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Myanmar’s Military Has Weaponized COVID-19. In My Village, We Did Everything We Could to Save Ourselves

5 minute read
Vahpual is the pseudonym for a journalist in Myanmar's Chin State. TIME is withholding the author's identity due to the threat of reprisals.

My village was among the first hit when a third wave of COVID-19 swept across Myanmar starting in May. My mother, father, sister and wife all fell ill. We already lived in terror of the military, which seized power from the civilian government on Feb. 1 and has since killed 946 people. When COVID-19 arrived in my native Tedim township in western Myanmar’s Chin State, I feared we would all die from the virus but, by the grace of God, we have survived.

Officially, just over 7,500 people have died from COVID-19 since the coup—already enough to make Myanmar’s per capita death rate the worst in Southeast Asia. But few people are officially tested and even fewer are treated at public hospitals, so the real death toll is unknown. We do know that in recent weeks funeral homes and crematoriums across the country have been overwhelmed.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, in an Aug. 1 speech in which he declared himself prime minister, accused protesters who oppose military rule of deliberately spreading COVID-19. But it is the generals who have weaponized COVID-19, turning this deadly pandemic into yet another attempt to control a population that has shown steadfast resistance.

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Since the coup, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, has targeted medical workers, who have been at the forefront of a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement. More than 150 doctors and nurses have been arrested, and as of July, the Tatmadaw had committed 240 attacks on healthcare workers, according to the World Health Organization; many of those attacked were first responders to military violence.

Health care workers watch protesters demonstrate against Myanmar's military coup in Myanmar's capital of Yangon, Feb. 28.
Health care workers watch protesters demonstrate against Myanmar's military coup in Myanmar's capital of Yangon, Feb. 28.The New York Times

The Tatmadaw has also deliberately obstructed lifesaving care to COVID-19 patients across the country. Soldiers have seized oxygen cylinders and blocked people from refilling them. While the military has issued calls for volunteers to aid its own COVID-19 prevention efforts, it has also raided and looted community-run clinics. On July 16, security forces posed as COVID-19 patients in order to entrap and arrest medical volunteers.

Meanwhile, ethnic states and other areas of armed resistance to military rule are facing the double burden of ongoing military attacks, which have displaced 230,000 people since the coup. Amid COVID-19 movement restrictions, regime forces continue to shell civilian areas, burn homes and clash with resistance groups.

In recent weeks in my native Chin State, the military has deployed more troops, fired indiscriminately into villages, raided homes and destroyed food supplies, causing hundreds to flee.

On July 16, Yanghee Lee, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, warned: “The junta is weaponizing COVID-19 for its own political gain by suffocating the democracy movement and seeking to gain the legitimacy and control it craves… by deliberately fueling a humanitarian disaster and then co-opting the international response.”

As the virus surged in my township, my community—like many others across the country—took the COVID-19 response into its own hands.

To fight this crisis, we established emergency response teams made up of local volunteers from all walks of life. On June 4, the military announced a stay-at-home order for several townships in Chin State, including mine, but few paid attention. However, when our local emergency response team announced a full lockdown of its own on June 24 and deployed dozens of volunteer guards to enforce it, the vast majority of people stayed home.

This handout photo from Tedim Post taken and released on July 1 shows volunteers delivering oxygen tanks for Covid-19 coronavirus patients at a hospital in Tedim.
This handout photo from Tedim Post taken and released on July 1 shows volunteers delivering oxygen tanks for Covid-19 coronavirus patients at a hospital in Tedim.Handout/Tedim Post/AFP/Getty Images

Volunteers have also lined up for hours in front of private factories to refill oxygen cylinders for sick people who couldn’t access public hospitals, or were boycotting health services under the military. The volunteers only stopped refilling cylinders when the military restricted the private sale of oxygen July 12.

Another task managed by the volunteer teams has been the purchase of food and household goods—allowing only five people per village to go to the market to collect things for their communities

I also volunteered by writing about the local situation for potential donors. Our fundraising has enabled us to order essential medical equipment, although military-imposed roadblocks and checkpoints delayed delivery by several days. When the medical equipment finally reached our village, volunteer doctors and nurses used it to provide home-based care for the most critical patients.

Sadly, this care came too late for my neighbor, who died on July 4 in her home. Before her death, she told her family she was afraid the military would attack and arrest her if she went to a military-run public hospital.

Now the military is trying to obstruct our grassroots efforts to fight COVID-19. In late July, soldiers met with community elders in my township and told them that our volunteer team must cease its activities. The next day, military-appointed administrators were manning the perimeter of Tedim town.

But while our community-led response has the trust of the people, we will never trust the military, which we now fear will use the cover of COVID-19 prevention to increase its surveillance. Around the same time soldiers began manning the COVID-19 checkpoints, they also began going village to village across my state, raiding homes searching for evidence of armed resistance and displacing hundreds.

Even though there has been no armed resistance in my village, I joined many young men and fled, sheltering in a remote area until the soldiers passed. Although we knew our movement put ourselves and others at risk of contracting the virus, we feared even more what soldiers could do to us if we stayed home.

Sometimes, when I think about my country’s situation, I feel depressed and cannot sleep. As a journalist, I also fear for my security and that of my family. I pray we will survive this COVID-19 outbreak and the future violence which the military is sure to inflict.

During this pandemic, it is not just the virus, but the military that is killing us.

—As told to Emily Fishbein, a freelance journalist focusing on human rights and social justice in Myanmar

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