As Myanmar junta hunts opponents to its rule, children are caught in the crossfire

Since the military seized power in Myanmar nearly 90 minors have been killed and more than 190 held hostage by security forces in the process of arresting their parents, according to relatives and rights groups.

In total, 88 minors have been killed either at home, on their way to the clinic for medical treatment or while outside playing since the Feb. 1 coup, the Bangkok-based Association Assistance for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said in a statement. Some were shot dead by junta forces while fleeing, the group added, urging the international community to assist in prosecuting the perpetrators.

A total of 255 children, aged nine months to 18 years, have been detained by the military since February, AAPP said. Of those, 62 have been released while 191 children remain in prison. Two have been sentenced to death, according to the group.

On March 30, security forces tried to arrest Min Zaw Oo, a municipal cleaning worker who took part in the country’s nonviolent anti-government civil disobedience movement. When they could not find Min Zaw Oo, they arrested his mother-in-law, his wife and his young daughter as she was being breastfed.

The daughter, Su Myat Zaw Thwe, spent her third birthday last month in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, where she has been detained for nearly 10 months along with her mother, according to a source close to the family who declined to be named.

Min Zaw Oo, who remains on the run, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he was crushed when he learned that the junta is holding his family hostage.

“My mother, my wife and my daughter are innocent. I didn't know what to do when I heard they were taken away as hostages. I first thought of giving in and getting myself arrested. But even then, they might not release them and the whole family might be still in detention,” he said.

“I never thought they would arrest my family because it is me they want to arrest. She is so young and my only child. I am devastated.”

Min Zaw Oo said he prays daily for his daughter to be released from prison, even if his family is unable to reunite under military rule.

Junta Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun acknowledged to RFA that some children had been detained because “it was unavoidable.”

“I have to admit that we have detained some children, as they are people who need to be kept in detention,” he said.

“We will act properly according to the law,” he added, without providing further details.

Held without guardians

A spokesman from the AAPP, who talked to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that while Su Myat Zaw Thwe’s story is tragic, she is lucky to be with her caretakers.

“Most of the hostage children without their parents are kept in police stations and in the army,” he said. “Only children who have guardians are sent to prison together with their parents.”

A pro-bono lawyer from Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon who is working on behalf of detained children told RFA that many youths are sent to the Youth Rehabilitation Center in Thanlyin, outside of the city.

“Some children are held at the relevant police station during investigation,” he said. “Children aged seven and above are considered school-age and are held at the Thanlyin Center. Breastfeeding babies are left with their mothers.”

Enduring trauma

Even if they are released, family members told RFA that formerly detained children suffer from the trauma of their captivity and live in a state of constant anxiety.

Su Htet Waing, 5, was arrested by the military along with her mother, sister and brother after her father escaped arrest. Her father Soe Htay, a political activist in Mandalay region’s Mogok city, said the girl was released in July but remains distressed from her experience.

“My daughter is still traumatized. She has nightmares. She sometimes screams out, ‘Father, be careful! If anything happens, they will take you! They will arrest me too,’” he said.

“Other times she yells out, ‘Don’t do this to me.’ In the mornings, she says she had dreams of tiny soldiers and policemen. That’s the kind of trauma she endures.”

Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, the minister for women, youths, and children affairs for the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), said that the military’s treatment of children is a violation of both Myanmar and international law.

“Arresting, detaining and killing minors is a violation of our country’s child laws as well as the [United Nations’] Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she said. “The military has a responsibility to stop all violations against children. Additionally, NUG, NGOs and international organizations have a responsibility to provide justice to the victims.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.