A Report on ‘Pandemic Challenges and Looking Beyond; Our Eastern Neighbors: Bangladesh and Myanmar’  
By Akash Sahu
May 20, 2020

The webinar discussion on ‘Pandemic Challenges and Looking Beyond’ was conducted by Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) on May 18, 2020, focusing on the effects of COVID-19 on Bangladesh and Myanmar. Dr Samatha from ICWA introduced the speakers for the event: Ms Smita Pant, Joint Secretary (Bangladesh, Myanmar), Ministry of External Affairs; Dr. Smruti Pattanaik, Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses; Mr. Jayanta Roy Chowdhary, Business Editor, New Indian Express; Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, Associate Professor and Executive Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, and Dr. Sanjay Pulipaka, Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group. 

It was chaired and moderated by Ambassador Rajeev Bhatia, who began the session by outlining the crucial importance of the two countries in the Indian foreign policy, considering their extensively long borders with India, cultural, economic and historical linkages. He also placed the two countries in the context of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ aimed at strengthening relations with countries its east. He pointed out that the risk in Bangladesh could increase multi-fold given it dense population.

The scholars explained the reaction of the Bangladesh government to the growing pandemic. It was realized that more number of tests have led to diagnosis of a large number of infections. This was placed in contrast to situation in Myanmar where the testing has been fairly limited, and therefore, the infection cases are also quite low. The spread of infection in Bangladesh was attributed to the return of citizens from European countries and the United States, but the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was lauded in the country’s fight against COVID-19. She has motivated the country’s medical personnel and state machinery sufficiently to lodge a strong response to the pandemic. 

However, considerable concern was expressed for the congested Rohingya refugee camps, where COVID-19 cases have already started appearing. Interaction with audience revealed possible plans of Bangladesh government to shift the refugees residing in the camps, but the scholars cautioned against such a move which will result in heavy flouting of social distancing norms and risk massive spread of the virus. A lockdown has been imposed, but is not being strictly observed. However, it was agreed that unlike other South Asian nations, Bangladesh will still register a positive economic growth. Its exports are of low value but critical nature, and therefore, will continue to be in demand.

Dr. Kipgen spoke on the situation of COVID-19 in Myanmar and the government’s response to contain the disease. He informed the audience that the confirmed cases were 187 as of May 18, and the fatalities amounted to only six. He explained that the weak testing capacity is largely responsible for such low numbers of infection, and further testing with time could show a major spike in the number of confirmed cases. On the economic front, he informed that, as of April 29, 2020, 175 factories were shut down nationwide, and over 60,000 workers were laid off temporarily or were without jobs due to the pandemic. 

Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy government has announced a relief package of $US69 million, and additionally proposed compensation for the workers affected by the pandemic. Notably, it has paid attention to more vulnerable sections of the population like senior citizens and pregnant women. The crisis has hugely impacted the women in the country many of whom had worked inn garment industries or ran their own small businesses.

While listing the challenges, Dr. Kipgen mentioned two major areas. Firstly, Myanmar allocates very small percentage of its GDP to healthcare, which has led to limited facilities in the arena. The health infrastructure standards and doctor-patient ratio fall well below the WHO’s prescribed minimum levels. This poses a dire challenge in the wake of larger number of infections in the coming future. Secondly, the military of Myanmar has been in constant conflict with the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine and Chin states. 

On May 9, 2020, the military announced a four-month unilateral ceasefire. However, this did not include the AA which the government has designated as a terrorist group on March 23, 2020. Therefore, the armed conflicts between the two groups (Myanmar military and AA) is likely to continue. The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has attracted international attention in the past for exodus of thousands of Rohingyas into neighboring Bangladesh. Dr. Kipgen added that there is an internet ban in eight townships of Rakhine and Chin states, while the government has maintained that it is able to reach the destitute nevertheless.

On India’s outreach to Myanmar in its fight against COVID-19, Dr. Kipgen highlighted that India supplied large amount of hydroxychloroquine tablets to Myanmar, which is reportedly a medicine for the disease. Additionally, it has also supplied medical equipment including surgical gloves to Myanmar. Myanmar has also received help from countries like China, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. Keeping in mind the geographical proximity and bilateral relations, India must be involved in joint response to the disease with Myanmar to a much greater degree.

Dr. Pulipaka spoke about Myanmar’s equation with China amidst the pandemic. He pointed out that the country did not have experience of fighting a pandemic unlike its ASEAN counterparts during the time of SARS, and therefore, it has grown more reliant to China in acquiring help. Some ethnic armed organizations have been reportedly engaged with Chinese officials in taking medical help to fight the virus. This has exposed the alarming need for the government to improve infrastructure and governance in border areas and maintain effective control. Another point made by Dr. Pulipaka was on the internal balance of power between the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the military of Myanmar. Both have formed separate committees to strategize the fight against the virus, and the level of cooperation between them is unknown. The civilian government is skeptical of deploying the army in large parts of the country in order to fight the disease, given the past history of military government in Myanmar.

Joint Secretary Pant presented her account of the Indian government’s engagement with both Bangladesh and Myanmar. She pointed out that India has had a fruitful relationship so far, as land and sea-port connectivity has been enhanced and land border issues have been resolved. 

In the context of Myanmar, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project is halted due to the pandemic but the government is looking for alternatives to keep the work in progress. She revealed that in her discussions with embassies in these countries and other relevant organizations, the overwhelming opinion is that India must invest more in infrastructure projects in the region. She mentioned that five states in Myanmar are free of the disease and India looks forward to engaging more with the country in fighting the pandemic. 

The discussion brought out the economic implications of the pandemic for Myanmar. It was agreed that supply chains will be badly disrupted in the country, but one major reason for economic hardship will be the impact due to falling gas prices. As the pandemic dampened demand of oil across the world, the demand for gas has met a similar fate. Another sector that will be badly hit is tourism; it will also take a considerable amount of time for tourism to reach pre-pandemic level. 

The scholars expressed worry over possible large scale economic strain in Myanmar. Some pointed out that in such a situation, the country will need help from international community but owing to the human rights crisis, there will be arguments to not provide such help until there is a change in the administration’s policies towards the persecuted ethnic groups. This will evolve into a precarious situation as non-compliance by the government could worsen the situation for people in the country, and also alienate Myanmar to a great extent. 

China, which has been friendly to Myanmar even in the past when global community had cut ties, will take the opportunity and drastically improve its ties with Myanmar. A Chinese influence in Myanmar will be China’s gateway to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It will be vital that Myanmar is not without options even during the harshest times.

In that regard, India’s position must be evaluated. Apart from being Myanmar’s immediate neighbor, India has substantial interests in the Indian Ocean and a vision for an Indo-Pacific free of any authoritative influence. Joint Secretary Pant stated that a developed and prosperous Myanmar is in India’s national interest, and therefore, India will be closely involved in Nay Pyi Taw’s quest for economic development, as well as challenges posed by the pandemic. On similar lines, a thought from the audience pondered over Myanmar’s possible membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the efforts in that direction. 

Dr. Kipgen explained that Myanmar will not be inclined to be part of SAARC in the near future, given its robust engagements in ASEAN. It must be noted that ASEAN has proven itself to be a much more functional than SAARC, which is usually plagued by politics between India and Pakistan. A bilateral engagement with Myanmar is probably a much easier way to strengthen relations and ensure consistent progress in India’s Act East Policy.  

Akash Sahu is a Research Assistant at Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), O.P. Jindal Global University, and a Research Intern with Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania in Manohar Parrikar-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA).