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Science in Exile podcast: Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw on the crisis facing medics and scientists in Myanmar

The medical and scientific community in Myanmar has been deeply affected by ongoing violence and conflict. In the latest Science in Exile podcast, Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw shares her insights into the impacts for the Burmese scientific community.

ISC Presents: Science in Exile is a series of podcasts featuring interviews with refugee and displaced scientists who share their science, their stories of displacement and their hopes for the future.

This episode of Science in Exile features Dr Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw, who is a member of the Steering Committee of the Science in Exile initiative.

Following the February 2021 coup d’état in Myanmar, medical doctors and other scientists have been prominent in resistance movements, with many doctors striking to protest against violence and persecution. In this podcast, Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw shares her perspective on the strikes, and on how the medical and broader scientific community is being affected by ongoing conflict in Myanmar. Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw, who is a Burmese national, is a research scientist, epidemiologist and health systems specialist currently working as a Lecturer in School of Public Health in the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, University of Hong Kong.


Phyu Phyu: The public healthcare system is now collapsed. It means that the basic healthcare is not readily available in the country. The coup has left the country’s higher education system totally fragmented and broken. Almost all universities, including research institutions and medical universities, they all are now closed and they also suffered from politicization, militarization and human rights violations.

Husam: I am your host Husam Ibrahim and this is the science in exile podcast. In this series, we get an insight into the lives of scientists who are in exile, and we discuss how the past, present and future of science can be preserved across borders. The podcast is a part of an ongoing refugee and displaced scientists project run by Science International, a joint project by the World Academy of Sciences, the International Science Council, and the InterAcademy Partnership.

On today’s episode, we hear from Dr. Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw, a Burmese medical doctor with a PhD in epidemiology. She migrated from Myanmar to Hong Kong to work in an environment that allows her the right to academic freedom. She is currently a lecturer in the school of Public Health at the Hong Kong University.

In November 2020 Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party won the general election in Myanmar. And on February 1, 2021, there was a military coup in Myanmar with the military forces disputing the election results. Since then, many healthcare workers and scientists have gone on strike, to which the military has responded through violence and persecution.

Phyu Phyu: Myanmar’s military response is very irrational. I mean, it is really brutal. The military targeted medical doctors involved in the Civil Disobedience movement with extreme violence. Many doctors lost their lives on the streets during the emergency care or rescue missions for protesters. And many more have been imprisoned for treating protesters. Most of my friends are in hiding because of the warrants for their arrest. The military has attacked health workers and facilities 179 times and killed 13 doctors so far, and injured 61 of the doctors since the coup. 139 doctors have been imprisoned so far and then 51 health facilities have been seized by the military security forces. So currently there are 31 Health Facilities under military occupation, according to the UN news. So all the medical doctors who joined the Civil Disobedience movement are now on an arrest list and many of them are now hiding for their life and safety, as a result, Myanmar’s public health system is totally collapsed. Nothing is functioning at all at the moment.

Husam: So in February, 1000 doctors from 70 hospitals went on a protest against the military coup that ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. What is it that specifically led medical workers in Myanmar to protest in the first place?

Phyu Phyu: So in response to the coup on February 1, Myanmar doctors decided to go on strike, not for the salary, not for the poor facilities, but because they don’t want to support brutal military regime, so they engaged in protests as well as a civil disobedience movement with an attempt to end the coup and to restore democracy. They argue that, how could they continue to work under an undemocratic ruthless military regime? So they think that it is very unethical to support such a brutal regime.

Earlier this year, there were several doctors strikes in Ireland, South Korea, Sierra Leone etc. So many of these strikes did not last very long. In extreme cases a few months because governments…I mean decent governments have to take the demands of the doctors seriously, because medical professionals are generally regarded as an indispensable human resource for the country, so the governments usually negotiate with them very quickly.

Husam: So some people might look at what’s happening and they might argue that medical workers going on strike is unethical, especially in the midst of a pandemic. How did the doctors tackle this ethical dilemma?

Phyu Phyu: Yeah, that is very important ethical question. So my colleagues in Myanmar have not only faced the threat of the military violence, they also have confronted a profound ethical dilemma. So, to cope with this severe dilemma, many doctors are trying their best to continue their services through private sector or charity clinics. They just don’t collaborate with the military but they continue to support their patients. So there are free health services for the poor, many makeshift clinics etc. So I would like to argue that such kind of ethical questions should be directed not to the doctors but to Myanmar’s military dictator Min Aung Hlaing, who initiated the coup. So my question is, is this ethical for a military leader to interfere with the politics and to cause such severe political and social unrest in the middle of a pandemic? So this is an ethical question that we should direct to this dictator.

