Kyaw Lynn | DMG

Western Myanmar’s Arakan (Rakhine) State is grappling with a surge in coronavirus infections, with the total number of cases statewide at 121 as of August 25, but 105 of those cases coming between August 16 and 25. At 81 infections, the Arakan State capital Sittwe reported the most cases by far in this recent spike. Myanmar’s total case count stands at 540, with 341 recovered and six deaths attributed to the virus. As percentages of the total, 63% have recovered and only 1.1 % have died from the virus.

Compared to its ASEAN neighbours, Myanmar has fared relatively well in terms of COVID-19 numbers. But it must also be compared against the populous non-ASEAN nations that it shares borders with — China, India and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, which shares a border with Arakan State, nearly 300,000 cases have been reported, a count that is more than 650 times the Myanmar total.  

With all of this in mind, it is important that authorities avoid over- or underreacting to the current COVID-19 threat level. More importantly, the government will need to show an ability to adapt to changing circumstances and adjust its strategy for combating the virus if the situation in Arakan State becomes significantly worse.

Trust, State Capacity and Leadership in Arakan

An article by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published by the Atlantic on March 30 highlighted two important factors in how nations combat the coronavirus, whether in a democracy or dictatorship:

Trust is built on two foundations. First, citizens must believe that their government has the expertise, technical knowledge, capacity, and impartiality to make the best available judgments. Capacity simply has to do with the government having an adequate number of people with the right training and skills to carry out the tasks they are assigned, from local firemen, policemen, and health workers to the government executives making higher-level decisions about issues such as quarantines and bailouts. The second foundation is trust in the top end of the hierarchy, which means, in the U.S. system, the president. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt enjoyed high levels of trust during their respective crises. As wartime presidents, this trio succeeded in symbolizing, in their own persons, the national struggle. George W. Bush did initially after September 11, but as his invasion of Iraq soured, citizens began questioning the delegations of authority they had made to him via legislation like the Patriot Act.

Unfortunately, Arakan State lacks trust in its leadership on both levels. This trust deficit is less pronounced in “Myanmar proper” administrative regions like Yangon, Naypyidaw and Mandalay, where state capacity is relatively higher. By every objective metric, the healthcare infrastructure in Arakan is less capable of dealing with the outbreak currently underway.

Moreover, since the current Arakan State government lacks a certain electoral legitimacy as it was not chosen by the democratically elected state parliament, it should have endeavored to compensate by proving its worth through its performance — a different form of legitimacy. But the Arakan State government is not rising to the challenge of this COVID-19 outbreak, with even the state’s chief minister facing direct exposure to the virus last week.

Concerning how the Arakan State government has handled the COVID-19 outbreak, state parliamentarian U Tun Thar Sein said in an August 24 interview with Khit Thit Media: “The IDP camps have no masks and hand gel and IDPs also do not know social distancing. The Department of Health still needs to do awareness-raising activities in the IDP camps. The IDPs are also in need of masks and other equipment to protect from COVID-19.”

Fukuyama’s second foundation — “trust in the top end of the hierarchy” — is a difficult issue in Arakan that is bound up with the changing political environment in the state, especially in its northern half. Since the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formed a minority state government after the Arakan National Party (ANP) won a majority of elected seats in the 2015 election in Arakan, the relative degree of trust in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ANP leaders by the majority Arakanese can be clearly formulated.

Adding to the trust deficit are compounding factors such as armed conflict, ongoing human rights violations and deprivation of internet access across a large swath of Arakan State.

Ko Zaw Htun, director of the Arakan CSO Network, told me over the phone:

Yes, what you said is right. Trust is important and must be built up. We need trustworthy decisions and action from the government. During such an emergency, internet is unavailable ... Despite nearly all CSOs in Rakhine State including Arakan CSO Network sending open letters to the government, they barely responded to a comment on the media.

Opportunity in Crisis

Arakan may be relatively weak in terms of capacity, but its existing social/civil society structures and community-to-community leaders’ relations are far stronger. Thus, the Arakan CSO Network (ACN), Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team (AHCT), Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC), Wan Lark Foundation, Rakhine Women's Initiative Organization (RWIO), Rakhine Covid-19 Watch and various kinds of grassroots organisations can be good collaborators with the government in efforts to build up capacity.  

The second foundational deficiency, on the other hand, is a far more difficult one to remedy as it is also about local and national politics. The NLD government should improve its relations with Arakanese political leaders, especially the leaders of the majority-winning ANP. Politically, the NLD authorities would not be able to persuade the people to trust them, especially if the virus becomes more serious, but local ANP leaders can do it. This could also be a good opportunity for the NLD government to reshape its relations with the Rakhine electoral political leaders by having effective collaboration with them.

Finally, we cannot ignore the fluidity of the current armed conflict when painting a picture of the politics of Arakan State. The United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) has set up its own administrative mechanism, calling it the “Arakan Authority”. It is also enforcing some rules and restrictions in rural areas under its domain.

The Myanmar military, meanwhile, has shown some worth in combating the coronavirus in Arakan, such as transportation of necessary equipment. The best we can hope for in this situation is that the COVID-19 outbreak acts as a “de facto ceasefire” in Arakan. On the other hand, the worst we must prepare for is use of the virus as an excuse to reap political benefits, as some authoritarian leaders around the world are doing. In short, even if its approach to conflict management does not change, the government of Myanmar needs to be ready to introduce a different kind of strategy to combat COVID-19 in Arakan if the situation becomes more serious.

About the Author : Kyaw Lynn is a post-graduate student studying political science at the University of Yangon. He is also the chairperson of the Political Science Association (University of Yangon) and one of the founders of Amnesty Arakan Team (AAT).

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