The government needs to move faster to avert a financial catastrophe for millions of households in Myanmar.

When COVID-19 emerged at the start of the year, many feared the worst for Myanmar.

It shares a long and porous border with China, where the disease emerged, and also with Thailand, the country in which it was first detected outside China.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive in Yangon and Mandalay on direct flights from China, while large numbers of migrants, traders and short-term visitors cross the shared land border each day.

The government has limited control of many border areas, and the country’s under-funded health system was poorly prepared to cope. The government was also slow to recognise the significance of the threat and respond.

Yet, through a combination of leadership, hard work, cooperation and probably a bit of luck, Myanmar has recorded relatively few cases, and only six confirmed deaths.

The response has not been perfect, but the government deserves credit for its handling of this crisis. Credit, too, must also go to the thousands of health staff and local officials – including from ethnic armed groups – and volunteers across the country who have worked hard to keep their communities safe, sometimes at significant personal risk.

But Myanmar has not emerged unscathed.

COVID-19 has hit the economy harder than many initially anticipated. Numerous surveys – from the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Asia Foundation, social enterprise ONOW and more – have revealed the depth of the financial pain.

In late June, the World Bank revised down its forecast for GDP to 0.5 percent this fiscal year. That’s not a bad result by regional standards, but given the strong growth in the first half of the year, from October 1 to March 31, it also means the economy is shrinking.

In its latest Myanmar Economic Monitor, the World Bank also warned that the economy could shrink by 2.5pc this year in a downside scenario, depending on future outbreaks, the extent of the financial damage on households and businesses, and external factors. Either way, it will take years for Myanmar to catch up on the lost growth.

But GDP growth figures don’t give the full picture. Myanmar’s growth might be higher than other countries, but it also has a much higher proportion of people below or hovering just above the poverty line, and almost no social safety net.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, and threaten to wipe out the great gains Myanmar has made in reducing poverty over the past decade.

But having millions fall back into poverty and extreme hardship is not inevitable. The government needs to do much more, and do it faster, to alleviate the suffering of the poorest households.

Implementation of the COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan released in April has been too cautious. More than two months on, officials continue to talk about “pilot projects” and “plans” for projects ranging from cash transfers to rural work schemes.

These are needed right now; poor families simply cannot afford to wait.

Some responses have also been ineffective due to their poor design. Many firms have been unable to access emergency finance from the government’s COVID-19 Fund, for example, because the criteria are too narrow. Some of those that received a loan – particularly in the tourism sector – have little hope of being able to pay it back after a year, while those who could use the cash to stay afloat and keep staff employed are often ineligible. The loans also do not appear to be contingent on retaining staff, which could limit the programme’s effectiveness.

Yes, the government is working within serious constraints. COVID-19 has left it in a precarious fiscal position, due to a huge drop in revenues. Implementation capacity is also weak thanks to an antiquated bureaucracy that requires years of painful reform.

But it needs to show the same level of leadership on the economy that it has on the health response.

Economic relief measures for companies should be broadened to include the informal sector, and made contingent on keeping staff in jobs. Programmes targeting poorer households, particularly cash transfers, should be expedited or expanded.

Cash transfers will be expensive, but the government will not be throwing money away. It will be investing in keeping children in school, in enabling families to pay for healthcare, in helping smallholders pay for inputs and so much more.

While all the talk is of a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases, the second wave of economic distress looms far larger. Now is not a time to be reckless – but it is a time to be bold.

This editorial first appeared in the July 2 edition of Frontier.

Frontier’s first five years have been a baptism of fire amid seismic change in the media industry and a febrile political scene, but we’ve beat the odds and come out stronger.

Five years is a long time in the media business – especially in Myanmar. In 2015, print advertising revenues were still growing here. Few people were reading news on their phones; instead, they had the pick of around 10 private daily papers and countless weekly journals.

Today, there is almost no print advertising market left. Quality journalism competes on social media against clickbait. The economic impact of COVID-19 has finished off several media organisations that were already struggling to survive.

But it’s not just the business climate that has changed. Journalists today face a range of threats ­– some new, some familiar – including the spread of dis- and misinformation on Facebook to the government’s use of laws to silence criticism and reporting on topics deemed sensitive. Public perceptions of journalists and the media have nosedived. The optimism among journalists themselves at the arrival of a National League for Democracy government in 2016 has dissipated.

