Myanmar Is a Failing State—and Could Be a Danger to Its Neighbors
Since the Myanmar military seized power in February, it has overseen economic collapse, mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic, murdered hundreds of people, and set the stage for the state to fail.
What is the state of the COVID-19 outbreak in Myanmar?
Horrendous. When the new coronavirus emerged, Myanmar remained relatively unaffected: Until August 2020, it had recorded only six COVID-19 deaths, and development specialists praised the civilian government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), for implementing measures to limit the virus’s spread. Despite a wave of infections in late 2020, Myanmar had reported a total of just three thousand COVID-19 deaths before the coup.
Today, the military government claims that Myanmar is suffering an average of six thousand new cases and three hundred deaths per day. The actual numbers are likely much higher, as the few tests available have at times yielded a 37 percent positivity rate. (Testing almost completely stopped in the aftermath of the coup and has slowly picked back up.) The country lacks doctors, bottled oxygen, vaccine doses, and medications. Only about 8 percent of the population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Doctors Without Borders reports that the country is suffering “uncontrolled community spread,” and the highly contagious Delta variant is moving through Myanmar, although there is not enough information to know how big a role Delta is playing in Myanmar’s caseload.
How bad is the economy?
Prior to the pandemic, the economy was on track to expand by an additional 6 percent in 2019–20. Now, the economy is imploding.
Many banks have little cash and many multinational companies have left Myanmar as trade relations have soured between leading democracies and the country. Myanmar lost 1.2 million jobs in the second quarter of 2021. In July, the World Bank projected that the economy would contract by 18 percent this year. Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group told the UN Security Council in April that Myanmar “stands on the brink of state failure.”
How did Myanmar collapse so quickly?
The military, which dominated Myanmar between 1962 and 2010, seized control this past February because it feared that the NLD-led government had become powerful enough to loosen the army’s control over defense portfolios and army-run conglomerates. In its zeal to quell all forms of dissent, the junta dismantled many important state sectors.
Some doctors and nurses joined the postcoup resistance movement, leading the armed forces to seize health-care institutions and arrest health workers. The regime has jailed NLD leaders and civil society members, and shot live ammunition into people’s homes. The brutality has led tens of thousands of Myanmar citizens to flee to other parts of the country and abroad. Desperate, the parallel National Unity Government openly declared war on the junta earlier this month.
What could be the global impact if Myanmar collapses?
International experts have sounded alarms that rising infections, population flight, and misgovernance threaten Myanmar’s neighbors.
The UN special rapporteur for Myanmar has warned that the country’s collapse could lead to the spread of new, more dangerous COVID-19 variants, saying that “[South and Southeast Asia] is a region that is susceptible to even greater suffering as a result of Myanmar becoming a super-spreader state.”
How have outside actors responded?
Regional powers have mostly looked the other way. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has highlighted Myanmar’s problems but failed to address them. India has stayed quiet, China has refused to condemn the junta, and Russia has armed the coup government.
After an initial burst of interest, the United States and other powerful democracies—consumed by domestic problems and the crisis in Afghanistan—have paid little attention to Myanmar, for the most part offering rhetorical responses or sanctions.
What should they do?
The situation demands rapid, concerted action, given the suffering inside Myanmar and the risks it poses to the world. Sanctions imposed by Washington and European capitals on military leaders and military-controlled companies are steps toward cutting the army’s purse strings. But external actors should also bolster the global COVID-19 response, including ramping up stocks of vaccines and cheap tests for troubled countries such as Myanmar, to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading further. In August, the U.S. government gave $50 million in pandemic aid to Myanmar, but the country could use at least ten times as much assistance.
Vaccine donations and other types of support for parts of Myanmar where the military does not have full control could come from China and Thailand. (China has already delivered at least two million vaccine doses.) Armed ethnic organizations in areas near Thailand and their political wings have launched efforts to combat COVID-19. But this aid might not reach central Myanmar, where the army has more control and has sought to weaponize health care, denying life-saving treatments to people it believes opposes its rule.
Still, the UN special rapporteur has called for major powers to help foster a “COVID-19 cease-fire.” Under such a plan, the UN secretary-general and other leaders would try to persuade all sides in Myanmar to temporarily halt fighting so that the United Nations—working with local and other global institutions—could send in medical teams to speed up vaccine distribution and provide other medical care.
Would the military accept a cease-fire? It might not. UN teams going into central Myanmar could be detained or have their supplies seized. But given how dire and dangerous the situation has become, risks should be taken.
Michael Bricknell and Lindsay Maizland created the graphics for this article.