinders were ready and ICUs were upgraded to treat critical COVID patients. Doctors and nurses declined to return to their homes, working long shifts as patients with COVID-19 symptoms streamed into emergency departments. As the number of infections grew, well-wishers rushed in and improvised COVID-19 centers, and field hospitals mushroomed. On national TV, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi soothed her fellow citizens with assurances that the government “would take absolute care of people’s health.” Unsurprisingly, no one was turned away from hospitals.

A man carries an oxygen cylinder after spending hours at a refilling station due to the regime’s restrictions in July. / The Irrawaddy

Witnessing all this before the coup, many in the country at the time couldn’t help wondering, “How would the previous military regime or their proxy governments have handled the crisis if they were still in power?”

They unanimously came to the conclusion that it would be a nightmare and the whole country would be suffering a serious public health disaster with mounting deaths. Their lifelong experience of living under military rule and the quasi-civilian government until early 2016 had enlightened them that the men in uniform and their associates are an entirely self-centered breed devoid of benevolence. Seeing the democratically elected government’s relentless effort to fight against the deadly disease, the people heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Nightmare scenario

However, this sense of reassurance was shattered on a February morning by the coup. Five months after the takeover, the public’s COVID nightmare scenario became a reality in July. The whole country was shocked to see images of coronavirus victims’ bodies lined up head to toe at crematoriums in Yangon, the country’s COVID hotspot. Even the city’s oldest residents said the scenes were unprecedented. True to form as a breed of soldiers who know nothing about how to run a country properly—or perhaps because they were unwilling to help—rather than trying to prevent deaths from COVID-19, the regime ordered that more crematoriums be built. Unsurprisingly, the people are showering Min Aung Hlaing with the curses he deserves.

Across the country, people frantically hunt for oxygen, a lifeline for their family members with COVID-19, as the regime has restricted the supply, claiming the measure is needed to prevent hoarding. On Myanmar’s most popular social media platform, Facebook, people desperately beg for oxygen cylinders for their loved ones who have resorted to home treatment after being turned away by overwhelmed and understaffed hospitals. Heartbreaking posts appear, such as, “I no longer need it… Mom has just passed away. Thank you all who helped.”

The blame for every life lost during the third wave of COVID-19 lies squarely with Min Aung Hlaing, as he simply failed to take serious measures to prevent such an outbreak, or to prepare for its arrival.

Undaunted by the daily increase in confirmed cases and deaths in May, Min Aung Hlaing ordered schools across the country to open on June 1. It was widely seen as a desperate attempt by the regime to show the world that normalcy had returned to Myanmar. Two weeks later, hundreds of teachers and students at private and public schools tested positive. All hell started to break loose. Despite the soaring numbers of new cases and deaths, he flew to Russia. During his one-week stay there, he extolled the Kremlin’s ties with Naypyitaw and visited military hardware factories, while the COVID positivity rate in Myanmar increased from 11.86 percent to 17.37.

When 144 people had died by the end of June, the regime woke up. Min Aung Hlaing held his first meeting on COVID-19 on July 9. At that time, 431 people had already died since June. He said he had ordered battalions and military units across the country to house quarantined people. At subsequent meetings, he said Myanmar had enough oxygen, but his troops on the ground stole cylinders from charity groups. He also shamelessly appealed to striking healthcare workers who had been in hiding from his arrest warrants to go back to work, as the hospitals were understaffed. Out in the streets, his rifle-wielding soldiers barked orders to “Disperse immediately!” at people queuing outside medical stores, because the regime doesn’t want crowds gathering. No wonder he has been accused of weaponizing COVID-19.

Rather than taking responsibility for not acting early, the coup leader on Sunday blamed the new variants for the high infection and death tolls, as they are more contagious than those in the first and second waves.

Bodies wait to be cremated at Yangon’s Yeway Cemetery in July. / The Irrawaddy

In fact, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi government had planned to begin its nationwide inoculation rollout on Feb. 5. But Min Aung Hlaing’s coup on Feb. 1 completely disrupted the plan. Shipment of 27 million vaccine doses from COVAX, a United Nations-backed initiative to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable, stalled. Were it not for the takeover, Myanmar’s vaccine drive would have moved forward as planned in February and in the following months. It would have covered the country’s population to some extent by now, which would have reduced the fatality rate from the third wave. (Since the takeover, the regime has intermittently inoculated 1.77 million of the country’s more than 54 million people with 3.5 million jabs from India secured by the previous government. Its own vaccination drive started in late July when jabs donated by and bought from China arrived.)

Min Aung Hlaing’s belated, badly managed efforts have made little headway against the virus. This can be attributed directly to the fact that, unlike Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he doesn’t have popular support and the people don’t trust him, due to the coup. Most Myanmar people, especially young people, feel he has robbed them of their dreams and their future. They detest him so much that they refuse to call him by his name. That’s why his repeated calls for public collaboration have simply been rejected by the majority of the people.

The reality is that people are now caring for each other rather than relying on the regime in their fight against COVID-19, as the junta leader has failed them. So, they share their oxygen with each other. When they have extra medicine, they give them to whomever is in need. They encourage each other by saying, “You have to survive this in order to see his ouster.” When a whole family is too sick to go out, all they have to do is hang a yellow cloth outside their home. People near and far will rush to drop anything from Vitamin C to foods to cold tablets at the family’s doorstep. Nothing more truly reflects the spirit of “for the people, by the people” than Myanmar’s situation today.

So, what can Min Aung Hlaing claim to have achieved for Myanmar as his rule turns six months old?

Growing public misery. Growing numbers of deaths, and…. (please feel free to add anything you think is suitable…)


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