For Frontier Myanmar, too, the past five years have been a rollercoaster. We’ve tried to both carve out a place in journalism and build a sustainable business in a rapidly changing landscape. We’ve attracted praise for our reporting, but also threats from a variety of sources. We’ve won international awards but we’ve also made mistakes, which we’ve taken responsibility for and tried to learn from. We’ve had to take difficult decisions to keep Frontier running.

The constant through this period of rapid change has been our commitment to quality journalism that competes with the best in the region.

The greatest test to this commitment was during and after the tragic events in Rakhine State in 2017, which was perhaps the pivotal moment in the Frontier story. We came under pressure to reproduce the government’s narrative, which was widely accepted in Myanmar.

We resisted this pressure and sought to cover all sides of the story ­­as much as possible – not just the press conferences in Nay Pyi Taw, but events on the ground in Rakhine and southern Bangladesh, which often told a different story. We used our editorial voice to urge humanity and tolerance at a time of heightened tension. It made us quite a few enemies, but was a line in the sand for what we stood for: honesty, integrity and fairness.

These are values that have served us well over the years, as we’ve covered everything from the illicit economy and Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts, to the impact of COVID-19.

It’s no secret that quality journalism costs money, though. We began life as a print magazine, with our digital presence more of an afterthought, which meant that initially we sought to rely on advertising revenues.

“Back then I didn’t know much about digital, so my aim was always a print magazine,” says Frontier’s co-founder U Sonny Swe. “Also, there wasn’t a good, in-depth magazine on Myanmar. A lot of people were doing daily newspapers and I thought there was room for a long-form magazine.”

Through 2017, it became increasingly clear that print advertising revenue was in terminal decline, and in the shifting political climate few advertisers had an appetite for sharing space with hard-hitting journalism. Instead, they wanted help organising press conferences, holding events and rebranding, so Sonny Swe responded to this demand by setting up Black Knight Agency, through Frontier’s parent company, Black Knight Media.

Run separately to the newsroom to ensure editorial independence, the agency has helped to increase company revenues and subsidise some editorial activities.

But on its own, this new revenue stream wasn’t going to be enough, so we looked at a range of other options to balance the books ­– everything from new investment and grants to generating revenue from readers by adding a paywall to our website, or launching a membership programme.

“The strength of Frontier is in its diversity, which spans Myanmar society and the world. We’re united by a mission to deliver quality, independent journalism.”

Sonny Swe, CEO

In the end, we settled on a mixed model – seeking grant funding to help us build a more sustainable business model. We applied last year for a grant from the Google News Initiative to support the development of a membership programme, and International Media Support also came on board to help with staffing costs for the membership team. Separately, global philanthropic organisation Luminate provided a grant to expand Black Knight Agency.

After six months of development, including several months of testing our two premium daily newsletters, the membership programme was ready for launch. We went live in January, and the response has been amazing: we’ve already signed up hundreds of members from around the world, including dozens of small and large institutions. We believe we are now on the way to financial sustainability.

That would be a massive achievement, and one built on the hard work of many people – not just the members of our growing team.

Frontier is not only a home for quality journalism, but also a training ground for a new generation of Myanmar journalists, editors and photographers. Over the years we’ve bid farewell to many people, who you can now find working at international wire agencies, foreign and local broadcasters, high-profile NGOs and respected national news outlets. Some have started their own businesses, while others have pursued further studies.

Each of them remains an important part of the Frontier story – a story that has only just passed its opening act.

To mark our fifth birthday, we’re rewarding ourselves and our readers with a new website – one with a cleaner, magazine-style design and exclusive features for members.

When Frontier Myanmar launched in 2015, our website was a bit of an afterthought. Print was still king in Myanmar – most people were only just getting on the internet for the first time – and Frontier was very much conceived as a print-focused media organisation.

Our website was also designed to accommodate a mix of short news and longer content. Over the years we’ve thought more deeply about how we as a media organisation could best use our resources and skills to contribute to the country’s development.

We began to move away from short news stories, and our relaunch as a fortnightly publication in March 2018 freed us up further to focus on the longform (sometimes very longform) articles and investigations that we have since become known for.

This wasn’t necessarily something our website was designed for, so over the past six months we’ve been building a new site and it’s almost ready to go live. The new website will better showcase our content, particularly the great work from our photography team, through a design that more resembles a magazine – think large pictures and white space. Features and investigations will be given much more space than short news. Mobile users will of course be able to access the Frontier website through their browser, but later this year we’ll also launch a new mobile application to improve the user experience further.

