The junta in Myanmar has adopted a new tactic against resistance forces by arresting and detaining children in lieu of their family members.
Since the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, children have faced rising poverty and limited options for education and healthcare. Whether directly or indirectly, they were at the receiving end in conflict situations resulting from military operations, and political targets in arrests and detentions. More children have been displaced due to conflict — a trend consistent in areas involved in the decades-long civil war between various ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military.
Since the 2021 coup, however, a new trend has emerged, whereby the junta has targeted children from families and communities perceived to be supporting the anti-junta resistance movement. This has precipitated a vicious cycle, where children have decided to join resistance groups and take up arms against the junta. These developments bear further monitoring.
The plight of Myanmar’s children is unfortunate but now new. Since the coup, the Myanmar military has ramped up air/ drone attacks, targeting communities that are perceived as supporting any entity opposing military rule. These attacks have only intensified in frequency in 2023. Children invariably number among the victims of such attacks, several of them younger than 16 (point of disclosure: as a teenager, the author was detained and tortured for participating in student protest movements in the 1990s).
No less concerning is the increase in the number of children detained for political reasons. Again, the authorities’ willful ignorance of children’s rights is not entirely new in Myanmar. Recent data released in the public domain show the number of children detained for political reasons after the 2021 coup. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP) has reported that in the period February 2021 to August 2023, 658 children were arrested, of which 373 are still in detention. Speaking to the author, AAPP founder and joint secretary Bo Kyi, said the former figure went up to 663 in September. But it is the latter figure — the number of children still under arrest — which is worrying. Before the coup in February 2021, there was only one child detainee. A most recent case was in early September— a seven-year-old boy was taken to an interrogation centre by the military along with his mother in Myanmar’s biggest city of Yangon for five days while his father was being interrogated politically.
Many children and young people in Myanmar are becoming inured to conflict and violence. Myanmar’s military plays a major part in this tragedy, by perpetuating the violence, and seeking new recruits, often underage, among undereducated and underemployed young people from military or police families, to boost its troop numbers.
In a bid to apprehend resistance forces, the junta appears to have resorted to desperate measures, taking children as hostages when they were unable to arrest a parent or family member. Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner, cites “hostage-taking, collective punishment tactics in crackdowns on political dissidents, and no rule of law” as the underlying reasons for such detentions, noting further that “the junta regards anyone opposing them as an enemy, regardless of whether they are children.”
Security forces under the State Administration Council (SAC) have been arresting children (along with teachers and parents) from schools operated by the opposition National Unity Government (NUG). The SAC targets schools or places of learning in areas where resistance forces have the upper hand, to instil fear among the populace and to emphasise the SAC’s intent to “crush all opposition.” Such moves frequently occur in Sagaing region in central Myanmar, where resistance to the SAC is strong.
In his 2022 report, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar highlighted that as many as 382 children have been killed since the February 2021 coup and more than 1,400 children arbitrarily arrested (the figure could be accurate if it accounts for children abducted in all armed conflict areas). The arbitrary arrests and detention of children included those who participated or were suspected of participating in protests against the coup and the SAC, and Rohingya children (on immigration-related charges). The detention of children as hostages was aimed at pressuring parents to yield to arrest and/ or interrogation. The report cited the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP) detention update of 27 May 2022.
Dr Noeleen Heyzer, in her capacity as special envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar, raised the issue of arbitrary arrests of children when she met with SAC chair Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on 17 August 2022. Replying to Heyzer, Min Aung Hlaing admitted there were “a few numbers of detainees who are 16 and 17 years of age” but also insisted that the SAC had “leniently sentenced them” and that anti-miliary resistance forces had also committed crimes against children. The SAC maintains that forces resisting the junta are responsible for the current situation and has labelled them terrorists.
The SAC’s moves have produced undesirable consequences. Disruptions to education and the constant threat of military attacks have caused children in some conflict areas to defend their villages by joining resistance groups. This is occurring despite the opposition NUG and its affiliated groups prohibiting child soldiers. The SAC points to children directly engaging in Myanmar’s spiralling conflict to justify its arbitrary arrests, and, in some instances, metes summary justice on minors (such as beheadings).
Many children and young people in Myanmar are becoming inured to conflict and violence. Myanmar’s military plays a major part in this tragedy, by perpetuating the violence, and seeking new recruits, often underage, among undereducated and underemployed young people from military or police families, to boost its troop numbers. This is a reversal from the commitments Myanmar made in 2019 to end the practice of child soldiers and the use of forced child labour in non-combat roles, constituting a return to the playbook of a previous military regime. As a result, millions of children and young people in Myanmar today are now hostages to a bleak future, caught in the crossfire of spiralling conflict.
Wai Moe is a former Burmese political prisoner turned journalist. He was also a Visiting Fellow with the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.