Killings, violence, detention: Myanmar is no place for children

Forty-three children have been killed in the two months since Myanmar’s military coup began on February 1.

Family members including a young boy mourn a man who was shot dead during an operation against anti-coup protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, March 27, 2021 [Stringer/Reuters]

On Saturday, a 10-year-old boy was enjoying his weekend playing cards with his friend, 13, near downtown Yangon, Myanmar.

What they were doing was no different to children in countries across the world. But these boys were about to become the victims of a crisis caused by the very adults who are meant to protect them.

When armed forces pulled up in a military truck and began to fire into the air, the boy grabbed his friend’s hand and ran – but his friend was shot in the back of the head and fell to the ground, witnesses told Vice News.

The boy ran and hid from the soldiers. Later, at his friend’s funeral, somebody had to lift him up as he was not even tall enough to see inside the coffin.

It is unthinkable that any child should see their friend shot in the head. Yet the 13-year-old boy is just one of 43 children killed in the two months since Myanmar’s military coup began on 1 February, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

It is chillingly clear: Myanmar is no longer a safe place for children.

The past couple of weeks have shown that children are not even safe in their own homes. My Save the Children colleagues in Myanmar tell me of at least three cases of young children – seven, 11 and 12 years old – shot and killed by armed forces in their homes during the past 10 days. Last week, a six-year-old girl was shot dead, her story making headlines around the world.

I am appalled that children continue to be among the targets of these fatal attacks. All children have a right to grow up free from violence. The fact that so many are being killed on an almost daily basis now shows a complete disregard for human life – and international law – by armed forces.

Save the Children and its partners are providing support to children who have been harmed and their families where possible. Our staff are providing front-line emotional support to children who have witnessed violence, and referring children with severe mental health needs to specialists.

Our team helped one 12-year-old girl who saw her two younger sisters, aged two and four, die in an arson attack on their village in Kayin (Karen) State. The impact on her mental health has been severe. Other children are suffering with the loss of family members, while some are still too young to understand the horror: One child who lost her father believed that he was “only sleeping.”

We’re also developing digitally available resources that will provide children and caregivers with advice on how they can best manage their own mental health during the crisis. Due to insecurity and continuing COVID-19 restrictions, a lot of this work is being done remotely, and many children are still not able to receive the support they so desperately need.

We are also distressed by the less visible suffering some children are experiencing. According to the AAPP, 2608 people are still detained, including 20 children.

Prison is no place for a child and being held in detention is likely to be extremely traumatic, particularly for younger children who are already struggling with the fear, loss and injuries that these violent crackdowns are causing. Children who have been released tell us they felt terrified while they were held in detention, and say they were unable to sleep. Save the Children is concerned that children in detention are not receiving adequate treatment, including access to food.

In every crisis around the world, children are the innocent victims. Their safety must be prioritised and protected under all circumstances, and the only way to protect children in Myanmar is to stop the violence against people altogether.

Save the Children, therefore, renews its call on armed forces to bring an immediate end to these deadly attacks against protesters, before more children are injured or killed.

But our collective words are not enough. We need action. Save the Children will continue to do everything we can on the ground to support the children of Myanmar, but world leaders must come together urgently to protect the lives and liberty of people in Myanmar and ensure no more lives are lost to this deplorable violence.

For the 13-year-old boy and the other young victims of this crisis, it is sadly already too late.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.