Nyein Nyein Thant Aung
Student, Master of Arts in Human Rights (International Program),
IHRP, Mahidol University
After nearly thirty days of no COVID-19 local transmissions in Myanmar, one news shocked the country on 16 August 2020. A resident in Sittwe of Rakhine State, with no history of travelling and contact with any patients, was found positive (Htay, 2020). Since then, nearly a hundred people tested positive per day, according to the statistics of the Ministry of Health and Sport (MOHS) Myanmar (Narinjara, 2020). It was announced that the contagious nature of the virus is similar to the type found in Malaysia, which is ten times more infectious than the original virus strain (Htwe, 2020).
In addition to the increasing concerns regarding the second wave of infections, the armed conflicts between Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) and Arakan Army (AA) have not de-escalated yet. Apart from compounded struggles faced by Rohingya refugees, confrontations between Tatmadaw and AA have resulted to about 190,700 internally displaced peoples (IDPs), 180 deaths of civilian causalities, and 589 injured, according to Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) in July 2020. What we can uniformly say is that neither parties wanted to , amidst threats of COVID-19 transmission (Carter, 2020; Chan et al., 2020; DMG, 2020).
In addition to armed conflict, the government cut the internet access in five townships of Rakhine State, which lasted for more than a year. The Ministry of Transport and Communication (MoTC) continuously jusrified the shutdown as a matter of security and public interest (Telenor, 2020). Every time parliamentarians tried to submit an emergency proposal, their attempts get rejected (Thura, 2019). Telcom operators eventually restored internet (2G connection) in August 2020 (Kyaw, 2020; Tun, 2020). Still, peoples living in camps find it almost impossible to access timely information about COVID-19 (Chan, 2020; Mra, 2020).
On 19 August, MOHS updated its COVID-19 guidelines on its website and social media platforms. A day after, it announced a Stay at Home Directive (93.2020) for Sittwe Township (MOHS, 2020). Nonetheless, people with poor or no internet connecttion are unable to fully access this life-saving information. Within a year of internet shutdown, the traditional word of mouth became the only means of communication (Thu, 2020). Key updates on the pandemic could hardly penetrate these conflict areas.
Before cutting internet access, the Government limited humanitarian assistance for IDPs provided by INGOs and NGOs. After the attack of AA on 4 January 2019, NGOs, except International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and World Food Program (WFP) , were largely restricted (Aung, 2019). Local organizations attempted to provide aid; however, they were barred from entering the areas where IDPs live (BBC Burmese, 2018; Cho and Chan, 2019). In addition, inter-township traveling was banned by both central and local governments when local COVID-19 transmissions in Rakhine State started happening (Narinjara, 2020).
Access to information is an essential right in time of crisis. In the case of Rakhine State, neither the NLD government nor the parliament made significant efforts to alleviate the suffering of people who have been displaced and are living in conflict areas. With or without COVID-19, every person’s life and rights matter. Unfortunately, as of this writing, no light can be seen, yet, at the end of this long and winding tunnel.
Aung, N.L., 2019. Aid groups barred from Rakhine conflict zones [WWW Document]. Myanmar Times. URL https://www.mmtimes.com/news/aid-groups-barred-rakhine-conflict-zones.html (accessed 8.23.20).
BBC Burmese, 2018. ရခိုင်စစ်ဘေးရှောင်တွေကို ကူညီဖို့သွားသူတွေ တားမြစ်ခံရ (Translation: Aids for Rakhine IDPs are not allowed). BBC News မြန်မာ.
Carter, L., 2020. Myanmar: Armed conflict puts brakes on COVID-19 response | DW | 07.05.2020 [WWW Document]. DW.COM. URL https://www.dw.com/en/myanmar-armed-conflict-puts-brakes-on-covid-19-response/a-53360164 (accessed 8.23.20).
Chan, A.N., 2020. ‘If we stay, we die’ – villagers risk perilous, days-long journeys to Yangon through Rakhine conflict zone [WWW Document]. Myanmar NOW. URL https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/if-we-stay-we-die-villagers-risk-perilous-days-long-journeys-to-yangon-through-rakhine-conflict (accessed 8.21.20).
