Villagers walk along a road in Buthidaung township in restive Rakhine state after fighting between the Arakan Army and Myanmar troops in January 2019. (Photo: Richard Sargent/AFP)
While the Myanmar government said its response to the Covid-19 pandemic has left “no one behind,” thousands of civilians including children, women and the elderly have no time to pack their belongings and flee their homes.
The civilians displaced by the ongoing fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine are afraid of getting killed in the escalating conflict rather than being infected with the deadly coronavirus.
Despite calls for a global ceasefire by the UN chief and Pope Francis, clashes continue to displace local populations and more civilians are being killed and injured.
The renewed conflict flared up in December 2018 and intensified earlier this year in spite of the Covid-19 crisis.
More than 78,000 internally displace persons have been hosted at 186 sites across Rakhine and neighboring Chin state since January 2019, according to the latest UN report.
The civilian population bears the brunt of this conflict due to repeated armed clashes with heavy weapons in populated areas.
Sharp rise in child casualties
Save the Children said violence against children during the Rakhine conflict has been on a sharp rise and the number of children killed or maimed in the violence rose sixfold in the first three months of this year compared with the previous three months.
Some 18 children were killed and 71 were injured or maimed between January and March in central Rakhine state alone, compared with three killed and 12 injured between October and December 2019.
“Extortion, killing and maiming are the top three abuses impacting children in central Rakhine,” Save the Children said, adding that “severe underreporting of violations against children continues to be a huge challenge across Myanmar.”
Duncan Harvey, Save the Children’s national director in Myanmar, said children are at serious risk of being killed or maimed in the clashes between the Myanmar military and various armed groups, all the while having to cope with the threat of Covid-19.
“We cannot forget the children of Myanmar who continue to face daily risks to their safety, health and well-being,” Harvey said.
He said the widespread use of mines and improvised explosive devices poses a specific threat to children — for instance, while playing, picking fruit or walking to and from school.
The UN’s children and armed conflict report released last week recorded at least 423 incidents of “grave violations against children” in recent months, including the killing of at least 41 children and maiming of 120 others, some as young as six months old.
The UN also reported 12 attacks against schools and the abduction of 12 children by non-state armed actors. Previously, the UN had accused the military of recruiting child soldiers and employing child laborers to carry bricks and harvest rice at their barracks.
The report described as shocking the decision of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres to delist Myanmar’s military for “grave violations” of recruitment and use of children and called for an independent assessment of the decision.
A million people in the dark
A million people in a conflict-stricken region don’t even know about the global coronavirus pandemic amid the world’s longest-running internet shutdown since June 2019.
Myanmar’s authorities ordered telecom companies to block mobile internet coverage in nine villages across the two states in June last year, causing panic among residents amid the lack of information over the unrest and awareness of Covid-19.
Local activists and rights groups have appealed for an end to the blackout as coronavirus fears grip the region.
The UN warned that the unprecedented internet blackout was endangering the lives of vulnerable civilians facing the pandemic.
“Disruption of internet services disproportionately impacts those who rely on timely, credible information to protect their lives and access humanitarian assistance,” said James Rodehaver, a senior human rights official in the UN's Southeast Asia regional office.
“Vulnerable communities are being deprived of potentially life-saving public health information during an unprecedented global pandemic and intensifying violence.”
Myanmar has reported 292 cases of Covid-19 including six deaths and 200 recoveries, according to the latest data.
Young activists in Myanmar have also made campaigns to end internet blackouts in Rakhine and Chin states.
They turned to Facebook, the main social media in the country, by wearing T-shirts that say “End the internet blackout.”
A banner that was hung in Yangon, the commercial city of Myanmar, reads: “Is it an internet blackout in order to hide the killing and war crimes?”
Cardinal Charles Bo has drawn attention to refugees and internally displaced persons who are at risk from Covid-19. He said war is still displacing tens of thousands of people who are now starving in northern Rakhine and southern Chin states.
“The failure to extend the ceasefire to all parts of Myanmar affects peace across Asia. Conflict leads to victory for no one,” he said in a homily on June 21.
“We are made to love but our original sin makes us slaves to hatred. History is a river of blood of hatred. This is hell on earth.
“How to transform this world into heaven on earth? Once love replaces all the war and hatred, then humanity will enter a new civilization.”