With coronavirus deaths rising in Myanmar, allegations are growing among residents and human rights activists that the military government is using the pandemic to consolidate power and crush opposition.
In the last week, the per capita death rate in Myanmar surpassed those of Indonesia and Malaysia to become the worst in south-east Asia.
The country’s crippled health care system has rapidly become overwhelmed with new patients sick with Covid-19.
Supplies of medical oxygen are running low, and the military-led government has restricted its private sale in many places, saying it is trying to prevent hoarding.
This has led to widespread allegations that the stocks are being directed to government supporters and military-run hospitals.
At the same time, medical workers have been targeted after spearheading a civil disobedience movement that urged professionals and civil servants not to cooperate with the government, known as the State Administrative Council.
Yanghee Lee, the UN’s former Myanmar human rights expert, said: “They have stopped distributing personal protection equipment and masks, and they will not let civilians who they suspect are supporting the democracy movement be treated in hospitals, and they’re arresting doctors who support the civil disobedience movement.
“With the oxygen, they have banned sales to civilians or people who are not supported by the SAC, so they’re using something that can save the people against the people,” she added.
“The military is weaponising Covid.”
Myanmar’s deputy information minister Zaw Min Tun did not respond to questions about the allegations, but with growing internal and external pressure to get the pandemic under control, the leadership has been on a public relations offensive.
In the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper this week, several articles highlighted the government’s efforts, including what it called a push to resume vaccinations and increase oxygen supplies.
Senior general Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the government, was cited as saying that efforts were also being made to seek support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and unspecified “friendly countries”.
“Efforts must be made for ensuring better health of the state and the people,” he was quoted as saying.
Myanmar reported another 342 deaths Thursday, and 5,234 new infections.
Its 7-day rolling average of deaths per one million people rose to 6.29 — more than double the rate of 3.04 in India at the peak of its crisis in May.
The figures in Myanmar are thought to be a drastic undercount due to lack of testing and reporting.
Myanmar is one of the region’s poorest countries and already was in a vulnerable position when the military seized power, triggering a violent political struggle.
Under the civilian former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar had weathered a coronavirus surge last year by severely restricting travel and sealing off Yangon.
Vaccines were secured from India and China, but Ms Suu Kyi’s government was ousted less than a week after the first jabs were given.
As civil disobedience grew after Ms Suu Kyi’s removal, public hospitals were basically closed as doctors and other staff refused to work under the new administration, instead running makeshift clinics for which they faced arrest, if caught.
Military hospitals kept operating after Ms Suu Kyi’s removal but were shunned by many people and the vaccination program slowed to a crawl before apparently fizzling out completely until this week.
There are no solid figures on vaccinations, but it is believed that about 3% of the population could have received two jabs.