Experts warn that the post-coup crackdown that has displaced more than 100,000 children in Myanmar and left many without one or both of their parents will leave lasting scars.
Many mornings, Mg Thurein Soe* wakes up shouting for his mother, who was fatally shot by junta forces one year ago.
Around 8:30pm on March 19, 2021, Daw Hla Hla Win*, 39, was standing in front of her home gazing up at protesters banging pots and pans from their balconies. Soldiers trying to suppress the nighttime demonstration in her Magway Region hometown shot her in the left thigh, and she collapsed to the floor in pain.
Witnesses say the soldiers ignored her pained pleas and ordered the mother of three to kneel despite her injury, before dragging her away. At 7am the next day, authorities called Thurein Soe’s father, U Aye Ko*, and told him to come and retrieve Hla Hla Win’s body from the local morgue. Aye Ko said he arrived home with the body around 2pm.
“All my children cried and screamed when they saw their mother’s body, but it was especially hard on my youngest, Thurein Soe – when he saw her body, he fainted,” Aye Ko, 46, told Frontier on March 5. “He was deeply wounded.”
One month later, Thurein Soe had largely stopped talking. The 11-year-old was experiencing chronic anxiety and hopelessness, and was not eating or sleeping regularly. With few health resources and unsure what else to do, Aye Ko decided to send his son to a monastery to become a novice monk. He hoped that the routines of monastic life might provide some badly needed peace and stability.
To some extent, it has helped; one year on, Thurein Soe told Frontier that he is fully committed to life as a monk. However, he is also still suffering from the shocks of the past year.
According to the Child Mind Institute, a non-profit organisation that focuses on mental health disorders in children, the symptoms Thurein Soe displayed are classic signs of childhood trauma.
Dr Khine Win*, a psychiatrist based in Yangon, said that coming on the heels of a pandemic that shut down most schools for more than a year, the violent conflicts sparked by the coup are visiting unprecedented levels of psychological trauma on the country’s children, at a time when they are particularly vulnerable.
“Experiencing trauma in childhood can result in severe and long-lasting effects,” she warned.
Speaking on March 12 at the opening of a mental health conference held by Jue Jue’s Safe Space, a non-profit started in 2019 to provide mental health resources to people in Myanmar, National Unity Government Acting President Duwa Lashi La lamented the toll events since the coup has taken on families that were already stressed to near breaking point due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mental health is at a very critical point for all people in Myanmar,” he said.
Children ‘under siege’
Few children in Myanmar have been more exposed to trauma than those forced to flee their homes.
Fighting since the coup has more than doubled the number of displaced people in Myanmar, which shot up from about 370,400 at the beginning of last year to 889,900 as of March 19, according to the UN’s humanitarian affairs office. Tens of thousands have also fled to India and Thailand since the military takeover.
Save the Children estimates that roughly 40 percent of the newly displaced – about 150,000 in total – are children, most of whom now live outdoors in the jungle or under makeshift shelters, leaving them vulnerable to hunger and illness.
Even these numbers may be an underestimate, however.
For instance, while UN figures show that 91,400 people have fled their homes in Kayah State in the past year, local reports by the Karenni Civil Society Network put that number closer to 170,000 — more than half the state’s entire population of 300,000.
Ko Zeyar, an employee at one Karenni aid group that works with displaced people in the state, told Frontier he believes about a third of those 170,000 people are children under the age of 14 and estimated that at least half of them need professional psychiatric services.
“The conflict is getting worse,” he said, “Children used to show at least some joy at times, for instance when we’d deliver toys or snacks to them. But these days, there are no traces of happiness on their faces.”
Naw Wahku Shee is from the Karen Peace Support Network, a network of 30 organisations in Myanmar and Thailand that she says is providing food, shelter, hygiene and medicine to 5,000 children. She said displaced children in Kayin State are being continuously traumatised by regime airstrikes, and shelling from artillery and mortars.
“Fear is a constant for them,” she said. “They don’t ever know when the planes will strike or the bombs will drop, but [must remain ready] to run into nearby forests as soon as they hear the sound of a plane.”
