Movement Against Army Appointees in Burma’s Health Ministry Vows to Continue Advocacy

By Zarni Mann 12 August 2015

MANDALAY — A movement launched Monday against the appointment of military officers to positions within the Ministry of Health has responded cautiously to an apparent change of heart on the part of the government.

Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel based in Mandalay launched a Facebook page titled “Black Ribbon Movement Myanmar 2015” on Monday, calling on medics and supporters to wear black ribbons for the cause.

The movement was formed in response to the appointment in July of up to 14 army officers to serve in the Ministry of Health.

Military officers, including at least three captains and a major, were appointed to high ranking positions, such as deputy director general and as medical practitioners, in hospitals in Rangoon, Naypyidaw and Myitkyina last month.

Most of the newly appointed military staff had graduated with medical degrees from army-run medical colleges.

Following the public backlash, Health Minister Than Aung conveyed a verbal message on Tuesday to the Myanmar Medical Association (MMA) pledging that the ministry would halt the further appointment of military staff.

“The message means the ministry will not import military officers in the future. But there’s no word on what the ministry will do regarding the recently appointed officers,” said Dr Saw Win, general-secretary of the MMA.

A statement released by the Black Ribbon Movement on Wednesday called for an official declaration.

“We welcome the message of the minister, however, an official announcement should be made because a verbal message alone cannot assure against the migration of military officers in the future,” read the statement, circulated by medics involved in the movement.

The statement also called on the health ministry to officially withdraw the recently appointed military officers, with health workers vowing to continue their advocacy until an official response was given.

However, a health ministry official said there were no plans to withdraw the military appointees or offer an official declaration.

“We need to think about [the military appointees] as well. We cannot remove them right after they have been appointed. They were appointed because of the needs of the ministry,” said Sein Win, deputy secretary in the Ministry of Health office in Naypyidaw.

“After the minister listened to the voices of doctors who were dissatisfied with the appointment of military officers, he has assured them this will not happen again. It is unnecessary to issue an announcement as we already have his words.”

Hundreds of doctors, nurses and other medical staff from various hospitals across the country rallied against the health ministry appointment on Monday, donning black ribbons in photos posted online and adopting the catch cry, “Say no to militarization of Myanmar Ministry of Health.”

Many medics remained skeptical of the government’s verbal assurances.

“If there’s no official announcement on paper, the [pledge] can be simply wiped away when the incumbent minister is succeeded by another minister,” said a doctor completing a Master of Public Health.

“I think the movement needs to keep going until the militarization of the ministry stops,” said Win Thu, a dentist from Monywa. “Not only the health ministry but every ministry must be transparent in appointing officials.”

In a country which endured nearly five decades of direct military rule, army appointees across various sectors have often stifled the progress of experienced civilian staff.

The incumbent Health Minister is himself a former general who served as director of the Myanmar Army Medical Corps before assuming his current role. Other ex-military officers are also serving in positions within the ministry.

“This is not the first time military staff have ruled the ministry of health,” said a senior consultant from Mandalay General Hospital. “But now is the time to act as we now have the chance to speak out to eliminate this militarization in the future.”