MonitorsPublished on Apr 14, 2020
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII; 15

Myanmar: Relations with China, post COVID-19

Sreeparna Banerjee

As the entire world is struggling with the Covid-19 crisis, Myanmar too is now worried about the spread of Covid-19 virus. After reporting its first victim sometime around 24 March, now the number of cases has gone up to 41. On the morning of 13 April, two cases were confirmed. Earlier too, there was a growing scepticism about the nation’s zero cases till the third week of March. The scepticism arose because of the nation’s 2,220-kilometer-long border with China.

As may be recalled, China is where the pandemic emerged with the toll put at 83,305. Incidentally, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar while the virus containment initiatives were ongoing, back home. The visit was aimed at cementing the bilateral relations further. However, amidst the current crisis, it’s important to re-assess how the relationship may unfold in the days to come.

Till a week back, Myanmar had reported only a handful of cases with no trace of the virus migrating from China. This may be partly since the Hubei Province, where the pandemic epicentre Wuhan is located, does not border Myanmar. Also, both the regions have less business dealings.

However, a constant factor that stands tall amidst this humongous crisis is not to offend or annoy the heavy-weighted neighbour while it was facing its critical period. This move has been quite visible while receiving President Xi in Naypyidaw on 18 January. Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi consciously avoided the topic of the new virus so as not to put her guest in an embarrassing position.

A few days later, Myanmar President U Win Myint sent a message of support to Xi Jinping, praising the merits of “Xi’s able leadership and those of China’s advanced medical technology”. As a goodwill gesture, Tatmadaw even supplied protective equipment to assist China in its tussle against the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Dodging China-covid

While the number of cases and deaths within the country begins to rise, the government has been extremely discreet in highlighting that its COVID-19 cases were imported mainly from France, the US, the UK, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland, South Korea and Thailand. The rest, the government maintained, were locally transmitted. It has till now successfully dodged the question of the virus spreading into Myanmar from China.

This may seem true as of now. However, under-reporting of cases due to low testing and the country’s weak healthcare structure remains a major concern. In a recent video broadcast, the State Counsellor’s focus was entirely towards migrant workers returning from Bangkok and the apprehension over subsequent rise in the number of cases.

However, the government has delicately forgotten about a large number of migrant labourers working in Chinese industries. Some of them have since returned home. Some among the returnees  have been stranded for the customary quarantine period of 14 days on roads outside Shan State without proper accommodation, food or healthcare.

Key to Indian Ocean

Myanmar’s constant emphasis on China being a ‘good friend’ of the nation has been apparent and discussed.  There may be three suitable reasons for this. First, the prolonged conflicts and the chronic under-investment in the healthcare sector within Myanmar have led to a gradual deterioration of health service infrastructure, inadequate and unreliable supplies of essential medicines and equipment, and a shortage and mal-distribution of health workers.

All this have translated into a rapid decline in both the availability and the quality of health services. The country has 61 doctors per 100,000 people and 1.1 critical beds per 100,000 people, falling short of WHO basic standard recommendations. There is just one laboratory in the country, with another under construction that has the capacity for conducting COVID 19 tests.

With the result, the country is ill-equipped to handle growing case-load on its own. Thus, Myanmar requires external help. China, which has been successful in controlling the virus, can provide proper resources, equipment and guidance to the otherwise less-prepared nation to fight the novel disease.

Second, as the largest trading partner and source of accumulative FDI in Myanmar, China has a vital role to play in the former’s economy.  The investments from China are instrumental for the well-being of the nation amidst such trying times.

Myanmar understands that it remains vital to President Xi’s “One Belt One Road” project. Access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar would decrease Beijing’s heavy reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Straits of Malacca for its imports. More specifically, the land holds the key to meeting China’s energy needs. The nation may leverage this opportunity to fulfil its economic and strategic needs to up its game in the regional forum.

