Myanmar: health workers in the military’s firing line
Myanmar’s military junta will seemingly stop at nothing to try to crush the civil disobedience movement that is demanding a return to democracy. The army is increasingly turning its sights on health workers and health supplies. In a sinister move, the junta appears to be trying to monopolise oxygen supplies to force a population experiencing a worsening pandemic into submission. But while international sanctions have intensified, governments in the region have done little. It’s time to cut off arms supplies, intensify economic sanctions and get serious about prosecuting the junta for crimes against humanity.
First Myanmar’s military junta came for the civil society activists and political opposition as it moved brutally to suppress demands for democracy following the February 2021 coup. But now it is increasingly coming for the very people societies rely on most, during times of conflict and in this pandemic era: health workers. There is growing evidence that military forces are targeting health workers and medical supplies as part of the bloody repression they have unleashed against all who dare stand in their way.
On 13 July, the military were reported to have opened fire on a group of civilians who were doing nothing more than queuing to refill oxygen cylinders in the city of Yangon. People were forced to scatter without being able to collect the vital oxygen they had come for, running to save their lives at the price of helping their COVID-19-stricken relatives. On 20 July, the military were reported to have stolen cash, medicines and personal protective equipment supplies that had been collected by monks in the city of Mongkok to help the local community. The junta is also obstructing health workers from treating those its forces has injured. The inability of health workers to access people targeted in military airstrikes has directly added to Myanmar’s grim death toll.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Nay Lin Tun, a medical doctor, regularly volunteers with rescue teams in emergency areas in Yangon and has worked in Rakhine State to provide care to Rohingya people and others displaced by conflict. He is currently providing healthcare covertly while trying to evade capture.
Myanmar healthcare professionals have shown their strength and commitment, and have been hailed as COVID-19 heroes, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. At that time, there were not enough resources to treat those infected and cases began rising. But, due to our admirable health heroes and good leadership, the slope of COVID-19 infections declined in late 2020 and people in Myanmar began to receive vaccines in the last week of January 2021. All these positive developments have been destroyed overnight.
Due to the military coup, government workers left their jobs to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). It was medical workers from the Ministry of Health and Sports who initiated this movement, and they were followed by those in other departments and ministries. Therefore, the military has targeted government staff involved in the CDM protest movement and those who support them.
The military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight. The military spokesperson, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, even accused government doctors who withdrew their services after joining the CDM of murdering people in cold blood. Currently, all the medical doctors who help anti-coup protesters risk arrest and those who joined the CDM are on an arrest list.
In reality, CDM doctors are helping the public in various ways, including by providing free treatment at private hospitals and charity clinics, making home visits and providing telephone counselling.
According to the latest information, not even free charity clinics are now allowed to accept CDM doctors or admit wounded patients for treatment. The military is also acting against private hospitals, which are forced to shut down, and have their doctors arrested if they accept CDM doctors’ consultations.
Worryingly, COVID-19 prevention and control mechanisms have also stopped since the coup, as has the vaccination campaign. The COVID-19 surveillance system has been slow and has low testing capacities. This puts many people at risk.
The international community should stand together with us in condemning the attacks on healthcare facilities and workers and unite with Myanmar healthcare workers in speaking out forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers and facilities. Support to frontline medical workers in the form of medicines and other emergency aid would also be welcome.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Nay Lin Tun. Read the full interview here.
It seems clear that the military junta is trying to use the essential supplies people need during the pandemic as bargaining chips. It is closing down civilian initiatives to distribute medical supplies and giving itself the power to decide who lives and who dies. Once it becomes a monopoly supplier, the junta will be able to provide oxygen to those who comply with its rule but deny it to those it sees as enemies. The very breath of life is being turned into a tool of war.
COVID-19 on the rise
Such acts of barbarism come at a time when COVID-19 cases are steeply on the rise in Myanmar, with its spread exacerbated by the conflict and the collapse of health systems. While the junta has tried to accuse protesters of deliberately spreading the virus, it should be clear that it is the one culpable: only around three per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, testing is mostly unavailable and the many people crowded into detention centres face heightened infection risk and lack of access to treatment.
The medical workers who should be empowered and recognised are instead being hunted by the junta, while trying to continue to offer help in shadowy underground networks. Arrest warrants have reportedly been issued for 400 doctors and 180 nurses, with their faces displayed on ‘wanted’ posters. Military personnel are even reported to be posing as sick people to entrap and arrest medical workers. At least 157 health workers are reported to have been arrested since the coup began, with at least 252 attacks on health workers and facilities, as the government seeks to break the power of health unions and medical networks.
Despite the incredible pressure of repression, small-scale protests continue to be mounted. While large gatherings are now too dangerous, recent symbolic acts of resistance have included the staging of mock funerals on the birthday of the junta’s leader, smoke bomb protests on the anniversary of 1962 student uprisings and a horn-blowing protest on the day that commemorates the killing of leaders of the independence movement. Economic boycotts and strikes continue. Alongside these protest efforts, groups are working to document the atrocities perpetrated by the junta. People are using their phones to help collect evidence that one day could be used to hold the military to account for its many abuses.
International action needed
The international community should be clear that whether people die in a military attack or because of lack of access to healthcare, these deaths are no accident: they result from a government strategy intended to force a population that wants democracy into submission or die resisting. Attacks on medical workers and facilities are direct contraventions of the Geneva Conventions. On this score and many others, Myanmar’s military leaders should be facing charges of crimes against humanity. The international community needs to step up.
Several states and the European Union have recently extended their sanctions, targeting the deep economic interests of the military, and in June a rare United Nations Assembly resolution condemned the coup and called on member states to prevent the flow of arms to Myanmar. But the resolution failed to call for an arms embargo, bearing the hallmarks of negotiation with Myanmar’s neighbouring states. Their regional organisation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has said and done little, reflecting the anti-democratic positions of members such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam; an ASEAN delegation that met with junta leaders in June predictably amounted to nothing. The UN Security Council has also looked the other way.
Myanmar is now offering a test case, for ASEAN, the UN and the international order as a whole of the willingness to act and protect lives, not least of those trying to save the lives of others. There should be no international accommodation of what should be a pariah state. Arms supplies should cease, economic sanctions should increase and crimes against humanity proceedings should commence. This is the least Myanmar’s brave health workers deserve.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
All states should cease arms sales to Myanmar’s military junta.
ASEAN should insist that the junta ensure the protection of all health workers or face suspension.
The UN Security Council should refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
Cover photo by Stringer/Getty Images