(This article was submitted on 12 April and published in ISP-Myanmar Special Series No. 1 on COVID-19 and Myanmar.)
Using a war metaphor in battling against the COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar, if mishandled, could open up to excessive power abuses given the country’s historical context of military dictatorship, but if it was envisioned and executed well it could contribute to the transformation of the Myanmar State. Application of war-like preparation and execution metaphors in fighting against COVID-19 does not mean a refutation of democracy and return to the dictatorship. Various world leaders including the United Nations Secretary General have used the war metaphor in their campaign against the pandemic while they target the virus as the enemy, set eradication of the virus and prevention of economic collapse as strategic objectives, rely on health workers as frontline heroes, etc. What differentiates pandemics from other forms of human security threats, such as immigration and resource scarcity, is that they are also considered a national security challenge because they have disruptive impacts on military capabilities and the GDP of the country that the national security hawks care most. Thus, the pandemic offers an opportunity for a convergence of survival concerns that are shared by both human security proponents and national security advocates.
Employment of war-like preparation and execution against the COVID-19 is, in fact, a political decision. Since politics, which is defined as a decision to make “who gets what, when, and how”, entails a comprehensive approach that goes beyond a sole health care-driven preparation in order to address multiple challenges of the country. In this regard, the comprehensive approach must factor in socio-economic justice (focusing on the poor), conflict and peace (focusing on ethnic minority groups and conflict-affected regions) and inter-communal harmony (focusing on diverse religious and racial groups of the country).
War-like preparation and execution will help to foster better civil-military relations in Myanmar because the civilian leadership can prove or improve its management challenge in combating the pandemic to achieve human security goals, while the Tatmadaw can demonstrate or improve its effectiveness and efficiency in fighting against the COVID-19 with the civilian oversight. Moreover, war-like preparation and execution provide Myanmar as an incomplete modern nation-state with a great opportunity to mobilize its resources, centralize its administrative capabilities (such as coordination), employ technology, and generate the public cooperation (i.e. political legitimacy), which are foundational requirements of modern state building.
The NLD government should lead this war-like execution. If it fails, securitization of the COVID crisis in a localized fashion such as a vigilante system in neighborhoods and the impositions of a curfew in some areas could gradually slide into the partial or full blown involvement by the Tatmadaw in the crisis. This could even become a political and constitutional crisis if postponement of the elections scheduled in late 2020 resulted in ending the term of the current parliament in early 2021. Thus, the NLD in its position of leadership should initiate a “unity government” (in essence) to coordinate all parties concerned toward the human security goals in the country’s battle against COVID-19 pandemic.