Doctors in Civil Disobedience Movement Put Pressure on Myanmar Military Regime

By The Irrawaddy 12 February 2021

YANGON—One hundred and seventy-two years after Henry David Thoreau said people should not let their government overrule their conscience and must refuse to allow their government to turn them into agents of injustice, a military coup leader in Myanmar has begun to feel the heat.

Since early last week, in the wake of a military takeover of the country’s democratically elected government, medical staff members at Myanmar hospitals have followed what Thoreau spelled out in his 1849 essay popularly known as “Civil Disobedience” after ousted leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged people to resist the coup.

They insisted that they will not return to work until the military regime has released their leaders, President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

They rejected the rule of men in uniform.

Out in the streets across the country, hundreds of thousands of people from every walk of life have joined anti-coup protests.

Inspired by their counterparts in the country’s health sector, government staff from other ministries left their desks to join the “Civil Disobedience Movement” (CDM) by refusing to work for the regime. Major private banks have found it hard to operate as their staff joined the movement.

Among them so far, the CDM by medical staff was a serious blow to the junta, especially because it mostly came from doctors at government-run hospitals that played a major role in public health care. Since the ousted National League for Democracy government came to power in 2016, those hospitals have provided a lifeline for ill people especially at the grassroots level.

More importantly, the expertise of medical staff is still essential during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the country. The coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people in Myanmar so far.

Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has been tightlipped about the protests since their onset, broke his silence on Thursday. During his second public speech since the coup, he specifically told medical staff “to go back to work.”

“I want to urge (government) medics to carry out public healthcare at your hospitals as soon as possible,” he said.

He was right to be concerned because most of the public hospitals across the country have barely been functioning since last week.

In Ayeyarwady Region in the country delta, the regional Pathein General Hospital has been virtually shut down since last week as the majority of the hospital’s 300-strong staff has been on strike, a senior doctor on duty told The Irrawaddy on Friday.

“We no longer accept new admissions as we are now under manned. We have referred new cases to military hospitals,” the senior doctor said, adding that the 500-bed hospital is now deserted.

“We are only able to give treatment to 11 existing COVID-19 patients, three kidney dialysis patients and some cancer patients. All are in serious condition,” he continued.

Hospitals in the region’s other areas like Phyapon and Myaung Mya have also halted their operations due to the CDM, the doctor said. The same reportedly goes for hospitals in other regions as well.

Shortly after the CDM was launched by the medics, the military opened its hospitals’ doors to the public.

However, the senior general’s recent request that civilian doctors to go back to work suggests the medics in uniform may not be able to cope with the overwhelming need for public healthcare, probably due to their limited facilities

Ironically, while the military is urging doctors to return, it has also been hunting down the medics who joined and supported the CDM across the country. Hours before his request to the doctors was aired, warnings were published in state-run newspapers that those “who put pressure on other dutiful civil servants” to join the CDM will be “seriously punished legally.”

Dr Win Ko Ko Thein, a deputy director from Ministry of Health who has been a part of the CDM since last week, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the arrests and the coup leader’s request simply showed how effective the movement was.

The deputy director, who has been under police surveillance and is now in hiding, said the civilian medical staff on the strike didn’t seem to turning back. He pointed out the march of medical staff from government hospitals in Naypyitaw on Friday despite the recent crackdowns on their fellow doctors.

“If they (the regime) put more pressure on them, people will be more responsive,” he said.

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