Chan, A.N., Aung, P.T., Khaing, T.M., 2020. Rakhine villagers still fleeing as second week of ‘clearance operation’ approaches [WWW Document]. Myanmar NOW. URL https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/rakhine-villagers-still-fleeing-as-second-week-of-clearance-operation-approaches (accessed 8.21.20).
Cho, P.T., Chan, A.N., 2019. တိုက်ပွဲများအတွင်း ပိတ်မိကျေးရွာများ ရိက္ခာရရှိရန် တပ်နှင့်ညှိနှိုင်းသွားမည်ဟု လူကယ်ပြန် ဝန်ကြီးပြော (Translation: MOSWRR Minister said, ’We will Negotiate with Tatmadaw) [WWW Document]. Myanmar NOW. URL https://www.myanmar-now.org/mm/news/556 (accessed 8.25.20).
DMG, 2020. IDP advocate: ‘When troops visit, all people in the camp are scared’ [WWW Document]. Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/interview/1860-uwha-tn (accessed 8.21.20).
Htay, K.T., 2020. COVID-19 patient in Sittwe triggers quarantine for 19 people in close contact [WWW Document]. Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/news/1857-cb-cv-19 (accessed 8.21.20).
Htwe, Z.Z., 2020. Myanmar’s Rakhine State Capital Under Curfew as COVID-19 Cases Spike [WWW Document]. The Irrawaddy. URL https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmars-rakhine-state-capital-curfew-covid-19-cases-spike.html (accessed 8.22.20).
Kyaw, M.T., 2020. ‘World’s longest internet shutdown’ ends, for now, in western Myanmar [WWW Document]. Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/news/1801-in_b (accessed 8.21.20).
MOHS, 2020. ကျန်းမာရေးနှင့်အားကစားဝန်ကြီးဌာန အမိန့်အမှတ်၊ ၉၃/ ၂၀၂၀ (Translation: MOHS Directive 93/2020).
Mra, K.K., 2020. Fighting on two fronts: the women facing conflict and COVID-19 in Rakhine state [WWW Document]. Myanmar NOW. URL https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/fighting-on-two-fronts-the-women-facing-conflict-and-covid-19-in-rakhine-state (accessed 8.21.20).
Narinjara, 2020. စစ္ေတြတြင္ ယေန႔ ေနာက္ထပ္ ၁၆ ဦးပိုးေတြ႕၊ ရခိုင္တြင္ေရာဂါပိုးေတြ႕ရွိသူ ၆၁ ဦးရွိသြားျပီျဖစ္ကာ တိုင္းႏွင့္ျပည္နယ္အလိုက္ ရခိုင္ဒုတိယေနရာသို႕ေရာက္ရွိလာ (Translation: Rakhine: Second Largest Number of COVID 19 positive cases in Myanmar) [WWW Document]. Narinjara. URL http://burmese.narinjara.com/news/detail/5f409ffa6b0685511da988d0 (accessed 8.22.20).
Telenor, 2020. Internet services restricted in Myanmar townships [WWW Document]. Telenor Group. URL https://www.telenor.com/internet-services-restricted-in-five-townships-in-myanmar-03-february-2020/ (accessed 8.23.20).
Thu, M.K., 2020. ရခိုင်မှာ 3G/4G ပြန်ဖွင့်ဖို့လိုပါတယ် (Translation: reaccessing to 3G/4G in Rakhine State). Mratts Blog. URL https://mrattkthu.com/blogs/rakhine-needs-to-reopen-3g-4g (accessed 8.24.20).
Thura, M., 2019. Parliament speaker rejects motion to restore Rakhine internet access [WWW Document]. Myanmar Times. URL https://www.mmtimes.com/news/parliament-speaker-rejects-motion-restore-rakhine-internet-access.html-0 (accessed 8.23.20).
Tun, M., 2020. CSOs demand better internet access in Myanmar’s conflict-hit west [WWW Document]. Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/news/1853-cwh (accessed 8.21.20).