The centrepiece of the website, though, is an archive of every print edition of the magazine since we started publishing five years ago. This archive will be available exclusively to members, who will be able to access it through an “issues” page after logging in.

The issues page is like a library, featuring the cover of every edition of Frontier since 2015. Click on a cover, and you’ll be taken to a contents page for that issue. The articles will be arranged almost as they are in the magazine, starting with the cover story, followed by the editorial, and ending with the backpage.

Although it sounds simple, making this happen was harder than you’d think. Because none of the articles on our current website have been tagged with an issue number, creating an archive required sorting through five years of articles and assigning them to their respective issues. A small team of newsroom staff worked long hours to tag all the articles.

Once the new site launches, we’ll still be making the articles in each print issue available for free, usually starting a week or more after the magazine comes out, like we’ve always done. But browsing our current website, you don’t get a sense of what a single issue looks like. We wanted to change that, because for us the print magazine is centralto Frontier’s identity. Members will soon be able to read a digital version of the magazine via the website as soon as we go to press, and before the print magazine hits newsstands or reaches subscribers.

The website marks a new phase for Frontier. We’re still committed to making all of our magazine content available for free in English and Burmese, because we believe that it’s important everyone has access to high-quality journalism about Myanmar, and readers should soon enjoy a much better user experience.

But we’re also thinking more about our core audience, particularly our members, and catering to their needs. We believe that the membership programme we launched earlier this year represents the future for Frontier, as it will shift us away from an advertising-based revenue model to one based on readers. We’re building a community around independent journalism, and it’s great to see that so many people believe in our mission.

This is already happening ­– we’ve had a great response to memberships so far – but the new website will only make memberships more attractive and, in the process, help us to build our financial independence.

Dozens of jade miners were buried Friday in a mass grave after a landslide in northern Myanmar killed over 170, most of them migrant workers seeking their fortune in treacherous open-cast mines near the China border.

Women wept by the open plywood caskets, some marked with just a name, a few with a solitary photo, before the bodies were carried into a huge grave gouged from the red earth by a mechanical digger near the scene of the landslide.

It was the worst accident in memory to befall Myanmar’s notoriously dangerous jade mines.

The tragedy occurred on Thursday when a hillside collapsed in heavy monsoon rains, sending a deluge of smothering mud over the workers who were scouring the land for fragments of jade.

“The search and rescue missions continued today… 172 bodies were found by midday,” the Myanmar Fire Services Department said in a Facebook post, raising the overnight toll by 10.

They join scores killed each year in Hpakant, an area is close to the Chinese border in Kachin State, where billions of dollars of the precious stone is believed to be scoured each year from bare hillsides by poor migrant workers seeking to strike it rich.

Volunteers bury bodies of miners in a mass grave during a funeral ceremony near Hpakant in Kachin State on July 3. (AFP)

As photos of the dead circulated on social media, Facebook users began to identify workers hundreds of miles from home, leaving moving tributes to friends and family members.

“Please bring my father back,” said Hnin Wati. “A daughter’s heart is breaking.”

Another, from a former miner, affectionately remembered one of the dead for his “kind-heart” and generosity with his food during tough shared times on the mountainside.

The mechanical digger sealed the grave, several metres deep, with earth late Friday. 

The bloodied bodies, stripped by the force of the sea of mud which entombed them, were yet to be identified.

Volunteers prepare coffins bearing bodies of miners for burial on July 3. (AFP)

Deadly and precious

Myanmar is one of the world’s biggest sources of jadeite and the industry is supercharged by demand for the green gem from neighbouring China. 

Some jade brokers suspended online auctions on Thursday, and promised to donate money to their friends who were killed.

Scores of miners die every year in landslides and other accidents on unstable, over-excavated mountainsides.

They are often from impoverished ethnic minority communities, looking for scraps left behind by big firms.

Low-quality stones can be exchanged for food or sold for US$20 to waiting brokers. 

“Many of them (the dead) are Rakhine,” Phon Graing, a Hpakant Township official told AFP, referring to the ethnic group who live hundreds of kilometres away at the other end of the country, and who are among Myanmar’s poorest communities.

“But we don’t have specific numbers yet.”  

Police say victims had apparently defied a warning not to work the mines during the monsoon, which loosens the bare hillsides.

