Myanmar’s military junta has killed five doctors, arrested dozens of others, and driven hundreds more into hiding since it overthrew the elected government seven months ago, undermining the fight against a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, doctors in the country told RFA.
Doctors not already detained by the junta are on the run to avoid arrest warrants, even as the country struggles with increasing numbers of new COVID-19 cases.
According to RFA records complied since the Feb. 1 coup, four doctors — Phyo Thant Wai, Thiha Tun Tin, Sai Kwan Saing and Nyein Thu Aung — have died as a direct result of violence committed by the junta’s security forces during anti-coup protests.
A fifth doctor, Maung Maung Nyein Tun, a surgeon at Mandalay Medical University who had joined the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and provided free surgery to poor patients, was arrested by junta troops on June 13 and died Aug. 8 after contracting COVID-19 in prison.
The safety of detained doctors has been a major concern, according to their colleagues who remain free.
The junta’s violent repression of anti-coup protests and professionals who walked off their jobs to support the CDM has killed at least 1,044 people and arresting 6,197 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
The AAPP has released a list of 45 arrested doctors and 416 doctors for whom arrest warrants had been issued through Aug. 30. Most were arrested and charged under Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which punishes acts that “hinder, disturb, damage the motivation, discipline, health and conduct” of military personnel and government employees, but there have been no court sentences yet.
Three doctors from Mandalay — Kyaw Kyaw Thet, Thet Htay, and the widow of Maung Maung Nyein Tun, Swe Zin Oo — were arrested in June and July. Sources told RFA that they are in prison and at least two of them have been infected with COVID-19.
“We only know that Dr. Kyaw Kyaw Thet and Dr. Thet Htay have contracted COVID-19. There is no word yet on where they are being held or what the charges are,” a CDM doctor in Mandalay told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Kyaw Kyaw Thet, who was beaten and arrested by the military in Mandalay on July 13, was giving lessons to medical students on YouTube after the coup and sharing medical knowledge with the public.
Thet Htay had been working in charity clinics and hospitals. He was arrested on July 16 while returning home from seeing a patient at a hospital.
“There are very few hematologists like Dr. Swe Zin Oo in our country. Imprisonment of such doctors is therefore very detrimental,” said the doctor, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Another Mandalay doctor who joined the CDM told RFA that being sent to prison during a pandemic is essentially the junta’s way of imposing a death sentence.
“In other words, they are being tortured and persecuted and killed indirectly. If people die in prison, the military can just put the blame on COVID. These are people that just have to die for opposing the junta. There is no proper treatment in the prisons,” said the second doctor, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“Dr. Maung Maung Nyein Tun lost his life because he couldn’t get enough oxygen. He didn’t get proper treatment when he contracted the virus in his cell and he was not hospitalized until it was too late. It’s like he was deliberately sent to his death.”
According to a survey conducted by Medical Family Mandalay, a local anti-junta rights group made up of medical industry professionals, 85 health workers in the city, including doctors and nurses, were arrested during protests after the coup and repeatedly subjected to psychological threats and physical abuse.
Some said they were arrested in their homes for getting involved in nonviolent anti-coup protests or supporting the protesters.
During the third wave of the pandemic, Myanmar’s cultural center and largest city Yangon has had a high mortality rate, but doctors there were not spared from arrests by the junta.
Members of the military disguised as COVID-19 patients on July 19 entered the temporary headquarters of the COVID-19 Prevention and Public Benefit Office in the city’s North Dagon township and arrested five doctors.
“They opened free clinics to treat patients and were arrested for it. Look at the case of North Dagon. We have had so much concern for these comrades. We are wondering whether they are doing well, whether they are getting enough food and water or if they are in life threatening situations,” a CDM doctor in Yangon told RFA.
“Those doctors who escaped arrest and are in hiding, like me, are also living in fear. We don’t know when we too might be arrested, so we are living with anxiety every day. It’s not only me, but all doctors like me are dealing with this,” the physician said.
The junta announced days after the coup that people could get treatment for coronavirus at military hospitals, but when the third wave hit n July, civilians were denied military care unless they were part of a military family, sources told RFA.
The military has also arrested key people in Myanmar’s health sector, including Htar Htar Lin, the leader of the country’s COVID Vaccination Team, and Maw Maw Oo, chairman of the Myanmar Emergency Medical Association. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
According to statistics from Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, Myanmar has confirmed 406,099 cases of the virus and 15,600 deaths as of Friday.
Doctors in Myanmar told RFA that deaths peaked when more than 1,000 people died on a single day in July, but the rate of infection has not dropped yet.
An AAPP researcher blames the high infection rate and death toll on the coup.
“If the intellectuals, professionals and health workers and our young philanthropists were not in prison, if the young people did not flee to the jungles, we would certainly have survived the third wave of Covid,” the researcher told RFA.
“The main culprit was the military regime that seized power on Feb. 1,” the official said.
The New York-based PHR Physicians for Human Rights and CPHHR Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights have reported at least 252 attacks on health workers by the junta since the Feb. 1 coup.
More than 190 health workers had been arrested in at least 86 hospital raids since the coup. Hospitals have been seized and occupied by the military at least 55 times, the two groups said in a report.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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