Ara Darzi: we must come to the support of our medical colleagues in Myanmar

Doctors have become the latest targets in the brutal crackdown by the army and police in Myanmar, as leaders of the military junta seek to silence countrywide protests against the military coup.

On Wednesday 4 March 2021, disturbing CCTV footage showed police forcing three medical staff out of their ambulance in the North Okkalapa region of Yangon and beating them with rifle butts and batons as they struggled to protect themselves. At least 38 people were killed in towns and cities across the country in what Christine Schraner Burgener, UN special envoy to Myanmar, described as the “bloodiest day since the coup happened.” 

More than 50 doctors, nurses, and medical staff were arrested in Yangon on Sunday 28 February after joining a peaceful street protest. Police threw stun grenades outside the medical school. A group called the White Coat Alliance released photographs showing medical staff being kettled by police before being ushered into police vans and driven away. The Alliance claimed police were demanding money for their release. 

Doctors have joined the protests across the country since the coup started on 1 February. Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a landslide election in November 2020 has been removed from power. She has been detained under house arrest at an undisclosed location. 

Doctors have played a prominent part in the campaign of civil disobedience against the coup, which has included public servants and engineers, and has caused growing difficulties for the military junta. Gowned and masked the doctors are instantly identifiable as they come together outside hospitals and on protest marches. There are reports from other cities across the country of doctors being dismissed from their posts, arrested, or going into hiding in fear for their lives. The arrest and detention of medical staff for joining a peaceful protest is an affront to doctors everywhere and a clear breach of humanitarian law. It demands an immediate robust response.    

I know many of these doctors, as I have visited Myanmar a number of times in recent years at the invitation of Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2013, I advised on her plans to redevelop Rangoon Hospital and reform the Myanmar Health Service and I am a trustee of a charity which has provided training, equipment, and developed a new curriculum for medical students.  

I later joined an international forum she established which was intended to monitor the restoration of Rakine state and the return of the Rohingya Muslims. That failed but my most recent visit in 2019, to assist with the release of the two Reuters journalists detained while covering events in Rakine, was successful. 

Thet Kaing Win, the minister of health, has failed in his duty to protect Myanmar’s medical staff. The international community must demand the immediate release of the arrested doctors and bring pressure on the military junta to protect those with the skill and vocation to care and heal.

The World Medical Association has condemned the arrests. The World Health Organisation and aid agencies who continue to provide humanitarian care in Myanmar must now add their voices to the protests.

Western countries have condemned the coup, but they have imposed only limited sanctions. The UK government must consider sanctioning the military’s business interests and financial backers, and use its international influence to extend the arms embargo against Myanmar. Suu Kyi has her faults. She failed to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the army against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state and was morally at fault by later publicly defending the army’s actions. But she is Myanmar’s democratically elected leader, and remains hugely popular. As doctors who believe in democracy, the rule of law, and universal human rights, we must come to the support of our colleagues in Myanmar—doctors, nurses, and medical staff—who are risking their lives for their country.

Ara Darzi, is director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London.

Competing interests: none declared.