Family members grieve over bodies of miners during the funeral ceremony. (AFP)

United Nations Secretary-General Mr Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths, as environmental groups called for an end to an illegal trade dynamised by Chinese demand. 

Ownership and operations of the mines are mired in secrecy, although environmental watchdog Global Witness alleges operators are linked to former junta figures, the military elite and their cronies.

It said the landslide should serve as a “wake-up call” for Myanmar’s government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party vowed to reform and stamp out corruption.

The watchdog estimated that the industry was worth some $31 billion in 2014, although very little reaches state coffers.

Northern Myanmar’s abundant natural resources, including jade, timber, gold and amber, help finance both sides of a decades-long civil war between ethnic Kachin insurgents and the military.

The fight to control the mines and the revenues frequently traps local civilians in the middle, with a rampant drug and arms trade further curdling the conflict.

COVID-19 travel restrictions have stranded thousands of Myanmar seafarers abroad, while thousands more are languishing at home and eager to return to work.

Life has become monotonous for Ko Zin Maung. Four hours of duties followed by eight hours of sleep spliced with some movies, karaoke and staring out to sea, and all the while unsure when he will see his family again. He is one of 14 Myanmar merchant seamen among the 15 crew of a Taiwan-flagged oil tanker that serves ports around the South China Sea, and they have a problem.

The terms of their contracts have expired, but their employer is unable to send them home or make a crew change.

“We cannot disembark and we have to live on the boat because no port will allow us to dock,” said Zin Maung, 30, who has been onboard for more than 18 months, despite signing a contract for one year.

Zin Maung does not want to name his employer – he fears it would cost him his job – and, though he receives full salary, he just wants to return home to Yangon. His feet last touched the ground at a port in February, shortly before the world went into coronavirus lockdown and port authorities prevented them from disembarking.

Zin Maung’s plight is shared by thousands of other Myanmar merchant seamen languishing on ships around the world. Their days peak when internet signal in docks or near coastlines allows them to call relatives, or when, sailing out in the deep blue, they use short bursts of Wi-Fi in allocated time slots through satellite phone services. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia are common among the crews, but they told Frontier the government is doing its best to bring home those whose contracts have expired and to facilitate crew changes.

It should not be a problem. The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, has urged member states to regard seafarers and other marine personnel as “key workers” providing essential services who should be exempt from movement restrictions so they can join or leave ships.

After all, few activities are more essential than delivering the food, medicine and oil that governments rely on, keeping the global economy afloat. According to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, ratified by Myanmar in 2016, they are entitled to repatriation at no cost to themselves after working on a ship for more than 12 months.

However, shipping industry insiders and seafarers told Frontier that most governments, including that of Myanmar, are not acting on the IMO recommendations.

Myanmar seafarers wait in South Korea’s Incheon International Airport on May 29 for a relief flight to Myanmar. (Supplied)

Endless days at sea

About 4,000 Myanmar seafarers are working on ships for longer than a year and are entitled to be repatriated, said Myanmar Seafarer Employment Services Federation secretary-general U Kyaw Myint Oo on June 9.

Immediate crew changes are needed, the MSESF told State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in a letter on May 12. Families of seafarers are concerned that the withholding of relief for the workers could damage their mental and physical wellbeing, reduce their performance and increase the risk of workplace accidents, said the letter.

“COVID-19 is like a disease that was deliberately invented to make the world stop working,” seafarer Ko Lin Htet Aung, 34, told Frontier through Facebook Messenger.

With Lin Htet Aung stuck on a boat, and his doctor wife sometimes working night shifts at Yangon General Hospital, their two-year-old daughter is spending a lot of time with her grandparents and a babysitter.

In the United Arab Emirates he boarded a bulk carrier, which plies between ports in Africa and Pakistan with a 23-strong crew, of whom three are Myanmar. That was more than 10 months ago – two months over his contract – though he was treating his predicament as an opportunity to rack up his monthly salary of US$1,260.

“Of course I’m worried about my family and want to be with them during this pandemic,” he said.

Lin Htet Aung added he had heard that crew changes are possible for Myanmar seafarers working on boats that serve ports in South Korea and Japan, but there are no repatriation flights from the countries where his boat stops.

