Sandra Mon is a senior researcher at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Department of Epidemiology. As a Myanmar national, she is an active voice for health care workers in Myanmar since the beginning of the coup there on February 1. PHR’s digital communications manager Hannah Dunphy spoke with Mon recently to understand the situation on the ground in Myanmar, including how a civil disobedience movement is organizing to restore democracy, attacks that continue against health care workers, and hopes for future accountability for the crimes committed by Myanmar’s military.
PHR: For those people less familiar with what happened in Myanmar in the beginning of the year, can you summarize the key events of the beginning of the coup d’état? What happened in February and why?
Sandra Mon: On February 1, 2021, the military – or the Tatmadaw – seized power from the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (or NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD is the closest Myanmar has gotten to a democratic ruling party since our independence from the British (famously led by General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) – so, needless to say, it occupies a very significant space in our political history. However, military coups are also common in Myanmar’s history, and for a coup to happen yet again and on the eve of the NLD’s inauguration into Parliament was extremely distressing for Myanmar people everywhere.
Fueled by this distress, impressive numbers of people came out in droves across the country in peaceful protest against the military. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) quickly formed, and on the second day of the coup, Myanmar’s medics came out and led the charge for this movement within the civil sector. It didn’t take long before the movement was picked up by regular citizens on the ground, who began banging pots and pans to protest the military. It was a symbolic gesture of voicing their rejection of the coup and the injustice of the military’s hijacking of our constitution and our government.
The sheer volume of people that have come out was definitely a threat to the military and eventually led to what we all were expecting, which was a violent crackdown. The military cracked down on them quickly and it continues to this day.
PHR: Tell us more about the protests: who is participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)?
It’s very decentralized. There’s not one leader that’s organizing and leading these protests – it’s everybody from all walks of life banding together and refusing to languish under an unjust government that has given the military so much impunity, impunity that has excused its systematic violence not just against the general populace, but in particular against the ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
“The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) quickly formed, and on the second day of the coup, Myanmar’s medics came out and led the charge for this movement within the civil sector. It didn’t take long before the movement was picked up by regular citizens on the ground, who began banging pots and pans to protest the military.”Sandra Mon
It’s not very well known to those outside of Myanmar, but there is a lot of ethnic and religious tension in Myanmar society – almost apartheid-like. The Bamar – distinct from “Burma” or “Burmese” – are the dominant ethnic group which has controlled Myanmar’s socioeconomic and political realms since the 1940’s. The military is mostly made up of the Bamar Buddhist majority, and has perpetuated this very Bamar-centric nationalism that has suppressed all other ethnic groups in the country that are not the Bamar nor Buddhist. Even in the period of semi-democratic NLD governance, when it was peaceful in the urban centers of the country, the ethnic borderlands still experienced a lot of civil fighting. The military fomented a lot of this nationalistic sentiment in the country, and the world saw that all come to a head in the 2017 Rohingya crisis which we at Johns Hopkins and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented.
The incredible thing about this particular revolution is that we’re seeing civilians from Bamar-majority regions and from these long-oppressed ethnic regions putting their differences aside and saying, “we join you in this fight.” The Rohingya over in Bangladesh refugee camps have given their support, which is huge because the Burmese turned against the Rohingya in the 2017 crisis. Having their support really shows the severity of the situation and the resoluteness that no one is willing to go through this ever again.
We’re also seeing immense support from Myanmar people like myself who are in the diaspora. In the United States, the UK, Germany – everywhere there are Burmese people, they’ve spoken out. Everybody recognizes that this is going to be a long fight, and we’re in it for the long haul.
PHR: PHR has been particularly alarmed to see the occupation of hospitals and the targeting of health care workers. What kinds of tactics have been used to target the health sector? And what impact has this had on the overall sector and people’s access to health?
The medical sector has played such a crucial role since the beginning. Medics in the civil sector really jumpstarted CDM, so they’ve always had a target on their backs. In retaliation, the military has criminalized health care workers and we see that through their deliberate attacks on health care facilities and the killing of health care professionals, including medical students, nursing students, and pharmacy students.
“With a looming threat of new waves of COVID-19 in the region, rather than gearing up our health care workforce, we’re actually facing a sudden shortage of medical personnel that are capable of responding to the emergency.”Sandra Mon
There is also deliberate obstruction of medical attention for injured protesters through intimidation of health care workers who are still providing care. This is made worse by the recent blanket arrests and warrants issued for health care workers across the country. Just to note, warrants do not mean that these individuals have been arrested, but it prevents them from actively providing critical care.
We’re also seeing the denial of health care for those detained. There are several high-profile political prisoners who require urgent medical care for a condition or injury that either was pre-existing or that was inflicted upon them by the military during the interrogation or detention process. Many of them remain neglected in Myanmar’s very harsh prison systems.
