Medics and medical students hold placards during an anti-regime protest in Naypyitaw in February 2021. / The Irrawaddy
It has been nearly two years since Tracy last saw her parents. She left her family in Yangon, where she was in her final year at the University of Medicine (1), one day after celebrating her 23rd birthday in February 2021.
Now 24, Tracy is among many in Myanmar’s young generation who have traded comfortable urban lives and promising futures for a tough jungle existence with the anti-regime resistance.
The regime’s deadly crackdowns on peaceful protests after the February 2021 coup drove multitudes of young people like Tracy to seek refuge in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups who reject military rule.
Some are now fighting with the ethnic resistance forces, while others, like Tracy, are making essential contributions with what they have learned, providing medical care to comrades and locals.
Tracy now lives in Karenni State (Kayah State), which has been rocked by daily clashes between regime troops and ethnic armed forces since May last year.
Like many others across Myanmar, she took part in the 2021 anti-junta protests following the coup. As a secretary of her student union, she joined the nationwide strikes to protest military rule. However, she fled after regime troops raided her house and attempted to detain her on an incitement charge.
“I decided I would keep struggling against the regime for as long as the revolution existed. So I left Yangon,” Tracy told The Irrawaddy.
“I can’t stand by and just watch this injustice. I don’t want the future of our people to be lost. I will do whatever I can to resist this dictatorship,” she said.
Tracy arrived at Demoso township in Karenni State and began working as a medic for People’s Defense Force (PDF) members, residents and internally displaced people (IDPs). She also helps to distribute learning materials for students in remote areas of the township and provides health education in schools under the parallel civilian National Unity Government.
She arranges food supplies for IDP camps with support from Yangon Medical University 1 seniors and the public. Moreover, she and her colleagues have set up mobile medical services in their area.
A clinic in their area has now been upgraded to a hospital capable of conducting different types of surgery. Tracy said the hospital is operating with support from her university seniors, NGOs that do not want to be named, public volunteers and the NUG’s Health Ministry.
The hospital sees more than a dozen badly wounded patients after every clash between regime troops and resistance forces. At these times, Tracy and her colleagues perform surgery both day and night.
“Patients arrive in the operating theatre with missing legs, hands or with gaping belly wounds,” she said of injured resistance members.
She remembers one young comrade wheeled in with catastrophic stomach wounds after being hit by regime artillery. Tracy and other doctors operated on the youth despite knowing his chance of survival was low. He emerged from surgery alive after six hours of desperate battle, only to die 30 minutes later.
Tracy said she and her colleagues were almost broken by their grief when he died.
“I felt distraught over the struggle of the young resistance fighter. At the same time, I feel hatred, disgust and anger at the sit-khwe [junta military “dogs”] and the people who work for them” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Tracy admitted to sadness at being parted from her parents, who support her decision to join the resistance.
“When I get depressed, I just think about the sacrifice being made by resistance fighters. They give their lives and they never see their parents again,” she told The Irrawaddy.
It’s not just PDF combatants who depend on Tracy and her colleagues, but also civilians and IDPs in the area. Civilian residents get injured in frequent junta artillery attacks on their villages, which also destroy homes. Meanwhile IDPs in local camps often suffer poor health and emergencies through lack of humanitarian aid.
IDP camps have insufficient blankets, which leaves children prone to pneumonia in the cold weather, while lack of clean water means many residents suffer diarrhea. Meanwhile, older IDPs with chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes often arrive at the hospital desperately ill due to medicine shortages.
“We take care of them day and night. If they recover from their life-threatening condition, we are very happy,” she said.
Like Tracy, Julia travels around an ethnic area providing health services to civilians and ethnic armed combatants, in Chin State.
The strength of CDM medics
Julia, 33, was a civil servant in the public health department in Mindat Township, Chin State, before the military took power. In late February 2021, she and her friends joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Health workers nationwide were the first professionals to go on strike in protest against military dictatorship. Medics from government hospitals across the country participated in daily anti-coup protests and rejected the regime by hanging CDM hospital banners.
Myanmar’s health system ground to a halt as 60,000 of the country’s 110,000 health workers joined the CDM.
