A cleaner sterilises handrails at a mall as Malaysia reopens a majority of businesses, after a movement control order was imposed to fight the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 4, 2020. (Photo: Lim Huey Teng, Reuters)

Covid-19 in Myanmar: Conflict, Ceasefire, Conciliation?

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A nationwide ceasefire could generate long-term dividends, and even a stable peace.

The Myanmar military has unequivocally rejected calls for an unconditional nationwide ceasefire to enable non-state armed ethnic groups to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic better. This comes despite the appeals of international figures, prominent individuals and armed groups. 

In March, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire in support of the greater battle against Covid-19. Since then, Cameroon, the Philippines, Yemen and Syria have agreed to reduce the level of violence, so as to enable local armed groups to fight against the pandemic. 

In Myanmar, ethnic armed groups – the Karen National Union, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Chin National Front and the Karenni National Progressive Party – more than 50 civil society organisations and 15 ethnic political parties have called for an unconditional countrywide ceasefire to combat the virus. Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo reinforced Pope Francis’ appeal for a worldwide ceasefire. The Three Brotherhood Alliance consisting of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) issued a press release announcing the extension of the ceasefire to cover April, so that it could combat the coronavirus.

Nonetheless, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson for the military’s True News agency, said that a nationwide ceasefire was not realistic and that the ethnic armed groups have to follow the military’s terms of surrender. He added that the government had declared a unilateral ceasefire for nine months in 2019 in some parts of the country, but the truce went unheeded. 

The unique challenges of tackling Covid-19

The ethnic armed groups have largely been left to manage their own responses in the territories they control; their efforts are patchy and hindered by the particular challenges they face. First, most of their territories are located in the border areas where large numbers of people travel back and forth. The Restoration Council of Shan State, signatory of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, has imposed travel restrictions in areas under its control. It is also conducting temperature checks, and distributing masks and hand sanitiser in villages and townships, and at border crossings.

Second, internally displaced persons camps exist in these conflict zones. According to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, about 184,300 internally displaced persons were living in 128 such camps in Kachin, Karen, Shan and Rakhine States in January. These crowded, impoverished places have relatively unsophisticated healthcare facilities. The likelihood is that the coronavirus would spread quickly in these areas, causing widespread illness and death. 

Third, the various ethnic armed groups have different resources and capacity available to them. The Karen National Union only had a few test kits that were used on returnees from Thailand. It has some protective gear provided by international NGOs. The Kachin Independence Organization, on the other hand, is much better equipped and has received assistance from China in the form of Chinese medical staff, equipment and medicine. Unlike most other ethnic armed groups which have said that they will ferry persons infected with the coronavirus to Myanmar government hospitals, the Karen Independent Organization will try to treat them in their own facilities.  

Fourth, some areas are experiencing more conflict than others, making it difficult for local organisations to provide assistance. Fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military has escalated since late 2018. Besides the chaos caused by armed conflict, the imposition by the government of a mobile internet blackout in Rakhine State has made it difficult to provide information about the coronavirus to residents, although the block has been lifted in Maungdaw Township, where roughly 80 per cent of the population is Muslim. Consequently, the state’s measures to combat Covid-19 trail behind those of other states and regions.

… a nationwide ceasefire might turn a potential public health disaster into an opportunity for stable and long-term peace in Myanmar. An example of such an occurrence happened during the 2004 tsunami.

Benefits of a nationwide ceasefire

In such a context, an unconditional nationwide ceasefire would be a breakthrough for three reasons. First, it would enable ethnic armed groups and civil society organisations to focus their efforts on dealing with the health emergency rather than on armed conflict. 

Second, it would enhance the entire country’s ability to coordinate and plan a nationwide public health response and mitigation efforts for the economy. At present, there is no cohesive national response to the pandemic due to a lack of coordination between the ethnic armed groups and the military. In addition, it was only on 27 April – a month after the country’s patient zero was reported – that the Myanmar government announced a committee to engage with ethnic armed organisations to tackle the pandemic. As of 11 May, there were 180 cases of Covid-19 and six deaths. 

Third, a nationwide ceasefire might turn a potential public health disaster into an opportunity for stable and long-term peace in Myanmar. An example of such an occurrence happened during the 2004 tsunami. Rescue efforts in Aceh helped to initiate a peace process with the Indonesian government that eventually ended a chronic conflict. The benefits and goodwill of working together against a common enemy could generate long-term dividends in Myanmar and might even propel the country into an unprecedented era of sustained peace.

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