The Heroic Medics of the 8888 Uprising
By Kyaw Zwa Moe 7 August 2017
Twenty-nine years ago, demonstrations across Myanmar (then Burma) demanded an end to Gen Ne Win’s military dictatorship. After government troops opened fire on the 8888 Uprising in Yangon (then Rangoon), hundreds were seriously injured. Many doctors and nurses worked around the clock to save the injured.
Win Maw Oo is remembered from the iconic picture of a blood-soaked young woman being carried away by two medics during the 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Yangon. She begged her father not to perform the Buddhist last rites until “Burma enjoys democracy.” In May 2016, those funerary rites were performed, after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party assumed power.
YANGON — Twenty five years ago, the streets of Rangoon swelled with hundreds of thousands of protestors demanding an end to Burma’s military dictatorship. After government troops opened fire on them, hundreds were seriously injured. Many would have died if it had not been for Dr Myat Htoo Razak and Dr Win Zaw.
Like many doctors and nurses, the young house surgeon and medical student worked around the clock to save the lives of injured protestors during the hectic days of the 8888 Uprising.
Myat Htoo Razak recalled the unforgettable scenes that he witnessed on August 9, 1988, one day after popular, nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations started in Rangoon and other cities across Burma.
“Some of them were shot in their chests, arms and legs,” he said in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy. “Two of them were seriously injured; one was shot in his head and another one shot in his eye.”
The then 24-year-old house surgeon and his team had arrived at the Maternal and Child Welfare Association in Rangoon’s North Okkalapa Township shortly before troops began to fire on crowds of peaceful demonstrators, who had gathered nearby.
One monk who made a speech urging protestors to keep marching was fatally shot. Many protestors ran into the building to flee the gunfire, some were bleeding from bullet wounds in their torsos, arms and legs.
The medical team, which came from North Okkalapa Hospital, had already prepared emergency treatment facilities as they feared that authorities might launch a violent crackdown on the demonstrations. Myat Htoo Razak and three other house surgeons (young doctors who are still undergoing practical training) and nurses started treating the many wounded.
But soon, soldiers surrounded the Maternal and Child Welfare Association and two captains entered building to intimidate the demonstrators. “We just used rubber bullets. Or else, you would have all been dead,” one of them said looking at injured protestors.
The captain’s heartless words infuriated Myat Htoo Razak but he tried to cope with his anger for the sake of his patients. The would-be doctor then asked the officers to transport two seriously wounded patients to North Okkalapa Hospital.
In the meantime, more injured people were coming into the building. Myat Htoo Razak and his small team kept treating the injured until late afternoon. When he got back to North Okkalapa Hospital, the troops were shooting right in front of the building.
“We didn’t even need to go too far to carry patients as they were shooting in front of the hospital. The injured people were just carried into the hospital. Inside, we treated many of the injured people,” he said.
While the doctors like Myat Htoo Razak worked ceaselessly to operate on the many wounded, pools of blood covered the hospital floors and numerous bodies arrived at the mortuary. “It was a tragic scene to see the dead bodies of our brothers and sisters,” he said.
For 10 days, government violence continued and wounded pro-democracy demonstrators filled the wards of hospitals and clinics in Rangoon and across Burma.
When Dr Maung Maung, a civilian, became interim president on August 19 the shootings ended and people from all walks of life joined the demonstrations, which had now spread nationwide, from Burma’s big cities to tiny villages throughout the country.
On September 18, the military staged a coup d’état and the crackdown worsened. Troops shot down many more demonstrators, including schoolchildren, students, civil servants and housewives. An estimated total of 3,000 people were killed and many more protestors were injured in August and September of 1988.
For the injured, doctors, nurses and house surgeons like Myat Htoo Razak, provided life-saving care at a critical moment in the country’s history.
The 88’ pro-democracy movement was the biggest people power uprising that Burma had seen since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. It toppled the country’s oppressive authoritarian regime of military strongman Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party, which had ruled the country for 26 years.
The military coup and subsequent crackdown on the 8888 Uprising, however, would leave the army in charge for two more decades.
Another medical student who helped treat Burma’s brave protestors at the time was Win Zaw.
