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Rights groups say Myanmar military attacking medics, hindering COVID-19 response

This photo, taken on August 7, 2021, shows volunteers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) burying a suspected COVID-19 victim at a cemetery in Taungoo district in Myanmar's Bago region, some 220 km from Yangon. (By AFP)

Rights groups say Myanmar's military has killed more than two dozen medics and carried out hundreds of attacks against health workers in order to hamper the response to a resurgent outbreak of COVID-19 amid ongoing turmoil across the Southeast Asian country.

Insecurity Insight, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights (CPHHR) said in a report on Tuesday that more than 190 health workers had been detained and 86 raids on hospitals had been conducted since the February 1 coup in Myanmar.

"Health workers have been forced into hiding for fear of being arrested or after having arrest warrants issued against them," the report said.

"In some cases, their family members were arrested instead," it added.

The rights organizations identified 15 incidents of confiscation of personal protection equipment and oxygen supplies for the exclusive use of the army. Some COVID-19 care centers were forced to close, the report said.

The groups said some attacks, however, had been carried out by armed groups opposing the ruling junta, including bomb explosions near hospitals and an attack on a military convoy that was reported to be carrying medicine.

Last month, media reports said that a number of volunteer doctors offering medical services had been detained by the military in Myanmar's two largest cities — Yangon and Mandalay — in a two-week time span.

The military has arrested medical staff previously for their support for a civil disobedience movement against the junta. Scores of doctors have been arrested in the campaign. Advocacy groups say hundreds of the doctors have been charged with spreading false news.

Turmoil has gripped Myanmar since de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) was ousted on February 1 in a military coup, with near-daily protests and a nationwide civil disobedience movement.

Myanmar's healthcare system has largely collapsed since the coup, with many medical workers joining strikes to protest against junta rule. An average of nearly 300 people have died a day from COVID-19 over the past week, according to official figures.

The military authorities have appealed to doctors to return to work and have called for public cooperation to try to curb the latest outbreak of the coronavirus. Yanghee Lee, a former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has accused the junta of "weaponizing COVID-19 for its own political gain."

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