Tun Myint on Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19

Tun Myint, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Political Science at Carleton College. Professor Myint earned his PhD in 2005 from the joint program of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the School of Law at Indiana University, Bloomington. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU, teaching and engaging in research on democracy and environmental governance with a regional focus on Southeast Asia. His research examines the role of individuals and groups in the dynamic relationship between social changes and global environmental changes with the focus on democracy, development, globalization, and sustainability. His publications have appeared in Ecology & Society, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Legal Issues in Burma Journal, and Perspectives on Politics. He is the author of Governing International Rivers: Polycentric Politics in the Mekong and the Rhine. Professor Myint served as a member of the Technical Advisory Team of the Federal Constitution Drafting Coordinating Committee of the Union of Burma from 2000 to 2005, and was previously Research Fellow of Asia Policy Program, a joint program of the National Bureau of Research and Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

Zixuan (Evelyn) Smith CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Tun Myint on October 8, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Tun Myint.

Can you briefly describe for our readers the seriousness of the COVID pandemic in Myanmar today? As many authoritarian states have been underreporting COVID-19 cases, do you think the military rule in Myanmar has been accurately reporting their COVID-related data?

No, the military council is not a government; it is mostly a council. I'm not going to use the term government because it is not functioning as a government. The military council has not been reporting the data that should be reported -- the actual situation of COVID.

The Myanmar junta seized power in the Feb. 1 coup. There are reports that it has denied oxygen supply to private clinics, which is primarily occupied by doctors who opposed its military rule and refused to work in state hospitals. Their action has sparked further dissent from civilians. What are the military regime’s motivations to deprive private clinics of oxygen supply, despite knowing further dissent would emerge?

We can speculate about three possible reasons. The first reason could be to make sure the oxygen that Myanmar has is reserved for military families and soldiers.

The second is that there is a severe shortage of oxygen. In that case, they would like to manage it, as they were indicating in some news outlets, instead of giving it to the public because the public may be hoarding or storing oxygen without needing it urgently. Those who need it most urgently may not be able to get it, and so the supply is held back. The third reason is that COVID has certain perverse advantages for the junta, and the commitment to stop it is unclear. For example, naturally and softly, COVID can basically take care of the protesters by making them sick. In that case, you could speculate so far as to see the spread of COVID as a means of suppressing protest. The dangers of COVID also provide a way of cracking down on people's movement. In other words, although it is perhaps too convenient a reason for the military, when people are protesting in the streets, it is best to allow the danger or spread of COVID to be a way to ultimately shutdown the protests. 

This is all speculation because the military council did not explicitly say why they were doing it and what they were doing with the oxygen supply.

The military ruler in Myanmar has also denied its people access to supplies from oxygen producers, whom it accuses of price-gouging. Do you think the military regime is using limited access to oxygen supply to punish entities that defy its rule, even at the cost of lost civilian lives? 

That has been reported but I don't think it is a good idea for the military. Price gouging is not part of what I’ve learned about from local sellers and buyers. In fact, the Burmese are very generous in terms of sharing common pool resources or public goods, such as water. From a Burmese cultural perspective, if people try to make a material profit out of this dire situation, they will face deep social sanctioning after the COVID crisis. So, I don't think many companies would even imagine doing so because it would have consequences for their future businesses and for their image. The image, or the face, is very important in Asia. Saving face is one of the key calculations when people are making decisions in many Asian contexts. That is the reason why price gouging was basically an excuse, cooked up by the military council.

In July, soldiers in the city of Yangon fired into a crowd of civilians lined up to buy oxygen tanks. Are there other instances of the military using its force and control of resources to pressure or punish anti-regime groups? How would you assess the impact of the regime’s combined use of public-health-related and military actions? 

