Myanmar’s shock troops aren’t just storming neighborhoods and gunning down civilians.
They’re also turning their rifles on anyone who tries to rescue shooting victims and treat their injuries. The message to medics, EMTs and nurses is clear: Leave the wounded on the ground or you might die too.
What began eight weeks ago as a coup — the military seizing total authority, dissolving elected officials’ power — has also become a protracted war on the masses. Police and soldiers have killed more than 500 civilians, some of them children, all to quell an uprising against army rule.
But day after day, protesters nationwide keep amassing in the streets, hoping they will not be selected at random and shot. This grim routine produces many casualties — and often the only hope for people hit by bullets are independent medics.
“We are medics, not protesters,” said William Ohkar Min, director of Myanmar Free Ambulance, a donor-funded service in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
“We are not the enemy, so why are soldiers shooting at us? All we want … is to save as many lives as possible.”
“We are not the enemy,” he said, “so why are soldiers shooting at us? All we want … is to save as many lives as possible.”
Targeting medical workers is not a fluke. It appears to be a strategy. It is difficult to determine just how many medics have been shot at, detained or threatened; several have been killed. Physicians for Human Rights believes these attacks are on the rise and William Ohkar Min, who is in touch with dozens of ambulance crews in Yangon, says they are growing more common.
There is no 911-style emergency service in Myanmar. No previous government created one. For much of the country’s history, military rulers badly neglected health care in general; the recently ousted government, partially elected, was just beginning to turn this around.
“The medical sector has been trying to slowly catch up. But it is still in disarray.”
“The medical sector has been trying to slowly catch up,” William Ohkar Min said. “But it is still in disarray.”
The upshot: everyday people have learned to fend for themselves. Neighborhoods will pool some cash to buy an ambulance — usually, a minivan, outfitted with a siren and a stretcher — and recruit a few EMTs.
There are more than 100 community-funded ambulance crews in Yangon, William Ohkar Min said. If someone is having a heart attack, they’ll often have to call around until one of these medical teams picks up. It’s common, he says, for people facing a health crisis to log into Facebook, frantically searching for phone numbers.
There is also a powerful esprit de corps among these medics — and they cooperate as best they can to treat the public. That means lingering near protest zones where bloodshed is almost inevitable.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t care if the situation is chaotic, just let me save as many people as I can,” William Ohkar Min said.
Still, soldiers often see anyone aiding a protester as “part of the same group,” he said. “We’re not.”
There is no mistaking these medics for protesters. They wear bright colors — red or orange — and jackets bearing the Star of Life or helmets bearing the word “rescue.”
They try to stand out from the black-clad protesters — clearly marking themselves as noncombatants — but they increasingly feel like sitting ducks. The gunmen don’t abide by any code forbidding violence against medics. In one coastal city, police reportedly stole an ambulance and went on a joyride, driving around and shooting civilians in a “killing spree.”
Never did these volunteer rescue workers ever imagine they would face down hardened commandos.
But that was the fate of one four-person crew in Hlaing Thayar, a working-class district in Yangon marked by flimsy houses and lots of factories, some of them churning out clothes for brands such as H&M.
The neighborhood — a hotbed of anti-coup anger — erupted on March 14. Locals barricaded streets with sandbags and raised makeshift shields made from steel barrels. Troops surged in, picking off civilians left and right; an estimated 50-plus people were murdered in the crackdown.
Rushing into the chaos was an ambulance crew belonging to the Myittar Myaing Ambulance Foundation. According to eyewitnesses, they were stopped by soldiers from one of Myanmar’s most notorious army units: the 77th Light Infantry Division known for warfare against Indigenous peoples in the country’s borderlands.
All of the medics were detained; one who is under 18 was later released, according to William Ohkar Min. But the other three have totally vanished. Efforts to get information from the army have not panned out.
“Even their ambulance has gone missing,” he said. “That’s how bad it is.”
The medics’ names are Aung Ko Oo, aged 39; Ko Ko Tar, 30; and Zaw Lin Oo, 19.
“These volunteers’ families are worried,” he said. “They just want to know if they are coming home alive or dead.”
Tormenting medics is part of a larger offensive against Myanmar’s health care workers — or at least anyone who dares to treat wounded dissidents.
Doctors have been threatened, too. Some hospitals — more than 35 by one count — are occupied by troops. Nurses at some public hospitals have gone on strike; others are simply too scared to report to the emergency room.
So, too, are patients, some of whom may be seeking care for a stroke or fever, only to find that their local hospital has turned into a forward operating base.
“Some hospitals are functioning with a skeleton crew. A lot of them are actually not functioning at all.”
“Some hospitals are functioning with a skeleton crew. A lot of them are actually not functioning at all,” said Pavlo Kolovos, the outgoing head of mission for Médecins San Frontières (MSF) in Myanmar.
“We see a lot of things that look like they’re leading to a collapse of the public health system,” Kolovos said. “And we’re trying to prepare as best we can.”
Terrorizing medics and hospitals sends misery rippling out in many directions — far beyond the circles of diehard protesters.
MSF maintains roughly 1,000 staff in Myanmar and is largely devoted to treating complex diseases such as HIV or tuberculosis that burdens local hospitals. Now, MSF clinics are beginning to see patients who would otherwise receive care from the hospital up the street, which may be shut down since the coup. Moreover, since the customs department is barely functioning, Kolovos fears life-saving HIV medication will not get through.
COVID-19 was a top concern pre-coup. Now it’s reduced to an afterthought. Testing has slowed to a trickle, Kolovos said, and vaccine plans are scrambled. “Basically, we don’t know the situation with COVID[-19] right now,” he said. “It’s been washed under because of the crisis.”
Even before the coup, Myanmar was fractured.
Its challenges were immense, with multiple civil wars raging in the mountains and coast; a booming meth trade, more valuable than the country’s entire legit economy; a government struggling to provide basic services as the military hovered above, siphoning up money for fighter jets, all while nurses and schoolteachers eeked by.
Now add to that a nationwide killing spree: troops and riot cops antagonizing the population in newly macabre ways: torching a man’s body in the street, killing a teenage girl and then digging up her grave.
The cruelty is so appalling that many civil servants refuse to work, crippling banks and universities. As Myanmar’s health care system teeters toward total breakdown, so do other institutions — and the country risks dissolving into a failed state.