Doctors, nurses and medical staffs not only treated the injured, but also took part in the demonstrations, and 23-year-old Win Zaw joined a group of medical students who staged a hunger strike on September 18 at Rangoon’s University of Medicine.
After the army staged a coup at 4 pm that day, it announced that all demonstrators should disperse and leave their camps and the streets.
Win Zaw and his fellow students went to Rangoon General Hospital and spent the night helping doctors in treating hundreds of demonstrators who had been shot by troops as they tried to clear the streets of Rangoon.
The next morning, at about 10:30 am, Win Zaw and doctors got news that the troops had again opened fire on protestors. Win Zaw quickly joined a small team that included a surgeon named Win Ko, two doctors and another house surgeon by the name of Dr Saw Lwin.
They drove through the streets collecting the wounded, putting as many as 15 patients into their small ambulance. After two runs to pick up the victims, they heard that shots had been fired at a demonstration near Sule Pagoda in central Rangoon
As they reached the pagoda, it became clear that the troops had committed a massacre.
“It is a scene that I can never forget for the rest of life. There were a lot of bodies and injured people on street,” Win Zaw recalled in an interview. “A photo of our Bogyoke [Aung San] was on the street, our fighting peacock flag [the symbol of students’ movement] was also down, sandals were scattered and pools of blood were everywhere.”
As they looked among the numerous bodies for protestors who were still alive, Win Zaw noticed one young girl who was breathing faintly. He approached and heard her murmur, “Brother, help me.”
Win Zaw lifted the girl by her arms while house surgeon Saw Lwin held her legs. Wearing white physician duty coats, they carried her to the nearby ambulance. At that time, he noticed a flash of a camera and heard one of the soldiers bellowing: “Don’t take pictures! Or else, we’ll shoot!”
At that time, Win Zaw had no idea the picture would become an internationally well-known, historic picture that symbolized just how brutal the army’s crackdown on innocent protestors had been. Later, he found out that the young girl’s name was Win Maw Oo, a 16-year-old high school student.
On that dark day, September 19, 1988, Win Zaw’s team made seven runs to collect the wounded from Rangoon’s blood-covered streets. Another ambulance team of Rangoon General Hospital conducted a similar number of emergency rescues.
By the evening, he learned Win Maw Oo was being treated at the intensive care unit and that she was still alive after having suffered gunshot wounds in one arm, one leg and a lung. At 5:35 pm, however, she died.
The medical staff also risked their lives by going out and collecting wounded protestors from Rangoon’s streets. Myat Htoo Razak remembers that at least one medical student was shot and killed, while another required a life-saving operation.
Myat Htoo Razak and a senior surgeon, Dr Kyaw Myint Naing, operated on final-year medical student Moe Thu Win for six and a half hours after a bullet had shredded the main artery in his arm. The doctors thought they might have to amputate the limb, but eventually the operation was successful.
During 10 days of bloody repression in 1988, the doctors continuously treated injured protestors, although some of the wounded didn’t dare to come to hospitals out of fear that the military would arrest them there.
For some medical staff, their work would have repercussions later. The military had taken note of Win Zaw and Saw Lwin after the photo of their rescue of the young girl Win Maw Oo became famous the world over.
Four years later, the notorious Military Intelligence’s unit-6, better known as MI-6, detained Dr Win Zaw for five days and asked him about the details of the events of that day.
For his colleague Dr Saw Lwin the consequences would be far greater, however. The military authorities forced Saw Lwin’s father to retire from his position as the director of a government department. This pressure on his family caused Saw Lwin to sink into a deep depression. Years later, he committed suicide.
Until this day, Win Zaw said, Saw Lwin’s family cannot bear to watch the tragic picture of their rescue attempt.
For both Dr Win Zaw and Dr Myat Htoo Razak the events of 1988 were life defining moments, and all these years later both say they are still dedicated to establishing genuine democracy in Burma.
“The 88 uprising shaped our lives,” said Myat Htoo Razak, who now lives in the United States and has worked on HIV/Aids research and strengthening health care systems in Asia and Africa.
Win Zaw, who is now secretary of the Myanmar Medical Association’s General Practitioners Society, said, “In fact, we are still waiting to get what we demanded 25 years ago.”