There are reports that I read, both on Facebook and actual  published reports, where doctors and nurses, who may be participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), are volunteering out of the goodness of their hearts to help with COVID patients. They were broadcasting their phone number through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter so that patients could call them. Those patients who cannot call have different colors of flags that represent the level of urgency, such as a white flag or yellow flag. If they are alone, living in a house or an apartment and they don't have anybody to call when they get sick, they can put out a flag. When the military regime -- the police and the soldiers on the street -- saw these flags, they began to interfere with that process. There were reported cases of doctors and nurses being arrested, tortured, and in some cases, even being killed for just helping COVID patients. So that really is very disturbing news for the Burmese people. The military council lost all kinds of legitimacy, trust and respect from the people.

U Nyan Win, a spokesperson of the former ruling party and Aung San Suu Kyi's personal attorney, died of COVID-19 contracted in prison, among many other political prisoners. How has the international community responded to the junta’s withholding access to healthcare for political opponents? Can any outside pressure change the junta’s behavior?  Is the junta getting any support from China?

The international community's response was typical. “Deeply concerned” is the term that they used, from the United Nations Security Council, Human Rights Council, and all kinds of UN diplomats. Indeed, the international community is deeply concerned with what Burmese people have received in terms of care. 

The Burmese military, the Chinese military, and the Chinese Communist Party have a relationship that is mutually beneficial for their own arrangement of power, control of resources, and the regional distribution of power. In that sense, the Chinese government might have provided resources, such as the Chinese COVID vaccine SinoVac. In fact, last week there was a report that about 15 million doses of COVID vaccines from China were distributed, most likely to the military families and the members of the political party USDP. Anything left over might be given to the public. China has that sort of relationship with the regime, and it is in their interest to pursue a give-and-take approach to gain access to Burma’s economic resources. In return, they will give the Myanmar military COVID vaccines. While I cannot confirm the source, the media has reported that.

Do you think the weaponization of COVID-19 is an effective strategy to strengthen rule for Myanmar’s junta? What do you think are the benefits and costs of this strategy?

Not at all. I can't imagine the military council using COVID effectively as a suppression of protest and public life in Myanmar. The COVID crisis has pushed people to a level now that they don't want to see people in a uniform, and not just a military uniform but even a uniform of a civil servant. Civil servants -- for instance those working for the municipality as engineers taking care of the electric power lines -- can be seen as representing elements of the military council or the government. They are hated. Public trust and all kinds of moral foundations of legitimacy that citizens all over the world would think about their countries and their government are gone in Myanmar right now. 

That is why we're seeing all-out insurgencies across the country. As you read in the news, you see shootings, the killing of military-related people, and also military businesses being targeted. This occurs by members of the public themselves, without any central command; they are locally taking place. You can imagine what is happening now in the minds of the public, as the military regime was shooting in the streets, torturing people, killing kids and students before the third wave of COVID cases. How it responded to the COVID crisis and used the COVID crisis to suppress negative public sentiment against the coup -- you can sort of draw from that and conclude the regime is in a dire situation in terms of public trust.

A wide range of insurgencies are rising all over Myanmar. Do the Myanmar people have a shared objective in mind for their protests? 

They have a pretty good idea and also a shared interest in recognizing the election outcome on November 8, 2020, represented by the national unity government. The international community is beginning to recognize the national unity government. The French parliament and the European Parliament recently voted to proceed with a resolution to recognize the national unity government as the legitimate body that represents the Burmese people. So far, the United Nations has made the decision, as revealed in the June 18 resolution, that the coup was unacceptable under international law and any standard of democracy. The General Assembly then had requested the international community to impose economic sanctions and an arms embargo, which is especially important. So, this international front is rising. The number one political goal here is to recognize the outcome of the election on November 8, 2020, which was nullified by the coup. 

The more visionary, future-oriented goal is to establish an inclusive open federal democratic union among all the ethnic groups in Burma. That is probably a more deeply shared goal than the first goal. The first goal is more a political arrangement to move through the second goal that Myanmar people have. 

Eventually the final goal, if we can easily define it, is long-standing peace. Permanent peace is needed to move forward with what Myanmar was able to do between 2010 and 2020, in terms of the imperfect democratic transition that took place. So, what the public is doing backs all those three goals.


Zixuan (Evelyn) Wang CMC '22Student Journalist

MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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