Furthermore, China has been a sympathetic ‘friend’ and catalyst to mitigate the tarnished image of Myanmar on the human rights front. It has provided the strategy to deal with over 700,000 Rohingyas, now living as refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh, in the wake of bloodshed and brutal violence. The recent ICJ ruling has gone against Myanmar and thus maintaining fruitful relation with the dragon nation must be its aim.

Stabilising foothold

After recovering from the early shocks of the pandemic, China has set foot to reclaim its regional hold. Keeping its sight on the progression of the BRI in the last week of March, China has announced $6.78 million in aid to Myanmar, for 22 projects under the Beijing-led initiative Mekong-Lancang Cooperation.

In addition, to increase border trade, custom clearances in Yunnan Province and other border trading posts have been eased so that goods from Myanmar are able to pass into China more efficiently. On 17 March, after weeks of supply-chain disruptions, China Enterprises Chamber of Commerce arranged to send 15 tonnes of textile and garment raw material to Yangon by chartered flight. On the health front,  few Chinese health experts have reached Myanmar last week to help the country with its COVID-19 cases.

While it cannot be denied that China has a major footprint in Myanmar, both in trade and investment, but so does other partners like Japan as well as India. This provides Myanmar a significant degree of manoeuvrability, provided the country sustains and revives from the current crisis. Yet it will be vital to see how the current pandemic pans out.

Nepal: Covid-19 crisis and migrant labour

Sohini Nayak

For some years now, the small Himalayan country of Nepal has been moving through a phase of socio-economic and political transition. It was also going through a phase of recovery from the 2015 earth-quake as well as the economic blockade with India has been quite challenging. In this background, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has provided the much-needed leverage for Nepal, though very few projects under the scheme has been sanctioned.

Consequently, most Nepalis, especially the ones who are trained in vocational courses, are opting out for opportunities abroad. This has provided themselves with better financial stability. In fact, labour migration has been acknowledged in the country as a very conventional and regularised system of economic growth and sustainability.

As has been frequently noted, from 2008 to 2017, Nepal generated around 3.5 million labour permits for migrant workers, frequently travelling to South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, member-nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and of course, immediate Indian neighbour. In the case of India, easy access through the open border system has always been a boon.

Nepal also received remittances worth NPR 699 billion ($6.5 billion) from this domain alone. The figure works out to more than one quarter of the national GDP. It is also the fourth highest in the world.

Unfortunately at the moment, with the present situation of the COVID-19 engulfing the world, this very specific theatre of employment-generation as well as development has turned out to be the most crucial threat to the Nepalese government. It has also become an even more difficult challenge, with migrant labourers stuck in the destination-countries amidst the corona virus hullabaloo. These issues need to be dealt with utmost clarity as well as sensitivity.

Labourer’s hue and cry

The recent collaboration between India and Nepal over the presence of the stranded migrant labourers in either country has been well appreciated as  a welcome gesture. However, critics have pointed out to Nepalese working in countries that are not located within favourable geographical proximity.

Human rights organisations have taken note of the news of citizens of countries like Nepal, India and Bangladesh (10 per cent of all migrant labour world-wide) stuck in the Gulf countries. According to reports, they are living in camps without the privileges of social distancing or even proper sanitation or medical facilities.

In this regard, the migrants’ rights groups have been voicing the necessity of repatriating and protecting the workers with more flexible policies of returning back, which might not be a conducive proposal, given the dire state of affairs. In keeping with this challenge, suggestions of supporting the families of these workers have also been forwarded to the government.

Furthermore, several biases have also been alleged by the Nepalese who talked about partiality in treatment in des hospitals. Such kind of racial insensitivity has also been observed worldwide due to the physical features or appearances of the Nepalese, often being confused as Chinese. As the virus first emanated from the Chinese province of Wuhan, the community has been subjected to worldwide discrepancy and negative or hate comments.

Nevertheless, no concrete information is still available on the position  taken by the government in tackling with the issue. This is all the more relevant because even if the people return back to Nepal, whether their own home-country would be able to provide them with the basic medical check -ups is a big question in itself.

