Myanmar: the pandemic and brutality of the regime

The ebb of the Myanmar revolution has not led the military regime under General Min Aung Hliang to relent in its brutality against the people. The military is determined to drown the mass movement in blood, in part through weaponising the COVID-19 pandemic against the masses. This despicable cruelty will not be forgotten, and will only pave way for new struggles down the road. The following report was shared to us by a Burmese Marxist in order to illustrate the reality of the situation on the ground to the world.

The Junta weaponises the pandemic

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is now raging through Myanmar, which resulted in the biggest wave of infection since the pandemic began. In the past few days, the official tally of new cases stands between 4,000-6,000 per day. The death count is also climbing into the hundreds per day.

The military government, which launched the coup on 1 February in the name of “defending the country”, is busy defending their privileges from the masses, and the pandemic has been used as their murderous weapon against the revolutionary movement that rose up against the coup.

Myanmar covid 1The banner, which the military hung up in a hospital in the South Dagon township, Yangon reads “no more filling oxygen cylinders without an endorsement letter from the military general in charge”.

One example of how the Junta takes advantage of the pandemic in their fight against the revolution is to blame COVID-19 for the death of prisoners whom they’ve tortured. Since the coup, tourture has been widely used by the military against pro-democracy detainees as a measure to cow the revolutionary masses, many of whom died as a result. The Junta then conveniently blamed the death of these tortured detainees on the pandemic.

However, we can be doubtful of this, as no COVID tests have been conducted in prisons or interrogation centers. Loved ones of the deceased who the military claimed to have “died of COVID-19” during their detention often distrust this claim as a barely concealed cover-up of tourture and cruelty.

In addition to this, the regime is also following the example of many governments across the world by deploying more repression in the name of controlling the pandemic. They have banned people from leaving their homes during daytime, in addition to the existing curfews, effectively placing the entire population under house arrest. Those who defy these restrictions risk being arrested, detained, and tortured.

The flimsy excuse of controlling the pandemic is exposed by the Junta’s cruel restriction of oxygen supplies. The Junta forbade the selling of oxygen to the civilians, and ordered private oxygen plants to supply only to the state-run and military owned hospitals. In this way, they can ensure that anyone who supports the revolution, which includes the vast majority of society in Myanmar, will not be able to obtain the life-saving oxygen that can help them through severe symptoms of the infection.

As news of this extraordinary exercise in cruelty began to spread, the military authority tried to deny it in a variety of ways. In cases such as the above, the Junta claimed that they did not give such an order to the oxygen plant owner, but the plant owner himself announced the edict. A few days later, the Junta admitted the order came from them, but blamed the civilian population for “unnecessarily buying oxygen”, which forced the military to restrict supply.

Myanmar covid 2

The military not only maintains a tight grip on oxygen, but many other medical supplies. A state document went viral on social media showing that the Junta prohibited the flow of COVID-19 preventive supplies and remedies from being imported through neighboring countries’ so as to “encourage the competition of locally produced products in the markets”, and to reduce the spending of foreign currency.

This is an insane time to try to “cultivate domestic competition”, when 90 percent of Myanmar’s medical supplies are imported from abroad. The existence of these restrictions is sending the prices of drugs soaring, and a black market has emerged as a result. Pharmacies in Yangon, Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin reported that wholesale prices for vitamin pills have risen by more than 20 percent; the cost of common treatments for colds, flu and pain relief has risen by about 25 percent; and products said to strengthen immune systems are up by more than 50 percent.

Of course, these restrictions and calamities will not impact the military, which owns schools, universities, and hospitals that are separate from the public ones. As of now, these facilities are well supplied and shield members of the army from the extraordinary suffering that ordinary Burmese people experience from the pandemic and the shortages.

For example, the Junta is building up three new oxygen plants in Naypyidaw, the capital city, where the top military clique lives and the central government offices are situated. Below is a photo of such a facility in operation:

What this shows is that the Military is using the pandemic as a weapon to smash against the revolution. This is the only tool they have in their disposal in addition to direct repression to maintain power, and given that they have next to no support base among the masses, this is the cruelty they are willing to resort to to protect their own interests and privileges.

