A Rohingya refugee performs prayers at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in August 2018. Two Covid-19 cases have been reported at the overcrowded camp. (Photo: AFP)
The news that Covid-19 has reached the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border was the news we have all feared since the pandemic began — and hoped never to hear. The confirmation of at least two cases of coronavirus infections in the world’s largest refugee camp has led aid organizations to warn of an impending humanitarian disaster.
I have visited the Rohingya refugee camps twice. I can guarantee from first-hand observation that concepts such as social distancing, self-isolation and even regular hand washing are an impossibility in overcrowded camps where families live cheek by jowl, with very little clean water supply, poor sanitation and rudimentary healthcare. Once the virus is in the camp, it will take a miracle to prevent it from spreading like wildfire.
And it begs the question: have the Rohingya not suffered enough? They have fled a genocide in their homeland in Myanmar, where they were marginalized, dehumanized, treated by the military, the government and society as a whole as subhuman, and rendered stateless — accused of being Bengali and stripped of their citizenship rights in Myanmar but not accepted by Bangladesh except as temporary refugees. I remember on my first visit to the camps in 2008 one person looked me in the eye and said: “We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake. Where do we go?”
So desperate is their plight that thousands of Rohingya have risked a dangerous journey by sea to other Southeast Asian countries — Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in particular. Many die at sea, but those who survive often find themselves being turned away on arrival. Those who make it through face yet more discrimination even in those countries that give them refuge.
The Rohingya are among the most persecuted people groups in the world. To be hit by a pandemic after a genocide seems like the ultimate injustice. And although they have visibly suffered the most egregious assaults on their human dignity, they are not alone among Myanmar’s persecuted minorities. Inside Myanmar the military’s offensives against ethnic nationalities continue, particularly in Rakhine, Kachin, northern Shan and Karen states.
This drew the ire of the European Union and the United Kingdom at a discussion at the UN Security Council this week. European member states on the Security Council called for a nationwide ceasefire in Myanmar. Although the Myanmar military announced a ceasefire last week, it does not apply to Rakhine and Chin states, where the conflict is most intense.
In April, the military bombed villages in Paletwa township in Chin state, killing civilians and destroying homes and churches. An attack on a World Health Organization (WHO) vehicle transporting swabs from suspected Covid-19 patients in Rakhine state to Yangon for testing killed the driver and injured another health worker.
The outgoing United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, in her final statement before completing her term, warned of new “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” by the military. Chillingly, she said: “We find bodies that have been decapitated. These are the highest, the most heinous and gravest crimes of international law.”
Even in ethnic areas where a ceasefire has been in place for almost a decade, it is under very severe strain. The Karen Peace Support Network has reported that this year the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has deployed over 2,000 troops and fired hundreds of mortar shells in Karen state despite its existing ceasefire. “Hundreds of villagers have fled to hide in the jungle, and thousands more are preparing to flee. Villagers have been tortured, shot at indiscriminately and killed,” the network said.
Disaster in the making
If Covid-19 spreads among Myanmar’s most vulnerable — those displaced by conflict, internally or as refugees along the borders, in the midst of an armed conflict, religious and racial intolerance and political tensions ahead of scheduled elections in November — a serious disaster could unfold.
The Myanmar government’s restrictions on access for humanitarian aid organizations to internally displaced persons (IDPs), international aid cuts in some areas and a failure to provide life-saving information compound the gravity of the situation.
Last month a network of humanitarian groups in Kachin and northern Shan state called for urgent action to ensure basic food security, humanitarian access and protection. In northern Myanmar alone over 120,000 people are in 173 IDP camps — and if they don’t fall victim to the pandemic, they face the challenge of starvation or war.
“It is crucial that the humanitarian community, local, national and international, comes together to save the lives of IDPs, protect their dignity and rights, and avoids massive deaths,” came the cry from a meeting of civil society groups in Kachin and northern Shan two months ago titled “The Spirit of Myitkyina.” Will the world hear them?
So far Myanmar has reported only 181 cases of Covid-19 and only six deaths. But as the country’s Cardinal Charles Maun Bo said in a recent statement, even though the virus in Myanmar has been slower in coming, he warns that may only mean it will last longer. The worst affected, he suggests, “are those who cannot socially isolate, who do not have water to wash, who have lost their jobs and so have no daily income, who return to their country as unemployed, hungry migrant workers, who do not have a government that looks out for them. For many the priority is to ‘flatten the curve’ of hunger.”
Cardinal Bo has warned that continued armed conflict in Myanmar during the pandemic would have “catastrophic consequences for our nation.” He called on Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed resistance groups to “lay down all weapons and acts of aggression. Be armed instead with sincerity and truth. Let us take the more difficult path of overcoming differences face to face with courage and intelligence. Don’t hide humanity behind guns. In the end that is sheer weakness.”
And he argued: “Soldiers are unnecessarily endangered by exposure to the unseen viral assassin. Civilians are endangered, even by bombardments purportedly aimed at military targets. Peace negotiations are endangered by continued aggressive threats. An economy under severe strain is put at risk by military adventures. Any spike in contagion in IDP camps, among detained persons or in crowded spaces, gravely threatens the surrounding populations as well.”
Until now Myanmar appears not to have been badly hit by the pandemic, which is surprising in itself given its proximity to China, where Covid-19 originated, and given the spread throughout the region and the world. But there is no room for complacency. The arrival of the virus in the Rohingya camps demands an immediate international response — both to meet the humanitarian needs there and to prevent it spreading to other vulnerable communities in Myanmar.
The international community must act urgently by providing aid and increasing pressure on the Myanmar authorities to stop the military offensives completely. The international community must insist on unhindered humanitarian access to all parts of the country. Failure to do so will only add yet another tragedy to a long litany of woes suffered by an already benighted country and further set back hopes of a better future for Myanmar — hopes that have already been undermined in recent years by the rise in religious and racial intolerance.
For the Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine and other ethnic groups in particular, fleeing conflict and crimes against humanity, they live in a tinderbox. Let us act to prevent that tinderbox being ignited by Covid-19.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at international human rights organization CSW and author of three books on Myanmar. He is also a trustee of the Phan Foundation and the Chin Human Rights Organization.