Ko Paing Naing Soe, 34, a seafarer on a bulk carrier sailing from Australia to New Zealand and back, is yet to meet his eight-month-old daughter, who was born while he was out at sea. His nine-month contract ran out in early May, but has been extended by two months in the absence of a crew change. He tries to occupy himself with movies during his spare time, but his thoughts drift to Yangon. “Nothing can clear my mind of thoughts of home,” he said.

U Win Min Htun, 43, a father of two, is an engineer on a ship owned by Amsterdam-based global company MUR Shipping that operates between ports in the United States, Australia and the Middle East. None of the countries visited by the ship permits crew changes.

“The contract is only for four months, but I have already been on the ship for more than five months. This is happening because of a force majeure situation,” he said, using the term for unforeseeable circumstances that prevent a contract from being fulfilled.

Win Min Htun said he welcomed moves by the IMO to pressure governments to relax restrictions that were preventing crew changes, but acknowledged that governments were making their own decisions.

“All we can do is wait,” he said.

Bringing them home

Although crew changes are not possible in many countries, Myanmar has been able to bring home more than 1,000 stranded seafarers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Europe and South Korea as of June 26. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also brought home more than 250 of 400 seamen who are stuck in London.

“The cost of bringing them home is covered by the shipping companies,” said U Aung Kyaw Zan, director-general of the ministry’s Consular and Legal Affairs Department.

The shipping company would typically cover a seafarer’s contractual repatriation to Myanmar; at the end of the stint, when the ship reaches the next port, the seaman goes to the nearest airport and the company pays for him to travel home on a commercial flight. But not only are most flights grounded, some foreign nationals lack permission to enter other countries. Ports are accepting and offloading cargo, which is largely done through machines, but they are not letting the seamen step off the boat.

Crew changes are not impossible though, as shown in an unorthodox approach taken by Yangon-based M.T.M. Maritime Centre Co Ltd, which has its own merchant marine fleet and is also involved in seafarer recruitment and placement.

The MTM Amazon successfully completed a crew change near Kawthaung in Tanintharyi Region on June 9 en route from Japan to Gibraltar. (Supplied)
The MTM Amazon successfully completed a crew change near Kawthaung in Tanintharyi Region on June 9 en route from Japan to Gibraltar. (Supplied)
The vessel made an 800-kilometre detour to an area off southern Myanmar where it had a rendezvous with speed boats from Kawthaung
The vessel made an 800-kilometre detour to an area off southern Myanmar where it had a rendezvous with speed boats from Kawthaung. (Photos supplied)

On June 9, the company arranged a 13-on, 13-off crew change on one of its tankers, MTM Amazon, which was travelling from Japan to Gibraltar. The vessel made an 800-kilometre detour to an area off southern Myanmar where it had a rendezvous with speed boats from Kawthaung that delivered the new crew and took off the old one. The successful operation was followed with crew changes for two other vessels in the following weeks. M.T.M. said it was planning another two crew changes off Kawthaung before the end of June.

Captain Than Naing Tun, 53, the country head of M.T.M. Maritime, said that though many factors determined whether successful crew changes could take place during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Government departments and the COVID-19 central committee have been very helpful and contributed towards a smooth process.”

Asked why other companies were not following the example set by M.T.M. Maritime in arranging successful crew changes, he told Frontier that offshore operations involved considerable extra expenses that needed to be discussed by ship owners and management companies.

As a company that owns ships and recruits seafarers, M.T.M. Maritime also has the advantage of being able to make and implement decisions quickly, Than Naing Tun said.

However, despite operating 28 ships and employing more than 600 seafarers, they are also unable to make crew changes in some parts of the world where countries are not allowing them to disembark, or if they are allowed, the company is asked to pay for the coronavirus tests, transport, hotel quarantine and a relief flight, if there is one.  This, said Than Naing Tun, is just too expensive for the company.

“Because airports are not open, we have to rely on relief flights, and some countries are imposing tough restrictions on crew changes,” he said, citing Singapore as an example.

“Singapore requires the ship to dock there before the flight has landed, and after the crew change, the ship has to wait until the flight has left before it can leave port. Such restrictions are not easy to follow,” he added.

Yangon-based M.T.M. Maritime Centre Co Ltd, which has its own merchant marine fleet. (Supplied)
Yangon-based M.T.M. Maritime Centre Co Ltd. has its own merchant marine fleet. (Supplied)

Seamen on the shore

While seafarers deal with being stranded far from home, their counterparts in Myanmar, as well as their unions and the employment services, are dealing with the harsh economic impact of the coronavirus alongside millions of their compatriots.

