Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Buddhist monk wearing a face mask holds an oxygen tank for refill outside the Naing oxygen factory at the South Dagon industrial zone in Yangon, Myanmar, on July 28.

The Associated Press

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 past 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.

Story continues below advertisement

At the same time, medical workers have been targeted after spearheading a civil disobedience movement that urged professionals and civil servants not to co-operate 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 UN’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 that can save the people against the people,” she said. “The military is weaponizing COVID-19.”

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 General 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.

Story continues below advertisement

Myanmar reported another 342 deaths Thursday, and 5,234 new infections. Its seven-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. “There are a lot of people in the community who have died of the disease and cannot be counted.”

Videos proliferate on social media showing apparent virus victims dead in their homes for lack of treatment and long lines of people waiting for what oxygen supplies are still available. The government denies reports that cemeteries in Yangon have been overwhelmed but announced Tuesday they were building new facilities that could cremate up to 3,000 bodies per day.

“By letting COVID-19 run out of control, the military junta is failing the Burmese people as well as the wider region and world, which can be threatened by new variants fuelled by unchecked spread of the disease in places like Myanmar,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The problem is the junta cares more about holding on to power than stopping the pandemic.”

Myanmar is one of the region’s poorest countries and already was in a vulnerable position when the military seized power, triggering a violent political struggle.

Under the civilian former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar had weathered a coronavirus surge last year by severely restricting travel and sealing off Yangon. Vaccines were secured from India and China, but Suu Kyi’s government was ousted less than a week after the first shots were given.

Story continues below advertisement

As civil disobedience grew after Suu Kyi’s removal, public hospitals were basically closed as doctors and other staff refused to work under the new administration, instead running makeshift clinics for which they faced arrest, if caught.

Some have returned to public hospitals, but the Mawlamyine doctor interviewed by AP said it was too dangerous.

“I could be arrested by the junta any time if I returned to the hospital,” added the doctor, who was part of the disobedience movement and has been treating patients with supplies he has scrounged.

According to Tom Andrews, the UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, government forces have engaged in at least 260 attacks on medical personnel and facilities, killing 18. At least 67 health care professionals had been detained and another 600 are being sought.

Military hospitals kept operating after Suu Kyi’s ouster but were shunned by many people and the vaccination program slowed to a crawl before apparently fizzling out completely until this past week. There are no solid figures on vaccinations, but it’s believed that about 3 per cent of the population could have received two shots.

The rapid rise in COVID-19 illnesses is “extremely concerning, particularly with limited availability of health services and oxygen supplies,” said Joy Singhal, head of the Red Cross’ Myanmar delegation.

Story continues below advertisement

“There is an urgent need for greater testing, contact tracing and COVID-19 vaccinations to help curb the pandemic,” he told AP. “This latest surge is a bitter blow to millions of people in Myanmar already coping with worsening economic and social hardships.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Andrews urged the UN Security Council and member states to push for a “COVID-19 ceasefire.”

“The United Nations cannot afford to be complacent while the junta ruthlessly attacks medical personnel as COVID-19 spreads unchecked,” he said. “They must act to end this violence so that doctors and nurses can provide lifesaving care and international organizations can help deliver vaccinations and related medical care.”

After a long lull in humanitarian aid, China recently began delivering vaccines. It sent 736,000 doses to Yangon this month, the first of two million being donated, and reportedly more than 10,000 to the Kachin Independence Army, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in a northern border area where the virus has spilled over into China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment directly earlier this week on the report of the delivery to the KIA, noting instead “the epidemic is a common enemy to all mankind.”

The Global New Light reported Myanmar received another one million doses purchased from China.

Story continues below advertisement

COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported as widespread in Myanmar’s prisons. On Wednesday, state-run MRTV television showed what it said were 610 prisoners from Yangon’s Insein Prison being vaccinated. The report was met with skepticism and derision on social media.

Ms. Lee said if the government is trying to use vaccines and other aid to its advantage by positioning itself as the solution to the pandemic, it’s too late.

“The people know now and it’s been too long,” she said. “COVID-19 was not man-made but it got out of proportion because of complicity and deliberate blockage of services – there’s no going back.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies