The brutal murder of the nurse who decided to oppose a coup in Myanmar

At around 1 pm on June 14, members of the volunteer Popular Defense Forces arrived at a piece of land located between two villages west of the Chindwin River in central Myanmar.

They had been alerted by a cowherd, who had seen crows rummaging through what he believed to be a carcass.

The volunteers saw a human hand sticking out of the ground. It belonged to a young fighter in his group, Wu Khong, who had been wounded and missing during an army attack four days earlier.

Next to him, in the shallow grave, were four other bodies, dismembered and burned.

Thanks to clothing found near the scene, plus a watch and a medical bag, they also identified Zarli Naing, 27, a nurse who had arrived in this area of ​​the Magway region last year to provide medical assistance to insurgents. and to the local population.

They were all opposed to the Myanmar military, which had seized power on February 1, 2021, toppling the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Through interviews with Zarli Naing’s friends and family, those who trained her, and the villagers and fighters with whom she lived until her death, the BBC pieced together the story of a bright and courageous young woman whose decision to oppose the coup ended in tragedy.

This is also the story of desperate resistance to the military junta by communities across a wide swath of the dry zone, an impoverished and drought-prone region of Myanmar.

The first steps

Zarli Naing was the youngest of four girls from a poor farming family who lived near the great temple complex of Bagan.

She was the only one of them who did well in school, qualified as a nurse and got a job in a hospital in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

Zarli Naing worked in the Magway Region, a hotbed of resistance against the military.

I was working there when the coup took place. Like thousands of health workers across the country, Zarli Naing joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), refusing to work with management controlled by the military.

A month after the coup, he left Nay Pyi Taw and returned to his hometown. But fearing that his political activism would endanger his family, he decided to move to a safe area in North Magway, largely controlled by opposition forces such as the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). English).

There it became part of an extensive clandestine health network led by the thousands of doctors and nurses who have left their jobs in protest against the coup.

I was also trying to complete an online degree course from the prestigious Mandalay College of Nursing. He had started the show in early 2020, but it was cut short by the pandemic.

“When I spoke to her a month ago, she told me how glad she was to be there,” says one of her online supervisors, a nursing instructor for the underground.

“She was especially happy to be able to give first aid training to PDF fighters in her area, because there are no medical personnel there. She was the only one capable of giving them that service,” she adds.

rebel zone

Zarli Naing had spent the last 14 months in a town called Dan Bin Gan. She was invited there by a friend of hers, Khin Hnin Wai, a teacher her own age who worked at a school run by a respected principal, Win Kyaw.

Win Kyaw was a prominent local CDM leader who supported the shadow Government of National Unity, formed last year to challenge the rule of the military junta.

Dan Bin Gan was indeed a liberated zone. He had an active wing of the PDF, which had established its base in the center of town. Most of its 2,500 inhabitants are farmers who make a living growing beans, sesame and peanuts, and a little corn to feed livestock.

This part of Myanmar is known for its deep loyalty to Aung San Suu Kyi and his National League for Democracy, which in the last election won all of Magway’s seats in both the national and local parliaments.

Aung San Suu Kyi.  photo from August 7, 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi, democratic leader in Myanmar.

Opposition to the coup here, and in the neighboring southern region of Sagaing, is as strong as anywhere else in Myanmar, with dozens of volunteer militias taking on the army using captured and homemade weapons, and improvised mines.

The village is also only 6 kilometers from the Sin Pyu Shin Bridge, one of the only road crossings of the Chindwin River, and therefore vital for the movement of troops and other reinforcements.

Zarli Naing offered the only medical treatment option for communities that could no longer use the local hospital, both because it is under military control and because many nurses and doctors have left state institutions after the coup.

Friends and PDF fighters who knew her say that was deeply committed to the armed struggle, and that he taught first aid classes for combatants.

Zarli Nain

Zarli Naing had started studying online to hone her knowledge.

“Zarli was very strong,” says another of her supervisors, who lives in the UK, where some doctors support the clandestine health network from Myanmar.

“He was always very optimistic. He never talked about his own difficulties. He was just asking smart questions when he needed to fix something,” she adds.

Underground health workers can become depressed by the challenges they face.

“Sometimes their patients can’t get to them because of roadblocks or fighting, and they can’t refer patients to hospitals if they need more complex surgery. That is very hard for them: many of their patients in that situation do not survive”.

But Zarli Naing “did not express no regrets along the path she had chosen,” says a friend who worked near her in North Magway.

“There were many times that he missed his family. She never told them what she was doing. Knowing that she worked for the CDM would have put them in danger.”

