Why in Myanmar hundreds of thousands of people have not heard of Covid-19?

Last June, the Myanmar government, led by state councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, cut internet access to nine municipalities in the area due to concerns that it was being used to inflame clashes between the Myanmar army and insurgents.

One municipality restored its service in May, but eight others, with a total population of around 800,000 people, remain in an information blackout.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say the prolonged closure is putting lives at risk, not only because it prevents people from reporting possible human rights abuses, but because it has excluded them from public health campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic.

“With the armed conflict between the Myanmar army and the Arakan army in Rakhine state in the midst of a pandemic, it is essential that civilians obtain the necessary information to stay safe,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for Human Rights Watch in a statement.
As of Monday, Myanmar had recorded six deaths and 292 positive cases from more than 64,532 tests, according to the Myanmar Ministry of Health.

A handful of cases have been found in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the northern state of Rakhine, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims live in crowded camps. Many have fled the military’s “clean-up operations” against Rohingya insurgents in 2018. The UN has called on the Myanmar army to face an international tribunal accused of genocide for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine Buddhists left homeless by the latest fighting also live in camps in the area.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world earlier this year, the Suu Kyi government launched an “No Person Left Behind” information campaign on disease prevention, such as social distancing requirements.

But MP Htoot May, who represents the Arakan National League for Democracy in the Upper House of the Myanmar Union Parliament, said on Sunday that many people living in the northern state of Rakhine and the neighboring state of Chin do not receive public health notices circulating on Facebook, messaging apps, and government websites.

“When I ask people in my constituency if they know Covid-19, I have to explain the global pandemic to them from the beginning,” said Htoot May. “I have to explain what social distancing is and how to practice proper hand hygiene.”

“I can’t travel much because of Covid-19, obviously, so there are few people I can warn about,” continued the MP.

“They are not afraid of Covid-19 because they don’t know it, right now they are much more concerned with the fight.”

CNN has reached out to Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Office of the Myanmar State Councilor, for comment.

Ongoing confrontations

The fighting broke out in late 2018 between the Myanmar army, known as Tatmadaw, and the well-equipped Arakan Army, which wants greater autonomy for Rakhine Buddhists, the majority of the population in Rakhine state.

As the war progresses, the Internet shutdown has caused more civilian deaths by denying people real-time information, according to an open letter published Sunday by a coalition of Rakhine political and community groups on social media.

Clashes have escalated regardless of the Internet blackout, while 151 civilians have been killed and 344 injured in the crossfire between January and May, according to the letter.

“This is not a conflict that either side can win on the battlefield,” Myanmar independent analyst Richard Horsey said in a statement to the International Crisis Group. “It is essentially a political problem in which the Rakhine people want more autonomy and more voice over their future. (Myanmar) needs to develop a political response and it does not currently exist.”

The alternative is the ongoing war, Horsey says, and both the Arakan army and the Myanmar army have been charged with atrocities. Khine Kyaw Moe, a deputy representing the Rakhine National Party, says that without an Internet connection, such atrocities are not reported or documented.

“Both armies are committing human rights violations and, without the Internet, people are isolated from journalists and from local and international NGOs that they could report these things to,” said Khine Kyaw Moe.

Sunday’s open letter, addressed to Suu Kyi and signed by Rakhine’s 79 stakeholder groups, says he is looking for that political solution, which would start with the government reconnecting the Internet.

“Freedom of expression and access to information is the basis of democracy. In this era, access to the Internet is the democratic standard. Equality requires immediate information on the economy, education, health and society,” says the letter.

Election year

Like many other nations, Myanmar introduced curfews, ban on large gatherings, and a quarantine period for foreign arrivals in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus.

The government also introduced criminal penalties for people who failed to comply with the rules, including prison terms for those who violated quarantine orders. At least 500 people, including children, have been sentenced to prison terms of up to one year.

The country’s response appears to have slowed the spread of the virus, but has not been without criticism.

“Throwing hundreds behind bars in crowded and unsanitary prisons defeats the purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement in May.

Suu Kyi’s approach to the pandemic could work against him as the country prepares to vote in an election later this year.

MP Htoot May said the fighting in Rakhine and the subsequent closure of communications could also erode voter support for Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy.

“In 2015 I believed in Suu Kyi and was happy to work with her,” said MP Htoot May. “I thought Aung San Suu Kyi was going to help people in remote areas gain access to the internet, and not cut it off.”

“Human rights is not something that Aung San Suu Kyi can talk about. She needs to practice it.”

On the other hand, Suu Kyi’s history of the virus may be unrelated to the outcome of her choice, as due to the shutdown of the internet, large numbers of people in the far west of the country may never know what happened.