The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

Manifestations and targets of panic vigilantism due to Covid-19 in Myanmar

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

Panic precedes, accompanies, or follows grave political, economic, cultural, and public health crises. Reading about and seeing pictures of the global COVID-19 health crisis in neighbouring and faraway countries, the people of Myanmar simply could not believe that the coronavirus had not been detected in the country until February and March 2020. They felt that it would only be a matter of days or weeks until it was detected, and thus their panic was months in the making. Myanmar eventually announced the first two cases on 23 March. By 4 May Myanmar had 161 cases of infection, six of whom died. Since then, panic has turned several people in Myanmar not only into frenzied shoppers but also into vigilantes against people they ‘believe’ are currently or potentially infected with the coronavirus.

Different manifestations of panic

Panic can develop even before a crisis materializes, only to grow once it occurs. In the evening of 12 March, rumour spread in Myanmar that a patient at the Yangon General Hospital — Myanmar’s biggest and best public hospital — had tested positive for COVID-19. Because of news, pictures and videos of infection, deaths, lockdowns, and panic-buying elsewhere in the world, Myanmar people immediately flocked to the malls and markets and stocked food items, household essentials, and medicine. When the government eventually announced the first cases on 23 March, people responded with more panic buying. Manufacturers and mall-owners quickly announced that there was sufficient stock for all. In a televised speech on 24 March, State Counsellor and de facto leader Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi guaranteed a continued food supply, and warned that “panic buying just makes more people infected with the virus.”1 Myanmar Times,  Generally, panic buying may lead to temporary shortages of goods. If it continues for an extended period, supply chains will have to be dealt with. When these are maintained, accompanied by restrictions on shopping, panic buying reduces.

However, more disturbing social and racial, or even racist, forms of panic have occurred recently. Numerous reports of panic-stricken people racially targeting and verbally or physically abusing Chinese people or those whom they think are Chinese, have emerged all over the world. Though somewhat understandable psychologically, such panic can be socially destabilizing. People or communities may turn ‘excessively’ or ‘extremely’ vigilant. Such panic vigilantism has also been witnessed in Myanmar in recent months, and it has targeted a range of people – from Chinese workers, to returnees from foreign countries such as Thailand, to healthcare providers or frontline workers at hospitals and quarantine facilities, to even domestic returnees or travellers from COVID-19-infected places.

Different targets of panic

Since the first detected cases of COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, Myanmar vigilantes’ first targets were Chinese workers at Myanmar factories owned by investors from China.

On 31 January 2020, Myanmar workers refused to work after the Chinese company Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper allowed its assistant manager, a Chinese national, to return from China to the Letpadaung Copper Mine in Sagaing Region. A Myanmar workers’ representative said, “We are not entering the workplace if he doesn’t leave”.2 The Standard Time,  Because the crisis coincided with Chinese New Year holidays, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, Myanmar’s largest workers’ association, said that they were ‘watching’ the outflow and inflow of Chinese workers.3 DVB,  Two Chinese nationals working at a factory in Chaung-U township, Sagaing Region were isolated on their return from a visa run to China on 19 March; the factory was closed for ten days.4 News Eleven,  Such cases of early panic vigilantism were generally settled without incident.

Then the targets shifted to Myanmar workers returning from Thailand, which is home to approximate 4 million Myanmar migrants. Overwhelmed by the sheer influx of returnees and the lack of government quarantine facilities, authorities on the border had no choice but to ask those returnees – who were asymptomatic – to self-isolate at their homes. Health and Sports Minister Myint Htwe’s comment, reportedly made at a ministerial meeting on 27 March,5 The Voice Journal,  that those who could not tolerate a two-week quarantine away from their families might even face permanent separation, that is death. This only added to the sense of alarm. By the end of March, some 23,000 workers had returned home. Health and Sports Minister Myint Htwe, again, announced on 29 March that a big wave of infection was imminent from the wave of returnees.6 The Irrawaddy,  By 31 March, Myanmar had 15 diagnosed cases, two of which had returned from or visited Thailand, only further inflaming the health minister’s alarmist warning.

Panic vigilantism in Myanmar has occurred online and offline; offline and online naming and shaming are mutually reinforcing. Online ‘keyboard vigilantes’ on Facebook – the most popular social media platform in Myanmar – took to naming and shaming returnees, when reports (both online and offline) circulated of workers giving incorrect addresses, using ‘brokers’ to jump the border and bribing the authorities. Information about an unknown number of untraceable workers disappearing into the woodwork after arriving home and about some of them flouting quarantine restrictions was spread by mainstream media and individuals. On 31 March, Myanmar suspended the border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar, thereby temporarily stopping anti-returnee vigilantism. But estimating that up to 100,000 Myanmar migrant workers abroad would return if able, Aung San Suu Kyi said on 30 April, “we (Myanmar) must accept all returnees”.7 The Irrawaddy,  These returnees are now on their way by land, not just from Thailand but also from China, and by air from Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore. 

Numerous villages and towns have refused to house returnees in quarantine facilities in their environs or to receive returnees or travellers from Yangon — the epicentre of the outbreak in Myanmar. A most unfortunate form of panic-induced vigilantism or discrimination has also been seen in cities such as Mandalay and Yangon. Some landlords have evicted healthcare providers and frontline workers, instead of valuing their work. The last target is patients themselves, making a Ministry of Health and Sports spokesperson defend them in the following way, “The patients who have tested positive are humans, too. They have been infected accidentally and we should be kind to them”.8 Frontier,

Is this the end of the world?

All these instances of vigilantism and discrimination are serious social problems to be tackled. Some would say they are temporary and will go way once the crisis is over. But some discrimination may linger, because namers, shamers, vigilantes, and discriminators in Myanmar or elsewhere may now feel emboldened to say and do whatever they like under the pretext of promoting public health.  

Nyi Nyi Kyaw is a Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.