Concentrated treatment

Very recently, there was news of concentrated treatment of Covid-19 only in the capital of Kathmandu, whereas the provinces lagged behind in providing the very basic amenities like additional beds in hospitals and test kits for the suspects. In the last two years, not much development has been witnessed in the ministry of public health as most provinces do not have proper infrastructure to host critical patients.

Most of them have to travel to Kathmandu to get their treatment, if not across the border to India. If this scenario continues, Kathmandu shall not be able to handle more entries, thereby resulting in absolute lawlessness, finally culminating into an increase in the COVID-19 cases in Nepal, which may have gone unmonitored due to the absence of proper facilities of testing.

However, the provinces have taken note of this and are arranging to bring about changes in the health setup along with new care centres and hospitals. Given the present economic scenario, how much that would be possible has again been a major concern.

Assistance from India must be considered with utmost sincerity as this is one of the important way to move forward. Not only would it enhance future collaborations in health care but also would help in assisting the migrants living outside, who could come back with the Indian migrants and then move across the border in a much more peaceful process.

Regular communication with India and other host countries should be re-evaluated by Nepal in this process, which on the other hand is economically viable for the country in the long run as it has to survive a major chunk of its economy on the remittance from them.

The time is not ripe to think about the past experiences of blockade or for that matter the issue over the Kalapani border turmoil. This pandemic might bring in some positive aspect of collaboration and negotiation, thereby spilling over bilateral bonhomie in other areas of diplomacy as well.

Country Reports


COVID-19 cases increase

As on 10 April 2020, the total number of coronavirus cases in the country stood at 521, as reported by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH). The province of Herat, which shares a long and porous border with Iran, has witnessed the highest number of positive cases. Many of the big cities such as Kabul and Herat, have been under lockdown for almost two weeks. Amid the fast increasing spread of the virus, government authorities are likely to extend the lockdown period. Testing frequency has gone up to 1000 a day, with two labs in Kabul, one in Balkh, Herat and Kandahar each, carrying out tests for the entire country.

Another batch of prisoners released

The government released another batch of low-risk Taliban prisoners on 9 April 2020, after releasing the first one the previous day, after the inmates pledged that they would not return to the battlefield. The Taliban, however, rejected the move altogether, as their demand to have 15 senior commanders released in the first instance, was not met. The government claimed that the senior insurgent commanders in captivity were convicted for major attacks against the country, and could not be released before securing a guarantee that they would not never again engage in insurgent activities. Meanwhile, there was no word on the release of 1000 security personnel from Taliban captivity, which was agreed upon in the US-Taliban peace deal.


$8.5-b stimulus package

The government has rolled out nearly $8.5 billion  economic stimulus package to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Announcing the bailout plan, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a nationwide televised speech, observed that special measures are necessary to support the country’s industries which will be facing a slump due to the lockdown. Around $3.54 billion is allotted for industries and service sectors while  another $2.53 b has been kept for small and medium-sized businesses. These aids will be provided  at a concessional rate of interest. 

Mujib killer held

Abdul Majed, a former army officer and one of the killers of the country’s first Prime Minister, ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was arrested this week. Majed was absconding since 1997 and was claimed to be hiding in neighbouring India. In 1998, Majed, along with 15 others was sentenced to death by a Dhaka Court for assassinating the iconic leader. The Supreme Court upheld the same in 2010.  Five of the convicts were executed in January 2010. The current arrest is seen as a major achievement in the path of the healing the wounds of the assassination.


Migrant labour return

Bhutanese migrants working in India and Maldives and facing the brunt of suspension of economic activities owing to the COVID-19 pandemic are returning to their homeland. The 309 passengers who returned from India and Maldives on 9 April were sent directly to the facility quarantine in Thimphu. Those who came in the two special Drukair flights from Delhi were mostly students and the flight from the Maldives carried mostly those working there.

