In 2008, heavy winds and waves sent families of the Ayeyarwady delta region to search for shelter in the homes of relatives and, as the night wore on, in trees and clinging to objects in the rising water. Cyclone Nargis left over two million people searching – for food, work, shelter, and for the bodies of family members.
In the days following, the country’s military denied entry to international aid, despite the dire need of afflicted communities. Even when help did arrive, some of the aid never reached communities in desperate need as allegations of corruption swirled.
A week later, the military went ahead with their plan to hold a vote on a referendum for the now infamous 2008 constitution, which would guarantee it a decisive quarter of seats in parliament. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, dubiously claimed the vote passed with a large voter turnout, despite the recent disaster.
Zo Tum Hmung, the executive director of Chin Association of Maryland in the US and co-founder of the Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center-Union of Burma, remembers the events of this time well.
“They took advantage as people were not concerned about the constitution, they were more concerned about Nargis,” he said. “This is not the first time. Now [after the February 1 coup], our memory back in 2008 has become fresh again.”
Today, those observing Myanmar’s latest coup see a trend of this coupling of natural disasters with political upheaval, as the onset of the pandemic created circumstances opportune for a power grab earlier this month. But while Covid-19 created conditions that eased the military’s return to absolute power, the coup now looks likely to exacerbate Myanmar’s fragile situation as vaccinations are interrupted, health workers march and mass gatherings occur.
Elizabeth Ferris, a professor in the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote an article in the days following the 2008 referendum examining how the natural disaster would benefit the military’s agenda.
Her observations of that time remain relevant to the unfolding situation today.
“Anytime there’s a big disruption in the country, people start questioning, power leads start shifting, the political dynamic changes,” Ferris told the Globe.
But a pandemic is a distinct humanitarian crisis, making the link between natural disaster and political upheaval more complex. Zoltan Grossman, professor of human geography at Evergreen State College and author of The Resilience Doctrine, a four-part article series on disaster collectivism, likens the pandemic to a slow-moving catastrophe.
Grossman says that in particular, in countries with tensions between military and civilian leaders, as in Myanmar, it’s easy for armed forces to point fingers and make a case for a stronger hand during crises.
“The economic argument is that a rise in authoritarianism, in particular fascist authoritarianism, and a drive towards war does tend to happen in times of recession and depression,” he said.
Grossman referenced Philippines ‘strongman’ president Rodrigo Duterte, who said in July he would be aggressively tackling the pandemic with the same tactics used in his bloody and violent crackdown on people who use or sell drugs.
“To them [Duterte’s regime], it was like manna from heaven that this pandemic happened, because it rationalised all the ultra-authoritarian tendencies of this government,” Grossman said. It’s a sentiment that may ring a bell for those who recall the Tatmadawaw’s promise to ‘take a grip’ on Covid-19.
“A government can use a pandemic as an excuse to crack down,” Grossman added.
While the military seemed to take advantage of a country already in the midst of pandemic-related damage control, there’s concern now over how the coup could now exacerbate the pandemic, and what further harm can be done if healthcare and disease control are mismanaged.
Myanmar’s ousted civilian government posted frequent updates on cases, and technology companies provided chatbots and contact tracing apps to help citizens stay informed. Aung San Suu Kyi herself appeared in videos about handwashing, as well as local celebrities.
While Hmung thinks the civilian government was handling the ongoing pandemic well, the measures they took to keep out the novel coronavirus – such as preventing international flights and travel – also isolated the country prior to the coup.
He’s now concerned about the arrest of regional chief ministers, who have led their states in preventing the spread of Covid-19, while the military has done little to handle it thus far.
“They [the military] don’t have interest in the people’s health,” Hmung said. “They have only one interest: to hold onto power.”
Faith isn’t high in the Tatmadawaw’s ability to handle the pandemic. Since the start of the coup, Hmung says there have been no Covid-19 updates from the military.
“I think this [the coup] will have an impact on Covid-19, I’m really worried,” Hmung said. “I’m deeply concerned in the management, they don’t know how to do it.”
Both Ferris and Grossman agree there must be a perception the government is doing their job, or disaster is an opening to a change in leadership. Ferris says that if a government isn’t seen as meeting the critical demands of its country, like protective healthcare measures and economic support, it creates an opportunity for civil unrest and change – potentially adding fuel to the fire of anti-coup demonstrators in Myanmar.
“Politically, a government has to be seen to respond immediately when there’s a disaster. In all countries, a government has to be perceived as taking charge or else there will be a political cost,” Ferris said.
