Resisting by all means possible

A photographer joins frontline physicians to show how they—and she—are all part of the struggle against military oppression in Myanmar

The trauma of escaping death can only be understood by those who have lived through it, explains Ko Htoo, a former medical student speaking from an undisclosed location in the resistance stronghold of Karenni State.

For him, this occurred on May 20, when the Demoso Township clinic he co-founded was targeted in a 6:30am Myanmar military airstrike in which a fighter jet circled overhead and dropped a bomb “targeting where they believed we were.” 

The moment of the attack was captured in black-and-white footage filmed from an underground bunker by ethnographer and photographer Khin Sandar Nyunt, who was sheltering there alongside the site’s health personnel.

“When the first bombs were dropped, I felt like I was in a killing field. I thought I was dead. I felt that this time, I wasn’t going to survive,” she says in a short documentary shown as part of Indivisible, a photo exhibition held at the Alliance Française in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from October 6-14.

The exhibition, organised by the “creative resistance” collective A New Burma, is also viewable online. It features images from periods over two years when Khin Sandar Nyunt lived alongside a group of medical students, including Ko Htoo, who fled to Karenni State from Yangon following the country’s 2021 coup. 

Under the name Nway Oo Kyan Mar—Burmese for “Spring Health,” a reference to the Spring Revolution which aims to topple the junta—the group built a field hospital in January 2022 after providing mobile health services to internally displaced persons (IDPs) for around eight months prior. They were joined by doctors, nurses and midwives taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement against military rule. 

Two of the clinic’s wards were destroyed in the May attack, which also compromised the site’s location and security; for the nearly five months since the airstrike, eastern Demoso and its 30,000 residents have been without a hospital. 

The Nway Oo Kyan Mar clinic pictured after the May 20 airstrike that destroyed two patient wards (Khin Sandar Nyunt via A New Burma) 

“The military is targeting clinics, hospitals, IDP camps every day, including in Karenni,” Ko Htoo said on Wednesday in a panel discussion associated with the exhibition. 

Just two days earlier, in Kachin State, a suspected drone or artillery attack by the Myanmar army on an IDP camp killed nearly 30 people, including several children. 

Some 250,000 of Karenni State’s population of 300,000 have been displaced by the junta’s escalating violence. The Progressive Karenni People’s Force, a local monitoring group, has reported an exponential increase in airstrikes on Karenni territory since the coup, from two in 2021 to 182 in 2022 to 179 between January and April of this year alone, a period ending one month before the Nway Oo Kyan Mar clinic was destroyed. 

According to Ko Htoo, his group has been targeted four times by mortar fire and aerial attacks.

He recalled a previous artillery strike on the Nway Oo Kyan Mar clinic in which an 18-year-old volunteer was hit in the head by shrapnel from a mortar shell. 

“I heard her screaming, she was pressing on her head [with her hands], and she shouted to us, ‘Saya [Doctor], I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!’” he said. “As soon as we saw her, we rescued her, and started emergency treatment.”

Having since recovered from her injuries, the young woman continues her volunteer work with the organisation.

“We need a safe working environment,” Ko Htoo said, adding that both security and funding continue to be a major challenge for Nway Oo Kyan Mar’s 30-person team. 

Last year, he explained, they were able to raise just US$60,000 of their $150,000 operating budget. This support was largely provided by locals, many of whom are no longer able to send money to such projects due to increased junta surveillance of their financial transactions.

“Local donors are being targeted by the Myanmar military. They are blocking their transactions and bank accounts and arresting the owners of these accounts,” Ko Htoo said during Wednesday’s panel. 

Because of this, Nway Oo Kyan Mar is seeking help from international donors, but Ko Htoo noted that obtaining direct support remains a challenge for groups like his, due to continued restrictions on and underfunding of aid delivered safely through locally established channels.

Rebuilding the clinic will cost more than $40,000, Ko Htoo said, including the construction of a labour and delivery room, patient wards and an operating theatre. 

“We are planning and studying how to create it step by step,” the former medical student said. “We have some facilities, some machines. We only need the infrastructure to run this efficiently.”

A woman has a hand wound dressed and treated in the Nway Oo Kyan Mar clinic (Khin Sandar Nyunt via A New Burma)

Khin Sandar Nyunt explained in Indivisible’s featured video that she wanted the public “to understand the extent to which the junta targeted civilians and healthcare, and how inhumane that is during times of war.” 

As the exhibition’s title suggests, there is often an overlap between different expressions of resistance, with the photographer describing her “hands-on” approach to documenting and storytelling as her “own way of resisting the junta.” 

“I want to be actively involved and consider myself as a part of this revolution. I appreciate that I’ve had this experience and have witnessed different aspects of this movement,” she said. 

While Ko Htoo admitted on Wednesday that he would have rather become a social worker than a doctor, he has no regrets about the path he has chosen. 

“Only with a stethoscope, only with a syringe—we don’t have anything to resist the jet fighters. But we resist very well.” 

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