YANGON: Myanmar’s security forces moved in and the street lamps went black. In house after house, people shut off their lights. Darkness swallowed the block.
Huddled inside her home in this neighbourhood of Yangon, 19-year-old Shwe dared to peek out her window into the inky night. 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’s trucks finally rolled away, Shwe and her family emerged to look for her 15-year-old brother, worried about frequent abductions by security forces.
“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 break the back of a three-month uprising against a military takeover. In most cases, the families of those taken do not 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. Though it is difficult to get exact data, UNICEF says the majority are boys.
It is a technique the military has long used to instil fear and to crush pro-democracy movements. The boys and young men are taken from homes, businesses and streets, under the cover of night and sometimes in the brightness of day.
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, cofounder 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, along with those of several others, to protect them 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 the military seized control in February, the conflict in Myanmar has become increasingly bloody. Security forces have killed more than 700 people, including a boy as young as 9.
In the meantime, the faces of the missing have flooded the Internet in growing numbers. Online videos show soldiers and police beating and kicking young men as they’re shoved into vans, even forcing captives to crawl on all fours and hop like frogs.
Recently, photos of young people detained by security forces also have begun circulating online and on military-controlled Myawaddy TV, their faces bloodied, with clear markings of beatings and possible torture. The military’s openness in broadcasting such photos and brutalising people in daylight is one more sign that its goal is to intimidate.
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, 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, according to an AAPP spokesman. The group says its numbers are likely an undercount.
“The military are trying to turn civilians, striking workers, and children into enemies,” says Ko Bo Kyi, AAPP’s joint secretary. “They think if they can kill off the boys and young men, then they can kill off the revolution.”
After receiving questions from The Associated Press, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, called a Zoom press conference, during which it dubbed the AAPP a “baseless organisation,” suggested its data was inaccurate, and denied security forces are targeting young men.
“The security forces are not arresting based on genders and ages,” said Capt. Aye Thazin Myint, a military spokeswoman. “They are only detaining anyone who is rioting, protesting, causing unrest, or any actions along those lines.”
Some of those snatched by security forces were protesting. Some have links to the military’s rival political party, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the elected government that the military toppled and is now under house arrest. Others are taken for no discernable reason. They are typically charged with Section 505(A) of the Penal Code, which, in part, criminalises comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.”
Both the military and police - who fall under the Tatmadaw’s command via the Ministry of Home Affairs - have been involved in the arrests and disappearances, sometimes working in tandem, according to interviews with detainees and families. Experts believe that suggests a coordinated strategy.
“The Myanmar police force and the Tatmadaw moved in in a very deliberate way, in a coordinated way, in similar ways, in disparate locations, which to us would indicate that they were working according to orders,” says Smith of Fortify Rights. “It would appear as though there was ... some national level communication and coordination taking place.”
Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch, says one woman she spoke with described being viciously beaten by police until what looked like a senior military official told them to stop.
“They’re definitely following orders from military officials,” Maung says. “And whether they’re coordinating - they’re certainly turning up to places together.”
So desperate for information are the loved ones of the lost that some families have resorted to a grim experiment: They send food into the prisons and hope if it isn’t sent back out, that means their relatives are still inside.
Myanmar human rights activist Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is intimately acquainted with the Tatmadaw’s tactics. Her father, famed political activist Mya Aye, was arrested during a 1988 uprising against military rule, and the family waited months before they learned he was in prison.
He was arrested again on the first day of this year’s military takeover. For two months, the military gave Wai Hnin Pwint Thon’s family no information on his whereabouts. On Apr 1, the family learned he was being held at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison.
“I can’t imagine families of young people who are 19, 20, 21, in prison… We are this worried and we’re used to this situation,” she says. “I’m trying to hold onto hope, but the situation is getting worse every day.”
Mee, a 27-year-old villager in the northern region of Mandalay, watched as children on motorbikes raced past her house toward the woods. Not long after, the village elders arrived with a dire warning: All the boys must leave and get somewhere safe. The soldiers might be coming.
Just two hours later, Mee says, the elders asked the girls to hide, too.
The military’s scare tactics have proven enormously effective. In villages and cities across the country, residents regularly take turns holding night watches, banging pots and pans or yelling to neighbours from the street if soldiers or police are spotted.
“I am more afraid of being arrested than getting shot,” says one 29-year-old man who was arrested, beaten and later released, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. “I have a chance of dying on the spot with just one shot. But being arrested, I am afraid that they would torture me.”
Fearing for her life on that March afternoon, Mee and hundreds of fellow villagers fled to pineapple farms in the surrounding hills. When she arrived, she saw scores of people from other villages hiding in the forest.
That night, as mosquitos swarmed and sounds from the forest haunted them, the women stayed inside a small bamboo tent while the boys took turns standing guard. No one slept.
Mee was terrified but not surprised. Many of the villagers had run from the military and hidden in the woods before.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says.
For decades, the Tatmadaw has used arbitrary arrests, disappearances, forced labour and other abuses to crush pro-democracy movements and suppress minorities, including its notoriously brutal 2017 campaign of persecution against Rohingya Muslims.
