Myanmar leaders use pandemic as political weapon

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Bangkok

With coronavirus deaths rising in Myanmar, allegations are growing from residents and human rights activists that the military government, which seized control in February, is using the pandemic to consolidate power and crush opposition.

In the last week, the per capita death rate in Myanmar surpassed those of Indonesia and Malaysia to become the worst in Southeast Asia.

The country’s crippled health care system has rapidly become overwhelmed with new patients sick with COVID-19.

Supplies of medical oxygen are running low, and the government has restricted its private sale in many places, saying it is trying to prevent hoarding.

But that has led to widespread allegations that the stocks are being directed to government supporters and military-run hospitals.

At the same time, medical workers have been targeted after spearheading a civil disobedience movement that urged professionals and civil servants not to cooperate with the government, known as the State Administrative Council.

“They have stopped distributing personal protection equipment and masks, and they will not let civilians who they suspect are supporting the democracy movement be treated in hospitals, and they’re arresting doctors who support the civil disobedience movement,” said Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s former Myanmar human rights expert and a founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.

“With the oxygen, they have banned sales to civilians or people who are not supported by the SAC, so they’re using something theat can save the people against the people,” she said. “The military is weaponizing COVID.”

Myanmar’s Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun did not respond to questions about the allegations, but with growing internal and external pressure to get the pandemic under control, the leadership has been on a public relations offensive.

In the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper this week, several articles highlighted the government’s efforts, including what it called a push to resume vaccinations and increase oxygen supplies.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander who heads the SAC, was cited as saying that efforts were also being made to seek support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and unspecified “friendly countries.”

“Efforts must be made for ensuring better health of the State and the people,” he was quoted as saying.

Myanmar reported another 342 deaths Thursday, and 5,234 new infections. Its 7-day rolling average of deaths per 1 million people rose to 6.29 — more than double the rate of 3.04 in India at the peak of its crisis in May.

The figures in Myanmar are thought to be a drastic undercount due to lack of testing and reporting.

“There is a big difference between the actual death toll from COVID-19 of the Military Council and reality,” a physician from the Mawlamyine General Hospital in Myanmar’s fourth-largest city told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.—AP

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