Hundreds of children have been detained by the Myanmar military since it seized power more than one year ago, with many held ransom by soldiers and police who are seeking to arrest their relatives, according to a minister of the country’s National Unity Government.
Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, minister of Women, Youths and Children Affairs Ministry in the NUG, which was formed last year by elected lawmakers to challenge the junta, said 287 children under the age of 18 had been detained since 1 February 2021. Most had been held in police station detention centres, and some in prisons.
A further 80 school children aged under 12 were detained for about 36 hours at a Buddhist monastery in Yinmabin Township in Sagaing Region, according to local media reports last month. The area was targeted by the military as it sought members of the armed resistance.
The whereabouts of children taken by the military since the coup is mostly unknown, according to Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe.
She referred to the detention of Dr Htar Htar Lin, the former head of Myanmar’s Covid vaccination programme, who was taken by the military in June 2021 along with her husband, seven-year-old son and their family dog. Dr Htar Htar Lin was targeted because she had returned 168 million kyat ($US94,580) in funding to the UN, preventing it from being seized by the military. Her family’s location is still unknown, said the minister.
“[The children] are doing nothing wrong, but the military tried to arrest the activist and also NLD members and the political activists,” said Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy. “When they could not find the people, they arrested the children as a ransom. They also ask the activist to come and be arrested so that this child will be released,” she said.
Parents face an impossible choice, fearing they, or older relatives, could be killed if they come forward. “So many parents are heartbroken people. The children were arrested but they couldn’t do nothing because they have to run for their lives,” she said.
A previous estimate by Unicef suggested hundreds more young adults have also been detained. It said last year that about 1,000 children and young people aged up to 25 years old had been held by the military without apparent reason.
Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe spoke to the Guardian while in hiding inside Myanmar, where she continues her work for the NUG, which comprises elected lawmakers, ethnic minority representatives and activists. The NUG, which has been labelled a “terrorist” group by the junta, has sought to gain international recognition as Myanmar’s legitimate government. The UN General Assembly last year deferred a decision on who should take the country’s seat, allowing representative Kyaw Moe Tun, a critic of the junta, to remain in place.
In the wake of the coup, Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe stayed with doctors, wearing a medical coat to avoid detection. She eventually travelled to an area of the country that is controlled by an ethnic armed group that supports pro-democracy activists. Like many civilians, she has faced the continued threat of airstrikes, and suffered from dehydration and diarrhoea due to the conditions in which she has been forced to seek shelter.
The military has unleashed a campaign of terror on the public in order to crush a pro-democracy movement that continues to oppose its rule. At least 1,600 people have been killed by security forces since the coup, according to the UN. More than 12,800 have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), an advocacy group that tracks detentions.
Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe also raised concern over the military’s use of sexual violence against those who oppose the coup, but said data is hard to gather.
It was young people, she said, who were leading the struggle for democracy in the face of such brutality. Many have taken up arms in response to military violence, while others are using peaceful forms of protest to disrupt the junta.
Their fight was not about supporting Aung San Suu Kyi or her party, but was driven by a determination not to “go back to the dark age”, and by a desire to rid Myanmar of age-old discrimination – against ethnic minorities as well as on the basis of age or gender, said Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe.
She referred to apologies made by young protesters, who have said they should have done more to support the Rohingya, who received little public sympathy when they were subject to a brutal campaign of violence by the military in 2017. UN investigators later said the violence was carried out with “genocidal intent”. Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, previously an NLD lawmaker, has made a similar apology.
Older politicians should follow the lead of young people, she added.
“My opinion is that [young people] are fighting in this revolution to completely tear down the military dictatorship and to end the old-established discriminations based on gender, age, skin colour, race and religion. The dictators are abusing nationalism to promote hate between us to preserve their status quo. We are fed up with them and we won’t be divided any more. They can’t divide us any more. We’re going to turn the system upside down.”
Translation by Lone Lone