Where have all the young ‘uns gone?


Lost boys and girls: A photo showing people who were detained in Yangon. — AP

SECURITY forces moved in and the street lamps went black. In house after house, people shut off their lights.

Huddled inside her home in Yangon, 19-year-old Shwe dared to peek out her window. A flashlight shone back, and a man’s voice ordered her not to look.

Two gunshots rang out. Then a man’s scream: “HELP!” When the military trucks finally rolled away, Shwe and her family emerged to look for her 15-year-old brother.

“I could feel my blood thumping, ” she says. “I had a feeling that he might be taken.”

Across the country, Myanmar’s security forces are arresting and forcibly disappearing thousands of people, especially boys and young men, in a sweeping bid to crush a three-month uprising against a military takeover. 

In most cases, the families of those taken don’t know where they are, according to an Associated Press analysis of more than 3,500 arrests since February. Unicef, the UN children’s agency, is aware of around 1,000 cases of children or young people who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, many without access to lawyers or their families.

It is a technique the military has long used to instil fear and crush pro-democracy movements. The boys and young men are  taken from homes, businesses and streets.

Some end up dead. Many are imprisoned and sometimes tortured. Many more are missing.

“We’ve definitely moved into a situation of mass enforced disappearances, ” says Matthew Smith, co-founder of the human rights group Fortify Rights, which has collected evidence of detainees being killed in custody. “We’re documenting and seeing widespread and systematic arbitrary arrests.”

The AP is withholding Shwe’s full name to protect her from retaliation by the military.

The autobody shop in Shwe’s neighbourhood was a regular hangout for local boys. On the night of March 21, her brother had gone there to chill out like he usually did.

As Shwe approached the shop, she saw it had been ransacked.

Frantic, she and her father scoured the building for any sign of their beloved boy.

But he was gone, and the floor was covered in blood.

Ever since Myanmar’s military seized control in February, faces of the missing have flooded the Internet.

At least 3,500 people have been detained since the military takeover began, more than three-quarters of whom are male, according to an analysis of data collected by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which monitors deaths and arrests. Of the 419 men whose ages were recorded in the group’s database, nearly two-thirds are under age 30, and 78 are teenagers.

Nearly 2,700 of the detainees are being held at undisclosed locations, an AAPP spokesman said.

“They think if they can kill off the boys and young men, then they can kill off the revolution, ” says Ko Bo Kyi, AAPP’s joint secretary.

After receiving questions, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, called a Zoom press conference, during which it dubbed the AAPP a “baseless organisation, ” suggested its data is inaccurate, and denied security forces are targeting young men.

Back in Yangon, Shwe tried to convince herself the blood on the floor of the shop wasn’t her brother’s.

At 2am, a police officer called to say Shwe’s brother was at a military hospital and had been shot in the hand.

Shwe says her family told the police that her brother was underage. But on March 27, they learned that her brother and the three others had been charged with possession of weapons, and sentenced to three years in prison.

They were allowed one brief phone call with him when he was first hospitalised, and nothing since. Shwe remembers hearing her brother tell their anguished mother, “I am ok.”

Shwe has no idea if that is still true. She worries for her brother, a quiet boy who loves playing games. She worries, too, for their mother, who cries and cries, and for their father, who aches for his only son.

For now, they can do little more than wait and hope: That he won’t be beaten. That he will get a pardon. That the people of Myanmar will soon feel safe again. — AP

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