Volunteer medics carry the body of a protester killed by security forces during a crackdown on a demonstration in Yangon on March 27. (Frontier)
Volunteer medics carry the body of a protester killed by security forces during a crackdown on a demonstration in Yangon on March 27. (Frontier)

Frontline doctors risk persecution, careers – and their lives

A frontline medic describes the dangers of trying to save lives at a time when the regime regards many health workers as criminals for serving at protests and participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

By NAY LIN TUN | FRONTIER

On the evening of April 9, reports began emerging that security forces had killed scores of people in Bago, after they unleashed heavy weapons and grenades to disperse protesters manning barricades.

Before launching the operation in the city about 80 kilometres northeast of Yangon, the armed forces had blocked roads in Bago. This prevented ambulances from collecting the wounded, many of whom were eventually dumped in a monastery compound.

At least 80 people were killed in Bago that day, but a final death toll will probably never be known. Something else we’ll likely never know is how many of the wounded died because they did not receive treatment.

I arrived in Bago three days later to help treat the wounded. It was a difficult task –many of them were in hiding, for fear they would be arrested if they sought treatment. Witnesses also said volunteer medical workers had been detained by the security forces, following a pattern reported elsewhere in the country.

As a frontline medical volunteer, I’ve regularly witnessed the brutality of the junta’s dispersal tactics.

The first time was during a protest near Thanlyin Technological University in southeastern Yangon Region on March 9. Troops had occupied the campus, and students were protesting peacefully to demand that they leave. The soldiers suddenly opened fire with live rounds, leaving several people injured.

We began treating some of the injured in a safe house not far from the site of the protest, but we had to quickly evacuate the patients when soldiers arrived nearby. Thankfully, we managed to get them to another safe house and continue treating them.

Compounding the suffering

Not every injured protester manages to escape. Some are seized by the police and army and denied first aid, often dying as a result of loss of blood.

Even when the injured manage to evade security forces, they are far from safe. As the Bago example illustrates, accessing healthcare and medical assistance is itself a dangerous challenge for protesters, and for the medical volunteers who come to their assistance.

The best-case scenario for an injured protester is to be quickly evacuated from the scene by frontline medical volunteers and treated. But there is always a risk that the armed forces will stop the ambulance in which they travel or raid the clinic they are taken to. As a result, they are often forced to wait hours for proper treatment, or denied it altogether.

Because the regime has made state hospitals unsafe places for injured protesters, medical volunteers refer them to private hospitals or clinics run by charities. The military is notified about all admissions to government hospitals and patients can be arrested before they are discharged. Patients wanted by the authorities are also often shackled to their beds.

My team encountered one man who had suffered facial injuries after being hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. The man had been hiding at home for three days without seeking treatment because he feared arrest if spotted by soldiers. We were eventually able to take him to a safe private medical facility for treatment. He is recovering, but has suffered damage to one of his eyes.

A rescue volunteer (centre) with a medical box raises the three-finger salute while serving at a protest in Yangon on March 3. (Frontier)
A rescue volunteer (centre) with a medical box raises the three-finger salute while serving at a protest in Yangon on March 3. (Frontier)

The World Health Organization has said that from February 1 to April 30, there were at least 158 attacks on healthcare facilities, vehicles, staff and supplies, as well as patients in Myanmar, resulting in 11 deaths and 51 injuries.

Because of these incidents, volunteer teams are often forced to park ambulances some distance from protest sites to avoid attracting the attention of soldiers and police.

Equally disturbing are raids on medical treatment centres and charity rescue service offices. Raids were conducted on the intensive care unit at Yangon’s privately run Grand Hantha International Hospital on March 14, on a clinic in Mandalay on March 27 that resulted in the arrest of 26 people, including doctors and volunteers, and on a clinic at Kalay on April 7, as well as on a medical facility in Yangon’s Sanchaung Township on April 5, during which nine people were detained, including doctors and volunteers.

Medics need protection

It is a distressing time to be a medical professional in Myanmar.

Last year, we were honoured as national heroes for our role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. But since the February 1 coup, the military has turned on government health workers due to their role in instigating the Civil Disobedience Movement. The regime now regards us as criminals rather than heroes – all doctors who are providing care to anti-coup protesters are at risk of arrest for incitement under section 505A of the Penal Code, for which the maximum penalty is three years’ imprisonment.

Tatmadaw spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun has even accused government doctors who’ve left state hospitals to join the CDM of committing murder. In reality, CDM doctors are helping the public in many ways, including by providing free treatment at private hospitals and charity clinics, making home visits, and providing telephone counselling.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals at state hospitals are accustomed to high workloads and low pay, but prior to February 1 they had not gone on strike to demand better working conditions. By refusing government work in solidarity with the people of Myanmar, they have sacrificed their lives, positions and prospects of a bright future.

In a cruel move, the military council said on April 20 that doctors supporting the CDM would be blacklisted and their passports cancelled. Even private and charity-run clinics have been ordered not to accept the services of CDM doctors or admit wounded protesters for treatment. Clinic owners that violate the order risk being jailed.

The cumulative effect of all this has been to deny timely and effective care to those who need it.

These are dark days for medical workers and their patients. The international community must condemn the reprehensible actions of the military regime, including its targeting of medical workers and its efforts to deny life-saving treatment to injured protesters.

Dr Nay Lin Tun is a medical doctor who has performed humanitarian work in various parts of Myanmar

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