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Virus or Bullets: A glimpse of COVID-19 in Rakhine, West Papua, and Bangsamoro

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, conditions are particularly serious in conflict and humanitarian settings, as abuses to vulnerable communities continue. A case in point is the continuing violent conflict in Palestine where coronavirus testing centres in Palestinian security checkpoints in the West Bank were reportedly demolished by Israeli soldiers.

A lesson learned from the Ebola outbreak suggest that violence can contribute to increased virus transmission. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was impossible to end the Ebola spread due to continued violence aimed at healthcare professionals and emergency responders. Fragility and conflict negatively impacts development gains for those most vulnerable, children, youth, and the poorest people as they weaken health systems, pushing societies to even more vulnerable positions during outbreaks.

In the Southeast Asian context, the conflict situations in the Bangsamoro Region of the Philippines, West Papua in Indonesia, and Rakhine State in Myanmar each exemplify the mutually reinforcing relationship of peace and order with COVID-19 responses.

Philippines: Mindanao

Earlier emergence of cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines has deepened prejudices between Filipinos along religious divisions and spread of hate speech. When ceasefire orders from both the communist rebel groups and the Philippine Government ended, clan wars in the Bangsamoro areas of Mindanao erupted last June of 2020 leading to the displacement of 300 families. The clashes were between members of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who were in a long-running clan war over a piece of land property.

Woman and a group of children on a tarpaulin in an internally displaced persons camp
IDPs at evacuation camps (Source: Editha Z. Caduaya/Newsline)

Despite a drop in the level of violence in many parts of the Bangsamoro region after the peace negotiations between the Philippines government and MILF culminated, clan wars in Mindanao, vernacularly known as “rido” continue to contribute to “violence, displacement, and untold suffering of the Bangsamoro people”, according to Minister Muñoz of the newly formed Ministry of Public Order and Safety.

There are existing efforts to address the continuing prevalence of clan wars in Mindanao. In the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, efforts of the Ministry of Public Order and Safety includes consultative assemblies to plan the strategy on prevention and settlement of clan wars. One of the wins of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao is the rido settlement of a four-year long political dispute between the Sindatok and Tundok clans of Maguindanao.

Effectively addressing clan wars in the Bangsamoro Region is crucial or it can reverse the peace gains. Clan wars can de-stabilise the premature but persevering institutions of the region. The transitional government must work at ensuring that clan wars are settled before it discredits the legitimacy of the new authority. Peaceful transition must not be de-prioritised even during a pandemic, for no one should be made to choose between dying from a virus contraction or dying as a casualty of a violent conflict.

Indonesia: West Papua

West Papua, which was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 after 1026 locals voted in favour of joining Indonesia, continues its longstanding demand for self-rule and independence. Amidst a pandemic, Benny Wenda, the exiled leader of the United Movement for the Liberation of West Papua, appealed for the attention of the international community, claiming that Indonesia is using the Covid-19 crisis to further militarise the region. This is compounded by a state-imposed internet shutdown last year in West Papua and Papua after protests and riots broke out across the two provinces. The internet shutdown was ruled by the court to be illegal. The ruling was instrumental not only to regain the right for internet usage vis-à-vis information but also to disseminate COVID-related information.

Map of West Papua and Papua
West Papua is a province in the far east of Indonesia. It is often used to refer to both the provinces of Papua and West Papua. (Source: ABC News – Jarrod Fankhauser)

The Indonesian government should consider a third-party mediation, but with the government’s purview that a call for independence is an act of terrorism, the possibility for the government to engage into a third-party mediation is highly unlikely.

While it may be too premature to assess the results, the Bangsamoro peace process of the Philippines is a remarkable achievement for peace after more than three decades of conflict and can serve as an inspiration for the Indonesian government to genuinely connect and engage in dialogue with the people of Papua and West Papua.

Forging sustainable peace must start from serious investigation of the reported human rights abuses committed against the people of West Papua. The government must also go beyond inviting 64 elite Papuans to the presidential palace and instead engage in dialogue with Papuans at all levels of society. Progress can only be achieved if the government really listens to the demands and concerns of indigenous people from the grassroots level, not just from the top level.

Myanmar: Rakhine State

In Myanmar where its military has declared a national ceasefire, the declaration does not extend to the areas of Rakhine and southern Chin States where violent conflict against the Arakan Army continues. Without ceasefire in the conflict-ridden state of Rakhine, fear for the safety of health workers and increased burdens on the communities being subjected to continued violence and insecurity will persist. Last April 20, a World Health Organisation driver was attacked and killed in a Rakhine district while carrying coronavirus test samples.

In some parts of the Rakhine State, people do not receive information about the virus outbreak due to the government-imposed internet ban. The internet ban imposed in June of 2019 is affecting more than a million people living in the conflict zone. This was identified by the Human Rights Watch as the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown. Organisations such as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have been spreading awareness in villages in the Rakhine State using hand-held loudspeakers.

Crowd walking down street. The three people in front carry a white banner. The text on the banner reads: Stop Internet Shutdown
February 2020, Students take to the streets of Yangon to protest internet shutdown in Rakhine State (Source: Reuters)

The internet shutdown has also become a challenge to non-governmental organisations as it has hampered aid distribution. Without any hope for a ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the Arakan army, the least that the two parties could come to agreement to, is guaranteeing the safety of medical personnel and humanitarian workers and safe access to communities in need.

Ways Forward

To ensure a holistic, conflict-sensitive, and peace-promoting COVID response, the following recommendations should be considered:

Firstly, access to information is crucial in saving lives. Indonesia, Philippines, and Myanmar must work with local peacebuilders, community leaders, and NGOs to battle information deficiency. The spread of misinformation and disinformation threatens the fragile peace in conflict-affected communities. Media shutdowns and internet shutdowns must therefore be lifted to allow people access to reliable information related to the pandemic.

Secondly, governments must heed the call for a global ceasefire. Cessation of hostilities allows governments to not only focus their attention to responding to the health crisis but also address the poor conditions of internally displaced people. An initial move towards this is to forge a partnership with local peacebuilders to bridge the trust deficit which has widened over the years of violent conflict.

Lastly, entrenched inequalities must be addressed by governments post-COVID as a foundation towards achieving sustainable peace and development in the region. Rising inequality caused by the pandemic increase the risk of armed conflicts.

In Indonesia, Papua remains one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia. While Jakarta’s poverty rate stands at 3.47 percent, Papua’s stands at 27.53 percent. Similarly the Bangsamoro Region of the Philippines continues to have a high poverty incidence peaking at 61 percent, while in Rakhine State more than 78 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

More and more people are choosing to go out of their homes because they would rather risk exposure to the virus than to watch their children die of hunger. Thus, a comprehensive plan to address impoverished situations in these affected areas must be seriously pursued.

The pandemic may have side-tracked countries from the goals of achieving sustainable development, which at its core includes achievement of peace, but it should not reverse the progress we’ve made. The peace agenda must remain one of the key priorities especially in conflict-afflicted states such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar.

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