Doctors, nurses, firefighters and teachers in Myanmar boycott work in protest against coup

Doctors and nurses participate in the civil disobedience campaign against the military coup in Yangon, on Feb 5, 2021.
Doctors and nurses participate in the civil disobedience campaign against the military coup in Yangon, on Feb 5, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Amid the turmoil caused by the military's seizure of power in Myanmar, Ms Khin (not her real name) found herself last Wednesday (Feb 3) trying to arrange her elderly parents' visit to the hospital.

Both of them had just recovered from Covid-19 and needed to see a doctor for a follow-up check.

But when she called the hospital to confirm her appointment, she was told to stay home.

"The hospital staff told me not to come," the 46-year-old homemaker told The Straits Times. "There was no doctor at the hospital."

Growing numbers of civil servants across Myanmar are boycotting work to protest against the Feb 1 coup and cripple the regime now helmed by military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. They include teachers, engineers, railway workers and firefighters. But the most prominent group among them have been the healthcare workers spearheading Myanmar's year-long battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Medics kick-started the civil disobedience movement last week by donning red ribbons and walking away from their jobs.

It was no small decision, because the country is still battling the outbreak, which has killed at least 3,180 so far and infected more than 141,000 people.

Government doctors interviewed by ST said they felt torn between the duty to treat their patients - who often cannot afford treatment elsewhere - and the wish to oppose the military regime which ousted the elected government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

They were also aware that the military - with its own hospitals and other health facilities for servicemen - would also not be directly affected by their boycott.

"We know that the military doesn't need doctors like us to survive," said Dr Min Nyo, 33, a junior doctor based in Yangon. "But we initiated this to motivate the other 'pillars' of this government, which are more essential for the military government to survive."

Their gamble worked, hollowing mid-level ranks in the ministries in Naypyitaw as the civil servants joined street protests in their uniforms.

The Ministry of Health and Sports is, perhaps, the hardest hit. It is trying to contain the pandemic while rolling out a mass vaccination programme. The staff shortage has caused a plunge in testing rates for Covid-19, leading to just four cases logged on Monday, compared with an average of 420 daily in the last week of January, according to Reuters.

In an appeal to health workers issued on Monday, it said it appreciated the efforts of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers at the front line of the fight against Covid-19.

"As the vaccination programme for Covid-19 is being conducted for the public and real-time healthcare services are required for the people, all staff members at the respective departments under the Ministry of Health and Sports are strongly urged to return to their duties, taking the well-being of patients into consideration," said the note published in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Medical doctors gather in front of Naypyitaw General Hospital to show their resistance against the military coup, in Yangon, on Feb 5, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Conscious of potential criticism, the Civil Disobedience Movement on Sunday uploaded a series of videos on Twitter to explain why government doctors are boycotting work.

"These men and women did not abandon the lives of the common people through participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement," presenters in medical scrubs said in the videos. "They are pioneering a movement they hope will inspire all civil workers who have always been the life and the blood of the Myanmar people."

Doctors in the boycott said they were redirecting the most urgent cases to private clinics at which they are now volunteering.

Patients have so far taken it in their stride. Ms Thae Zar Chi Khaing, 29, who accompanied her partner to the Yangon Eye Hospital last Friday for a minor operation, said she was told that the hospital would close the next day, but noticed it continued to treat its most seriously ill patients.

"The doctors' campaign has put pressure on the military government, which is good," she told ST. "There may be some risks for people who cannot get immediate treatment, so we need to think of how we can handle these risks."

Ms Khin had no misgivings about the actions taken by doctors. "There are clinics we can still go to in our ward," she said. "This country is now facing a crisis, so we just need to bear with it."

Additional reporting by De Par and Nobel Zaw