The Jungle Surgeon of Myanmar

One medic finds that moves towards political reform have not benefited his patients in Burma's remote border areas.

Last updated: 15 Jan 2014 11:13
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Nyunt Win is a surgeon and medical trainer working with a mobile clinic in the East Burma jungle. He is also a former soldier of the Karen National Liberation Army.

Nyunt Win's patients are the displaced Karen people who as well as suffering the effects of years of civil war are without any healthcare whatsoever.

With moves towards political reform and international aid going directly to the government under the guise of development projects, there is an increase in resource exploitation, human rights abuses and displacement of ethnic populations. The plight of Nyunt Win's patients seems to be more acute than ever.

Filmmaker's view

By Gigi Berardi

"Tigers do not eat grass, they eat meat … We cannot say they will not fight us."

In January 2012, the government of Myanmar signed a ceasefire deal with the Karen rebels who have been fighting for greater autonomy for over 60 years.

The government's ceasefire attempts were celebrated worldwide. But many Karen rebels considered the move an attempt to hide ongoing tensions and a devastating lack of medical care, which has resulted from over 60 years of civil war and state-driven human rights abuses targeting ethnic minorities.

Over the past seven years, I have been given a window into this little known humanitarian crisis.


Human rights organisations say that Myanmar's military strategy to control ethnic minorities included widespread and systematic human rights abuses such as the burning of villages and crops, forced relocation of villagers, systematic rape of women, forced labour and the constant threat of death.

This brutal military campaign resulted in over half a million ethnic minority people becoming internally displaced in the remote jungle areas along the mountainous Thailand-Myanmar border.

In 2012, the World Health Organisation reported that the country's $2 per capita health investment is among the lowest worldwide. Furthermore, none of this investment reaches the residents and displaced population living in Myanmar's remote eastern borderlands. The health situation of communities in these areas is a chronic emergency. The added irony is that current positive political changes in Myanmar, including ceasefire talks, have contributed to international donors slashing aid to these areas, further impacting on these vulnerable communities.

In 2006, whilst travelling through Southeast Asia, I encountered local organisations combating this overwhelming situation – organisations such as the Back Pack Health Worker Team and the Karen Department of Health and Welfare, which provide primary healthcare to vulnerable communities for whom such care is otherwise unavailable.

The Back Pack Health Worker Team consists of a network of nearly 1,500 health workers, traditional birth assistants and village health workers and volunteers who live and work in the remote border areas of Myanmar. Senior staff travel to the Thailand-Myanmar border every six months to report on their activities, receive further training and collect desperately needed healthcare supplies before returning to Myanmar.

For 18 months I volunteered for the organisation, teaching medics basic camera and editing skills to document their work. It took me over five years to overcome staunch scepticism before the group felt secure enough to allow me to personally document a medical expedition. I found the vulnerability of the ethnic minorities to be mirrored by the intensity of their communal solidarity. Conventions and everyday actions become radical tools of community resistance and unifying forces in this environment.

Nyunt Win, the young Karen soldier who then became a mobile medic in eastern Myanmar, speaks about the current government with a hardened mistrust, characteristic of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. 

In my film, Nyunt Win shows us that the Back Pack Health Worker Team's "Mother and Child Health" programme not only serves the needs of pregnant women but also provides birth certificates for newborns, so that future generations can prove their nationality and claim their rights in Myanmar.

Here, the provision of basic healthcare not only serves humanitarian purposes, it also serves a political goal, retaliating against the regime's historic policy of undermining ethnic minorities.

The Jungle Surgeon of Myanmar exposes what life is like in the remote areas of Myanmar. It shows this marginalised community's fight for survival and thoughts on longterm peace, providing an alternative perspective on the ceasefire.

In Pictures


Al Jazeera
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