Tom Andrews, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, recently warned that a steep increase in the number of COVID-19 cases during a third wave of the coronavirus coupled with the public mistrust of the junta following its Feb. 1 coup d’état had created “a perfect storm of factors that could cause a significant loss of life in Myanmar.”
In an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday, he said the crisis will not end until the junta ends its attacks on healthcare professionals, and he called on the international community to exert more pressure on the military. He said there has been an “exponential increase” in cases of COVID-19 in the Southeast Asian nation since the latest outbreak began in May.
RFA: What is your opinion of the situation in Myanmar right now?
Andrews: There’s very, very deep concern within the United Nations about conditions in Myanmar. Needless to say, there’s been an explosion of COVID cases. We’re still unclear exactly what the count is of people that have been infected or people who have succumbed to the disease, but we know that there has been a significant increase, almost an exponential increase in the number of cases. And so, it is a very dangerous situation and we’re very deeply concerned about what’s going on in Myanmar right now.
RFA: Are you positive that the junta will allow the U.N. and international NGOs to come in and provide assistance in Myanmar?
Andrews: Well, that’s the key question right now. I mean obviously, the junta will play the most decisive role in terms of stopping, of preventing, the care, the support and the help that the people of Myanmar desperately need. I mean let’s face it, the best thing that could possibly happen would be for [junta chief] Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and the military junta to stand down for a civilian government, a legitimate government to be immediately reinstated so that this emergency response to this crisis could go on.
Since the coup, all of that [prevention and vaccine roll out by the civilian government] has collapsed. We know that the healthcare system as a whole has collapsed since the coup. So that’s been just simply a disaster. That’s the only way to put it.
Short of stepping down, the next step would be for the junta to at least agree to stop attacking doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. These attacks continue as I speak. And the fact is, you can’t attack COVID-19 and attack doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. All hands have to be on deck, and as long as the junta continues this extraordinarily destructive path, then there’s really not going to be the kind of help and support for the people of Myanmar that the people of Myanmar desperately need and deserve.
So, I think what has to happen, frankly, is for those interlocutors or potential interlocutors who have the ear of the junta, those who have a direct interest in stopping COVID to speak with the junta and appeal to them to at least take the minimal steps that would be required to stop this disaster from getting any worse. And the first step of that, of course, is to stop attacking those who are providing health care or could be providing health care to the people of Myanmar in their hour of desperate need.
RFA: You are calling for an emergency coalition for Myanmar from the United Nations with U.N. member states, so how far does that go? What kind of action can we expect from that coalition in the near future?
Andrews: Well, an emergency coalition is, I think, important. I continue to call for it and encourage countries to consider it. There are two major areas that I think it could have a significant impact on. One, of course, is in confronting this healthcare crisis—nations coming together in a very coordinated and focused way to provide for the extraordinary needs that exist right now within Myanmar and working together to try to create the conditions necessary for that aid to get through.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his generals are not going to end this horrible reign of terror because they wake up one day and realize they’ve made a terrible mistake. They’re only going to do this when there is the requisite pressure, when they feel that there is no alternative but to stand down. And that is exactly what we have to focus on.
The suffering that the people of Myanmar are suffering through, it’s hard to imagine. The hopelessness that’s being felt. I’ve spoken to people in the country. I know that there are people who are losing their families. I understand just the horrific conditions that are being confronted by the people of Myanmar and I’m so deeply, deeply sorry for what is happening to you. And I’m just so amazed at the courage and the tenacity of the people of Myanmar, dealing with this crisis and standing up as best as they can against this military junta.
The international response to this crisis is painfully slow. And I want you to know that that there are those of us who are working very, very hard and focusing as much energy and attention as possible to move the international community forward as directly and as powerfully as possible. So please know that we are with you, that we will continue to work with you and that this crisis that you are facing, you are not facing it alone. And I fully understand the suffering and the frustration that is being felt by the people of Myanmar. And I’m sorry that it is taking as long as it’s taking, but we will persevere.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service.