Yangon, Myanmar – Broadcasting live from Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi shuffled some papers, looked straight at the camera and smiled before welcoming her guests to a teleconference call on Facebook.
“Currently, migrant workers are coming back from Thailand and some have resettled in the country. So we are taking the necessary steps to provide quarantine facilities,” the country’s de facto leader told the more than 300,000 viewers who had tuned into her broadcast on Wednesday.
Alongside her, the screen featured three of Myanmar’s labour leaders. The first topic of the day was about how returning migrant workers could minimise the spread of the new coronavirus in the impoverished country.
“Those gathered in large groups could be a danger to themselves and the country if they don’t follow the rules,” Suu Kyi said.
The 74-year-old state counsellor heads Myanmar’s coronavirus response team and has reluctantly turned to Facebook to spread her message on the challenges posed by COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.
Despite creating a Facebook profile in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi only posted her first update on April 1, declaring that while she did not want to use the platform at all she was forced to do so in order to “effectively communicate with citizens”.
Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to the platform daily to update her 2.2 million followers on the government’s efforts to fight the virus. Facebook has the largest reach out of any traditional media or social media platform in Myanmar, registering an estimated 21 million users in the country of 53 million.
There are now 127 confirmed infections and five deaths from the coronavirus in Myanmar. While the figures are the second-lowest in Southeast Asia, experts worry a large outbreak could swiftly overwhelm the country’s healthcare system, which is ranked among the worst in the world following decades of military rule. The country is now bracing for the return of more migrant workers from Thailand and China, some of whom may have the coronavirus.
During her broadcasts, Aung San Suu Kyi hosts state and regional health officials as well as volunteers working to slow community transmission. She moderates panel discussions and listens to and congratulates people across Myanmar, from Mon state in the southeast of the country to the Ayeyarwady region outside Yangon, in an effort to reassure people that authorities are doing everything possible to combat the virus. Respect the rules, she urges viewers frequently, telling them to follow social distancing guidelines and hygiene practices including the wearing of face coverings.
The broadcasts typically garner hundreds of thousands of views and as people on the front lines share their stories, viewers flood the screen with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emojis. In addition to the praise from supporters, the discussions have drawn plaudits from the traditional news media, too.
“The biggest result of our video meeting with citizens across our country is to know about the important needs of those who are trying to overcome the COVID-19 challenges [we face],” Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday.
Kaung Htut, a bank employee in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.
“The teleconference call is a good thing … she should have been doing this all along,” the 39-year-old said. “She’s not communicating detailed plans by the government. She’s trying to clarify some information for the public. The guests respectfully listen and answer her questions. But nobody challenges her.”
But some critics say the tactic bypasses the news media and public health officials should have taken the lead, not Aung San Suu Kyi.
“She should hold press conferences and communicate with journalists to make sure the right messages are getting out,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a 28-year-old democracy activist who tunes in to Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.
“The press conferences or online press briefings should be regular. She’s taking on the roles other people should.”
Meanwhile, some activists are using Aung San Suu Kyi’s newfound appreciation for Facebook to seek accountability for the continuing conflict between the military and the Arakan Army rebel group in Rakhine and Chin states.
The United Nations says 32 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the fighting in Rakhine and Chin since March 23 – the date the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Myanmar. And while Aung San Suu Kyi used one of her recent Facebook broadcasts to mourn the loss of a woman to the coronavirus, activists say she has not paid the same attention to the conflict deaths.
On Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi released a statement expressing her support for the military in western Myanmar, and went on to remark that her government was “deeply saddened to learn of civilian casualties in Rakhine and Chin states,” where 150,000 displaced people are living under a mobile internet ban and are unable to receive information about the pandemic.
Moe Thway, president of Generation Wave Youth Force, a group of political activists critical of Aung San Suu Kyi‘s government, said he frequently leaves comments on Aung San Suu Kyi‘s Facebook posts highlighting the number of people who’ve been killed in the conflict in the past month alone.
“For the moment coronavirus is the most important issue in the country. But the war in Rakhine and Chin states should be the second,” he said.
“People living in the conflict zones need protection and information,” said Moe Thway.
Aung Hla Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government, declined to comment for this story.