BANGKOK – A spokesman for Myanmar’s military-established government said on Friday that members of the country’s persecuted Rohingya ethnic group would be given COVID-19 vaccines.
The Muslim minority was the target of a fierce anti-terrorist campaign in 2017, which some critics blamed for ethnic cleansing or genocide. The Rohingya face widespread discrimination and most are denied citizenship and other basic rights.
Government spokesman Major General Jae Min Tun made the announcement at a news conference in the capital, Naipitaw, where he also said that officials are trying to vaccinate 50% of the country’s population this year.
Myanmar, whose poor public health system was further weakened by political turmoil caused by the military’s takeover of power in February from Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, is facing a devastating outbreak of the coronavirus, though daily in the past month The number of new cases and deaths reported has declined.
Health officials on Thursday reported 2,635 more confirmed COVID-19 cases, taking the total since the pandemic began to 383,514. There were 113 new deaths to bring the total to 14,850. According to “Our World in Data,” a website that compiles global statistics, about 8.2% of the country’s 54 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh in August 2017 after security forces launched a crackdown on militants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The action included rapes, murders and setting fire to thousands of homes.
An estimated 600,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, but more than 100,000 of them live in non-essential and overcrowded displacement camps.
Zaw Min Tun said “Bengalis” living in the western state of Rakhine, which includes the populated townships of Maungdaw and Buthidong, would be vaccinated. The government uses the Bengali term for members of the Rohingya minority, which it does not recognize as an official minority group native to Myanmar. Many members of other ethnic groups consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
International courts are trying to determine whether the genocide was committed by government forces in 2017. An investigation set up by the United Nations has recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.