The Latest on Southeast Asia: August 19, 2021

The Delta variant is driving the deadliest wave of Covid-19 infections across Southeast Asia since the start of the pandemic, exacerbating political unrest in Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar. The palace drama in Malaysia came to a head this week when Muhyiddin Yassin stepped down as prime minister after a year and a half on the job. His government had kept case numbers relatively low until by-elections in Sabah State in September 2020 fueled a major spike. Just when the government was bringing that surge under control in March 2021, the Delta variant caught hold. Cases rose quickly and Malaysia now tops the region in per capita caseload. This accelerated Muhyiddin’s political woes, as members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) defected from his shaky ruling coalition and the king demanded he end the national state of emergency and face a confidence vote in Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob of UMNO likely has the votes to succeed Muhyiddin, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Sabri, however, was largely responsible for the country’s Covid-19 response and will face similar trouble trying to steer a shaky government through national crisis. He will also do so without the benefit of a state of emergency, which expired on August 1.

Thailand is also experiencing unrest of the popular variety. Widespread protests have picked up where they left off last year, calling for reforms to the monarchy, constitutional change, and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, among other demands. Like last year’s movement, the protests are largely youth driven and appear to cross regional fault lines. But unlike last year, the protests have quickly turned violent, with reports of Thai authorities using live fire and protestors countering with slingshots, firecrackers, and small explosive devices called “ping-pong bombs.”

The frustration on the streets is in part fueled by Thailand’s skyrocketing Covid-19 case numbers. Only about 6 percent of Thais are fully vaccinated, among the lowest rates in Southeast Asia. Due to the rising case numbers, the country remains in lockdown at least until the end of the month. Frustrated protestors have attempted to march to the prime minister’s residence several times in the last week, calling for Prayuth’s resignation, only to be met with rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas.

Meanwhile the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar continues to deepen as Covid spreads largely unchecked. August 1 marked six months since Myanmar’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup. August 8 marked the anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that first brought Aung San Suu Kyi to national and global prominence. Myanmar citizens held protests to mark the anniversary, with demonstrators expressing anger over both the coup and the junta’s handling of Covid-19.

Contact tracing and testing have been all but nonexistent since the coup, meaning the true infection and death rates far exceed official government figures. The UK ambassador to the United Nations told the Security Council at the end of July that half of Myanmar’s population could be infected by mid-August. Over 17,000 bodies were cremated in the last two weeks of July according to data from funeral services and social welfare groups. The military has done little to help the situation, instead opting to arrest doctors and force prisoners to languish in jails which have become Covid-19 hotspots. Ethnic armed organizations and the opposition National Unity Government are working to provide assistance and, in some cases, vaccines in areas under their control, but most of the population has been left without sufficient medical care.

For updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the pandemic, visit our online Tracker.