'They are wicked': Myanmar's strike holdouts keep up junta defiance

Protesters march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon in this photo taken on Feb 7, 2021. - AFP

BANGKOK (AFP): Doctors healing patients from hiding, teachers giving up their classrooms and bankers losing their savings are among the stubborn holdouts still on strike to protest Myanmar's military coup six months ago.

Thousands of civil servants joined a mass walkout in the days after the February ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi's government in an effort to deny the junta legitimacy, manpower and resources.

It is difficult to know how many are still participating in the campaign, with many sacked for joining protests and a severe coronavirus outbreak likely keeping others away from their desks.

The strikes have left the junta deprived of staff to manage utilities, issue bills and collect taxes.

It has appealed for medical workers, engineers and IT specialists to come forward to help its coronavirus response -- and dangled the promise of vaccines for those who do.

A state-backed power company in the commercial capital Yangon warned customers this month that a running boycott on bill payments was bleeding it of cash and affecting electricity supply.

AFP spoke to a doctor, a teacher and a banker about how they were resisting the junta regime. All asked to use pseudonyms for safety reasons.

Shwe Ya Min worked for Myanmar's central bank for 17 years but she and her husband both went on strike soon after the coup, joining colleagues in a walkout that paralysed the banking system.

Businesses have since struggled to pay employees and buy supplies, the World Bank said this week in a report forecasting the country's economy would contract by 18 percent in 2021.

Shwe Ya Min and her husband were both fired in May for not coming back to work, a dismissal she said was a "relief" -- even though it came with a demand they return their back pay.

"We loathe (the junta) very much," she says. "They are wicked."

She and her family are not paying any government bills and have stopped sending their daughter to school in the commercial capital Yangon, but money is tight.

"We have been eating with what we saved, which will last only until next month," she says.

Some of her colleagues "are selling eggs and betel nut to pay the rent", she adds.

But she says has no regrets about the decision.

"I will choose to die from starvation instead of going back to work."

Doctor Yin Maung, 33, left his job to work in a clinic providing free treatment for wounded protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar's cultural capital.

He was one of nearly 500 doctors studying for advanced degrees in the city to be expelled from the programme after defying repeated calls to come back to work.

He now practices medicine underground with other doctors, giving online and phone consultations to Covid-19 patients who still boycott junta-run hospitals.

He lives in fear of being arrested -- or worse.

"I fear they will kill me from behind while I am treating the patient," he tells AFP.

Remote medicine is hard: "Doctors are happy only when they are in contact with patients," he says.

"The goals I lived with my whole life are now hopeless."

"But, it also gives a stronger determination that we won't turn back."

Khin Lin, her mother and her sister all worked as teachers until they joined the civil disobedience movement, giving up salaries they used to support their relatives.

Her mother was just eight months shy of retirement and a pension when the coup hit, but ignored requests from her extended family to keep working.

Many fellow teachers have also stayed away -- the beginning of the academic year in June saw shuttered schools and empty lecture halls across the country.

Khin Lin now goes from house to house to teach, work she finds "exhausting", but she needs the money.

The 28-year-old says she is dismayed that some colleagues would "betray and return to work, instead of fighting together."

The strike is taking a toll on her family life, with the added stress of spending more time at home together as Myanmar battles its latest coronavirus surge.

"All of us are depressed," she says.

But she says that no matter what difficulties lie ahead, she will continue to participate in the civil disobedience campaign.

"I am naturally stubborn and determined... I continue what I have to do," she adds.

"They don't treat us like human beings."

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