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At least 297 attacks and threats to health care reported during eight months of Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown

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Physicians for Human Rights
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“We are not criminals. We are caring and compassionate nurses who want to help reduce pain and suffering. We just want to give care to our people,” a nurse in Myanmar tells researchers

At least 297 attacks and threats against health workers, facilities, and transports in Myanmar were perpetrated from February 1 to September 30, 2021, according to an analysis based on open-source reports compiled by Insecurity Insight, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights (CPHHR).

Myanmar’s armed forces and police reportedly committed the vast majority of attacks amid resistance to the military takeover. The Myanmar military’s (“Tatmadaw”) wanton violence against health workers and facilities is fueling the collapse of the country’s health sector and its COVID-19 response, as the emergency in Myanmar devolves into a protracted conflict.

Within the 297 total incidents that took place across Myanmar during the first eight months of the military’s coup and crackdown (February 1 to September 30, 2021), Insecurity Insight, PHR, and CPHHR highlight reports of:

  • 210 health workers arrested
  • 40 health workers injured
  • 29 health workers killed
  • Hospitals raided at least 87 times
  • Hospitals occupied at least 56 times
  • 25 incidents impacting COVID-19 response measures

“The Tatmadaw uses restrictions on health services as a tool of repression and control,” said Christina Wille, director of Insecurity Insight. “Many people are denied health care. Amazingly brave health workers continue to provide care in clandestine ways but frequent raids and curfews, medical shortages, and power outages jeopardize health facilities and put patients’ lives at risk. The international community needs to take bolder steps to address Myanmar’s tragedy.

“The humanitarian tolls have increased as COVID-19 spreads largely unchecked. The recent military build-up in Myanmar’s border areas portends additional atrocities and the displacement of more people,” said Wille. “Myanmar’s catastrophe won’t remain inside the county’s borders.”

The incidents referred to are based on the dataset 01 February – 30 September 2021 Violence Against Health Care in Myanmar Data, which is available on the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX). For the purposes of this research brief, one incident can comprise multiple types of violence or threats such as those above. The brief does not include incidents of violence against patients. Selected events can also be viewed on the global map on threats and violence against health care.

The new research brief highlights several alarming developments in the military’s ongoing crackdown on the medical profession and the anti-coup movement.

The military has used health facilities to arrest civilians suspected of participating in the anti-coup movement. For example, an elderly pro-democracy activist received a call about his eligibility for a COVID-19 vaccine. Upon arrival at a COVID-19 vaccination center on August 4, he was reportedly arrested by armed forces and remains detained in the county’s capital. The Tatmadaw often denies medical care to detainees in its custody.

Health workers continue to be targeted for providing care, with detainees coerced into confessing to falsified charges, such as possession of weapons or links to anti-junta terrorism. In one instance on September 25, a doctor and nurse who volunteered to treat COVID-19 patients were reportedly dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night, tortured, and killed by the military-run State Administrative Council (SAC).

The COVID-19 response has been derailed by the military’s violence against health care. For example, four NGO workers for an organization that transports COVID-19 patients and delivers medical supplies were arrested by the SAC, who also reportedly seized two of the group’s ambulances. The military has blocked numerous international and local aid groups from reaching people in need. Patients are also routinely blocked from accessing care.

State and non-state actors continue to use explosive weapons around health facilities. In one case, on September 22, a car bomb exploded outside the military-occupied Public Hospital in Mandalay region, killing one person and injuring two others.

“There is no doubt that the emergency has spiraled into a protracted humanitarian crisis,” said Sandra Mon, a PHR expert and epidemiologist from Myanmar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights. “The military junta continues to intimidate and threaten health workers, even during the third wave of COVID-19 that devastated the country. The collapse of Myanmar’s health care system and the evolution of the conflict has now led to health being used as a political bargaining chip. Conflict should never justify inaction, especially where public health is concerned. Myanmar’s international allies must continue to press for unhindered delivery of medical and humanitarian aid to the people. Global health diplomacy must be invoked.”

While the vast majority of attacks and threats against health care have been perpetrated by Myanmar’s armed forces, non-state actors also reportedly committed violence against health care in May and June. Of the 297 total incidents, at least 267 are attributed to Myanmar’s armed forces (State Administrative Council/SAC or the Tatmadaw) and 14 to non-state actors. The perpetrators are unclear in 16 incidents.

The increase in attacks by non-state actors was driven in part by escalating conflict between the military and local ethnic militias in recent months, particularly in the Chin and Kachin states, as well as the shadow government’s September declaration of a “People’s Defensive War.”

The research brief also includes testimonies from nurses in Myanmar, collected by Insecurity Insight with support from the Tropical Health and Education Trust in September 2021.

“We are not criminals,” said one nurse, whose identity is concealed due to extreme security risks. “We are caring and compassionate nurses who want to help reduce pain and suffering. We just want to give care to our people.”

Another nurse told researchers: “This is not the first time in our history that we suffer from dictators. Back then, we couldn’t let the world know what was happening. Today, we are globally connected and want to raise our voices. We don’t want our country and health system to deteriorate. It is our human right to speak out and say where we stand on this.”

Insecurity Insight, PHR, and CPHHR used an open-source methodology to compile incidents noted in local, national, and international news outlets, online databases, and social media reports. The incidents reported are neither a complete nor a representative list of all incidents. Most incidents have not undergone verification by Insecurity Insight, PHR, and CPHHR. Data collection is ongoing and data may change as more information is made available. However, the data offers a snapshot of how Myanmar’s military is persecuting health workers and targeting facilities amid its broader crackdown on dissent.

“Myanmar’s military must immediately cease hostilities and allow prompt, equitable, and unhindered delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and lifesaving aid to the country’s besieged civilians,” said Susannah Sirkin, director of policy at Physicians for Human Rights. “UN member states must use all tools at their disposal to pressure and influence the Myanmar military to abide by international humanitarian and human rights law. In a year that has seen rampant conflict- and COVID-19-related violence against medical professionals, Myanmar may be the worst place on Earth to be a health worker today due to the onslaught from the military. The global community cannot let this stand.”

The research brief makes several recommendations to UN member states, urging the international community to ensure the full implementation of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2286, adopted in May 2016, which strongly condemns attacks on medical personnel in conflict situations, as well as UNSC Resolution 2565, which calls for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Insecurity Insight monitors open sources for information on incidents that interfere with the delivery of health care. This information is shared once a month in the Attacks on Health Care Monthly News Briefs, and with a wide range of stakeholders who campaign for change or work on the ground. Subscribe to updates here.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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