What Is It Like To Be Pregnant Under Myanmar’s Military Regime?

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This post is by contributor Tom Clark. Tom is an English teacher in Thailand and has lived there for over 20 years. He specializes in posts about Thailand, Myanmar, and gaming. He runs a podcast called “The Prisoner of Bangkok,” and runs the blog tomtardis.org.

During a stormy night in June 2021, Rosemary lay in the darkness of her kitchen, gripped by labor contractions as Mai Nightingale, a 25-year-old midwife, tried to calm her cries.

“Only we two were left alone in the village. We closed all the doors and windows of the house and remained quietly inside,” said Mai Nightingale.

“Whenever she felt pain, I covered her mouth with a blanket for fear of soldiers hearing her.” For their safety, Al Jazeera used pseudonyms for Mai Nightingale and Rosemary.

A Burmese mother with her baby.

As soldiers approached Rosemary’s village in southern Chin State, she and the other villagers fled into the forest. Due to the unrelenting rain and lack of shelter, Rosemary and Mai Nightingale took the risk of meeting soldiers the next day and returned.

Despite the precarious situation, Mai Nightingale said, she wanted to deliver a baby. Rosemary says, “I saw Burmese soldiers approaching our village, but I couldn’t turn back because [Rosemary] was already exhausted.”

Rosemary’s husband did not accompany her for fear that soldiers would mistake him for a local armed group if seen. Since a February 1 military coup, civilian defense forces, armed largely with hunting rifles and homemade weapons, have sprung up across the country to fight against the regime, and Mindat has been a hotspot of resistance since May 2021

A road in Mindat.

Military forces engaged in disproportionate attacks on Mindat, including firing artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns into residential areas, as well as imposing martial law and causing the town to empty, according to local media reports. Males in their late teens and early 20s are often targeted by predators.

When Rosemary delivered her baby shortly after the sound of soldiers had faded, Mai Nightingale cut and tied the umbilical cord with a razor blade and thread that, lacking any other means of sterilization, she boiled in water.

Rosemary and her newborn are healthy and unharmed, but the circumstances of the birth highlight the increased risks that mothers and newborns face as a result of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

Burmese children.

In interviews by Al Jazeera, Mai Nightingale and two other nurses who are providing maternal and newborn healthcare to those displaced by armed conflict say they are seriously restricted in their ability to safely deliver babies, and that physical insecurity further endangers pregnant women and newborns.

“The main health risk for pregnant women and newborn babies is their lives. A nurse in Loikaw Township, Kayah State with the nickname Smile, said that women can die during labor or after delivery if soldiers approach them close to where they are hiding.

Babies cannot get vaccinations or adequate shelter because there is not enough medical equipment or medicine.

Kayah State, Myanmar.

According to United Nations estimates, 230,000 people have been displaced since the coup.

Military forces have not only attacked civilians, but have cut off food and water supplies to people affected by conflict, shelled displacement camps and churches of refuge, shot displaced people attempting to retrieve rice from their villages, and burned food and medical relief supplies.

As a result, Myanmar’s health system has all but collapsed, leaving few options, including for women who are prepared to return to their town or village to give birth or seek vaccinations or treatment for their infants.

The ongoing medical worker strikes accompanied by a broader Civil Disobedience Movement have left government hospitals in ruins. Some health facilities have closed altogether. The military has also repeatedly attacked healthcare professionals and facilities.

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