SDF allots $ 5 million

The SAARC Development Fund (SDF) has allocated USD 5 million to help the member states respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The fund will be given to eligible proponents from the member states under its social window. All eight SAARC member states can submit Covid-19-related proposals for the fund upon fulfilling certain criteria. Currently, SDF is implementing 90 projects in all SAARC member states with a total fund commitment of USD 198.24. The SDF has completed 48 projects benefiting thousands of people in the region.

EU releases grants

The European Union (EU) on 4 April released Euro 8.5 million to support Renewable Natural Resources and local governance sectors in Bhutan. The tranche release is a part of the larger budget support initiative for a total value of EUR €48.8M implemented by the government for the period from 2017 to 2022, according to a press release from the EU. With the release of the 4th tranche, the EU has so far transferred EUR 29.6M to the government. Funds are implemented directly by the government through the national budget.


PM discusses lock-down extension

Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted video-con-meeting with the Chief Ministers of all the States on 11 April to discuss about the possibility of extending the lockdown in the light of the continuing spike in the corona positive cases across the country as India has reached day 18 of its 21 days nation-wide lock-down declared earlier by the central government. Already governments of Orissa and Punjab have decided to further extend the lockdown in their states. The Prime Minister, in his earlier meeting with the CMs discussed the possibility for a ‘staggered exit’ from the lockdown.

Stranded labour

The United Arab Emirates has informed the Indian government that it is ready to send back the Indian migrant workers, who are not affected by the Covid 19, to India. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure the safety of the migrant workers whose bulk goes from Kerala and works in crowded areas in Dubai.

HCQ exports cleared

The Government has lifted the ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which US President Donald Trump has described as the ‘game-changer’ in the global fight against coronavirus pandemic. The Government imposed the ban when early reports indicated that HCQ, used for malarial treatment, could hold the key to coronavirus cure, too, in the absence of any new drug. The Indian Pharmaceutical Association (IPA) assured that Indians have no reason to worry about drug shortages and would be adequately available for patients in India.


Shahid thanks India

Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid has thanked the Government of India for approving the request for a shipment of 'Hydroxychloroquine' (HCQ), the malaria drug widely touted as a "game-changer" in the fight to end the global COVID-19 pandemic. He said in a tweet, addressing Indian counterpart, Dr S Jaishanker, after Maldives was named as one of the 13 countries, including the US, where India will be exporting HCQ on a government-to-government basis. Maldives will be getting 200,000 tablets.

Speaks to China

Minister Shahid also spoke to Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, and praised the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping for its "extraordinary leadership" in its response to curb the spread of COVID-19, within the country and internationally. He also touched upon the "extraordinary impact" that the virus is having on the Maldivian economy. As far back as March 15, the Foreign Minister had met with Chinese Ambassador to Maldives Zhang Lizhong and requested for assistance in fighting the novel coronavirus. The first batch of emergency medical supplies from China arrived in the country late March.

‘Free land’ for farming

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Zaha Waheed, has announced that the Government will be working with nation-wide local councils to release land for free from islands in the country for agricultural purposes. The move was to ensure the food security of the Maldives, she told a news conference, adding that land is to be released from islands for a period of three years. The State Trading Organization (STO) has also recently announced that it will purchase the products grown by local farmers.


China sends doctors

The Chinese government has sent a team of medical experts to Myanmar to help the country cope with the COVID-19 epidemic. The team, organised by the National Health Commission, consists of 12 experts selected by the health commission of Yunnan Province. The experts specialise in respiratory disease, infectious disease, intensive care, testing and traditional Chinese medicine are from two hospitals in Yunnan and the Yunnan provincial centre for disease control and prevention.

Clearance for new banks

Myanmar has granted operating licenses to seven Asian banks, namely Bank of China (Hong Kong), Taiwan’s Cathay United Bank and Mega International Commercial Bank, Industrial Bank of Korea, Seoul-based KB Koomin Bank, Korea Development Bank and Siam Commercial Bank of Thailand, bringing the number to total 20 foreign banks who are allowed doing business in the previously isolated market. The approval gives the lenders nine months to demonstrate they can fulfill business plans laid out in their application to the authorities before they will be given proper licenses.