Collapse of healthcare

Concurrent to the ravages of the pandemic is a general collapse of the healthcare system. This is not caused by the pandemic but by the policies of the ruling regime that defends the interests of the capitalist class.

In Myanmar, the public healthcare system was bureaucratically run and had already failed before this coup. In addition to low budgets for public healthcare, there was a very low doctor-to-patient ratio, overcrowded, low-quality hospitals, lack or scarcity of advanced medical equipment, and scarcity of medicines forcing the patients to buy the necessary drugs in the black market.

Healthcare workers face 24 hour-long shifts, consecutive night shifts with a heavy workload in understaffed settings, insufficient safety measures and a very low salary. For doctors, the average monthly salary is 275,000 MMK, equivalent to $166.66 USD. For nurses, the salary scale is even lower.

When the first and second waves of COVID-19 hit Myanmar, these healthcare workers faced a terrible situation, but they tolerated these hardships under the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD). The poor conditions in healthcare work nevertheless fostered a growing discontent against the existing system, which was unleashed when the coup took place on 1 February.

This explains why the medical workers, who traditionally avoided politics and never have demanded higher wages, were the very first who initiated the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against the coup. They launched unprecedented strike actions demanding not only for democratic rights, but also for better wages and conditions.

The health care workers, medical and nursing students who aligned with the CDM also protested in the streets. In response, the military and police forces brutally clamped down their protest movement, detaining hundreds of them, some for more than 120 days in prisons. Most CDM doctors and nurses have been charged under section 505(A), a law that the Junta government introduced after the coup that criminalises the act of criticising the regime.

In the face of this brutality, some healthcare workers are forced to return to their workplaces. But the public healthcare system has nevertheless collapsed due to this decapitation of the workforce.

These photos below show the list of doctors charged with section 505(A) for participating in CDM. This list was announced by the military state owned media MRTV:

With the advent of the third wave of COVID-19, amidst the political and social crisis, the Junta announced that they will replace any imprisoned or otherwise indisposed medical workers with other medical professionals, hired on temporary contracts, and forced to agree to not partake in political activities. The following photos are vacancy announcements for nurses (salary 198,000MMK, equivalent to $116 USD) and midwives (salary 180,000 MMK, equivalent to $109.09 USD).

This is also true for medical doctors, with these photos showing they will be hired on temporary contracts:

Since 1990, the privatisation of Myanmar’s healthcare system has accelerated, especially in the last decade. The privatised clinics and hospitals are taking the fullest advantage over the present crisis, which created a “reserve army of workers” from sacked or resigned medical workers from state-operated facilities, which they can hire on a low salary or a part time basis, thus increasing their profit margins.

Generally speaking, the hospitals have been turned from a place of work to a hostile territory for the medical workers. Soldiers flooded hospitals in search of injured protesters, to the point that doctors and carers found it impossible to work.

Not only that, but fake medical emergency calls have become a means by which the regime seeks out anti-coup medical workers. For example, three doctors went to see patients in South Okkalapa Township, Yangon after receiving a phone call asking for medical help. These patients supposedly suffered from COVID-19. But the medical workers found themselves caught in a trap set up by the government officials and arrested by the military.

When this occurred, the taxi driver quickly returned back to the office and tried to inform the remaining two doctors in time. But it was too late to escape from the arrest of the military who also raided their offices, looting oxygen cylinders and other medical equipment. Up until now, no one knows where the doctors have been detained.

What about vaccines?

Currently, Myanmar’s vaccination rate is only 2.9 percent, meaning that the vast majority of society is completely unprotected. On 14 July, the regime announced that they will be receiving 6 million vaccines from China: the Junta’s most powerful regional backer. This barely covers the 54.7 million people that live within the borders of the country.

As usual, the Junta will put the ruling class, the members of the army and police, their politicians in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and their supporters first in line on the vaccination program. The virus is beginning to affect the ranks of the military and the police, and thus the regime has to urgently prioritise vaccinating and treating the “armed body of men” that guards their interests. Otherwise, the regime could lose its last line of defence against the masses.

