Save Myanmar from a perfect storm

Save Myanmar from a perfect storm

It was no surprise that Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power from Myanmar’s civilian government six months ago, declared himself the country’s prime minister early last week.

Nor was it a surprise that elections and the lifting of a state of emergency, originally promised within a year of the Tatmadaw’s Feb 1 power grab, will now take place no sooner than August 2023.

“In order to perform the country’s duties fast, easily and effectively, the State Administration Council has been re-formed as the caretaker government,” a newsreader on military-owned Myawaddy TV declared, using the official name the junta has given itself.

For six months Myanmar has been plagued by street demonstrations demanding the release of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a restoration of democracy. And while civil disobedience has decreased because of violent crackdowns, there is little sign that opponents of military rule have given up the fight.

From Feb 1 to Aug 1, 939 people had been killed by the authorities, according to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Save the Children said 75 children in Myanmar have been killed, citing figures from the United Nations, though the actual number is thought to be much higher. At least 104 children, some as young as 7, remain in detention, the London-based organisation added.

Distrust of the junta has meanwhile fuelled the spiralling of the pandemic in Myanmar, where official figures put Covid infections at 315,000 and deaths around 10,600. Medical workers have been targeted by authorities after spearheading the civil disobedience movement that urged professionals and civil servants not to cooperate with the government.

Doctors and nurses, already in short supply, have been continually harassed by a regime unhappy to be opposed by a well-organised professional group. Desperate citizens have struggled to get their hands on oxygen cylinders, with demand soaring and sales or refills restricted on the pretext of trying to control hoarding.

So far, less than 3.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed in a population of 54 million — one of the lowest rates in the region. Doctors Without Borders says the “uncontrolled community spread” of the virus has been fuelled by the junta’s gross mismanagement of the crisis and a collapsing health sector.

The health emergency, experts say, is compounded by floods in parts of the country, widespread unrest and clashes in borderlands that have displaced tens of thousands, plus an economy expected to be almost a third smaller by the end of this fiscal year than it would have been without Covid and the coup.

The situation of many families is growing increasingly desperate. A Save the Children survey of 1,500 households in seven regions found the crisis was affecting the ability of about 75% to meet basic needs. About 34% of respondents reported a total loss of income since the coup.

The World Bank predicts an 18% drop in Myanmar’s GDP this year, while the International Labour Organization estimates that 2.2 million jobs have been lost since the start of 2021.

The international community has talked a lot about Myanmar but has been unable to do anything meaningful to reverse the damage. It was only last week that Asean finally managed to settle on a special envoy to attempt talks with the Tatmadaw.

That unenviable task will fall to Brunei’s second foreign minister, Erywan Yusof. The 10-member bloc has been reluctant to push Myanmar’s military to abide by the modest five-point consensus agreed to in April, which among other things calls for a cessation of violence, leading to dialogue and humanitarian aid.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi expressed full support for Asean’s effort. Speaking at an online foreign ministers’ meeting also attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Mr Motegi said Japan was keeping an eye on the situation in Myanmar where the circumstances have “not improved”.

Mr Blinken also called on Asean to urge the junta toward restoring democracy. Disappointingly, yet not surprisingly, Mr Wang played down the situation.

The West can still use its leverage to press Asean to do more than belatedly appoint a special envoy and express concern. In any case, it is hoped that key stakeholders in the country can be brought toward effective dialogue to get out of this multi-layered crisis.

People in Myanmar are showing admirable resilience and strength, but they cannot weather this perfect storm on their own. Help is urgently needed.