Talks with India on COVID-19

Prime Ministers K. P Sharma Oli and Narendra Modi have recently held a telephonic conversation over the hovering COVID-19 issue and the resultant lockdown. First and foremost the aspect of looking after each other’s stranded citizens was discussed. Secondly, the supply chain of essential goods like medicines from the Indian side has also been acknowledged. Both the counterparts have decided to make the process a more lucid one so that no one suffers from either side.

Provinces invest in hospitals

There have been several opinions regarding the lack of proper health care facilities in the provinces of the country. People still had to travel to Kathmandu for ‘well-equipped services’. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic, upgradation in the provincial hospitals has been witnessed with increase in the number of beds and the basic facilities being provided. The centre has realized that it cannot facilitate healthcare for the entire country alone and must begin at the grass root level. This, of course, comes across as a positive development.


Joins SAARC Covid Fund

After initial reluctance, and even abusing the first virtual conference hosted at the behest of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, raising the Kashmir issue, Pakistan has done a U-turn and proposed a video conference of South Asia’s health ministers. The government of Pakistan has also pledged $3 million to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed a SAARC fund for the COVID-19.

More aid from China

As the number of Covid-19 cases in Pakistan are about to breach the 5,000-mark, China has pledged more aid to its ‘all-weather friend’. A special aircraft of Pakistan International Airline (PIA) landed in Islamabad on 10 April with ventilators, face masks, testing kits and protective gear on board. Dr Arif Alvi, President of Pakistan, who recently visited Beijing, thanked the communist leaders and medical fraternity of China for providing the much-needed help

Farooqi sought

Pakistan has asked for the custody of Aslam Farooqi, a k a Abdullah Orakzai, the IS-Khorasan chief who was recently arrested by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS). Farooqi was the master-mind behind the recent Gurdwara attack in Afghanistan in which 25 innocent people were killed. The arrest of IS-Khorasan chief is believed to blow the lid off the close relationship between Pakistani agencies and terrorist organisations in Af-Pak region.

Sri Lanka

Constitutional crisis? 

With the Elections Commission having postponed the parliamentary polls, scheduled for 25 April, indefinitely, in the face of the covid-19 crisis, a constitutional crisis may be looming large if a new Parliament is not in session by 2 June. The question is if the nation will be ready for polling before the said date, and if not, who will be able to take the call on the future – the EC or the President, who had ordered fresh elections and also fixed the polling date under the statute. The options are for either President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or the EC to approach the Supreme Court, or for the former to rescind his 2 March notification, dissolving the existing Parliament, whose term ends only by early September.

India gifts medicines 

India has gifted a 10-tonne consignment of essential life-saving medicines to Sri Lanka, in view of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. These medicines were requested by the Government of Sri Lanka and flown to Colombo by an Air India special chartered flight, the Indian High Commission said in a statement. This is yet another manifestation of India’s unwavering commitment to stand with Sri Lanka, in rain and in sunshine. Despite its own domestic challenges and constraints, India has always believed in sharing its resources and expertise with its friends and partners.



Opinion Pieces

Jackson Richman, “With US-Taliban Deal, Will Iran Seek to Fill Power Vacuum in Afghanistan?”, The Algemeiner, 8 April 2020

Sohrab Azad, “Afghanistan’s Women Are the Key to a Lasting Peace”, The Diplomat, 7April 2020

Shubhangi Pandey, “Afghanistan: Evaluating the Impact of COVID-19”,, 3 April 2020


The Kabul Times, “A Big Blow to IS-K”, 7April2020

Afghanistan Times, “Delaying the Inevitable”, 7 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Bazlul H Khondker, “Navigating the socioeconomic perils of Covid-19 in Bangladesh”, The Daily Star, 7 April 2020

