COVID-19 Pandemic And Political Turmoil Impoverish Myanmar’s Population

According to a United Nations report issued on April 30th, the unrest in Myanmar following the military coup, along with the consequences of COVID-19, could result in up to 25 million people – nearly half of the country’s population – living in poverty by early 2022, a level of impoverishment not seen in the country since 2005. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that food shortages will affect up to 3.4 million people in the next six months as conflict spreads and humanitarian conditions deteriorate rapidly.

A recent UNDP study titled “Coup d’état and Poverty: Compounding Negative Shocks and Their Impact on Human Development in Myanmar” noted that by the end of 2020, 83% of households indicated that the pandemic had reduced their average income by almost half. Given this, it is not surprising, but rather anticipated, that Myanmar’s deteriorating security, human rights, and development situation since February would only worsen humanitarian conditions and thus raise poverty levels. Indeed, the UNDP estimates that the effects of the pandemic alone would have raised Myanmar’s poverty rate from 24.8 % to 36.1 % and that this rate could increase up to 48.2 % if the coup’s economic and social disruption continues.

Commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, seized power on February 1st, leading a military junta and deposing Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy. While some, in particular, nationalist groups appear to be backing the military, the majority of civilians are outraged by the coup and have been engaging in ongoing demonstrations ever since. As such, there has been a rise in the Civil Disobedience Movement, in which a broad range of professionals, led by healthcare workers, are demonstrating their resistance to the military regime by refusing to work. As a result, people’s daily lives in Myanmar, as well as the country’s infrastructure and economy, have suffered greatly.

The overthrow of the civilian government has already complicated and worsened the COVID situation in Myanmar, with doctors reporting that COVID-19 testing has ceased since the coup. It has also disrupted supply chains and the movement of goods, services, and people, rendering small business owners and employees in urban areas particularly vulnerable to poverty.

With public distrust of government officials on the rise, citizens, including activists like Thinzar Shulei Yi, reiterate what seems to be a collective awareness that “the people [of Myanmar] have realized that we are our only saviors.” However, demonstrators risk being injured, imprisoned, or worse, killed, with the advocacy organization Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) reporting that 750 people, including children, have been killed in the security forces’ violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters since the military takeover.

So far, the international community has generally utilized economic sanctions to exert pressure on Myanmar’s military leaders. However, it seems that these measures have had little impact so far, with military leaders expressing their indifference to being sanctioned. While countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom continue to impose targeted and coordinated sanctions, it appears that the United Nations Security Council’s direct intervention and oversight is most urgent. With blatant evidence of human right violations being committed by military forces, the Security Council can no longer release statements of deep concern but must actively commit to protecting the lives of many civilians through substantive action. That said, protesters in Myanmar and over 200 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have urged the Security Council and UN member states to enact a comprehensive arms embargo. The supply of weapons and financial support to the military must be immediately halted in order for the country to regain some stability and, most importantly, to prevent any further loss of life and prospects for recovery. Moving forward as a nation, however, Myanmar requires the fundamental and radical political and legal shift that protesters and ethnic groups have long demanded- one in which ethnic groups are adequately represented and included, and the military is held accountable for their past and current crimes against humanity.

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