Parents, meanwhile, are focused on finding enough food for their families to survive and don’t have the resources to support the mental health of their children, Naw Wahku Shee added.
For these children, the threat of death is ever present. Since the coup, more than 100 children have been killed by shootings, airstrikes, indiscriminate artillery fire, explosives or from being used as human shields, a UNICEF report published in January found. Thirty-nine were under the age of 15, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, though the monitoring group believes the number of dead in all age categories to be significantly higher than reported.
“Children in Myanmar are under siege and facing catastrophic loss of life because of the military coup,” Ms Mikiko Otani, chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors state compliance with the eponymous convention, said in a statement last July. “If this crisis continues, an entire generation of children is at risk of suffering profound physical, psychological, emotional, educational and economic consequences, depriving them of a healthy and productive future.”
Mental health experts who spoke to Frontier warned that for young children, whose understanding of the world is still developing, the consequences of major disruption to a child’s sense of safety will be dire.
Being thrust into an unstable or unsafe environment, being separated from a parent, or enduring a serious illness or injury – all of which have become common in Myanmar since the coup – could all have serious consequences.
“The number of children who are suffering psychological trauma all over the country is likely much higher than ever before,” said Khine Win, the Yangon-based psychiatrist. “The majority of them are in need of humanitarian and psychological support, especially children displaced in conflict areas.”
‘I have no choice’
The suffering has only been compounded by the previous two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when an estimated 12 million children had their daily routines thrown into chaos by measures designed to prevent the spread of the pandemic, particularly school closures.
As the rest of the world moves gingerly towards reopening, prospects for a full return to formal education remain slim for many children in Myanmar’s COVID-19 hotspots, and nearly nonexistent for those in zones of armed conflict. Many parents also resist the idea of sending their children to junta-run schools, either for political or safety reasons.
As a result, the number of children enrolled in school has fallen by 70 to 75 percent compared to pre-coup levels, with some schools reporting no enrolments at all.
Ma Hay Marn Moe*, 11, was a Grade 4 student living with her family in an informal settlement in Yangon’s East Hlaing Tharyar Township when the pandemic began. Last October, the junta demolished their home after a junta-appointed ward administrator was shot dead in the neighbourhood. They are now renting in another ward of the industrial township. Instead of attending school, Hay Marn Moe works at a nearby garment factory so she can help her family pay the rent. She told Frontier she fell into depression about a month after leaving school and starting work.
“But I have no choice. My family’s livelihood depends on it,” she said.
In February, Dr San San Aye, the junta’s director general of social welfare, told Doh Athan, Frontier’s Burmese-language podcast, that the Department of Disaster Management provides “humanitarian aid” to civilians in conflict areas, but five independent humanitarian aid groups operating in Karen, Shan and Chin states told Frontier they have seen no aid from the regime where they work.
San San Aye did not respond to repeated inquiries from Frontier throughout March.
The only publicly accessible resource Frontier could find from the department was its free telecounseling service, which operates between 9:30am and 4:30pm every day and was launched in April 2020 by the National League for Democracy government. When Frontier called its counsellors in Yangon, Kayah and Shan states on March 16, only one operator – in Shan State – answered the call.
“There is no service specifically for the psychological trauma of children yet,” the operator said.
UNICEF still operates its free Little Emotions and Pyit Tine Htaung helplines, resources primarily meant to provide free counselling services to children and young adults in Myanmar to help them cope with the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, because of a lack of awareness of the services in rural areas as well as widespread internet and electricity blackouts imposed by the junta, they are mostly only used by those living in urban areas far from much of the conflict.
“The majority of the calls to the Little Emotions helpline come from Yangon Region,” a helpline worker who spoke on condition of anonymity told Frontier.
Doctors working in Karenni, Kayin and Chin State told Frontier that internet- and phone-based counselling services are not accessible for those displaced by conflict.
“Children in refugee camps are bound to suffer psychological trauma. Without internet access to counselling in those areas, they will have no access to mental health programs,” a doctor currently hiding in a border area told Frontier on March 16.
In the meantime, the current regime seems content to ignore the issue.
“The military only works on retaining power,” said Zeyar, the aid worker in Kayin State.