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Doctors under fire as Myanmar military targets efforts to aid injured protesters

Rebecca Ratcliffe and Observer reporter in Myanmar
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Htet Htet Win and her husband were late returning home on Sunday night. It was past the junta-imposed 8pm curfew when their motorbike passed through the streets of eastern Mandalay. The security forces reportedly shouted for them to stop, and then opened fire when they did not do so. Her husband was hit but managed to get away. She was knocked to the ground.

A grainy photograph, taken by an onlooker, shows her lying face down on the concrete, her arms reaching above her head, her purple top and bottoms marked with dark patches.

Doctors believed she was still alive, but were warned by residents that soldiers were waiting nearby. They feared it was a trap. “I felt like they were ambushing us,” said one of the rescuers. “I think she would have survived if we were able to pick her up as soon as it happened,” he said. They waited for more than an hour before the soldiers eventually retreated. It was too late.

For medics in Myanmar, it is a grimly familiar story. Doctors told the Observer they were routinely targeted with violence by the military, and prevented from treating the victims of its bloody attacks. They recounted incidents in which security forces – trying to suppress defiant opposition to the February coup – had raided their facilities, searched and fired at their ambulances, detained, beaten and even killed their colleagues.

Raha Wala, of the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, said the military was “systematically persecuting medics”, both for treating anti-coup protesters and, in the case of many government doctors, for participating in a national strike.

Every few days, news spreads of more detentions of medical staff, taken at clinics, protests or from their homes during night raids. Some are released after questioning, others are less fortunate. “If you are detained today, your body will be returned tomorrow with torture marks or something like that,” said a Yangon-based doctor in hiding.

Last Saturday, the orthopaedic surgeon and university professor Dr Kyaw Min Soe was taken from his home in Yangon. A photograph apparently taken at the scene shows him being led into a van, a bag placed over his head and his hands tied behind his back. Since then, two paediatricians have been taken in Mandalay; a clinic has been raided in Yangon, with soldiers detaining four volunteers according to local reports; a facility has been raided in Monywa, where two staff were taken to a police station for questioning’ according to a local source, and another facility in Kale was reportedly raided, though no staff were present at the time.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has tracked hundreds of deaths, at least five medics have been killed in the violence. Among them was nursing student Thinzar Hein, 20, who was shot dead while caring for injured protesters in Monywa on 28 March. She had protested against the coup and shared her medical expertise with others.

A group of black clad protesters carrying banners walk along a dusty street, cheered by a small group of residents at the side of the road.
Demonstrators against the coup march through Mandalay earlier this month. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“It’s like we are facing barbarians,” said a doctor in Mandalay, who described being fired at while trying to attend to a patient, despite being dressed as a medic. “We were wearing scrubs, a medic sign and wearing a stethoscope,” he said. On a separate occasion, on 27 March, his ambulance was shot at as he attempted to pick up an injured patient. His colleagues, he said, were detained and beaten when they attempted to collect a dead body on 1 April. “They [the military] want to take away all the evidence,” he said.

In some areas, medics no longer wear uniforms, fearing this puts them at even greater risk. Government doctors who are refusing to work in state hospitals – but are finding ways to treat patients elsewhere – are especially vulnerable. They were among the first groups to announce a strike after the coup, prompting huge numbers of workers, in services ranging from customs to transport, to down tools, bringing the country to a virtual standstill.

While many governments have condemned the violence against peaceful protesters, and the UN security council has expressed concern at restrictions on medical staff, the brutality has continued. On Friday, military spokesman Zaw Min Tun accused government doctors of murder, claiming their strike had contributed to Covid deaths. “They are killing people in cold blood,” he said.

At least 618 people have been killed by the military since it seized power, while thousands have been detained, mostly in unknown locations.

“Seeing dying patients is not a strange thing for a doctor, but these days it is heartbreaking because the patients are just teenagers,” said a second doctor in Mandalay. If medical teams were able to treat the injured safely, the death toll would not be so high, she added, describing how she has previously had to flee her clinic, along with patients, when the military approached.

At least 43 children have been killed by security forces, the youngest just six years old.

“We even cry when we do the CPR. But we encourage each other, we need to move on because we can’t be like that,” the doctor said.