Christopher J. Walker describes how military repression in Myanmar is strangling access to medical care during the covid-19 pandemic.
This post is the twenty-third installment in an ongoing series, Chronicle of a Coup, comprised of reports written from within Myanmar by Christopher J. Walker (a pseudonym), a longtime resident, which together sketch one person’s first-hand account of the weeks and months following the February 1, 2021, military coup. A selection of his reports will be posted weekly, every Friday. A chronological archive is also available here.
Tea Circle is grateful to Christopher for sharing his personal account of life under military rule in Myanmar. Recognizing that his voice is one of many, we encourage other authors to submit their own accounts.
Measuring one’s worth | June 24, 2021
Not only does murder and mayhem continue as a result of this ongoing attempt at a coup, but now Myanmar is being ravaged by a second powerful adversary: covid-19. Last year, prior to the coup, people were consumed by the first and second waves of the coronavirus, but individuals stepped up in a multitude of ways to help others. At times they lined main thoroughfares handing out food to passersby. Observing these food distribution groups and other similar altruistic community efforts was consistently heartwarming.
How different it is today. As the junta continues to apply pressure and tighten its control, and with restrictive laws now in place, it has recently become all but impossible for people to assist one another. The military has attempted, especially, to put a stop to any type of medical relief provided by citizens for citizens. Instead of allowing people to donate directly to others, a spokesman for the junta instructed that people must make their donations to the military, which will then distribute them where needed. Of course, people have had far too much experience with these thieves, both now and in the past, and know that most of their donations would end up lining the pockets of the generals.
The military-appointed administrator of our quarter recently drove up and down its streets announcing that anyone in need of oxygen should come to his office. It was assumed that by doing so one would be able to receive a tank of oxygen, a rare commodity, and one of the few things that can help keep someone alive.
What the administrator was actually angling for were donations from the community, so that he could add a modicum of “truth” to the claim that the “government” was taking care of the people and in control of the situation. Prior to the attempted coup, people were happy to assist by donating money, food and medical supplies for others. But given that there is no trust whatsoever in anything the junta says or does, people will continue to resist military control by any means possible.
Angered by this most recent farcical ploy, neighbours have banded together and are taking matters into their own hands. Late this morning, and with a heavy rain pelting down, I stood at my front door and watched three men, largely obscured by black umbrellas, going door to door asking for donations with which to purchase oxygen and other needed items. In ordinary times such an endeavour would not be at all unusual, but these days it can only be done at great personal risk. When the quarter administrator learns of their actions, there will be some kind of retribution, no doubt.
As Mr. Snowden pointed out, the real measure of a person is not their words but rather their deeds. It is the courageous actions of these three men, as well as of those who donated, that somehow indicate that everything might, eventually, be alright.
I can’t breathe | June 26, 2021Embed from Getty Images
No, these are not the words of George Floyd, but the cries of ordinary Burmese citizens suffering from covid-19 and in desperate need of life-saving oxygen. It is not the knee of a callous police officer cutting off their air, but rather a military regime of systematic brutality that continues to heap atrocity after atrocity upon the innocent citizens of Myanmar.
There is absolute panic in our area, as is no doubt true in every part of the country. At the moment, the greatest need is oxygen, and while oxygen tanks could have easily been filled only a short while ago, now there are long queues. And the queues exist not because there is a shortage of oxygen, but rather because the army has taken over the industry.
Over the past five months people have become unusually adept at queuing. They can, for example, practise standing in line to withdraw their money from ATMs. Otherwise, they can avail themselves of an entirely new service that has cropped up to fill a need. For a fee, professional “squatters” or “line-standers” will hold a place in the queue for you.
The long lines at banks are due to the lack of currency available to dispense each day. The military has stepped in to closely control and monitor who is withdrawing money and why. But the situation with the oxygen is something quite different, in that there is no actual shortage. The only resource required to produce it is the ambient air, which unlike most other commodities in Myanmar is still plentiful.
General Min Aung Hlaing announced that there is no shortage of bottled oxygen, while in the same report were photos of hundreds of people waiting in the rain to have tanks filled. The lines emerged because heavily armed soldiers closed down most of the small factories that generate oxygen and ordered shopkeepers to stop selling it to individuals. Instead, they are only allowed to sell to hospitals.
Tragically, people who urgently require oxygen are unable to get it because every nonmilitary hospital is full and/or understaffed, since the majority of doctors and nurses are on strike. Those who go there in desperation are turned away. On the other hand, military-run hospitals are well staffed and have many empty beds available, but only soldiers, families of servicemen or those with other close connections to the high-ranking officers can enter these facilities. Yesterday we heard that the military is considering opening its hospitals to members of the public. But really, what is there to consider?
A couple of weeks ago people were able to purchase oxygen generators made in Germany, Thailand and the U.S., but the junta has put a stop to that. Now, only Chinese generators can be imported. And of course the Burmese people have for five months done their best to boycott anything from China.
We also heard that anyone trying to truck generators into the country is being stopped at roadblocks by soldiers who exact bribes of US$100 for each generator being transported. The cost of oxygen tank refills has skyrocketed, and there is little doubt that most increases are due to the junta’s avaricious fingers that are deep in the economic pie.
Doing what they can | June 27, 2021
The military has begun shutting down all underground medical clinics serving those suffering from the third wave of covid-19. But a few days ago, in an area on the north side of the city, another one opened. To foil the military’s attempts to discover it, this new centre was tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, and those in need of help were not permitted to actually go to the clinic. Instead, whoever was seeking treatment was first interviewed by telephone by one of the five doctors on duty. If the doctors determined that the patient required in-person treatment, they would travel to the patient’s address, thus preventing the military from easily identifying and shuttering the clinic.
Yesterday the clinic responded to a patient who it determined needed immediate in-home care. Upon arriving at the patient’s house the two doctors were horrified to discover that the “patient” was actually a group of soldiers, who promptly arrested them. After taking the doctors to a nearby police station where they were interrogated, and in all likelihood beaten and tortured, the soldiers were able to extract the location of the underground clinic. Five military trucks were immediately dispatched to arrest the staff, including three more doctors, and confiscate all their oxygen cylinders, oxygen generators and whatever other medical supplies they had.
This is the kind of retaliation that caring Burmese people must always anticipate whenever they attempt to help others. Dispensing food, medicine or healthcare is illegal, and only done at considerable risk to the donor.
Now, however, a change seems to be occurring as people become angrier and angrier at the military for its callous and brutal behaviour. People seem even more disposed to giving assistance, and to hell with the uniformed criminals who try to thwart them.
At our nightly local security meeting, discussion centred on the spread of covid-19 in our quarter, where 18 people have perished in the past seven days. We determined that there was an urgent need for money and sources for oxygen. Money is the highest priority, because without it there is no way to purchase oxygen and other necessities. Some of those attending the meeting immediately rose to leave with the intention, despite the curfew, of going around the quarter to solicit donations. Undeterred by the concerns expressed by others, away they went to stump the dark streets and ask for help.
Publicly appealing for donations at night after curfew is, at best, ill-advised and reckless, and can lead to immediate arrest. Fortunately, after a half hour or so, they recognized the foolishness of their efforts at such a late hour and returned to their homes. Nonetheless, in the short time that they were out, they collected the equivalent of US$300, which, in the city, at today’s painfully inflated prices, is enough to purchase one cylinder of oxygen. But it’s a start, and today their efforts will surely continue.
Christopher J Walker (pseudonym) has called Myanmar home for a number of years. He thanks his friend and editor Mathieu Lukas for his assistance in preparing these reports for safe and timely publication.