Asean must step up to protect Myanmar’s children

HTOO Myat Win, 13, was playing around his house in Myanmar’s northern Mandalay region when a stray bullet hit him. He died almost immediately. On social media, heart-breaking footage showed his father hugging his dead child, crying: “My son! My son was shot!”

Myat Win was one of 11 children killed in the military’s brutal crackdown on protesters in just a single day, Sunday March 28.

Since the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) seized power in a coup on Feb 1, it has violently repressed peaceful protests around the country. More than 570 people have now been killed as soldiers and police fire indiscriminately into crowds.

As is so often the case, it is children who are paying the harshest price despite having done the least to cause this crisis. More than 43 minors have lost their lives already. Some, like Myat Win, were killed by stray bullets near their homes. Others have taken to the streets themselves. Aung Kaung Htet, 15, for example, had taken part in almost daily anti-coup protests since February. On March 20, he was shot dead by soldiers and police who opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Yangon that had already started dispersing.

The crackdown is having other harmful effects on children, many of whom are traumatised by what they have seen or heard. Millions have been exposed to violence directly or indirectly, threatening their mental well-being. Aid groups have warned of a looming “mental health crisis” among girls and boys.

The coup has also had a disastrous effect on children’s access to schooling. Covid-19 had left 10 million children out of school in Myanmar even before the military seized power. Education has now been disrupted further, not least because soldiers have occupied learning centres across the country. The

trauma from witnessing violence will also make it harder for students to concentrate and learn.

Sadly, there is every chance that the situation could worsen, as there is no sign of a let-up in the crackdown on protesters. Myanmar’s economy is on the brink of collapse, which could lead to shortages in food, medicines and other basic necessities children need to grow and develop.

There are also worrying signs of conflicts between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups escalating. On March 27 and 28, more than 4,000 people fled across the border into Thailand after the military launched air strikes across Karen State. Among those who lost their lives was a five-year-old boy.

Time is running out for the world to act to end this senseless carnage. The Tatmadaw must be pressured to end violence against protesters, release everyone arbitrarily detained, and relinquish power to the civilian government that was elected last year.

People in Myanmar are tired of statements from global powers and want to see action. To support their struggle, the international community must impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar and targeted sanctions against the architects of this coup. It is shameful that the UN Security Council has been

paralysed, with Russia and China protecting Myanmar from censure.

Asean also have a crucial role to play to find a solution. As former representatives working on children’s rights, it has been dismaying to see how internal politics between Member States has prevented action to protect girls and boys. We know the huge progress countries in the region have made to protect children in recent years – something the military takeover in Myanmar is threatening.

In recent weeks, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore have all condemned the coup and shuttled across the region to find a solution. But Asean remains deadlocked, as other countries defend Myanmar, and point to Asean’s long-held “non-interference principle”.

With children’s lives on the line, such politics should stop immediately. Asean countries must come together to pressure the junta to end the violence. A first step should be to host a Special Summit of Asean to discuss the coup, and show that regional governments stand behind the struggle for democracy. This is a litmus test for the region’s ability to solve crises in its own backyard, and one it must prove that it is up for.

Children in Myanmar have suffered through years of poverty, conflict and political repression. This coup has robbed even more of them of hope for the future. It is now up to all of us to make sure that they can grow up in safety and with dignity.


Former representatives to the Asean Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children

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