Myanmar & COVID-19

AA Leader Says Myanmar Govt, Military Deliberately Spreading COVID-19 in Rakhine

By The Irrawaddy 7 September 2020

YANGON—The leader of a Rakhine ethnic armed group has accused the Myanmar government and army of “intentionally” spreading COVID-19 for their political and military benefit in Rakhine State, where fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and government troops has flared even as the western state reels under the pandemic.

Some parts of Rakhine, especially in the north, have been a battleground for the past few years, witnessing sporadic armed clashes between the two armies since late 2018, when the AA launched its armed struggle for autonomy in the state. The fighting has caused civilian deaths and forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes. The government has denounced the AA as a terrorist organization.

Currently, 3 million people in Rakhine State are under government travel restrictions, as all 17 of its townships with the exception of Yanbye have reported COVID-19 cases. The state has 540 patients so far, becoming the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak since last month.

In a video message to Rakhine people last week, AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing raised questions such as how coronavirus infections spread to Rakhine and why the infection rate was higher there than anywhere else in the country.

“Even though COVID-19 is a health problem, there are many other factors to take into consideration, such as whether the disease is spreading to Rakhine people for political and military reasons,” he said.

“The Myanmar government and military are abusing their rights and power as weapons to wipe out Rakhine State politically, ethnically and militarily, so it’s a point worth considering,” he added.

The AA chief said that despite its announcement of a ceasefire early this year to control the disease, the government had effectively ignored its own truce and continued to fight based on the country’s counterterrorism law.

He also complained that while the whole world was practicing social distancing and restricting unnecessary travel, thousands of government troops were streaming in and out Rakhine, as if they intended to spread the coronavirus.

“The Myanmar government and army are making the most of the pandemic in the time of COVID-19. We suspect they let it spread [in Rakhine] as they profit from it [militarily and politically],” the major general said.

In the aftermath of the outbreak in Rakhine, Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledged the government’s full support for the fight against COVID-19 in Rakhine State late last month, saying, “I dare say Rakhine will never face shortages.” Currently, the government is spending 1.6 billion kyats to provide financial assistance to internally displaced persons in Rakhine, according to the state’s Disaster Management Department. Additionally, medics and volunteers from across the country have flown to the state to reinforce healthcare workers on the ground.

On Friday, Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay rejected the AA leader’s accusation as a “very horrible remark.”

“It is not OK for the AA leadership to say such a damn reckless thing while concerned people all over the country are trying to help Rakhine,” he said during a press briefing, commenting that it was the armed group itself that was trying to exploit COVID-19 politically and militarily in order to create misunderstandings among local people.

The spokesperson said that despite the rebel group’s declaration of a ceasefire, it continued to fight and plant landmines on a daily basis.

“What they are saying is totally different from what they are doing. I have to say their [ceasefire statement] is merely for propaganda,” he said, adding that the AA had failed to respond to the government’s offer of bilateral peace discussions, even in a third country.

“No reply yet. It seems they don’t want peace,” he said.

On Thursday last week, the Myanmar military set a village on fire in Rakhine State’s Kyauktaw Township, destroying more than 200 homes and killing two civilians, according to local residents.

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