CHIANG MAI – Covid-19 lockdowns and internal travel restrictions have been lifted across Myanmar but that doesn’t mean its virus crisis is over – far from it.
Myanmar has officially confirmed only 316 Covid-19 cases and six related deaths, figures that many observers doubt are an accurate portrayal of the nation’s underlying viral situation.
But even if Myanmar’s Covid-19 figures are unrealistic, economic, social and political fallout from the health crisis is nearly certain.
Myanmar’s economic growth is projected to drop from 6.8% in fiscal 2018-2019 to just 0.5% in 2019-2020, according to World Bank estimates released on June 25. That assessment, considering the impact of lockdowns on the nation’s already impoverished population, could understate the human suffering to come.
Economic distress, meanwhile, is impacting politics as the country gears up for November 8 elections that will pit State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling New League for Democracy (NLD) against the rival military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The NLD is widely expected to win another five-year term, but observers in the commercial center Yangon wonder if military authorities will impose Covid-related restrictions on rallies and potentially use social controls to tilt the electoral playing field more in the USDP’s favor.
However, it may also be in the interest of the NLD to curb the activities of ethnic and smaller parties, so a ban on large gatherings could be favored by the government as well.
Already activists and other civil society members say they fear that the strict social and media controls imposed to contain the virus could become permanent, leading the nominally democratic country back to a form of de facto military rule in the name of health security.
If there is a larger or second wave of infections, the military can claim with good reason that it is the only national institution capable of dealing with such a crisis. If the military draws on the country’s previous pandemic experience, the political implications could be wide-reaching.
During the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic, about 2-3% of the country’s then estimated 12 million people died from the disease, according to Judith Richell’s “Disease and Demography in Colonial Burma”, as the country was then known under British colonial rule.
If those figures are even remotely correct, it means that anywhere between 240,000-360,000 people perished from the disease. According to other estimates quoted on the Myanmar history website Lost Footsteps, “Agriculture in many parts of the country by 1918 was virtually paralyzed” and “up to 400,000 people died from the pandemic.”
British colonial authorities launched a vigorous vaccination campaign in Myanmar, and although the intentions may have been benign, it inadvertently resulted in a strengthening of British colonial rule, particularly in central parts of the country.
That, combined with colonial repression and humiliation, sparked a number of uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s. The most severe occurred in 1930-32 when a mystic and former monk known as Saya San raised a resistance army and fought for a return to the supposed glory of pre-colonial, monarchic rule.
The anti-colonial movement gained further steam through the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, sparking the independence movement that was finally achieved in 1948 but finally failed to unify the ethnically diverse nation, currently home to the world’s longest-running civil wars.
It is, of course, still too early to tell whether post-Covid Myanmar will see similar pandemic-sparked scenarios.
But with a looming economic crisis, a military that is stubbornly clinging to power and unresolved ethnic wars, some suggest the past repeat itself, though with the military possibly in the role of the nation’s ex-colonial masters.
Myanmar’s current virus-caused economic devastation, caused by the closures of factories and other businesses across the country, has been accentuated by waves of returning migrant workers from neighboring Thailand and China.
Most of them are now unemployed, meaning they are no longer providing remittances to keep their families and households afloat.
While other regional governments have readied Covid-19 relief packages for unemployed workers and suffering businesses, the NLD government lacks the funds to contend with an economic crisis of this projected magnitude.
But its more likely that frustrated citizens, particularly in the country’s ethnic frontier areas, will look to blame the military rather than the NLD government for their plights. (The NLD, for its part, will be blamed for not curbing the military’s power).
That’s especially so in western Rakhine state, where the Myanmar army is battling elusive guerrillas from the Arakan Army, and, according to independent observers, suffering heavy casualties.
Mobile internet area has been shut down in eight townships in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state since June last year, resulting in “the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown”, according to Human Rights Watch, a rights group.
Despite another scheduled round of talks between the government and various ethnic armed organizations, few observers expect the moribund peace process to gain momentum in the lead-up to the November polls.
Indeed, the combination of Covid-19 and unrelenting fighting could see the military ban voting in various ethnic constituencies, denying some of the country’s most agitated areas their democratic rights.
With Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions eased, it’s still possible that Myanmar will escape a severe and prolonged crisis and be propelled with new democratic vigor after the November polls.
But it’s just as possible the pandemic sparks a concatenation of events that fundamentally changes the country’s politics and society.