Interview: life on the ground in Myanmar
ITIJ spoke to a local assistance provider operating in Myanmar, who shared some insights into how the recent military coup has affected the provision of healthcare, travel assistance and insurance services. In order to protect the responder, ITIJ is not sharing their name
Could you share the current situation on the ground in Myanmar? How is daily life?
After the military coup, which began on 1 February, people were stunned and started going out into the streets to protest. The crowds got bigger and bigger, and workers started to go on strike, especially public servants and medical staff. It was like the whole country had stopped functioning. We also made noise, banging cooking pans every night at 8 p.m. for a few minutes as a sign of protest. It is a Myanmar tradition to scare bad spirits away.
The protests were peaceful, but the police and the military started shooting people. First, with rubber bullets and stunning grenades, but then with real bullets fired by snipers with shoot-to-kill orders. Now everyone is scared of going outside. We can’t sleep at night because the police shoot at houses, and scream insults at us to break our spirit. The soldiers are everywhere, as well as informants. Because of martial law they can come into our house anytime. Banks started to reopen after the military threatened them with sanctions, but it is still difficult to get cash. Most shops are closed. More than 3,000 people have been arrested since 1 February, and more than 700 people have been killed by the junta, mainly young people under 30.
Was there any indication that it was going to happen, or was the coup very sudden?
Most expatriates have left the country or are preparing their families to do so
It was very sudden. Everyone knew that the military was still holding political power, with 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament, and the control of important ministries. We knew they were not happy with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its party Leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but we would never had imagined they would seize power again and use such violence to crackdown on protesters. When they seized power, the new Parliament was about to meet for the first time after the last general elections in November, won by the NLD in a landslide. We thought democracy had been acquired for good after the 2015 and 2020 elections. But this is like a fire that you need to protect against windstorms.
The coup happened in the foreground, but in the background, Myanmar continues to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. What impact has the coup had on medical facilities, treatment, access to medical supplies, and vaccination efforts?
Medical staff from public hospitals were among the very first to go on strike. Then everyone followed their example and started promoting a large civil disobedience movement. Doctors and nurses were convinced another military coup would be far more dangerous than Covid. They know how deprived the medical sector was during the previous regime. Then the military started targeting leaders among them, arrested doctors and nurses who would keep on protesting. A lot of them had to flee and hide to avoid getting arrested. They continue working in small private facilities, sometimes clandestinely.
Security forces also targeted volunteer medical rescue teams that were taking care of people injured during the protests. They also shot at the windows of hospitals to intimidate the medical staff and occupied all major government hospitals to prevent injured people from seeking assistance. Now, most public hospitals are closed or highly disrupted, included the infectious disease hospital in Yangon where Covid-19 cases were being treated. Vaccines are kept for the military staff and their families only. For us, it is as though Covid-19 has disappeared, because a far more dangerous disease erupted on 1 February 2021.
What was the immediate impact of the coup on your business in terms of operations and communications? How did you handle these issues, and what back-up plans did you already have in place for such an eventuality?
At first, we did not feel any impact from the coup, because we had already adapted our operational setup to the Covid-19 crisis a few months back. Now, because of the coup, the internet is often cut. Mobile data is not available anymore and we have to rely on wi-fi. We remain reachable by phone, but we can’t always access the internet. Our colleagues from other countries are helping us by checking our mailbox in order to reply to emails if we can’t. We also check in with our managers at least every six hours to maintain contact and keep them posted on the situation. Telecommunications in Myanmar have always been a challenge, so we are used to finding solutions. We also get support from our headquarters for remote payments to providers when international payments are possible.
There have been media reports of medical personnel being targeted by the military; what is your experience of this?
We are lucky enough that we haven’t been exposed to physical security issues, but we have seen lots of videos and heard testimonies about medical staff being beaten. Some died – shot in the head while rescuing people. Some disappeared, taken away by the police.
There are still expatriates in Myanmar who need international medical assistance. Could you share details of any cases you have dealt with recently, and how you’ve overcome hurdles put in place by the military coup, as well as by the pandemic, in order to continue to meet clients’ needs?
Most expatriates have left the country or are preparing their families to do so. We maintain contact with foreign chambers of commerce and embassies to remain updated on the situation about their citizens. We are also in contact with security services companies able to provide security escorts to go to the airport or to the hospital for example.
What are the medical evacuation options available to people who need urgent medical assistance outside of the country right now? What are the issues with flight permits, visas, etc.?
Security forces also targeted volunteer medical rescue teams that were taking care of people injured during the protests
There are very limited commercial flights to leave the country, both in terms of available routes and airlines. Most of them are already full, especially since expatriate families are trying to flee the country. Most foreign embassies asked their citizens to leave the country because of security concerns. Transits can be done via Singapore and Malaysia, but it also depends on citizenship and Covid-19 restrictions. Medical evacuations by charter flight or air ambulance have been done in the past few weeks, on a case-by-case basis. Passengers must, of course, have been cleared of Covid.
Security assistance is of vital importance during political uncertainty. What can international travellers and globally mobile workforces expect in terms of security assistance in Myanmar right now?
Let’s be very clear: people’s lives are at risk when they go outside. There have been several cases of people just walking on the street being shot, far from any protest movement … So, we would encourage limited transfers always with a pre-established itinerary, outside of curfew hours, if possible, with a document issued by an embassy. We can help arrange unarmed security escorts with experienced and reputable providers, but the situation is risky for everyone.
Do you see an end in sight to the current political status quo? What do you think the international political community could do to shed more light on what is happening in Myanmar?
Unfortunately, no. We strongly believed the massive peaceful civil disobedience movement would manage to bring an end to the coup. Why wouldn’t other democratic states and friendly neighbour countries help us safeguard democracy and protect Myanmar people? The members of parliament elected last November (those who haven’t yet been arrested, tortured or killed) have formed a clandestine government called Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). They try to encourage other nations not to engage with the military junta and to have the CRPH recognised as the only legitimate representative of Myanmar people. The situation is also very tense with ethnic armed groups in different regions of Myanmar. It seems like we are on the verge of a civil war.