Portions of the included interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
On February 1st, 2021, the Burmese military junta detained officials of the elected democratic government, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Citing meritless claims of voter fraud regarding the 2020 general elections, which gave victory to the NLD, the military officially declared a state of emergency on this day. This would give them complete government control for a year, which was then extended to 2.5 years.
One year later, Myanmar continues to be in a state of political instability. Innocent civilians are still being arrested by the military forces, and pro-democracy activists, whistleblowers, and people associated with anti-military defense groups such as the People’s Defense Force are ruthlessly tortured and killed. Recently, Myanmar was even ranked the second least democratic nation in the world, placing above Afghanistan and below North Korea. Even after citizens protested against the military’s rule and the United Nations, foreign leaders, and global associations condemned the coup, the military has not taken steps to restore democracy.
One of the groups most affected by the political turmoil is children. It’s estimated that at least 150,000 children have been displaced from their homes due to the political chaos. For example, in Kayah state, children have been the victims of both artillery and implosive bombs planted at random in the ground by the military. As well, the children of parents wanted by the military for anti-military opposition have also been placed in detention centers and unsanitary prisons. At least 100 children have been reported to have been killed since the coup, but the true number of fatalities is likely much higher.
Burmese Youth from Military Families
In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Thu, the granddaughter of a Burmese military official, discussed her perspective as a military-affiliated civilian who is against the coup. Her grandfather holds the most power in the Mandalay region of Myanmar, which has a population of around 1.5 million. “My grandfather,” Thu says, “I don’t like putting ‘my’ in front of his name. I don’t want to be related to him.”
Thu shared some insight into the military’s corruption in the recruitment process. She says that before the coup, her grandfather had no ties to the military but was a prominent, wealthy, and well-known person in the Mandalay community. After the coup began, he was recruited to become the head of the Mandalay state.
“I absolutely hate my grandfather for taking up that position. I know it’s not his fault because the military could do something bad to us if he were to suddenly leave or if he were to never take the position. He’s doing it for the family but I still feel so angry at him.” Thu says that this is a pattern the junta follows when recruiting members. “When it first started, we had a plan that we were going to wait it out, and then slowly, we would fake him being really sick to the point he can’t do his duties anymore.” Unfortunately, the right time still hasn’t come for Thu’s family.
Thu also fears that her academic future will be compromised by the military. “They have Facebook posts of us, including me, as social punishment,” Thu says. “And I see people campaigning, sending emails, and protesting to get children of the military banned from universities, and I’m worried that might happen to me.” Foreign nations such as the U.S. have started “blacklisting” children of military leaders, forbidding them to travel to the country, which Thu says she understands but does not think should be happening if the children are against the ideals of the junta. Like many other military children, she herself blatantly opposes the military rule, promotes democratic ideas, and tries to convince her family to detach themselves from the military, and therefore feels that it is unfair that her grandfather’s actions reflect upon her.
A Failing Education System
Moreover, the academic consequences extend to non-military children as well. Firstly, less than 50% of public school teachers in Myanmar returned to teach, with many teachers joining protests and the civil disobedience movement. This is because public schools in Myanmar are owned by the government and operate under the government’s Ministry of Education, whereas private international schools are independent.
The coup also caused a COVID-19 surge, which forced the government to close down the public schools and universities. In addition, around 130 schools were attacked by the military. For students like Thu, who attend private schools that can cost up to 26,000 U.S. dollars, the military’s imposed internet outages have heavily restricted the schools’ ability to instruct their students virtually. Essentially, the crisis continues to pose a threat to Burmese youth by potentially ruining their academic futures.
How Socioeconomic Status Plays Into the Crisis
In Myanmar, a person’s wealth plays an important role in determining how easily they navigate life under military rule. Due to the coup, Myanmar’s economy is rapidly crumbling, and inflation is rampant. This has especially affected families from rural villages who tend to have a lot of children because of a lack of sex education, family planning, and contraceptives – issues that also impact the entirety of Myanmar. According to the UN, 37% of the people displaced from their homes due to the coup were children. These children also live in dire conditions that make them vulnerable to hunger among many other issues as a result of the failing economy and the lack of security prompted by the military.
In addition, the military targets poorer states in the attempt to start armed conflicts with anti-military forces, specifically in the Karen and Kayah states. While it violates human rights, underage children from villages in these states are often forcibly taken by the military and forced to become soldiers due to dwindling numbers in military recruitment. This is because it’s harder for these children to escape since children from richer families can more easily seek refuge in other countries and gain Temporary Protected Status in countries such as the United States.
For children of affluent families in Myanmar, navigating their lives under the oppressive regime is a little bit easier. Thu, whose family belongs to the highest economic class, agrees. “Inflation is rampant right now,” she says, “and I’m not affected as much because I was born to a privileged family but I know that there are people out there who are really struggling because of the rising prices, and we can’t help because our economic situation is horrible. The prices and being able to live in a comfortable house, that’s something that not a lot of people have right now because there’s so much displacement by the junta.”
What Can Be Done?
“Because of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing, people have an unfavorable view of Myanmar,” Thu says. “They reduce it down to Aung San Suu Kyi, and because of what they know has happened, they aren’t really willing to lend help.” Myanmar is infamous for the persecution of over a million Rohingya people who have either been killed, raped or who have fled to Bangladesh. While the world places blame on Burmese civilians and Aung San Suu Kyi for the genocide, the atrocity was initiated and carried out by the Burmese military, who acts independently as “a state within a state.” While Burmese civilians and their prejudice against the Rohingya did not help in ameliorating the crisis, this coup shows that the military possesses the most guilt and gives us insight into the ease with which it pursues cruelty and domination.
When asked what the world can do to help Myanmar’s political climate, Thu offers this: “Listen to what we are saying. Don’t talk over us.” The world has already been accused of not doing enough, or anything at all, to help Myanmar. The UN Security Council has been extremely slow in its efforts to diminish the Burmese military’s efforts, and foreign countries only imposed sanctions that were insignificant in taking down the junta’s rising power.
Moreover, the international mass media has been underreporting on the crisis in Myanmar, in part due to the military imposing internet shutdowns as media censorship. For example, the COVID-19 surge in Myanmar that was exacerbated by the coup was highly underreported, along with the daily, brutal murders of protesters and arrests of innocent civilians. Therefore, much more awareness about the military rule and the brutality the junta is presenting must be raised. Thu also believes that more representation of Myanmar in the media overall would help convince people to advocate for Myanmar within their own governments, which could prompt governments to send Burmese anti-military defense groups aid and additional international support.
Ultimately, continued efforts from Burmese civilians, more widespread international recognition, and careful monitoring of the situation in Myanmar could greatly contribute to defeating the Burmese military and its ongoing barbarity, as well as help advocate for thousands of Burmese youth.
Edited by Chelsea Bean