Mostafiz Uddin, “World needs to use or lose Bangladesh apparel industry”, The Daily Star, 7 April 2020

Asif Saleh, “In Bangladesh, COVID-19 threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis”, World Economic Forum, 6 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Dorji Wangchuck, “Delivering a digital economy for Bhutan”, Kuensel, 10 April 2020


Kuensel, “Welcoming our folks home”, 10 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

D. Raja, “The pandemic has exposed the limits of capitalism”, The Indian Express, 11 April 2020

C Raja Mohan, “With global institutions in turmoil, India needs to be pragmatic and fleet-footed”, The Indian Express, 11 April 2020

Bastian Steuwer, “A virus with two heads”, The Telegraph, 10 April 2020

Prabhat Patnaik, “Unforgivable Ignorance”, The Telegraph, 10 April 2020


The Hindu, “Lives and Livelihood: On economy after lockdown”, 11 April 2020

The Hindu, “Stage fright: On denying community transmission”, 11 April 2020

The Telegraph, “Home-based learning for children”, 10 April 2020

The Telegraph, “Collateral cost of pandemic”, 10 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Maldives: Covid brings the best again in India relations”,, 7 April 2020

Fathmath Shaahaunaz, “Not all heroes wear capes: Celebrating nurses and midwives on World Health Day 2020”, The Edition, 7 April 2020

Rae Munnavar, “Summoning kindness in crisis: Compassion in the time of covid-19”, The Edition, 7 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Kyaw Zaw Moe, “Impoverished Myanmar Takes on an Invisible Enemy”, The Irrawaddy, 9 April 2020

Joe Kumbun, “Five Lessons for the World from COVID-19”, The Irrawaddy, 7 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Kedar Neupane, “Declare Emergency”, Republica, 11 April 2020

Dinesh Kafle, “'Karuna' in a post-coronavirus world”, The Kathmandu Post, 9 April 2020

Navin Raj Kaini, “Learning for Nepal”, Republica, 8 April 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Nowhere to go”, 10 April 2020

The Kathmandu Post, “Health and federalism”, 7 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Asha’ar Rehamn, “Jahangir’s justice”, Dawn, 10 April 2020

Inam Ul Haque, “Pre-corona world, gone with the wind”, The Express Tribune, 10 April 2020

Syed Mohmmad Ali, “Can Covid-19 become a game-changer?”, The Express Tribune, 10 April 2020

Durdana Najam, “Right-wing nationalism and healthcare”, The Express Tribune, 9 April 2020

Zahid Hussain, “A divisive moveDawn, 8 April 2020

Talat Masood, “How to look at security today”, The Express Tribune, 8 April 2020


Dawn, “Quarantine lapses”, 10 April 2020

The Express Tribune, “SAARC conference boycott”, 10 April 2020

The Express Tribune, “Variance in test results”, 10 April 2020

The Express Tribune, “Spike in cases”, 9 April 2020

The Express Tribune, “Inclusive approach”, 3 April 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

Kusal Perera, “Corona and the fall of the Global Village”, Daily Mirror Online, 10 April 2020

Ameen Izzadeen, “Racism infecting battle against corona pandemic”, Daily Mirror Online, 10 April 2020

Kelum Bandara, “Govt keeps fingers crossed till April 20”, Daily Mirror Online, 9 April 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Needed: A consensus, still”, Ceylon Today, 9 April 2020

Neville Laduwahetty, “Pardoning of former Corporal Sunil Rathnayake”, The Island, 8 April 2020

Jehan Perera, “Government’s responsibility to sustain the people in time of Covid lockdown”, The Island, 7 Apri8l 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Who can move the Supreme Court on poll postponement”, Colombo Gazette, 6 April 2020


D B S Jeyaraj, “We must abandon the idea of elections any time soon: Sumanthiran”, Daily Mirror Online, 6 April 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.