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Myanmar junta’s Covid cudgel

“The military is weaponising Covid-19,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN’s former Myanmar human rights expert


Myanmar residents and human rights activists have accused the junta of using the virus to consolidate power and demolish opposition as per capita death figures indicate the country’s situation worst in Southeast Asia.

Supplies of medical oxygen are at its ebb with the government restrictions on its private sales as crippled healthcare system reels under surge of new patients. There are widespread allegations of deliberate deprivation as stocks are being diverted to government supporters and military-run hospitals.

“They have stopped distributing personal protection equipment and masks, and they will not let civilians who they suspect are supporting the democracy movement be treated in hospitals, and they’re arresting doctors who support the civil disobedience movement,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN’s former Myanmar human rights expert and a founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.

“With the oxygen, they have banned sales to civilians or people who are not supported by the SAC, so they’re using something that can save the people against the people,” she said. “The military is weaponizing Covid.”

Myanmar’s Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun did not respond to questions about the allegations, but the leadership has been on a public relations offensive using the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper this week which eulogised the government’s efforts including what it called a push to resume vaccinations and increase oxygen supplies.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the government, was cited as saying that efforts were also being made to seek support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and unspecified “friendly countries.”

“Efforts must be made for ensuring better health of the State and the people,” he was quoted as saying.

Myanmar reported another 342 deaths Thursday, and 5,234 new infections. The figures in Myanmar are ostensibly a drastic undercount due to lack of testing and reporting.

Videos on social media show apparent virus victims dead in their homes for lack of treatment and long lines of people waiting for residual oxygen supplies. The government denies reports that cemeteries in Yangon have been overwhelmed but announced Tuesday they were building new facilities that could cremate up to 3,000 bodies per day.

“By letting Covid-19 run out of control, the military junta is failing the Burmese people as well as the wider region and world, which can be threatened by new variants fueled by unchecked spread of the disease in places like Myanmar,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The problem is the junta cares more about holding on to power than stopping the pandemic.”

According to Tom Andrews, the UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, government forces have engaged in at least 260 attacks on medical personnel and facilities, killing 18. At least 67 health care professionals had been detained and another 600 are being sought.

The rapid rise in Covid -19 illnesses is “extremely concerning, particularly with limited availability of health services and oxygen supplies,” said Joy Singhal, head of the Red Cross’ Myanmar delegation.

“There is an urgent need for greater testing, contact tracing and COVID-19 vaccinations to help curb the pandemic,” he said. “This latest surge is a bitter blow to millions of people in Myanmar already coping with worsening economic and social hardships.”

After a long lull in humanitarian aid, China recently began delivering vaccines. It sent 736,000 doses to Yangon this month, the first of 2 million being donated, and reportedly more than 10,000 to the Kachin Independence Army, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in a northern border area where the virus has spilled over into China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment directly earlier this week on the report of the delivery to the KIA, noting instead “the epidemic is a common enemy to all mankind.”

The Global New Light reported Myanmar received another 1 million doses purchased from China.

Myanmar prisons are rife with Covid-19 cases too. On Wednesday, state-run MRTV television showed what it said were 610 prisoners from Yangon’s Insein Prison being vaccinated. The report was met with skepticism and derision on social media.