While Myanmar’s COVID-19 death toll of six is comparatively low, its fledgling civilian government is at risk of collapsing due to the novel coronavirus. With Myanmar’s military still controlling 25 percent of its parliament and a history of brutal crackdowns—not to mention the recent Rohingya crisis—COVID-19 is exacerbating the precarious balance between the military and civilians in power.
In March, Myanmar’s first COVID-19 case opened the door for a potential military takeover. In response, the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party attempted to activate the National Defense and Security Council, which would allow Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, to take executive emergency action. While ultimately a joint civilian-military Emergency Response Committee was formed to address the pandemic, the five-year-old democratic government is not in the clear.
The pandemic has already caused an increase in military or government control in many other countries. Spain used emergency powers to take over all private hospitals. Israel is employing the Shin Bet, its internal security agency, to track citizens via cellphones to enforce quarantines. Romania canceled its elections earlier this year. Ethiopia postponed elections. Numerous other countries have declared states of emergency or authorized emergency powers.
History shows that emergency powers that are instated during a crisis are rarely reversed or scaled back, even after the crisis is over. Notable examples include post-9/11 surveillance in the US that continued past the intended expiration date and the three-decade emergency powers that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak used to consolidate his power with repressive security measures.
In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw could easily override the civilian government’s efforts against COVID-19 and use the pandemic as an excuse to resume permanent control of the government, a fact made even more alarming due to elections approaching later this year.
Already, the Tatmadaw has used COVID-19 as a distraction from its continued onslaught against the Rohingya, a religious minority, in Rakhine State. In April, an entire Rohingya village was burned to the ground with little to no attention from the international press.
If stricter lockdowns are imposed, many people would be forced to continue working to avoid starvation, a fact not helped by the many nationals who might have COVID-19 or be carriers returning illegally to the country. Testing is still at a minimal capacity, so State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi may not be able to enforce anti-COVID measures without the Tatmadaw. But given the Tatmadaw’s track record, its enforcement of lockdown would prove bloody and brutal.
Cases are not expected to spike in Myanmar until October, but if Suu Kyi wants to protect the civilian government from the Tatmadaw, she will have to fight harder than ever to contain COVID-19 by all means possible—from news outlets to small fines—so long as they do not involve military enforcement.