“If there’s a head wound and we cannot detect a pulse, we move right away to another patient we might be able to save. We don’t spend time looking at them. It may sound heartless. And at the end of the day, we don’t think back on the deaths. We let it slip by so we can retain our strength for the next day.”
It’s Thursday night, and I’m talking via an encrypted app to Dr. Thant Moe Nyunt, a thirtysomething general practitioner in Yangon, Myanmar. Since shortly after the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government on February 1, he has been acting as a medic for opposition protests that have often been met with lethal violence from the junta’s security forces. He has treated demonstrators who have been tear-gassed, struck by rubber bullets, and shot with live ammunition. He has seen limbs nearly severed by bullets. Days ago, he tried to help a protestor with a gaping abdomen wound. That person died in his presence. So did another protester who had been shot in the head.
Dr. Thant Moe Nyunt—this is a pseudonym—is part of a secret band of doctors working with the resistance, which is known as the CDM (the Civil Disobedience Movement). Though the past few days have been quiet—possibly because a team from CNN was in town—he has spent much of the recent weeks witnessing the brutality of the military regime, as its soldiers assault protesters demanding a return to democracy.
Members of his outfit monitor the news for information about where demonstrations might occur—or they are informed by organizers—and then they assemble nearby to prepare for conflict that could lead to injuries. They tend not to wear anything that would identify them as medical professionals, believing that the military targets medics. (Occasionally when they attend meetings with protest organizers, they will arrive wearing scrubs to show they are indeed doctors and not spies, but they quickly remove the medical garb.) He knows of one medic who was fatally shot at a protest in Mandalay and another who was arrested. The military’s animosity toward medical care providers is no secret. Health care workers mounted the first national protests after the coup and helped launch the CDM. He notes that the network of doctors and nurses assisting the protesters is kept secret in part out of concern that doctors with professional or personal links to the military would reveal its members to security forces.
When soldiers attack demonstrators, Thant Moe Nyunt and the other doctors stay clear of the frontlines and allow others to transport the wounded to them at locations toward the rear of the protests. They treat those they can. “We do the quick work,” Thant Moe Nyunt says. Cleaning cuts. Washing tear gas out of eyes. Applying tourniquets. They send those who need more extensive treatment to specialists stationed further away. “It’s chaotic. Sometimes we can’t finish applying a tourniquet. We have to get people out. It’s chaotic. I cannot describe it more than that.”
Volunteers take the worst cases to hospitals. “If we have intelligence saying there are military people at the government hospitals, we send them to private hospitals,” Thant Moe Nyunt explains. The security forces, he points out, frequently attempt to intimidate private hospitals so they won’t accept wounded protesters. The soldiers shoot at the hospitals; they harass the personnel. “Sometimes they show up and ask for the protesters at gunpoint,” he says. (Better Burma, a US-based group, has been raising funds for medical supplies used by Thant Moe Nyunt and other medical professionals assisting the opposition.)
Asked if it takes courage to do what he does, Thant Moe Nyunt says, “I haven’t thought about it that way.” He then recounts that in the first days after the military takeover he was “scared shitless” to join the protests. Every day he would go online and pore over reports of the demonstrations and the government’s brutal response. This caused a paralyzing fear. He did not want to leave his home. Then a friend urged him to stop watching the news and experience the protests directly.
Overcoming his trepidation, Thant Moe Nyunt started going to the protests. The first ones he attended were free of violence. Then he was at a demonstration that turned violent. Soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades. He heard gun shots. People started running, but he couldn’t. His legs wouldn’t move. “Fear overtook me,” he says. He dropped to his knees. He looked around and saw people much younger than him—including teenage girls—holding up shields and assisting tear-gassed protesters. “They were so brave,” he says. “I breathed and tried to calm down. I asked them why they were so brave.”
The protesters he approached were supportive and said that he had to build up a resistance to fear, as they had. They told him they were dealing with another emotion: anger. They were so enraged that they wanted to drop their shields and attack the soldiers. But they knew that would be counterproductive. “We have to win the war,” one told him. He realized that their desire for democracy allowed them to keep their emotions in check. If they could do that with anger, he could do it with fear. “They wanted to win this war and not not just this battle,” he says. “So that’s how they find their calmness. And that’s how they have been, out on the street every day, holding the shields, being closest to the danger.”
With each foray to a protest, it became easier for him. “But whenever you see a person shot,” he adds, “it’s not easier.”
As Thant Moe Nyunt points out in a yet-to-be released interview with the Insight Myanmar podcast, he and his fellow doctors in this clandestine network are accustomed to blood, but it was shocking for them to deal with gunshots. In ordinary times, there is not much gun violence in Yangon. Bullet wounds were new to the medics. “There was a lot of blood everywhere,” he recalls, “nothing like on the operation table or anything that we have ever seen before. But, okay, this is a gunshot. What am I going to do? We actually prepared for this. We have online seminars on how to deal with gunshot wounds. But when you see it in front of your face, like everyone’s shocked, we don’t know what to do. Okay, so stop the bleeding and send them off to a real hospital where they can do actual surgery.”
He is convinced that some soldiers at the protests were aiming at the heads of protesters and shooting to kill. In some instances, the protesters were not allowed to collect the bodies of their fallen comrades. Instead, the military or the police dragged the corpses away: “They dispose of the body. They just burn it without the permission of the family. There’s just a short notification or a phone call to the family: ‘your son or your daughter—now we are going to cremate them.’ Nothing so much as a goodbye or anything.”
In a somber voice coming over an internet connection that keeps dropping, Thant Moe Nyunt tells me that he doesn’t know how many people he has witnessed shot dead by the government troops. Five, maybe 10. Referring to himself and his fellow medics, he says,”We promised we wouldn’t count,” he says. A promise not to tally the dead? He knows that sounds odd, and he explains: “We are seeing deaths every day. We don’t count the dead. We’re trying to move and mobilize people every day. We try to refrain from bringing news of death from one area to another. There are already people counting and keeping track of the deaths. That’s not for us. And some faces of the dead are not even recognizable. We don’t know who they are. We’re focused on helping people. We get lost in that process.”
As the protests have continued, there has been widespread talk within Myanmar of the remnants of the deposed democratic government standing up an armed force that would represent many of the country’s ethnic groups, and Thant Moe Nyunt and other health care workers have discussed how their underground network could become part of that. What structures will be needed? How can trusted channels of communication be established. Much of the country is waiting to see if such an army arises—and to see if the opposition will appoint a defense minister who can create and lead this force. Resistance members across the country are readying themselves for such a development and even contemplating offensive strikes against the junta. “My job now is to be a combat medic,” Thant Moe Nyunt says. “On that day, they will let me know if I am needed. Then I will have to do my job.”