The impact of all this on Myanmar’s health sector is tremendous – and will be felt for years to come. We have to remember that this is all happening amidst COVID-19, which is not a dying pandemic – it’s still raging. With a looming threat of new waves of COVID-19 in the region, rather than gearing up our health care workforce, we’re actually facing a sudden shortage of medical personnel that are capable of responding to the emergency. And this is all because of the military.
Myanmar’s health system is collapsing. The public sector is under attack, and the private system can only carry the residual burden for so long. I’m in touch with several medics on the ground and they are tired – mentally and physically exhausted. But they know what they stand for, and they will not stand for anything but freedom. They need encouragement and physical support from the international health and humanitarian community.
PHR: The pandemic brings a whole new level of urgency and danger to the situation. How has the health sector dealt with that amidst the chaos and terror of the ongoing coup?
Health care workers, in addition to being actively persecuted by the military, are now preparing themselves for a spike in cases and trying to figure out how they can even triage and treat suspected COVID-19 patients in the underground facilities they’ve been forced to establish.
The country’s health system had been so weakened under past military rule that any progress that was made under the NLD government still left it years behind other countries in the region. It’s still a very spotty system, and in many rural areas the public health system is the only health care available. All to say that what little COVID-19 testing and surveillance was available has likely been severely compromised nationwide.
The COVID-19 crisis is ongoing and remains a security concern both regionally and internationally. The local medical community, both on principle and out of fear of military retaliation, has largely shunned any cooperation with a health system now controlled by the Junta. That has been made very clear through their rejection of the ministry-distributed vaccines – many medics received their first doses of the Covishield vaccine prior to the coup, and have since refused to return for their second doses.
These compounding factors are turning what was an urgent situation into a dire emergency. Non-governmental engagement with CDM medics and the newly-formed civilian government (the National Unity Government), particularly on the COVID-19 front, is urgently needed.
PHR: Given that the same military leadership who staged the coup is largely the same as those responsible for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya, what are your hopes for future accountability playing out? And what of the fate of the Rohingya communities in Bangladesh?
Sandra Mon: I was part of the effort with PHR to document and assess the violence inflicted upon the Rohingya in 2017. One of the key things that came out of that research was that we were able to document who the perpetrators were of these violent incidents against the Rohingya; today, we are seeing the same suspects reemerge in the orchestration of the coup and the severe crackdowns that have followed. Most notable is Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya in 2017 and is the ringleader of this 2021 coup.
“This is an opportunity for the whole country to really understand the plight of our ethnic minority siblings and no longer discount their experiences.”Sandra Mon
The troops that carried out the atrocities against the Rohingya are very harsh – what you might call “death troops” – and are usually confined to the borderlands to inflict violence on Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Now, however, these troops are in very densely populated areas like Yangon and Mandalay – capital centers of the country which have been historically safe from military intimidation – shooting unarmed young children in the head. Headshots have, morbidly, been a defining characteristic of this coup.
In terms of future accountability, this is an opportunity for the whole country to really understand the plight of our ethnic minority siblings and no longer discount their experiences. The Bamar nationalistic rhetoric – what we call “Bamar-nization” – must end. We, as a nation, and international governments must work together to hold the military accountable for these decades-long atrocities. Most of all, for the Rohingya and other ethnic communities that have been driven out of Myanmar, we must abolish the current constitution that outlaws their ethnic identities and create new policies that will ensure their rights as citizens of Myanmar, and ensure their safe and ethical repatriation.
PHR: As an activist on both health and human rights issues in your home country, how has the coup affected you personally? Are there any messages you’d like to convey to those reading this on behalf of those on the ground in Myanmar now?
Sandra Mon: This is my second revolution. The first that I lived through in my lifetime was the Saffron Revolution. That was cracked down on and stamped out pretty quickly, so it didn’t see the upheaval that we’re seeing now with this particular attempted coup.
This “coup culture” in Myanmar must end with this generation. I’m a millennial, but the Gen Zs are leading the fight on the ground because their futures are at stake. My parents lived through Myanmar’s brutal socialist days, the 1988 Uprising, and the Saffron Revolution. My grandparents were around for the 1962 coup – the one that started this cycle of military rule. The younger generations deserve a future that will nurture their full potential, and our older generations deserve to retire in peace in their country. It’s not a matter of “Oh, can they escape?” – no one wants to escape. You want to live happily and safely in the land that you were born in.
This coup has affected me in a very emotionally distressing way. I grew up being told that speaking out would put me in harm’s way. But this time around, I made the decision fairly early on to be public with my statements and to be a voice for those on the ground. Of course, that does come at great personal risk – but honestly, as a member of the Burmese community, I have a responsibility to make sure our stories are heard.
As devastating as the coup has been, it’s really brought together a huge international community of so many of us. I have met folks who are interested in health and human rights, who are medical students, Burmese American, Burmese Irish – folks all over the world who are learning about the work that I’m doing through Hopkins and PHR for Myanmar and beyond. Solidarity is such a key piece in the fight for human rights and well-ordered societies globally. I hope that when – not if – Myanmar’s Spring Revolution against military tyranny is won, we can serve as allies for others spearheading similar charges.