Myanmar has a long-standing anti-Muslim narrative, especially against the Rohingyas. In the 1980’s the Myanmar government began to deny Rohingyas citizenship. In 2012, the Ministry of Immigration and Population adopted the motto of “The earth will not swallow a race to extinction but another race will”. Buddhist nationalists distributed pamphlets and spread the idea that the Rohingya, an ethnically Muslim minority, should be forced out of Myanmar, a Buddhist country. Later that year, violence ensued as Buddhist nationalists began to attack the Rohingya with machetes and spears alongside police. On August 25, 2017, tensions escalated once again as military troops and Buddhist mobs began to torch Rohingya villages and attacked, raped, and killed over 6,700 Rohingyas. Myanmar denies that the attacks were genocidal and instead claims that they were “fighting Rohingya militants”. In January 2020, the United Nations’ court ordered that Myanmar take action in protecting the Rohingyas from further genocide. However, now during the worldwide pandemic, the Myanmar government is using Covid-19 as an excuse to further discriminate against the Rohingyas.
The Rohingya are being dehumanized by many Myanmar politicians through their rhetoric especially leading up to the Myanmar Presidential Election in November. The Rohingya are serving as a scapegoat for the most recent wave of coronavirus with propaganda declaring that they brought the disease over from Bangladesh. One Myanmar lawmaker posted on Facebook demanding for the segregation of the Rohingya from the Buddhists. Kyaw Win , the director of Burma Human Rights Network said that his team has been seeing a rise in discrimination and hate speech against the Rohingya online by Buddhist nationalists. Shops are refusing to sell their merchandise to the Rohingya.
The Myanmar government also uses Covid-19 as an excuse to extort money from the Rohingyas. There are fines in Myanmar for not following Covid-19 procedures or protocol, such as not wearing a mask or not social distancing. The police overlook most violations of these rules by Buddhists and disproportionately punish the Rohingyas. Also, there are higher fines in areas with a higher population of Rohingyas. For example, in predominantly Buddhist areas the fine for not wearing a mask is only 1,000 Kyat or $0.75 USD. In predominantly Rohingya areas the fine for not wearing a mask is 10,000 Kyat, or $7.75 USD. Some Rohingyas have had to forego food for the week in order to buy a mask to try and avoid the large fines. However, there have been reports that the police will still take the money out of people’s pockets as a ‘fine’ regardless if they are or aren’t wearing a mask.
Over 700,000 Rohingyas were displaced due to the genocide in 2017 and over 130,000 of them were sent to displacement camps in Myanmar. These camps give the Rohingya little access to food, medical resources, education, and general humanitarian services. Additionally these camps are overcrowded and serve as a breeding ground for diseases such as Covid-19. Some reports say that if infected with Covid-19, the Rohingya will not be allowed to go to the hospital. They must instead stay at one of the detention camps to receive treatment. These camps don’t have the capacity to handle such medical cases if an outbreak were to arise. These camps don’t even have the resources for adequate testing to see if there even is a coronavirus outbreak. More Rohingyas have been sent to the camps during the pandemic after they were arrested for travelling within the country. On January 6, 2021, the Myanmar police arrested 99 Rohingya for travelling without documentation and they will be held there for six to twelve months. They don’t have documentation because, although they have lived in Myanmar for all of their life, Myanmar denies all ethnic Rohingya citizenship. Instead these ethnic Rohingyas are seen as illegal aliens. This violates the current international human rights law which guarantees the right to freedom of movement within the country and or leave the country. If Myanmar continues to discriminate against the Rohingya throughout the coronavirus pandemic, there could be a new wave of nationalist-motivated genocide; this time biological genocide.