Even though Covid could’ve been seen as a barrier, it also allowed people to have the opportunity to become more politically active and participate in ways they may not have been able to do before in [the] pre-Covid era
Thet, a community organiser in Myanmar who wished to stay anonymous, says that for some generations, this is their third or fourth coup. For her, it’s her first – but she hopes it will be the final one.
Although it’s her first coup, she remembers moments of collective vulnerability during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 when a lack of internet connectivity meant they couldn’t build a movement through social media, and of the devastation following Cyclone Nargis. And while the country was also left vulnerable from the health and economic effects of the virus, she thinks the military underestimated the solidarity this year has brought.
Thet says staying home over the last year has allowed people to engage with their community and with politics differently, by watching the news and being active on social media.
“I think even though Covid could’ve been seen as a barrier, it also allowed people to have the opportunity to become more politically active and participate in ways they may not have been able to do before in [the] pre-Covid era.”
Following natural disasters, there’s often a period of solidarity – globally by countries providing relief and aid, and locally with communities banding together. Community solidarity has been a prevalent message this year, with it implicit in Myanmar’s public health campaigns that caring for others means preventing the spread of the disease.
Grossman says solidarity is the natural built-in antidote to any authoritarianism that may arise amidst the chaos of a natural disaster.
“Despite the social isolation from each other, there’s also a heightened consciousness of the importance of community, and the importance of mutual aid, and the importance of being neighbours,” Grossman said of the pandemic.
But while Myanmar civilians have banded together during the health crisis, Grossman highlights that the pandemic doesn’t impact everyone equally. He says that natural disasters, but especially pandemics, reveal underlying inequalities in a country relating to class, healthcare, and regional disparities.
“It’s evenly distributed in the sense that it’s affecting everywhere, but it’s not evenly distributed in the sense that it has waves in different parts of the country and because of the inherent inequities,” Grossman said.
“[The pandemic] has also, in a sense, handed dissenting movements and issues on a silver platter.”
In a country where tensions are already at an all-time high, how anti-military sentiment will affect medical care, particularly to those dissenting in the streets, is now in question.
“I don’t know if the military will even support taking care of protestors or people who are part of the [Civil Disobedience Movement], I can see them only, in a sense, using doctors as a bargaining chip,” Thet said.
While Hmung is supportive of the Civil Disobedience Movement, he’s concerned the compounding elements following the coup could turn Myanmar’s Covid-19 record downhill fast. The country only recently worked its way down from a significant Covid spike in October, November and December, and now with doctors striking, the consequences of spreading the disease are higher.
“No one wants to work with the military so my main concern is the [lack of] professionals [to keep things running],” Hmung said. “Even now, hospitals, the doctors in [Chin] State are the ones who have started the protest.”
Thet adds that with protesting doctors refusing to work under the military, volunteer doctors are an essential part of managing Covid-19 cases during public resistance to the coup.
Outside of its own population, the military’s relations with other countries, already growing fraught in the face of international pressure, could determine how the vaccines already available will be distributed, and whether vaccines will continue to be available from China and India if relations sour. Thet says despite military propaganda suggesting otherwise, with healthcare at a standstill she’s not sure if anyone’s gotten the vaccines that were shipped from India the week before the coup.
The formerly civilian-run Ministry of Health had just started counting households in preparation of vaccine distribution when the military took power. Thet says she’s uncertain where the vaccine distribution stands now, and if military personnel are a first priority, she doesn’t expect to get it soon.
“The week before the coup, we got Covid shipments from India. As for the status of those vaccines, I don’t know what has happened to them and who has gotten those vaccines now,” Thet said. “They did not discuss any full-length plans of what they’re going to do.”
Thet said the military has reported zero new cases since the coup started on February 1, a surprising figure given the protests have amassed hundreds of thousands of participants in cities all around the country.
“With the amount of people in the streets [protesting], I perceive there will be quite a lot of new cases just out of proximity,” Thet said. “Because of the new CDM movement, there are no doctors who can help test the new Covid cases as well.”
Although concern for the future of the country’s health remains in the minds of activists, Thet remains steadfast in her feeling that the CDM movement, among them healthcare professionals, is correct to oppose the coup. What’s more, she believes the military made a strategic error in their calculations, even if the circumstances seemed prime for a military takeover.
“I think with the coup, the pandemic was the most opportune time for them to do it,” Thet said. “I think they thought it was going to be a conservative reset. I think they thoroughly underestimated us, as a result, which is why this coup, and I’m hoping so, will be quite different from the coups that came before.”