‘We are living in fear’: hundreds of doctors are in hiding for opposing Myanmar’s brutal coup

·7-min read
Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in downtown Yangon - STR /AFP
Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in downtown Yangon - STR /AFP

Since April 1, Dr Khin has been unable to sleep in his own bed in his family home. Instead, he often lies awake in undercover locations, listening as military patrol cars circle the streets of Mandalay, Myanmar’s largest city, hunting for their next victim to arrest, torture, or worse.

“I heard that my name is on their list... maybe they will come for me,” he told the Telegraph.

“Sometimes I feel insecure because at night they are patrolling around the neighbourhood… and maybe I’m at risk of getting captured.”

Dr Khin is one of hundreds of Myanmar doctors on the run from the brutal junta for committing the alleged offences of opposing the regime and practising medicine.

“We are living in fear, this is a living hell. We cannot eat peacefully, we cannot sleep peacefully, and for the most part we are worrying about our families,” said Dr Htun, another Mandalay medic.

“If you are not found in your own house, they will arrest one of your family, like your father or your mother. The other night they shot a family member on sight because someone they were looking for was not in the house.”

The medical profession has been at the forefront of resistance to the coup since the military seized power on February 1, with thousands joining a “civil disobedience movement” and refusing to work directly for government hospitals at the service of the generals.

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei - AFP
Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei - AFP

In an apparent act of retaliation, the junta has since turned its guns on medics, shooting at ambulances, beating doctors, raiding clinics and depriving not only protesters, but the general population, of the basic right to healthcare.

At least 109 attacks and threats against Myanmar health workers were recorded between February 11 and April 12, according to a new report by Insecurity Insight, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights (CPHHR).

Their analysis cites 10 health workers killed, 32 injured, 97 arrested, and hospitals raided or occupied at least 49 times. Some 370 doctors are known to be facing arrest warrants, many under section 505a of the penal code for spreading dissent against the military.

Last month, the group Myanmar Doctors for Human Rights appealed to United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, for the UN to stop the junta’s forces from intentionally targeting medical professionals providing care to the wounded and help the injured seek treatment without fear for their own safety.

Their appeal will likely be in vain and attacks on health workers in Myanmar are part of a worldwide pattern. On Wednesday, five years after the UN Security Council passed the landmark resolution 2286 committing countries to prevent attacks on health care and hold perpetrators accountable, a new study showed that global violence has continued unabated.

More than 4,000 attacks against health workers, facilities and transport have taken place around the world since 2016, according to the report by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. Among them, 681 people have been killed, 1,524 injured and 401 kidnapped, with Syria the most dangerous country. These figures are likely to be underestimates.

“More than 4,000 attacks and threats against health care from 2016 through 2020 is a bare minimum estimate – the true extent of the violence is unknown, as many countries, health facilities, and organisations do not report their experiences. Beyond the startling data we do have, each incident represents the loss of family members and colleagues, livelihoods, homes, and, sometimes, a way of life,” said Christina Wille, director at Insecurity Insight and one of the authors of the report.

Dr Khin has already been shot at twice in the line of duty, but the inability to help patients in desperate need is causing him the most grief. An 8pm curfew has made Myanmar’s streets a potential death zone for anyone who ventures out, and emergency medical workers are no exception.

“It is very depressing. We have the calls from those in need of medical services and because of the curfews, the shootings and detentions, we cannot do much for them at night,” he said.

“One day I had an emergency call from a patient involved in a hit and run. His wife was already dead on the road. He called my number and asked for help,” he said.

“We had one rescue team about 10 blocks away, but military forces were in the middle, shooting everything. My rescue team could not go out and help him and he died,” said Dr Khin.

“There are a lot of cases. Sometimes I have get calls for help with emergency baby deliveries. In one case, there was no ambulance to take the woman out to the hospital in time and the child died,” he said.

To try to prevent needless tragedies, Dr Khin and many of his colleagues have set up a network of private clinics to treat injured protesters and the most vulnerable communities.

Expectant mothers can now attend one of his clinics specialising in maternal and childcare, and plan the timing of their baby’s delivery to avoid being endangered by the curfew. But running a clinic is also fraught with danger.

“We have some people on the two blocks north and south of the clinic. They watch and when they see soldiers coming they call us. So, we have some minimal time to flee from the back door,” said Dr Khin.

Dr Htun, who was forced to flee Mandalay after narrowly escaping a military raid on his home, still helps coordinate a cluster of clandestine clinics and emergency response teams.

On April 29, “clinic 3” received a tip-off from a friendly police officer that it would be targeted by the junta on May 1.

“We were able to close down the base before they arrived. They came and checked and there was nothing, no medical personnel, it was an empty space. They were angry,” he said.

One of the military’s obvious aims was to scare volunteers and threaten them with guns. But Dr Htun said he had noticed a pattern of raids ahead of big protest events.

“They want to make sure that nobody takes care of the wounded. That’s the intention.” Sometimes, the military’s actions appear to be motivated by nothing more than cruelty. “Ambulances are being hunted down and shot at during the curfew hours,” said Dr Htun, describing how a rescue team had been blocked on the way to provide oxygen to a man in respiratory distress.

“They were begging them that one of the patients was suffering and needed oxygen immediately and they refused to let it go..The patient died of a lack of oxygen after 30 minutes,” he said.

“They don’t give you any reasons. If they say stop, you stop if they say go, you go, if they say get down from the car you get down. If you ask for the reason they will hit you with the gun,” Dr Htun added.

“We’ve become psychologically numb,” he said. “We are all human beings. We are scared of arrest and detention. Some of the people they detain at night and give only the body back in the morning. Our doctors are brave, they are working selflessly and don’t care about themselves anymore.”

The situation has left many doctors desperate and exhausted. “If we don’t get any help from the international community, I feel helpless, but we are still fighting our best,” said Dr Hlaing, another medic forced from her home. “We need more action than statements.”

The military were committing “crimes against humanity,” charged Dr Khin. “We urgently need the international community to pressure the military junta to let us do medical emergency services anywhere, anytime, at any cost.”

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