The murky fringes of Myanmar’s civil war
Children on the murky fringes of Myanmar's civil war The double crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the violent coup have left young people in the Southeast Asian country mentally scarred. What will it take to help them mend?
On March 23, 2021, Tuesday, the military junta that plunged Myanmar into political turmoil proved how heartless their quest for power is.
That afternoon, armed forces were conducting a raid at the Chanmyathazi township in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, lying along the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River.
During the operations, authorities barged into the home of U Maung Ko Hashin Bai, ordering everyone in the house to collect in one room and sit. The family followed, but the soldiers were convinced that there were more people, and that the family must be hiding them.
After tormenting U Maung Ko Hashin for some time, the soldiers grew frustrated with him and shot him.
But the bullet hit Khin Myo Chit, who was sitting on her father’s lap, just trying to obey the authorities’ orders. She died less than an hour later. The BBC reports that in an interview with Myanmar Muslim Media, a community outlet, U Maung Ko Hashin said his daughter’s final words were “’I can’t, father, it’s too painful.’” Khin Myo Chit was just 7.
No safe spaces
In the over four months since the junta forces deposed the democratically elected government in a coup and put the entire country under a state of emergency, citizens have risen up in protest – and the military government has responded with impunity.
Data from the non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) reveal that some 800 civilians had been killed, while over 5,000 innocent people were detained and nearly 2,000 were warranted for arrest.
According to UNICEF, a third of Myanmar’s population are comprised of children, and in the dreadful situation created by the coup, these young people have also fallen victim to the violence of the military.
Data from the Ministry of Human Rights of the National Unity Government, a parallel government standing opposite the junta, show that over 70 children had been killed by the armed forces within just four months of the coup. But even beyond that, the psychological and mental trauma the upheaval has caused runs deep.
Having a safe and happy environment is vital for proper and healthy child growth. But over a year of economic instability due to the pandemic, followed by the coup, has laid to waste safe spaces across the country, leaving in its wake a general atmosphere of brutality, fear, and insecurity.
Instead of playing with their friends or learning in school, children are now stuck indoors, forced to continue their education online, anxiously waiting to see if the next night raid targets their house.
“Education was stopped due to COVID-19,” said Mon Mon, a child rights social worker. “Now, schools, streets, and wards, which are supposed to be environments of learning and growing, are not safe. Children have to grow with the noises of explosions and shootings instead of a peaceful environment.”
Indeed, as protests and crackdowns rage across the country, children in different communities become exposed to different degrees of distress. “All the children in Myanmar have emotional and psychological pains, none of which they deserve,” begins a child specialist working at a leading international NGO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But some might have severe pains due to their different experiences.”
Regardless of how bad the distress is, though, experts say that none of it is acceptable, and all of it is detrimental to children. Kyaw Kyaw, a masters student from the conflict-ridden Kachin state, who specializes in counselling psychology, says that in their area, children now have a fragile state of mind and have grown so scared of talking to and meeting strangers.
Another freelance child social worker, who requested to withhold their identity, confirms: “Children do not stop crying when they see the soldiers and they seem quite traumatized as they had to run and leave their houses due to the soldier attacks.”
For young children, these are particularly worrying red flags. Because they still don’t have the appropriate language to express their emotions, much of the psychological distress manifests as altered, unusual, or often problematic behaviors. Another social worker from Yangon said that during the coup, the children they were seeing became impatient and tended to use swear words more.
“Fear, depression, anger, anxiety, and even post-traumatic disorders can be seen in many children lately due to the continuous terrible events of the brutal coup and COVID-19,” according to Naing Naing, a social worker.
For parents, especially those who aren’t particularly versed in child psychology and development, seeing their children go through these internal dilemmas can be difficult.
Kay Kay, a mother to a 3-year-old child, agrees: “Whenever I think about the future of my daughter, I feel exhausted and sad that her childhood had been destroyed and that she had to grow in a violent community.”
When the people of Myanmar flooded the streets to oppose the junta, among the crowds were teens, still juveniles in the eyes of the law, but not nearly young enough to have no political convictions.
And so, when the Tatmadaw descended on the movement, scooping protesters left and right, many of those who were detained were also teenagers. Nearly all of them were detained illegally for weeks, given no opportunity to contact their families, and subjected to abuse and maltreatment at the hands of authorities.
These experiences have seared themselves into the memories of these teens and have given them trauma that may take years to unpack. Detained teenagers from Yangon, for example, recall how, along with some 60 other protesters, were forced into a prisoner van supposedly meant only for 20 people.