Husam: How do these events currently affect the broader scientific community like academia and research in Myanmar?

Phyu Phyu: As many as 13,000 academics and staff at various universities in Myanmar are now suspended…removed. So it is about 45% of the workforce in higher education sector. Such a large number of suspensions could have a big impact on the ability of the country’s universities to deliver education and the future looks so dark and hopeless for most of us. It was already one of the poorest in the region. it ranked 92 out of 93 countries in a global survey last year. So almost all students are starting to miss out crucial years of education. As you know, science and higher education is vital to a country’s efforts to increase social capital and to promote social cohesion. The consequences are enormous. So for now, I really don’t have words to describe, how these events might potentially shape the future of science. All I can foresee is the darkness in various sizes and shapes.

Husam: What do you think needs to be done right now internationally to support the medical workers in Myanmar?

Phyu Phyu: Thank you for asking this question. So I think there could be three levels of assistance that we need from the international bodies. The first really be immediate assistance, the second is short-term assistance and third is long-term assistance. The immediate actions should be taken right here right now because attacks are going on. Attacks against care personnel must be prevented. We need the help of global organizations, like United Nations, World Health Organization to highlight the problem of the attacks and then health professionals, associations, societies and organizations from all specialties and disciplines they should unite in speaking up forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against health personnel in our country. And then secondly, we need to rescue those scientists who are now hiding for their life and safety. There are a lot of displaced scientists and medical workers in the ethnic region, border areas. They should be rescued and then they should be put under some International protection such as a UN special protection or rescue missions.

After that, this crisis could go long for a long time. So we should really develop long-term plans and policies on how to support research and development activities as part of emergency measures and to recover those scientists in exile by creating packages, including refugee protection, policies and replacement policies and we should also allocate particular funding and research grants especially dedicated to those who are in trouble.

Husam: What aspects of a government’s approach or activities do you think diminish the potential of science in a country, and what aspects do you think help science flourish?

Phyu Phyu: The most important factor to me is political factor. I would like to give you an example of my country Myanmar. So Myanmar has been living in very unstable conditions, for 60 years and then the science community in my country is really diminished. I would say research, quality researchers or publications very, very limited compared to like United States. So political stability is one important factor and then my country is struggling with ethnic conflicts for 60 years. If you don’t have a stable community, stable politics, other things, you have to set aside, you have to just put forward your life, safety, basic livelihoods, right?

So, one political stability, second economic conditions. Before this year we have 10 years of democratic transition, we got five years of democratic government civilian government for five years but we don’t have enough money to invest in science. No matter how much we can say that we love science, if we are a poor country, poor people, we don’t have enough funding to make science flourish. So politics, money. The third thing is that my community, like my country has been closed and cut out from the world for like five decades. So most of our people they don’t know much about the advancements or some of them even may not understand what multiculturalism is. So the mindset of the people should also be opened and enlightened. So I would say three factors: politics, economics and mindset of the community.

Husam: The science in exile initiative aims to support the science community in situations such as this. What could the project partners and other international organizations do to help?

Phyu Phyu: So I really think Science In Exile could help a lot. They will be able to promote the awareness of how these people are in trouble. Then we may be able to help them to relocate in the country, like, whatever country, which are ready to host them.

Husam: Thank you Dr. Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw for being on this episode, and giving us an insight into what the Burmese community is currently facing. 

This podcast is a part of an ongoing refugee and displaced scientists project called science in exile. It’s run by Science International, an initiative in which three global science organizations collaborate at the forefront of science policy. These are, the International Science Council, The World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy partnership. Dr Phyu Phyu was recently elected to the Science in Exile Steering Committee.

For more information on the science in exile project please head over to: Council.Science/Scienceinexile

The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of science international.

Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw

Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw

Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw is a lecturer at the School of Public Health in the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, University of Hong Kong. She is a research scientist, epidemiologist and health systems specialist with 12 years’ work experience in the government sector. Her research interests are equity, health and education policies, Southeast Asia health systems and policies, sexual and reproductive health, gender equality, poverty eradication, and human rights issues. Thin Zaw is also a public health and policy consultant giving technical advice to think tanks and non-governmental organizations.


The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of Science International, an initiative bringing together top-level representatives of three international science organizations: the International Science Council (ISC,) the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), and The World Academy of Sciences (UNESCO-TWAS).

Photo: Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash

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