Myanmar faces the darkest of perfect storms

Myanmar is fighting wars on several fronts. A war against an illegal military regime which seized power in a coup, overthrowing the country’s fragile, nascent democracy.

Jul 24, 2021

Cardinal Charles Bo has appealed to the people to come together as one nation against the pandemic as the best way to pay homage to the sacrifice of martyrs. (Vatican News)

By Benedict Rogers
Myanmar is fighting wars on several fronts. A war against an illegal military regime which seized power in a coup, overthrowing the country’s fragile, nascent democracy. A war for autonomy and basic human rights for the ethnic nationalities. A war for survival against economic collapse. And now, a war against a deadly virus that is sweeping the country.

Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo has issued heartfelt pleas for help. In a powerful homily on July 18, he issued a direct appeal to the military to “drop all guns” and “bring medical care”, noting that for too many, “every breath has become a challenge.”

The following day, he issued a public statement, for Myanmar’s Martyrs’ Day, appealing to people to “come together as one nation against the pandemic” as the best way to “pay homage” to the sacrifice of martyrs. Describing the virus as “an existential threat to us as a nation,” Cardinal Bo called on the country to “raise an army of volunteers, armed with medical kits” to fight COVID-19, which has infected thousands and led to hundreds “buried unwept and unsung, hurriedly buried in crowded cemeteries.”

The impact of COVID on Myanmar has been shocking. The country is running out of oxygen, cemeteries and hospitals are overflowing, and the sick are dying untreated at home. Myanmar’s health system is fragile at the best of times, but today, as the military targets medics for opposing the coup and denies oxygen to private clinics, it is collapsing. The military is seizing whatever remains of oxygen, diverting supplies to military hospitals for army families. Last week, soldiers in Yangon shot into a crowd queuing for oxygen tanks.

The United Nations says Myanmar’s human rights defenders face a “brute force terror campaign,” while the UN Child Rights Committee (CRC) warns that an entire generation of children will be damaged as a consequence of the regime’s brutality. Children have reportedly been taken hostage when the army has been unable to arrest their parents. Among them is a five-yearold girl in Mandalay, whose father helped organise demonstrations against the coup. Some children have been killed in their own homes, including a six-year-old girl, shot in the stomach by the police, who died in her father’s arms.

Myanmar faces the darkest of perfect storms. Any one of the crises that has hit the country — coup, civil war, economic collapse and COVID — would be challenging enough, but when all four are combined, it puts Myanmar on course for a humanitarian catastrophe.

That means there is an urgent need for international action. Countries in the region need to step up, if only in their own self-interest. If COVID is allowed to sweep rampantly through Myanmar unchecked, it won’t stop at the country’s borders — and Myanmar borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. If humanitarian assistance is not provided urgently to Myanmar, the rest of the region — already struggling to varying degrees with the latest COVID wave — will be further hit.

Failure to act will have dire consequences for us all — a failed state in total collapse, leading to significant outflows of refugees and an uncontrollable further spread of the pandemic.

Myanmar needs oxygen, personal protective equipment, vaccines, other medicines, and food supplies, and its neighbours — as well as the international community — must play their part in providing that aid. But donors must also insist that aid reaches those who need it, including in the ethnic conflict areas, and is not stolen or siphoned off by the army.

Even for repressive regimes in the region, this is not a cocktail they would desire, and for democrats everywhere, it is one we should actively work to prevent. The social media #SaveMyanmar should not remain just a hashtag any longer. It should become a policy and a plan of action for the international community as a whole.

This is an abridged version of the original article

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