Myanmar & COVID-19

WHO Driver Transporting COVID-19 Swabs Killed as Vehicle Attacked in Western Myanmar  

By Nyein Nyein 21 April 2020

A World Health Organization employee transporting swabs taken from suspected COVID-19 patients died early Tuesday from wounds suffered when his vehicle came under attack in Rakhine State, where government troops and a local ethnic armed group are warring.

The WHO vehicle, which was heading for Yangon, was attacked on Monday afternoon near the Yar Maung Bridge in Minbya Township of Rakhine State. It was carrying swabs from 20 patients, including one who has symptoms of the disease, according to the Rakhine State Public Health Department. As of Tuesday, 119 people had been infected with the virus in Myanmar, with five fatalities and nine recoveries.

Two men were injured when the vehicle was fired upon at 5 p.m. on Monday and one of them, driver U Pyae Sone Win Maung, later died at Minbya Hospital. He was shot in the left hip and right elbow.

The other injured man, U Aung Myo Oo, suffered wounds to his right hand. He was receiving medical treatment after being transferred to Sittwe Hospital on Tuesday morning.

A government-run newspaper said on Tuesday that the two men were transporting swabs taken from suspected COVID-19 patients in Rakhine to Yangon for testing. The paper blamed the local armed group, the Arakan Army (AA), for the attack.

“The two staff—a driver and a health worker—were in the WHO vehicle with number plate UN- 5/34 when they were attacked by the ULA/AA [United League of Arakan/ Arakan Army] group near Yar Maung Bridge in Minbya at around 5 p.m. while they were on their way to Yangon, as airline flights have been suspended.”

Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy that U Pyae Sone Win Maung died at 1 a.m. on Tuesday.

Clashes occurred in parts of Minbya as well as Chin State’s Paletwa Township on Monday morning.

In a statement released on Tuesday morning, the AA denied shooting at the WHO vehicle and accused the Tatmadaw of responsibility.

The statement reads, “The fact is that a military post of the Myanmar Army fired with small weapons. Two WHO employees were injured when crossing the bridge with a permit. The car drove off the bridge. We are now trying to transfer those two WHO employees to a secure place. The Arakan Army found and rescued them an hour after the incident and provided them with medical treatment. We will keep you updated once we receive detailed information.”

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy that the shooting occurred on Monday afternoon during daylight hours, adding that the logo of the WHO, a UN agency, was clearly visible.

“They [the AA] did it intentionally,” he said. “The Tatmadaw has no reason to shoot at such vehicles. There are many vehicles—local buses, trucks and INGO vehicles—traveling on the road every day.”

The military spokesman said that after the incident, government soldiers and AA troops clashed on Monday night and a few soldiers were injured.

He said Myanmar army soldiers frequently come under attack near the Yar Maung Bridge.

 COVID-19 and Rakhine State

While other parts of Myanmar have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, the western part of the country has reported none so far.

The swab samples being transported by the WHO staff were taken from 20 people who are staying at community quarantine centers in Sittwe, including a patient from Sittwe Hospital who is showing symptoms including fever and respiratory tract problems, according to Dr. Soe Win Paing, the deputy director of the Rakhine State Public Health Department.

Until recently, samples from the area were flown to Yangon National Health Laboratory for COVID-19 testing. A total of 37 people had tested negative as of last week, he said.

Dr. Soe Win Paing said the swab samples were randomly taken from some 800 people from Sittwe, Buthidaung, Pauktaw, Minbya, Myebon and Ann townships who are staying in community-based quarantine centers such as monasteries, schools, universities and other buildings.

Some 3,000 people are currently under both community and home quarantine in Rakhine State. Those in home quarantine are returnees from foreign countries, the doctor said.

On Tuesday, the UN issued a message of condolence over the death of U Pyae Sone Win Maung, saying, “The United Nations is seeking further information on the circumstances of the incident.”

Fighting between the military and the AA in conflict-torn Rakhine State intensified in November 2018. Between then and March 31, nearly 160,000 people had been internally displaced by the fighting, according to the Rakhine Ethnic Congress.

Additionally, nearly 10,000 residents of villages in Paletwa Township in Chin State are taking shelter in downtown Paletwa, the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee for Chin IDPs said on Monday.

Hundreds of people have been killed, injured or detained by both sides (the Myanmar military and the AA) since 2015, when AA troops first began establishing a foothold in western Myanmar.

An International Committee of the Red Cross convoy was attacked near the Yar Maung Bridge in June last year. The AA also denied involvement in that incident.

News of the attack on the WHO vehicle and the driver’s death sparked an outpouring of comments on Facebook on Tuesday, with many users offering their condolences over the killing of U Pyae Sone Win Maung, who was from Pyay Township in Bago Region.

Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report.

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