The Myanmar Seafarer Employment Services Federation represents more than 100 companies, which have between five and 50 employees. Business is flat.

“All our businesses have stopped at the moment, but we are not alone in experiencing this crisis,” said U Kyaw Myint Oo, secretary-general of MSESF. “We should not be asking for a lot of help from the government or blaming it because it is hardly managing all the impacts of COVID-19. We just have to wait.”

Figures from the Department of Marine Administration show that Myanmar has about 50,000 active seamen, of whom, say the seamen’s unions and federations, more than 30,000 are seeking work.

U Khin Kyaw, 44, a seaman and executive member of the Myanmar Maritime Workers’ Federation, had planned to resume working at sea in March after nearly a year on shore.

“As I am the only income source in my family, and am only qualified to work as a seaman, it is very difficult for me to manage,” Khin Kyaw told Frontier.

U Tin Ko Ko Thet, general secretary of the MMWF, says his old friend Khin Kyaw and many other members of the federation are facing hard times.

“Most people in Myanmar think seamen are rich and that may seem to be so, because they are well paid when they are working. But when they come ashore after their contracts expire, they have their families to support and training courses to attend to upgrade their skills, and after a few months, they need to go back to sea,” Tin Ko Ko Thet told Frontier.

The waiting between jobs explains why it is common in Yangon to meet taxi drivers who are also seafarers.

Reaching out to help

Being stranded is taking a mental toll on some seafarers and the Myanmar Maritime Trade Unions’ Federation is offering them counselling via video calls.

“When seamen have been working on ships for more than eight months, most of them suffer homesickness,” said U Thet Naing, an executive member of the MMTUF. “We talk with them to encourage positive thoughts. I ask about their plans for the future, and update them about improvements in the effort to control COVID-19 in Myanmar. I also encourage them to meditate.”

Ko Ye Lin Maung, 29, a seaman who returned from Shanghai on March 25, was quarantined at a camp near Thuwanna football stadium in Yangon for 14 days, and has since returned to live with his parents and brother in Ahlone Township.

Yangon International Airport was still open to commercial flights when he returned from Shanghai with three other Myanmar seamen. The only other passengers on the flight were two Chinese nationals.

He had a 10-month contract plus an optional extra two months, “but when I was sent home I had only worked for three months and the company should have paid me compensation of at least one month’s salary,” Ye Lin Maung told Frontier.

He said he did not complain to the Department of Marine Administration about the missing compensation “because if such a complaint reaches the companies, they will not hire me”.

Ye Lin Maung said he was already eager to return to work at sea because he did not want to rely on his retiree parents.

Myanmar seamen prepare to board a relief flight home in Germany's Frankfurt Airport on June 3. (Supplied)
Myanmar seamen prepare to board a relief flight home in Germany’s Frankfurt Airport on June 3. (Supplied)

Difficult times ahead

The re-opening of airports is key to thousands of seafarers returning to work, by flying to ports to board ships. In Myanmar, commercial international flights have been banned until at least the end of June.

“At the moment, we don’t see airports being reopened,” said Aung Kyaw Zan, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We may have to check the situation in other countries in early July; we can’t open on our own before the others have reopened.”

In preparation for a resumption of flights, the Myanmar Seamen’s Federation has facilitated a COVID-19 testing programme so that seafarers can provide documents showing they are free of the virus. More than 100 sailors have been tested so far and none have tested positive.

MSF executive committee member U Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing welcomed the tests as a positive development for seamen seeking work.

“Each of the tests costs over 150,000 kyats that the seaman or the seaman’s company has to cover. However, it is only valid for 72 hours,” he said.

China is one of the few countries that requires a certificate showing the seaman tested negative for the virus as soon as he applies for the visa; other countries require a certificate only on boarding a flight. As the validity of the certificate expires by the time the seaman gets his visa, he then requires another test in order to fly to a Chinese port, said Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing. 

“This is a problem that we are trying to resolve with the embassy because their requirement can make seamen pay twice for testing,” said Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing.

Meanwhile, work rolls on for the stranded seafarers, who try to keep their spirits up by celebrating national holidays of the different nationalities onboard. The 14 Myanmar of the Taiwan-flagged oil tanker, Zin Maung among them, raised a few glasses of beer during Thingyan in April. The toast was to spend the next Myanmar New Year on land, with their loved ones.