A security guard wearing a protective mask, walks in a mall amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, on April 1, 2020 in Yangon. - Myanmar reported its first coronavirus death -- a 69-year-old man who returned to the country in mid-March after receiving cancer treatment in Australia. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

CHIANG MAI – After weeks of implausible official denials, Myanmar is finally facing up to the reality of its Covid-19 outbreak.

The nation may also soon face a new political reality as the powerful military, or Tatmadaw, leverages the situation to roll back recently restored democratic rights and reimpose strict social and media controls harking to its previous junta rule.

On April 2, Myanmar acknowledged 16 coronavirus cases and one death from the pneumonia-like disease. But with only a few hundred people tested nationwide and in sight of the country’s abysmally poor medical infrastructure, even health officials believe those figures are likely only the tip of the Covid-19 iceberg.

In mid-March, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government formed a 21-member committee she now heads to broadly manage the country’s Covid-19 situation.

On March 30, in a move some see as a Tatmadaw power play, another ten-member Covid-19 task force was formed to investigate cases, trace contacts of confirmed cases and clamp down including through arrests on “fake news” and “disinformation” that could cause “panic among the people.”   

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a file photo. Photo: AFP Forum via EPA

The newer and more powerful task force significantly does not include Suu Kyi or even her health minister, an oddity considering the body’s Covid-19 containing remit.

Rather, it is headed by First Vice President Myint Swe, former general known for his past record of arrests and crackdowns, including a lead role in the lethal clampdown on the 2007 Buddhist-monk led “Saffron Revolution” protest.

Other task force members include all three military-appointed members of Suu Kyi’s Cabinet, namely the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, and Lieutenant General Mya Tun Oo, the powerful joint chief of staff of the defense services. Five civilian ministers are also included.

Although the government has not formally declared a state of emergency, the new committee’s sweeping powers and the fact that it is headed by a former powerful general means that the Tatmadaw effectively back in the driver’s seat and no longer restricted in exercising power from behind a quasi-democratic façade fronted by Suu Kyi.

The Tatmadaw started to flex its muscles before the virus crisis hit.

The new military-steered committee was formed only weeks after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party failed to nip the Tatmadaw’s still strong political power, legally guaranteed through a 25% appointed bloc in Parliament, though votes in March to amend the military-drafted 2008 constitution.

Military-appointed MPs sit in parliament for the presidential vote on March 15, 2016. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

In order to change key clauses in the charter 75% of MPs must vote in favor, giving the military’s appointees collective veto power over changes that could diminish Tatmadaw interests. With elections scheduled for November, the NLD can now at least claimed it tried and failed to roll back the military’s power.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief, declared after the NLD’s failed move that the Tatmadaw needed its guaranteed bloc in Parliament “as a measure to ensure national stability.”

But the term “national stability” is laden with new meaning in the Covid-19 era. Freedom of speech and the press are already under renewed assault as the Tatmadaw launches a fierce crackdown on independent media it clearly believes have connections to the insurgent Arakan Army (AA).

Although not directly related to the virus crisis, the measures show what the Tatmadaw can get away with in the new Covid-19 influenced political climate of fear and loathing.

Nay Lin, editor of the English and Myanmar-language Voice of Myanmar news site was arrested on Monday and could face life in prison for publishing an interview with an AA spokesman.

On March 23, the government designated AA as a terrorist organization, making contacts with the rebel group active in Rakhine and Chin states a criminal offense punishable by life in prison.

Arakan Army fighters in a promotional video in 2018. Photo: YouTube screen grab.

Three other Myanmar news services, namely Narinjara, Mandalay Indepth News and Mekong News, have also been targeted, with all of their websites recently blocked.

The Tatmadaw is also known to be investigating the funding sources of some of the nation’s best-respected independent news services, including those that previously operated in exile before the country’s political opening began in 2012.

All of those new agencies and websites have recently published interviews with AA leaders, including its commander Tun Myat Naing.

The Irrawaddy editor Ye Ni was charged in March by the military under a criminal defamation provision over his publication’s coverage of an AA-Tatmadaw clash that resulted last year in civilian deaths in Rakhine state.

Having failed to defeat the upstart AA, a highly mobile force with no permanent bases fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state, the Tatmadaw has turned against what they consider its “PR network” — i.e. the media — and its funding sources.

Recent massive drug busts in northern Shan state should be viewed in this perspective, intelligence sources say.

In May, the Tatmadaw claimed to upend three major drug laboratories and capture 43 million methamphetamine pills, a suspected source of AA revenues through sales it allegedly facilitates in Bangladesh and India.   

Singapore authorities, meanwhile, have begun to crack down on the activities of Rakhine (Arakanese) support groups active in the city-state, while ties have been established with military intelligence officials in Thailand to take action against Rakhine exiles there who are suspected of having AA ties.

A Myanmar woman wearing a traditional facial cosmetic has her temperature taken as a preventive measure against a Covid-19 outbreak, Yangon, March 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

These military actions are not likely to attract much attention or protest amid the global Covid-19 crisis, though rights groups are starting to clamor about the gathering Internet and media clampdowns.

The Tatmadaw, meanwhile, is settling into its new status as the undisputed defender of the nation in a health emergency, while Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government for the first time since it was formed in 2015 is being forced to make major concessions to armed forces instead of vice versa.

The Covid-19 crisis, while still incipient in Myanmar with unknown consequences ahead, is giving rise to a new military-dominant order that once established will be hard to roll back.

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