Aung Aung, a 16-year-old protester, says of the memory: “I feel suffocated again whenever I remember that day and that prisoner van.”
Being on the receiving end of all this abuse has taught children and teenagers to be wary of law enforcement. Another 16-year-old protester says that “When I was released, I had to go to the police station to get back all my possessions, such as my phone and wallet. I was quite hesitant to go there and I do not feel comfortable and safe to see the police and soldiers anymore.”
The coup also ruined the social lives of young people across Myanmar, particularly those who were arrested. Ven, a 17-year-old detainee from Chin state, said that the experience changed them. “I used to enjoy talking with people. After release from detention, I stopped wanting to meet and talk with people, and I just want to be left alone.”
Even teenagers who weren’t arrested, or hadn’t directly participated in the protests, have suffered immensely.
After he lost his best friend to the bullet of a soldier, one 17-year-old boy said, “I could not stand to listen the stories of people were shot and killed. Whenever I heard such stories, I’d see pictures of my friend being killed by the soldier in my head.” He ended up leaving social media altogether because of it.
Many also feel helpless, even useless, that they couldn’t do anything for their country. “I did not join the protests much as my mother did not allow me to,” said Kerin, a 16-year-old from Ayeyarwady Region. “After the coup, I felt lost and began to suffer from insomnia as I thought of other same-aged children who were shot and died.”
According to a mental counsellor from Yangon, this general environment of loss and unease and powerlessness have worn down the psyches of teenagers. “Many young people including underaged children suffer from depression, stress, and trauma. Most of them feel that they are useless as they could not do anything to stop what is happening in Myanmar.”
Social media and societal ignorance
Amid the twin crises of the pandemic and the coup, social media has only worsened the mental health situation among Myanmar’s youth. According to NapoleonCat, an online social media analytics tool, teenagers aged 13 to 17 years make up 6 percent of all Facebook users in Myanmar. Stuck in the cyberspace for long hours, young people bear witness to gruesome displays of violence that often go viral on social media platforms.
“Some toxic content become viral and out of control within a few minutes,” said 16-year-old Kiren, from Ayeyarwady, referring to graphic material often inappropriate for their age group. “After seeing such content and photos, I felt like I could not eat or sleep anymore.”
Though social media has become a valuable mode of daily communication and learning, it also brings some unintended consequences for children, especially if there is no proper parental care or support.
Unfortunately, because social media has become such a dominant platform for information-sharing, quitting it, or even just staying away from it, is not a feasible option for many children.
Naing Naing, a social worker from Myikyina, said that “children have become more addicted to social media, and they become more aggressive and anxious if their parents don’t have much time or attention to give to their children during such a difficult time.”
To make matters worse, public appreciation of mental health and well-being in Myanmar is low. Aside from programs by non-profit organizations, there are almost no notable and established mechanisms to help those who may be struggling psychologically, particularly in hard-to-reach communities.
“People still think of counseling and other psychosocial support programs as a treatment only for severe mental illness,” said Kyaw Kyaw, the masters student in counseling psychology.
In fact, would-be beneficiaries themselves are reluctant to participate in such services. Lynn Lynn, a 17-year-old protester who had been detained and then released, admitted as much: “I do not want to share my feelings to anyone. Thereby, I did not try to join such programs.”
Maw Maw, mother to an 11-year-old son, added that “I have heard of such programs but I do not know how to join. Moreover, I thought such programs were only for psychiatric patients.”
As Myanmar continues to mire in chaos, advocates of child rights and protection believe the mental health of children and young people shouldn’t be ignored. They believe they are entitled to a safe environment, conducive to healthy growth and holistic development. They also believe that state and non-state actors need to put more effort in the protection of children, in part by ensuring psychosocial support is accessible to them. Private entities, particularly social media companies, also need to understand how their platforms contribute to the mental health crisis among children and youth.
The need for host communities to be resilient and equipped to protect and support their young cannot be stressed enough. This can be achieved through various campaigns coursed through multimedia channels. Formal education, currently held virtually, may also be an avenue to teach children about their own psychosocial well-being. Only through this holistic approach can Myanmar give its youth the gift of a healthy childhood.
Jesua Lynn is a young independent researcher and peace-education trainer. He has been working in youth development, peace-education, and reconciliation for more than four years. He authored and co-authored more than four publications in Myanmar in the fields of human rights, hate speech, youth activism, and peace-building.
Editor’s note: Given the fraught situation in the country, names of sources, especially of minors, were changed or withheld altogether in the interest of their security and safety.