Nearly 5,000 of the CDM health workers are now working among resistance groups under the shadow civilian National Unity Government (NUG), according to the CDM Medical Network, which compiles lists of health workers. They include 320 specialist doctors, 560 nurses, 1,554 basic health workers, and volunteers, according to the NUG.
Julia is among them, having served both in a resistance group’s base camp and also in remote areas of Mindat township. Previously, she had worked at the Ministry of Health for 10 years.
“I joined the CDM movement because I strongly oppose and condemn the coup,” Julia told The Irrawaddy.
She and her friends had opened a CDM clinic just before May 2021, when the clashes erupted in Mindat. She then moved to a remote area where Chin Defense Forces (Mindat) were fighting regime troops.
She and the other five health workers served on the front line for 14 days in May 2021.
“Our side suffered casualties because of a shortage of weapons. I used a lot of bandages on comrades who were badly wounded and bleeding profusely,” Julia recalled of the battles.
Having never experienced combat conditions before, she was scared at first. But she overcame the fear by focusing on treating CDF comrades injured in battle.
She recalls seeing a tarpaulin on the ground soaked so heavily with the blood of wounded combatants that health staff could not sit down.
“One comrade was killed by a shell that shattered his skull. Others suffered smashed jaws or bullet fragments lodged in their legs. I felt sorry for them, these youths who had to take up arms instead of pens,” she muttered.
Away from the front line, she provides health services at CDF base camps. She said many resistance fighters suffer from kidney stones because the water is not clean. Some also fall sick because of the bad weather and training.
She is always ready if needed on the front line. Meanwhile, she provides maternity and child health services, her field of expertise, in remote villages in the township.
She faces many difficulties because these remote rural villages do not have enough medical equipment.
“Before the coup, we offered full services as a department.
But since last year we have been doing this work on our own. Since the coup, we have encountered a lack of equipment and inadequate medicine,” she explained of the challenges in public health provision.
However, Julia and other CDM medics remain determined to provide health services for areas under their care.
Doe Myae Medical Team
The Doe Myae Medical Team was formed by CDM health staff three months ago to provide healthcare services in western Sagaing Region, an anti-regime stronghold. The team is working for both IDPs and resistance forces.
Ko Myat Thu, 36, is the CDM medic who founded Doe Myae Medical Team.
He worked as a public health official for more than 18 years before joining the CDM movement on February 3, 2021 – two days after the military takeover.
“Our driving force to join the CDM movement was the coup,” Ko Myat Thu told The Irrawaddy.
Like other CDM medics, he has traveled around villages providing basic health care to the populace since last year. He and his colleagues have extended those services to PDF members in the last three months.
Ko Myat Thu and two other medics have stationed themselves just behind the battle lines to give first aid to wounded comrades. Seriously wounded combatants are transferred to the hospital in resistance-controlled territory.
He has seen many young resistance fighters killed, or lose legs and hands in battle.
“There is more pain than pleasure here,” he said quietly.
His family worries for him, but he also worries for them – regime troops launch artillery attacks on villages in his region almost daily.
The junta’s air force also carries out frequent airstrikes in the region.
“If the planes come, we can’t do anything. We have to run,” Ko Myat Thu said.
CDM medics unbeaten and unbowed
Having set up public health coverage in their respective areas by themselves, the CDM medical staff are determined to keep doing their jobs despite shortages of medicines and other necessities.
“I will continue to fight with my comrades until the revolution ends. After the revolution, I will return to my department,” Ko Myat Thu told The Irrawaddy.
Julia strongly believes the struggle against military rule will succeed because the public and the resistance are fighting a righteous war.
“We will inevitably succeed, but it will take time. I won’t abandon my fallen comrades, I will fight against the military to the end,” she said.
The medics also asked the public to donate to their medical teams around the country, as they provide health services not just to PDF camps but also IDP camps and civilian areas.
Tracy urged people not to relax under military rule but to participate in any way they could to support the revolutionary forces.
“We are struggling to finish the revolution as quickly as possible. I want to ask you to be part of this struggle.”