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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The time bomb next door

The general who usurped power in a coup in Myanmar in February this week named himself prime minister and extended emergency rule for two more years.

In an hour-long speech, Min Aung Hlaing pledged to hold a “free and fair multi-party election,” a promise rendered meaningless as he called the elected party he removed “terrorists.”

Hundreds have since died in continuing protests against the February coup.

Tragically, many of the protesters were health care workers in a system that has collapsed under the crushing weight of a massive surge in COVID-19 infections.

Myanmar has so far reported 300,000 cases and 9,300 deaths, those numbers are most likely vastly understated.

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

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.

“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,” the UN’s former Myanmar human rights expert told the Associated Press.

“[T]hey’re using something that can save the people against the people,” she said. “The military is weaponizing COVID.”

But in his televised speech, the military dictator Min Aung Hlaing accused those opposing the coup of deliberately spreading COVID-19.

He spoke of “fake news and misinformation via social networks” about his government’s COVID policies, calling it a “tool of bioterrorism.”

From Bangkok, the BBC said this formed part of a strange speech, ranging from the need to grow more cotton and onions to condemnation of those trying to destroy the state and Myanmar’s traditions.

In the meantime, the crackdown on free speech continues unabated.

Since the Feb. 1 coup, the military has arrested 98 journalists, 46 of whom are currently in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Six journalists have been convicted, including five for violating a new provision of the penal code that makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” “Fake news” appears to be any news that the authorities do not want to reach the public.

All this constitutes a ticking time bomb for Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, each of which is already struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. A health meltdown in Myanmar would have a disastrous impact on the rest of the region and put all efforts to contain COVID-19 at risk.

This should be at the top of the agenda for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose foreign ministers meet this week. Back in April, the foreign ministers presented a “five-point consensus” for ending the turmoil in Myanmar. Today, four months later, the ASEAN “solution” can at best be politely described as a floundering diplomatic effort that has failed even on the most basic level of appointing a special envoy to a member-nation groaning under the boot of its military rulers.

Clearly, ASEAN’s policy of appeasement has done nothing to improve matters. Strong action, not words, might be the language that Myanmar’s illegitimate rulers finally understand.

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