29 September 2020
There have been some 7,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 147 deaths in Myanmar. After weeks without any local transmissions, Myanmar reported an outbreak in the western Rakhine state in mid-August that has since spread across the country. As of September 21, 45,000 people had been quarantined in the country’s attempts to contain the virus. The country’s weak public health system, however, presents significant challenges: As of early 2020, there were only 330 intensive care beds available for a population of 54 million; in 2018, the WHO estimated that there were 6.7 doctors per 10,000 people in the country.
Even before the mass outbreaks of COVID-19 in August, leading public officials appeared to try to exploit the pandemic for political purposes. In June, the controversial democracy advocate and current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi threatened to “severely” punish anybody crossing into the country illegally, as well as those who harbor undocumented arrivals. The move was seen by some to implicitly scapegoat Rohingya returnees for allegedly bringing COVID-19 cases into the country. The statement also appeared to contradict Suu Kyi’s previous comments encouraging returnees coming from Thailand into Mon and Kayin states to undertake testing and quarantine, with no legal repercussions. Soon after Suu Kyi’s comments were published, hate speech against the Rohingya appeared to surge. Kyaw Win, director of Burma Human Rights Network, said the narrative that the Rohingya brought COVID-19 into Myanmar was an attempt to “divide the Rakhine and Rohingya community.” In September, amidst a resurgence of the pandemic and a growth in the number of COVID-19 cases in Yangon, the government began to criticise ethnic Rakhine for carrying the virus to the capital, echoing its previous criticisms of the Rohingya.
The government of Myanmar has been widely criticised for its gross human rights violations, including the often violent persecution of minorities, particularly the country’s Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine populations. The historical roots of this ongoing crisis can be found in the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, which rendered hundreds of thousands of people stateless and vulnerable to systemic discrimination. Protracted waves of violence since 2012 have spurred nearly one million Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine to flee Myanmar to nearby countries, particularly Bangladesh but also Thailand and Malaysia, among others. Currently, about 900,000 Rohingya are living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. The estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine state in Myanmar continue to be subject to state-sanctioned violence. In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar recommended that named senior generals of the Myanmar military be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in January 2020 imposed provisional measures on Myanmar to prevent genocide while it adjudicates alleged violations of the Genocide Convention. In November 2019, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began an investigation into Myanmar’s forced deportation of Rohingya and related crimes against humanity.
On 4 June, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health announced the first confirmed case of coronavirus infection in a Muslim Rohingya within its borders. On 31 August 2020, one case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Taung Paw relocation site in Myebon Township, one of the three camps for internally displaced people (IDP) in the country. No other cases appear to have been confirmed in other IDP camps. There remains widespread concern regarding the health risks faced by Rohingya who currently reside in IDP camps across Rakhine State. Myanmar’s nationwide “Action Plan for the Control of COVID-19 Outbreak at IDP Camps” did not include testing or plans for the country’s IDPs; moreover, Rohingya residing in IDP camps have reported heightened harassment and discrimination in relation to COVID-19 regulations. Rohingya have told Human Rights Watch that military and police forces regularly subject them to physical punishment, fines, and harassment at checkpoints. Those in need of medical referrals also reportedly struggle to obtain permission to leave the camps, to seek treatment. One Rohingya man said that a township official told him that “If people are affected [by COVID-19], you have to get treatment in the camps. They will not be allowed to the hospital.”
In April, Myanmar authorities pardoned some 25,000 prisoners under its annual Buddhist new year amnesty, reducing the overcrowded prison population to just above official capacity. However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised national prisons for being ill-equipped to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, with only 30 doctors and 80 nurses employed across the entire prison system. HRW has also criticized the government for exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on freedoms of speech and assembly. At least 500 people, including children, returning migrant workers, and religious minorities, have been sentenced to between one month and one year in prison in Myanmar since late March 2020 for violating curfews, quarantines, or other movement control orders in relation to COVID-19.
- H. Beech, S. Nang, and M. Simons, “‘Kill All You See’ In a First, Myanmar Soldiers Tell of Rohingya Slaughter,” The New York Times, 8 September 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-genocide.html
- Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh: Move Rohingya from Dangerous Silt Island,” 9 July 2020, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/09/bangladesh-move-rohingya-dangerous-silt-island
- Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees Stranded at Sea,” Human Rights Watch, 25 April 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/25/bangladesh-rohingya-refugees-stranded-sea
- Human Rights Watch, “Myanmar: Hundreds Jailed for Covid-19 Violations,” Human Rights Watch, 28 May 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/28/myanmar-hundreds-jailed-covid-19-violations
- Human Rights Watch, “Myanmar: Rohingya Await Justice, Safe Return 3 Years On,” Human Rights Watch, 24 August 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/24/myanmar-rohingya-await-justice-safe-return-3-years
- A. Nachemson, “Racism Is Fueling Myanmar’s Deadly Second Wave of COVID-19,” The Diplomat, 11 September 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/racism-is-fueling-myanmars-deadly-second-wave-of-covid-19/
- OCHA, “Myanmar, Rakhine State: COVID-19 Situation Report No. 09 (18 September 2020),” ReliefWeb, 18 September 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/myanmar-rakhine-state-covid-19-situation-report-no-09-18-september-2020
- P. Singh and N. Hardman, “Pandemic Adds New Threat for Rohingyas in Myanmar,” The Diplomat, 28 May 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/pandemic-adds-new-threat-for-rohingyas-in-myanmar/
- Radio Free Asia, “In Myanmar’s Rakhine State Mistrust Hampers COVID-19 Response,” Radio Free Asia, 31 August 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/mistrust-covid-19-08312020213208.html
- Radio Free Asia, “Myanmar Confirms First Muslim Rohingya Coronavirus Case Within Borders,” Radio Free Asia, 4 June 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/coronavirus-06042020151522.html
- The Republic of the Union of Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Surveillance Dashboard (Myanmar),” The Republic of the Union of Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports, 24 September 2020, https://www.mohs.gov.mm/Main/content/publication/2019-ncov
- Reuters, “Myanmar’s ‘Maximum Containment’ COVID-19 Plan Pushed to Brink as Virus Surges,” Channel News Asia, 24 September 2020, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/covid-19-myanmar-maximum-containment-plan-pushed-brink-13141922
- Reuters Staff, “Two Myanmar soldiers taken to the Hague after confessing to Rohingya killings: reports,” Reuters, 8 September 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya/two-myanmar-soldiers-taken-to-the-hague-after-confessing-to-rohingya-killings-reports-idUSKBN25Z1KD
- UN Human Rights Council, “Report of Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (27 August 2018),” UN Human Rights Council, 18 September 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/MyanmarFFM/Pages/ReportoftheMyanmarFFM.aspx