What do the rest of society get in the face of this latest wave? In addition to a collapsing healthcare system as described above, the public also gets cosmetic relief measures, so flimsy that they almost insult the intelligence of the people, such as the “quarantine centers”, as pictured below:

Myanmar covid 3

The result is that the death rate in Myanmar has been accelerating by the day. Figures collected by Myanmar Now on 16 July from four major Yangon-based social support groups this week showed the number of funerals has risen from 100 per day to 600 per day. On 17 July, it was reported that 1,000 cremations needed to be conducted in Yangon alone. These numbers are far beyond the daily capacity of the crematoria in Yangon. On the next day, this number rose to 1,200:

Counterrevolution can only be defeated by a renewed revolution!

In addition to weaponising the pandemic and allowing death to ravage the land, the regime continues to repress the masses through blunt force. Arrests and killings of civilians continue unabated. Thousands of villagers living in anti-military regions were displaced, who were then forced to live in crowds in the remote jungles. They could not access even clean water let alone to live in accordance with the preventive standards of COVID-19. Below is a video showing displaced refugees fleeing to safety:

The chart below breaks down the number of people being killed by the military in different regions:

The Burmese workers who have been spared death or displacement for the time being have to toil in extremely dangerous conditions, with poor COVID-19 prevention measures. For example, In the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, a large number of COVID-19 cases among workers were detected, but no guideline has been implemented to prevent the spread of the virus. Many workers who have contracted COVID-19 are facing wage cuts and attacks on their benefits, such as paid leave.

This unimaginable level of inhumanity has little to do with the virus. It is entirely the product of the capitalist system in Myanmar, where a military caste is capable of using the most depraved means to maintain their rule, privileges, and wealth. After all, this is a regime that carried out a genocide against the Rohingya people. Today, they are only showing that they can do the same to the rest of the masses in Myanmar.

Equally culpable is ASSK and the NLD, who defend the same capitalist system in Myanmar that led to the present situation. As noted, the NLD government is equally responsible for the years of privatisation of Myanmar’s healthcare system which left it unequipped to deal with a pandemic.

On top of this, the NLD fully collaborated and defended the military’s policies in every turn before the coup. Let us not forget that days before the coup, when the military was clearly preparing for action, the NLD still characterised the Junta’s promise to not launch a coup as “a suitable explanation.” The two camps only differ in the fact that the military still controls a majority of economy and wealth in the country, while the NLD wishes to deepen privatisation on behalf of the new layer of Burmese bourgeoisie, and foreign capitalists. When it comes to their class interests, the two are aligned.

This is why the Burmese working masses not only cannot support the NLD in any way, but have to vigorously oppose it, along with the Junta, with its own revolutionary party and program. Eventually, a rotten deal will be struck between the generals and the NLD politicians. This will not be a “return to democracy” (which never existed to begin with), but a new constitution that is even more favorable to the military than before, while the masses continue to suffer under austerity, privatisation, and destitution brought by the so-called “free market.”

What we are seeing in Myanmar today is a counter-revolution with the Junta at its head. They would not have been able to carry this out had the working class been led by a revolutionary Marxist leadership, which could help them easily clear out the military through armament of the workers.

Instead, the NLD came to lead the movement, and led it to defeat by restricting and frustrating it within bourgeois democratic demands. The masses cannot permanently engage in revolutionary actions, and after the mass actions and general strikes produced little change in the situation from March to May, the movement began to ebb. It is at this stage that the Junta is unleashing its fullest brutality against the masses to bludgen them into submission, including using the pandemic as a battering ram.

The fact that the military had to resort to direct repression and the pandemic to quell the movement shows how little support they have within wider Myanmar society. What they have done to the masses to ensure their survival in turn will prevent them from establishing any kind of mass support in the future. These crimes will not be forgotten, and an absolute majority of Burmese people will be eagerly waiting for the overthrow of the Junta, which then paves the way for revolutionary events in the future. A successful revolution carried out by the working class on a socialist programme is the only way to win genuine liberation for the Burmese masses.

The most pressing task for revolutionaries in Myanmar now is to seriously analyse the experience of the past months and draw the necessary conclusions for the future. To this end, the IMT has produced in-depth articles to offer a Marxist analysis on this situation. We invite every honest revolutionary in Myanmar to consider our views. And, if you agree with us, we invite you to contact us and join our work.

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