Burma’s much needed ceasefire presents a valuable opportunity, provided the military keeps its promises

By Benedict Rogers

Burma’s Cardinal Bo has repeatedly called for peace for a long time. In a statement last month in support of Pope Francis’ plea for a global ceasefire, he warned that during the COVID-19 pandemic continued armed conflict in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) would have “catastrophic consequences for our nation.”

He urged the military – known as the Tatmadaw – and ethnic armed resistance groups to “lay down all weapons and acts of aggression. Be armed instead with sincerity and truth. Let us take the more difficult path of overcoming differences face to face with courage and intelligence. Don’t hide humanity behind guns. In the end that is sheer weakness.”

The Cardinal, who is also President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, argued that: “Soldiers are unnecessarily endangered by exposure to the unseen viral assassin. Civilians are endangered, even by bombardments purportedly aimed at military targets. Peace negotiations are endangered by continued aggressive threats. An economy under severe strain is put at risk by military adventures. Any spike in contagion in IDP camps, among detained persons, or in crowded spaces, gravely threatens the surrounding populations as well.”

On 9 May in a further statement titled “Living a crisis with hope”, Cardinal Bo described continued conflicts as “unbelievable, obscene folly.” In a characteristically direct way, he said: “Military commanders of government and ethnic armies, as if they believe that their weapons are more powerful than this virus, continue to expose their soldiers, continuously endanger civilians, and risk a conflagration of contagion among the people of our nations.” This, he added, referring to coronavirus, “is a time to put hatred and weapons aside and face the common enemy that is attacking all humanity.”

Perhaps surprisingly, that same day – 9 May – the Tatmadaw issued a statement announcing an almost four-month ceasefire, from 10 May until 31 August, in order to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is clearly a welcome move, although past experiences highlight a need for caution, and to monitor events closely to ensure that the promise is kept.

A chance for genuine peace?

The Tatmadaw has a track record of breaking past ceasefires or using them to rearm and prepare for a fresh onslaught. Last month the Karen Peace Support Network reported that the Tatmadaw has deployed over 2,000 troops and fired hundreds of mortar shells in Karen State since the start of the year, despite an existing ceasefire.

“Hundreds of villagers have fled to hide in the jungle, and thousands more are preparing to flee. Villagers have been tortured, shot at indiscriminately and killed,” the network said. The international community must watch to ensure that this new ceasefire is genuinely upheld and is used as a time both to prevent the spread of the pandemic and to prepare for genuine peace.

Recent months have seen a shocking rise in attacks by the Tatmadaw, particularly against the majority-Buddhist Rakhine people, who are increasingly in the sights of a military already responsible for genocide against the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas, and a continuing assault on majority-Christian Kachin and other ethnic groups.

In April the military bombed villages in Paletwa Township in Chin State, killing civilians and destroying homes and churches. A few days later a World Health Organisation (WHO) vehicle transporting swabs from suspected COVID-19 patients in Rakhine state to Rangoon (Yangon) for testing was attacked, with the driver killed and another health worker injured.

At the start of May, the outgoing United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of new “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” as the military has been emboldened by special powers intended to help control the spread of the coronavirus. “We find bodies that have been decapitated,” she said. “These are the highest, the most heinous and gravest crimes of international law.”

Among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are those displaced by conflict, living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Burma, or as refugees along its borders. In such over-crowded camps, ‘social distancing’ is an impossibility, sanitation is almost non-existent, limited water supply makes washing hands difficult, and medical care is rudimentary. Add to that discrimination, restrictions on access for humanitarian aid, a mobile internet shutdown and inter-religious tensions and you have a potential tinderbox with an estimated 350,000 people in total at risk.

As Cardinal Bo says, the impact of the virus in Burma has been “slower in coming,” surprisingly given the country’s proximity to China, but he warns, “that may only mean it will last longer.” The worst affected, he adds, “are those who cannot socially isolate, who do not have water to wash, who have lost their jobs and so have no daily income, who return to their country as unemployed, hungry migrant workers, who do not have a government that looks out for them. For many the priority is to ‘flatten the curve’ of hunger.”

How can we help?

There are two things we must do to help Burma.

First, let us urge our government – through our Members of Parliament – to increase humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable in Burma and along its borders and, crucially, to ensure that aid reaches those who need it most. The Department for International Development (DFID) should lobby the Burmese government to open up all parts of the country to unhindered access to international humanitarian organisations – which ought to be possible if a ceasefire is observed. At the same time, it should deliver aid through organisations that can get it across the border from neighbouring countries and to the refugee camps along the borders.

Second, let us pray for Burma as we pray for the world during this crisis. Religious leaders around the world have called for a global day of prayer this coming Thursday 14 May for an end to the pandemic and for help and comfort for everyone suffering its consequences. Cardinal Bo urges us to participate in this. “Let us look out for one another,” he says. “I join in the appeal of religious leaders to believers in God worldwide, to set aside a ‘day for fasting, prayers and supplications’ on 14 May.”

For decades successive regimes in Burma have prioritised spending on the military over health. Even at the best of times, Burma’s health care system would struggle to cope with COVID-19 if it swept the country. Restrictions on aid and life-saving information, combined with the cocktail of racial and religious hatred that pervades society, will make Burma’s battle with the virus even more difficult. For a country that has already suffered so much over so many decades, may God spare Burma the worst of the pandemic – and help her use this time to make progress towards genuine peace, true democracy and real justice.

Benedict Rogers is CSW’s East Asia Team Leader and the author of three books on Burma, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads.”