The President’s Office gave an order on April 27, 2020, to form a coordinating committee to coordinate the activities of the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in the fight against COVID-19, through which the parties will share information and enhance cooperation on the prevention of COVID-19, and examining, contact-tracing, and treatment of patients in the areas controlled by the EAOs. Again, on May 9, Myanmar’s military announced a unilateral ceasefire (from May 10 to August 31) to promote efforts against the spread of the virus, except in the areas controlled by groups the government has declared “terrorist organizations”. The announcement seems to respond to the call of UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for ceasefires in conflicts worldwide. Later, the committee called several online meetings with the EAOs, both signatories and non-signatories of the Nation-wide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Significantly, the Myanmar government adopted a policy of “leaving no one behind” in the fight against COVID-19.
Armed conflicts affect health: they entail violence, displacement, infrastructure damage, breakdown of information systems, and the disruption of public services, including administration, education, social welfare and health. Miserably, approximately 600,000 people from nine townships of Rakhine and southern Chin States are facing restricted access to the internet as intense armed fighting is still going on in the region. They cannot access health education in regards to COVID-19 to prevent its spread through online sources. Moreover, approximately 150,000 people are living in make-shift internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps where they cannot enjoy the privilege of ‘social distancing’.
Populations seek refuge from active conflict to escape the direct danger of warfare, food insecurity and loss of livelihoods. It is time to consider special reforms, policies and programs to strengthen health and social services in conflict-affected areas. Particularly, discussion of “Education/ Health Convergence” as a part of peace negotiations should be emphasized in cooperation of fight against COVID-19.
But there are prevailing risks of instability due to competition for a “scarcity of resources” during the time of this pandemic. Households have lost incomes and many businesses are struggling with the economic down-turn. At one end of the scale, there is the danger of looting and damage to the rule of law in this time of scarcity, and, at the other end of the scale, parties in conflict will rival each other to enjoy scarce resources, which can encourage new levels of violence. The government may consider supporting the EAOs with basic food items which will build ‘trust’ in the peace process. The parties in the peace process may consider ‘an elite pact’ to deter instability caused by scarcity to bring this to the level of a political problem.
The spread of COVID-19 can cause a “double emergency” especially in fragile countries, according to an analysis by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in which it reviewed its experience over recent decades. Death and other harmful impacts caused by the infection are one issue, and additionally protracted economic, political and security crises have created secondary havoc for many countries. The IRC’s report cited an estimate from John Hopkins University, there will be an unprecedented danger if the virus spreads widely in Rohingya camps, which could lead to infections among 590,000 refugees and could lead to 2,100 deaths.
Both the government and EAOs should consider how to achieve peace dividends, as the 2015 NCA’s article 25 (A) mentions that “The EAOs that are signatories to this agreement have been responsible in their relevant capacities, for development and security in their respective areas. During the period of signing ceasefire and political dialogue, we shall carry out the following programs and projects in coordination with each other in said areas. (1) Projects concerning the health, education and socio-economic development of civilians,” under the chapter on tasks to be implemented during the interim period.
Sustainable and regular communication, flexibility, keeping conflict-sensitivity in mind, broad-mindedness, and trust-building are particularly important when parties cooperate in a common fight. The Myanmar government has adopted a “COVID-19 Economic Response Plan (CERP)” during this time of the pandemic and the author recommends an important and similar program for peace Support or a “Peace Resiliency Package”.
The civil-military relations between the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the military is also crucial at the time of this pandemic. There is already nascent development in the health-care sector. If we can conduct formal and informal dialogues through online meetings even at this time of crisis, to enhance cooperation in the fight against the virus, it may lead to promising alternatives for the direction of the current peace process in Myanmar.