2020 loomed as a momentous year for Burma even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions to societies and economies around the world. The country was preparing for national elections while struggling to end Asia’s longest standing civil war, and now faces these challenges alongside the added burden of the coronavirus. In this #COVIDandConflict video, Jason Tower looks at the country’s public health response, what the pandemic means for the peace process, and how it could affect the vote.
Hi, I'm Jason Tower. I'm the country director for the Burma program at the United States Institute of Peace. We've received quite a few questions on the impacts of the pandemic in Burma, and on conflict in Burma, as well as how it will impact the economy in the country.
USIP's Burma program is presently trying to address some of these challenges as it continues its work during these difficult times, and I wanted to take a few minutes to answer a couple of these questions that have come through. First is: what public health measures are in place in country?
What public health measures are in place?
Burma has a very weak public health system, and it was very poorly prepared to address COVID-19. The country began to confirm cases pretty late compared to a lot of its neighbors. Only in late March did it start to confirm cases of COVID-19. Less than 200 cases have been confirmed to date, but it's important to keep in mind a capacity to do testing is very low, and also, generally in the country, people don't necessarily go to the hospital or clinic when they're sick. So outside of Yangon, at the moment, it's almost impossible to get a test. There's only one testing facility in the whole country outside of Yangon so far.
The country has also taken a bunch of other measures to try to check the spread of the virus. These include closing down the airports to international travel, restricting local travel, shutting down a lot of businesses and manufacturing. They've recently also instituted fines for not wearing masks outside.
And then, on the positive side, the country's also, I think, made some new investments in its health care system, putting quite a lot of new money into upgrading its hospitals so that they're better able to serve the public through the the pandemic.
Second question is: Burma has the longest standing civil war in Asia. What challenges and opportunities has COVID-19 brought to efforts to address conflict?
Burma has the longest standing civil war in Asia. What challenges and opportunities has COVID-19 brought to efforts to address conflict?
Unfortunately, tensions have continued throughout this period and really even spiked under COVID-19. The situation really illustrates just how little progress has been made through the country's formal peace process which tries to bring the many different ethnic armed groups together to work out what the future of the country would would look like.
Unfortunately, the peace process has failed to address a lot of the underlying causes of conflict, particularly economic causes, as well as thinking on what a federal structure looks like when it comes to very contentious issues around security.
The Burma Army, or Tatmadaw, has been involved in a lot of the health response. Unfortunately, in a lot of the ethnic areas this has not been very constructive as it's actively prevented EAOs, ethnic armed organizations, from giving needed supplies to people in their constituencies, people in the areas of territory that they control. They've also threatened some civilians, telling them not to take assistance, including masks, from some of the ethnic armed organizations.
A lot of tensions have emerged also around the control over the country's borders. So, particularly in the Thai and China border areas, where you now have a lot of migrants coming back in from Thailand and China where economies have also been shut down and employment's no longer available, there's been a lot of fighting over who actually controls those border gates. So again, you're seeing tensions really spill over around COVID-19 in quite a few parts of the country.
It's important to recognize that the UN has called for a global ceasefire during COVID-19. Many of the ethnic armed groups have responded positively to this. The Myanmar Army has also now put out its own message of ceasefire; however, it has left out that one of the key armed groups from that ceasefire: it's labeling this particular group, the Arakan Army, a terrorist organization, and it's continued to escalate hostilities in Rakhine State with fighting now spreading further and further across that state to the south. This has, I think, generated a lot of concerns because now civilians are faced with a very difficult dilemma of either fleeing conflict and leaving their homes, risking spread of the virus, or staying in their homes and then risking the chances of conflicts harming them in their communities. So it's really getting to be kind of a dire situation in Rakhine State.
I think there are some positive things that are going on with respect to to conflict as well. There's been a lot of civil society groups and others who've been calling for a ceasefire and rallying for everyone to come together and to try to jointly address the pandemic, as happened around a horrible natural disaster when Hurricane Nargis hit the country in 2008, and you saw really everyone kind of come together to address some of those difficulties at the time. So there's a chance also that the pandemic could provide a little bit more space to address these issues, but at the moment challenges around violent conflict and the ceasefire issue are still very much acute.
A third question is: Burma is in the midst of an election year, and elections are said to be particularly competitive this year. How will COVID-19 impact elections, and are election year dynamics impacting the response?
How will COVID-19 impact elections, and are election year dynamics impacting the response?
There's roughly 100 political parties that are going to compete for the elections in 2020, which will likely take place in November. COVID-19 does stand to have impacts on elections, and in fact, it's already slowing down significantly elections preparations. Compared with 2015, the country is pretty far behind the curve in terms of it not having started the process of hiring the auxiliary police force that will provide security in polling stations around the country. There's also going to be, I think, a lot of new challenges trying to manage elections under a pandemic.
South Korea recently showed that this could be done very successfully by managing an election with an amazing turnout during the COVID-19 period. In Burma, one of the big challenges though is going to be a lack of budget for the elections. Polling stations have very minimal budgets, they're not currently able to provide social distancing measures or to provide the necessary supplies that would be needed in order to ensure a sanitary environment for elections. So those are all issues that really have to be sorted out.
Another thing that's happening at the moment is you're starting to see a lot of donors come into the country to bring in supplies to assist the response to COVID-19. Unfortunately, this is resulting in bigger and bigger coordination issues between different ministries. Coordination had already been difficult because of the fact that the military controls significant parts of governments, including police, whereas the civilian elected government controls other parts, and the responses have been very hard to coordinate between military and government, as well as between military, government and ethnic armed groups.
Donors, particularly from China, have come in, and they've basically thrown aid at every ministry, including many military departments and departments under the military. This has caused further tensions, and it's raised concerns on the part of a lot of civil society groups because they're worried that a lot of these investors are targeting these stakeholders who have decision-making authority over projects, investment projects, that they're either currently operating, or which they're bringing into the country and which maybe have been stalled or have other issues that they're looking to have resolved.
So there's a lot of concerns about a lack of transparency of aid, of conflict of interests and even of investors may be using this aid as a tool to try to meet some of the objectives that they're trying to achieve when it comes to some of their investments. So I think one area where really a lot of work needs to be done is around strengthening coordination, trying to address the potential impacts that could come in from all of this uncoordinated aid and really getting all of the government agencies and military on the same page when it comes to a joint response.
I think I'll wrap up here. I'd like to thank everyone for watching. Thanks for all the questions, and if you're interested in learning more, don't forget to check out our website for additional resources on COVID-19 and conflict. Thank you.