COVID-19 Op-ed

Low Connectivity amid Conflict and COVID-19: A Deadly Concoction in Rakhine State

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Nyein Nyein Thant
Aung
Student, Master of Arts in Human Rights
(International Program),
IHRP, Mahidol
University

After nearly thirty days of no COVID-19 local transmissions in
Myanmar, one news shocked the country on 16 August 2020. A resident in Sittwe
of Rakhine State, with no history of travelling and contact with any
patients, was found positive (Htay, 2020). Since then, nearly a hundred
people tested positive per day, according to the statistics of the Ministry
of Health and Sport (MOHS) Myanmar (Narinjara, 2020). It was announced that
the contagious nature of the virus is similar to the type found in Malaysia,
which is ten times more infectious than the original virus strain (Htwe,
2020).In addition to the increasing concerns regarding the second wave of
infections, the armed conflicts between Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) and Arakan
Army (AA) have not de-escalated yet. Apart from compounded struggles faced by
Rohingya refugees, confrontations between Tatmadaw and AA have resulted to
about 190,700 internally displaced peoples (IDPs), 180 deaths of civilian
causalities, and 589 injured, according to Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) in
July 2020. What we can uniformly say is that neither parties wanted to ,
amidst threats of COVID-19 transmission (Carter, 2020; Chan et al., 2020;
DMG, 2020).In addition to armed conflict, the government cut the internet
access in five townships of Rakhine State, which lasted for more than a year.
The Ministry of Transport and Communication (MoTC) continuously jusrified the
shutdown as a matter of security and public interest (Telenor, 2020). Every
time parliamentarians tried to submit an emergency proposal, their attempts
get rejected (Thura, 2019). Telcom operators eventually restored internet (2G
connection) in August 2020 (Kyaw, 2020; Tun, 2020). Still, peoples living in
camps find it almost impossible to access timely information about COVID-19
(Chan, 2020; Mra, 2020).On 19 August, MOHS updated its COVID-19 guidelines on
its website and social media platforms. A day after, it announced a Stay at
Home Directive (93.2020) for Sittwe Township (MOHS, 2020). Nonetheless,
people with poor or no internet connecttion are unable to fully access this
life-saving information. Within a year of internet shutdown, the traditional
word of mouth became the only means of communication (Thu, 2020). Key updates
on the pandemic could hardly penetrate these conflict areas.Before cutting
internet access, the Government limited humanitarian assistance for IDPs
provided by INGOs and NGOs. After the attack of AA on 4 January 2019, NGOs,
except International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and World Food Program
(WFP) , were largely restricted (Aung, 2019). Local organizations attempted
to provide aid; however, they were barred from entering the areas where IDPs
live (BBC Burmese, 2018; Cho and Chan, 2019). In addition, inter-township
traveling was banned by both central and local governments when local
COVID-19 transmissions in Rakhine State started happening (Narinjara,
2020).Access to information is an essential right in time of crisis. In the
case of Rakhine State, neither the NLD government nor the parliament made
significant efforts to alleviate the suffering of people who have been
displaced and are living in conflict areas. With or without COVID-19, every
person’s life and rights matter.  Unfortunately, as of this writing, no
light can be seen, yet, at the end of this long and winding
tunnel.References:Aung, N.L., 2019. Aid