“We used to ask people we knew for donations to pay for the medicine we needed. We would often talk together on the phone, and we would talk about the medical issues we were facing, or our support for CDM.”

The attack and the response

From his Facebook page it seems to have been an inveterate reader who published the colorful covers of the novels in his language that he liked. The photos she shared of her show her reading or raising her hand in the three-finger symbol of defiance that has become so popular in Southeast Asia in recent years.

One of the posts contains a series of photos of a much younger Aung San Suu Kyi with her family in the UK.

The day before Zarli Naing’s death, on June 9, three PDF groups together launched an attack on the military post guarding the Sin Pyu Shin bridge, killing three soldiers and taking control for a few hours.

A military counterattack It was inevitableand in the early hours of June 10, some 30 soldiers in four vehicles were seen heading towards Dan Bin Gan from the east.

Not all soldiers wore uniforms, but those who did could be identified by their shoulder insignia as coming from the 256th, 257th, and 258th Infantry Battalionsbased at Hpu Lon, near the city of Yesagyo, about 25 kilometers to the south.

Protests in Myanmar in 2021 following the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi

Protests in Myanmar in 2021 following the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.

At dawn, the inhabitants of Dan Bin Gan began to flee the town, heading to the open countryside to the west. Zarli Naing was among them.

To slow down the army, PDF fighters laid homemade mines along the road to Dan Bin Gan.

One of them, Wu Khong, injured his leg when he fell while doing so. Zarli Naing stayed with him to cure him.either. Win Kyaw, who was protecting the young nurse, also stayed behind. So did Khin Hnin Wai, a friend of Zarli Naing, who was pregnant, and another young fighter, Thae Ei Ei Win.

According to eyewitnesses, they had run towards the west end of Dan Bin Gan, but had stopped for Zarli Naing to attend to Wu Khong’s injury, when they were intercepted by a group of soldiers.

Guided by an informant, the soldiers had surrounded the south of the town to avoid the mines. They captured Zarli Naing and his friends, tied their hands and, together with nine other people they had detained, started marching north for about an hour to the village of Thit Gyi Taw.

Eyewitnesses heard soldiers asking their captives if they were members of the CDM and warning them that they could be jailed or shot. They say that the soldiers they repeatedly beat and kicked their captivesand stole food and alcohol from now-empty houses in the villages.

According to PDF sources, 70 houses in Thit Gyi Taw were also set on fire, sending a large plume of black smoke over the fields.

area map


In the afternoon, the captives were transferred south to a temple in a town called Peik Thit Kan. Nine of them were released and the soldiers told them to run for their lives. One of them told us that the remaining five They were still alive at the time.

It is unclear what exactly happened to Zarli Naing and the other four prisoners after that.

Sometime during the night they were taken south of Peik Thit Kan and killed by their captors. Some villagers reported that they heard them screaming for help. But it is unclear when and why his bodies were dismembered and burned.

countless victims

Local PDF fighters believe that the military targeted Dan Bin Gan because it was a known center of resistance to the coup, and also because of the school established there by Win Kyaw.

The school opened in May, but had already attracted 250 students. Its success made it a kind of showcase for the parallel administration that the Government of National Unity is attempting to direct out of areas controlled by the military.


Locals have erected a makeshift memorial to remember the victims.

The PDF believe that the informant traveling with the soldiers identified Win Kyaw, Zarli Naing and Khin Hnin Wai as important figures in Dan Bin Gan. kill them deprived to the village and surrounding communities of leaders who helped sustain the insurgency.

It also deprived Myanmar of a promising young nurse in a country that, even before the military takeover, had one of the poorest health systems in Asia.

“I’m sure she was a wonderful nurse,” says her instructor. “She always tried hard to do a good job.”

“Imagine that you were providing health care to the townspeople while taking our distance learning courses, even though there was no reliable access to Yointernet in the place where he was. And she was also doing her bachelor’s degree. The workload was huge,” she adds.

“Even I couldn’t do all that. She was wonderful. One of her teachers told me that his exam results were really good”, affirms her instructor.

Zarli Naing had finished her first semester exams seitherthe two days before he died.

At the time of writing this article, the inhabitants of Dan Bin Gan are still hiding in the forested area to the west of the town. It is the first time they have been forced to evacuate, but many other villages in this region have been attacked on multiple occasions.

This has repeatedly displaced their populations, creating dire humanitarian needs. that are not being served due to the conflict and lack of access by international agencies.

Thousands of houses in North Magway and South Sagaing have been destroyed by the army; Even when they feel safe enough to return, people don’t have the resources to rebuild their homes.

Last year’s coup has unleashed a brutal war of attrition, with countless victims.

Zarli Naing’s story is just one of many.

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