No place for children
Sai Wai Yan was playing cards on a sidewalk. Aye Myat Thu was eating a coconut in her garden. Thwalahar was on the frontline of a protest. By sunset on 27 March 2021 all three children would be shot dead.
That morning in Naypyidaw, the purpose-built capital, a military parade celebrated Armed Forces Day, an annual commemoration of resistance against Japanese occupation. Thousands of soldiers marched with rifles, swords and flags. Watching the pageantry were eight foreign representatives – from nations including Russia, China and India – less than two months after Myanmar’s elected government had been deposed.
In a speech to the crowd, Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief-turned-coup leader, said the military would protect the people and strive for democracy. Away from the fanfare, in cities countrywide, elite army divisions had been unleashed on peaceful protesters demanding an end to junta rule.
Sai Wai Yan
It was a hot Saturday afternoon in Yangon. On a quiet residential street, three doors down from his house, Sai Wai Yan chatted with friends. At around 2.00pm a military truck pulled over, a few soldiers jumped out and fired into the air. The children scattered: Sai Wai Yan, 13, clasped his younger friend Thar Pu’s hand to stay together. But the older boy fell to the ground, said eyewitnesses: he had been struck by a bullet on the back of his head.
The evening before, in a special announcement on state TV, the junta had warned protesters that they risked being shot in the head or back.
Sai Wai Yan had not been protesting. Nor had anyone else at the spot where he played.
Around 200 kilometres west of Yangon, a 16-year-old schoolboy told his mother he was popping out for breakfast.
Instead he took his place in the front row of a hundreds-strong rally in Pathein, the largest city in the lush and low-lying Ayeyarwady delta region.
Unknown to his family, Htet Myat Thwin, known as Thwalahar, had joined what a new generation of protesters called a defence team, whose job it was to form a barrier against the soldiers. They had come of age in a Myanmar freer than their parents had ever seen and were ready to take huge risks to safeguard their future.
Their makeshift wooden or plastic shields, though, were little match for the army’s water cannons, live rounds and snipers.
At around 10.30am Thwalahar was shielding a female protester at a downtown rally. They were chased off an arterial road and were running down a small alley when security forces shot him in the lower back. A family in the lane helped him into their home and called an ambulance. But he died on the way to hospital.
That’s what Thawka Htun, Thwalahar’s aunt, learned the next day, from the doctor who was with the teen during his last moments. ‘We didn’t realize he was so deep into the movement,’ she said.
Her nephew was due to start the final year of high school. ‘He was fighting in the noble war for his country,’ she said by phone from Pathein. He had expressed to her worries about being beaten in detention. ‘But he wasn’t scared of being shot dead.’
Aye Myat Thu
From a newsroom in hiding, Myanmar Now’s reporters informed the world of the unfolding horror. In a breaking news tweet published shortly after 4.30pm, their tally showed that 91 civilians had been killed by junta forces in 40 towns that day. Worse was to come.
In the front garden of a single-storey wooden house in Mawlamyine, a city in southern Mon State, Aye Myat Thu was eating a coconut freshly cut by her father. On hearing gunfire from protests nearby, her mother rushed out to her 10-year-old. But she was already lying on the ground. At first her father, a furniture polisher, thought she had just been struck by a stone. ‘When he pulled her up, she was soaked in blood,’ said her mother, Toe Toe Lwin.
A stray bullet had penetrated Aye Myat Thu’s left temple. Her mother bound her head with a longyi, a traditional Myanmar sarong, and called an ambulance. But the little girl who had dreamt of becoming a nurse or an artist died shortly after reaching the hospital.
They would place her in an open casket the next day, surrounded by her favourite things: a few dolls, a stuffed bunny and a Hello Kitty she had sketched alongside her name in bubble letters.
Decades of impunity
The massacres on the Day of Shame, as it was widely labelled, killed 114 people – the highest death toll on a single day since the coup. The wounded included Thin Thawdaw Tun, a one-year-old, hit in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Myanmar’s people, especially its ethnic minorities, have long been accustomed to military brutality. But the trigger-happy killing of children – at least 54 had been slaughtered at the time of writing – revealed its ruthlessness to the population at large. This time – unlike during the 1988 coup – technology allowed many atrocities to be filmed, uploaded and shared in almost real-time, fuelling a collective rage.
The day had also highlighted, again, the institution’s impunity. None of the three families ever considered pursuing justice for their children. Retrieving their bodies alone was an ordeal.
In Yangon, Sai Wai Yan’s parents were not permitted to approach their only son, the middle child, as his body lay on the street. The soldiers took it away and police eventually called hours later, saying they could pick up his corpse from the military hospital the next morning.
‘My kid was chubby,’ said father San Hla, a street vendor of Indian descent. ‘He couldn’t run as well as the others.’ The teen’s mother, Khin Su Hlaing, returns to the spot where he died each day. ’Whenever I miss him, I am angry. When I see their [soldiers’] faces driving past, I am angry.’
At the teenager’s cremation mourners sang revolutionary songs, including one called ‘I will not forgive’. Several raised a three-finger salute, a symbol of the resistance.
Maung Moe is a pseudonym for a Myanmar journalist who reports on politics and human rights.