Medical workers are spearheading a nascent civil disobedience campaign in Myanmar following the military’s seizure of power in the early hours of Monday. Staff from dozens of state hospitals and medical institutes have pledged to stop working from today in order to protest at the coup, Myanmar’s first since 1988, which threatens to tip the country back into international isolation.
According to one report, staff at 74 public hospitals walked off the job today, in addition to workers at medical institutes, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Health Laboratory, which has been one of the country’s main testing centers for COVID-19. Meanwhile, photos are fast circulating online of medical workers going on strike and brandishing images of a red ribbon, which has been adopted as a symbol of the doctors’ resistance to the new junta.
As Myo Thet Oo, a doctor from Lashio in northern Myanmar who is participating in the campaign, told Reuters, “We cannot accept dictators and an unelected government. They can arrest us anytime. We have decided to face it… All of us have decided not to go to the hospital.”
While is in its early stages, the campaign could evolve into the first major political test for the new coup regime. Shortly after the military takeover, which saw the arrest of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other high-ranking members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, a statement surfaced claiming to be from Aung San Suu Kyi, urging the people of Myanmar, who voted overwhelmingly for the NLD at November’s election, to protest the military takeover. The note, issued the Facebook page of the NLD leader’s office, urged people “not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.”
While some have observers raised doubts about the statement’s legitimacy, increasing numbers of people are following its advice, knowingly or otherwise. The day after the takeover by the military, or Tatmadaw, civil society activists launched a Civil Disobedience Movement, urging people to reject the new military junta. The movement’s Facebook group has already attracted more than 150,000 followers, and has served as an organizing hub for medical workers who are planning to go on strike.
In addition, large numbers of Myanmar Facebook users have changed their profile pictures to portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi or the red insignia of the NLD. Others have pledged to wear white ribbons to protest the coup, alongside the red ribbons that have been adopted by medical workers. Videos have circulated of people in Yangon, the country’s largest city, banging pans in protest. The Twitter hashtag #CivilDisobedienceMovement also contains images of the three-finger salute, taken from The Hunger Games film franchise, which has become a symbol of anti-authoritarian resistance in neighboring Thailand.
The medical strike is particularly significant, given that the junta has declared that one its priorities is controlling the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed some 3,138 victims and infected more than 140,000 people, the third-highest case load in Southeast Asia. It also closely resembles the Black Ribbon Movement, an online campaign by launched by Myanmar’s medical doctors in 2015, as a protest against the appointment of military officers to administrative positions at the Ministry of Health. Photos of the doctors wearing black ribbons were posted online, similar to those that have emerged in the past couple of days.
“We, Myanmar medical doctors, have been bearing the brunt of global COVID-19 pandemic and providing much needed medical care to our patients despite limited resources and infrastructure,” stated an English-language letter posted on the Facebook group of the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Addressed to the “international medical community,” the letter assailed the generals for “putting their own interests above our vulnerable population,” who have borne most of the public health and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Because this military regime lacks any political legitimacy, we do not recognize them as our government. We refuse to obey any order from the illegitimate military regime.”
How far this peaceful campaign of civil disobedience goes remains to be seen, but it offers some evidence that having tasted a decade in which they enjoyed real, if limited, political freedoms, many of Myanmar’s people are unwilling to quietly relinquish it.