groups barred from Rakhine conflict zones . Myanmar Times. URL https://www.mmtimes.com/news/aid-groups-barred-rakhine-conflict-zones.html
(accessed 8.23.20).BBC Burmese, 2018. ရခိုင်စစ်ဘေးရှောင်တွေကို
ကူညီဖို့သွားသူတွေ တားမြစ်ခံရ (Translation: Aids for Rakhine IDPs are not
allowed). BBC News မြန်မာ.Carter, L., 2020. Myanmar: Armed conflict puts
brakes on COVID-19 response | DW | 07.05.2020 . DW.COM. URL https://www.dw.com/en/myanmar-armed-conflict-puts-brakes-on-covid-19-response/a-53360164
(accessed 8.23.20).Chan, A.N., 2020. ‘If we stay, we die’ – villagers risk
perilous, days-long journeys to Yangon through Rakhine conflict zone .
Myanmar NOW. URL https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/if-we-stay-we-die-villagers-risk-perilous-days-long-journeys-to-yangon-through-rakhine-conflict
(accessed 8.21.20).Chan, A.N., Aung, P.T., Khaing, T.M., 2020. Rakhine
villagers still fleeing as second week of ‘clearance operation’ approaches .
Myanmar NOW. URL https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/rakhine-villagers-still-fleeing-as-second-week-of-clearance-operation-approaches
(accessed 8.21.20).Cho, P.T., Chan, A.N., 2019. တိုက်ပွဲများအတွင်း
ပိတ်မိကျေးရွာများ ရိက္ခာရရှိရန် တပ်နှင့်ညှိနှိုင်းသွားမည်ဟု လူကယ်ပြန်
ဝန်ကြီးပြော (Translation: MOSWRR Minister said, ’We will Negotiate with
Tatmadaw) . Myanmar NOW. URL https://www.myanmar-now.org/mm/news/556
(accessed 8.25.20).DMG, 2020. IDP advocate: ‘When troops visit, all people in
the camp are scared’ . Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/interview/1860-uwha-tn
(accessed 8.21.20).Htay, K.T., 2020. COVID-19 patient in Sittwe triggers
quarantine for 19 people in close contact . Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/news/1857-cb-cv-19
(accessed 8.21.20).Htwe, Z.Z., 2020. Myanmar’s Rakhine State Capital Under
Curfew as COVID-19 Cases Spike . The Irrawaddy. URL https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmars-rakhine-state-capital-curfew-covid-19-cases-spike.html
(accessed 8.22.20).Kyaw, M.T., 2020. ‘World’s longest internet shutdown’
ends, for now, in western Myanmar . Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/news/1801-in_b
(accessed 8.21.20).MOHS, 2020. ကျန်းမာရေးနှင့်အားကစားဝန်ကြီးဌာန အမိန့်အမှတ်၊
၉၃/ ၂၀၂၀ (Translation: MOHS Directive 93/2020).Mra, K.K., 2020. Fighting on
two fronts: the women facing conflict and COVID-19 in Rakhine state . Myanmar
NOW. URL https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/fighting-on-two-fronts-the-women-facing-conflict-and-covid-19-in-rakhine-state
(accessed 8.21.20).Narinjara, 2020. စစ္ေတြတြင္ ယေန႔ ေနာက္ထပ္ ၁၆ ဦးပိုးေတြ႕၊
ရခိုင္တြင္ေရာဂါပိုးေတြ႕ရွိသူ ၆၁ ဦးရွိသြားျပီျဖစ္ကာ တိုင္းႏွင့္ျပည္နယ္အလိုက္
ရခိုင္ဒုတိယေနရာသို႕ေရာက္ရွိလာ (Translation: Rakhine: Second Largest Number of
COVID 19 positive cases in Myanmar) . Narinjara. URL http://burmese.narinjara.com/news/detail/5f409ffa6b0685511da988d0
(accessed 8.22.20).Telenor, 2020. Internet services restricted in Myanmar
townships . Telenor Group. URL https://www.telenor.com/internet-services-restricted-in-five-townships-in-myanmar-03-february-2020/
(accessed 8.23.20).Thu, M.K., 2020. ရခိုင်မှာ 3G/4G ပြန်ဖွင့်ဖို့လိုပါတယ်
(Translation: reaccessing to 3G/4G in Rakhine State). Mratts Blog. URL https://mrattkthu.com/blogs/rakhine-needs-to-reopen-3g-4g
(accessed 8.24.20).Thura, M., 2019. Parliament speaker rejects motion to
restore Rakhine internet access . Myanmar Times. URL https://www.mmtimes.com/news/parliament-speaker-rejects-motion-restore-rakhine-internet-access.html-0
(accessed 8.23.20).Tun, M., 2020. CSOs demand better internet access in Myanmar’s
conflict-hit west . Dev. Media Group. URL https://www.dmediag.com/news/1853-cwh
(accessed 8.21.20). 

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