“Sometimes communities are asked to provide a number of young men on a ‘voluntary’ basis; sometimes they are taken,” Laetitia van den Assum, a former diplomat and a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said in an e-mail.
Arbitrary arrests continue across the country daily. Just two weeks earlier, a few minutes away from Mee’s village, 24-year-old philosophy student Ko Ko was walking home from a protest with a friend when they were arrested. His parents learned of their imprisonment from friends of friends, not officials.
More than a month later, his parents still haven’t heard from their only son, says Han, a neighbour. He’s part of an unlucky cohort: at least 44 people taken from the town are yet to be released, Han says.
While many of the young men in Mee’s village returned home after two nights in the pineapple fields, some continue to sleep there. Mee has since gone back to her village.
Whenever she sees a soldier, she runs. But her fear has largely given way to fury.
“I was angry that night, and I am still angry,” she says. “It’s so frustrating that the people who are supposed to be protecting our lives, our safety, our livelihoods and our homes are the people who are chasing us and killing us … We are helpless.”
The glass was shattering, and there was nowhere left for the 21-year-old university student to run. The soldiers were smashing through the front doors of the house in Mandalay.
The chaos of such raids is usually followed by a sinister silence, with the families of the taken rarely hearing from officials. But the accounts of some survivors who dare to speak about their ordeals help fill the void of what often happens next.
The student, who asked that his name be withheld out of fear of retaliation, had taken refuge in the house along with around 100 others after security forces stormed a rally they were attending. The soldiers had thrown tear gas at them, forcing them to flee.
Now he and a half dozen others were cornered in a bathroom on the home’s second level. Downstairs, the security forces used a slingshot and the butt of a gun to break through the doors.
The soldiers began beating the boys they found inside, so viciously that a few of their heads cracked open. They urinated on one young man.
The student watched as the glass above the bathroom door imploded. “They are here!” the soldiers yelled, then burst in, guns drawn.
He bowed his head, since anyone who looked at the soldiers was kicked. The soldiers kicked him anyway, twice in the waist, and hit him twice in the head. As he was marched down the stairs, he saw a soldier with a gun standing on nearly every step.
He and around 30 other young men were arrested and ushered into a prison van. Both the military and police were there. The soldiers threatened to burn the van and tauntingly offered the detainees juice before throwing it at them.
When they arrived at the prison, the young man saw 400 to 500 people in the temporary holding area. The next day, he was charged with Section 505(A) of the penal code. He and around 50 others spent nine days jammed into one room.
There were only two toilets. They were allowed out of the cell twice a day to clean themselves. The same water was used for showering, drinking, washing dishes and using the toilet.
When the young man learned he was being transferred to the main prison, he wanted to cry. A few days before his arrest, he had been looking at missing persons posts on social media. Now he realised most of those people were probably in prison like him.
The young man had good reason to be frightened.
“People are disappearing and turning up dead,” says Maung, of Human Rights Watch. “We have had primary reports, also, of torture while they’re in custody.”
The group found that some people detained inside Insein prison were subjected to beatings, stress positions and severe interrogation tactics, up until March 4, Maung says. After that, guards began taking prisoners to second locations and torturing them, then returning them to Insein.
In Mandalay, the young man’s family was sick with worry. Some of his friends told them he had been arrested; the authorities never called them.
His family sent food into the prison for him. But even when it wasn’t returned, they couldn’t be sure he was inside. They heard reports about protesters being tortured. His sisters cried constantly.
Thirteen days after his arrest, the young man was allowed ten minutes to speak with his sister.
A week later, an official ordered him to pack his things. In shock, he realised he was being released.
There was no time to say goodbye to his friends. The officials took videos and photos of him and around 20 others, and told them to sign statements promising they wouldn’t break the law again. Then they were set free.
He didn’t feel lucky - he felt horrible. He didn’t understand why he’d been singled out for release while his friends were still stuck inside.
“None of us really feel safe living our normal lives now. For me now, I have reservations walking alone outside even in my neighbourhood,” he says. “And also, I feel worried to see the parents of my friends in the neighbourhood, because I am out and their children are not.”
Back in Yangon, Shwe stared at the puddles of blood on the floor of the shop where her baby brother had been. It looked as if the security forces had half-heartedly tried to wash it away, but red pools remained.
Maybe the blood wasn’t his, she told herself.
Shwe’s brother and three other young men from the shop had been hauled away. Neighbours told the family that both police and soldiers were there. The neighbours said the security forces may have targeted the boys because they spotted someone inside the shop with a steel dart slingshot.
At 2am, a police officer called to say Shwe’s brother was at a military hospital and had been shot in the hand. They later learned security forces had shot another young man’s finger during the raid.
Shwe says her family told the police that her brother was underage. The officer, she says, reassured them that because he was a minor, he probably wouldn’t be charged.
Around 7am, the family went to the hospital to bring him food. But their pleas to see him were rejected. Shwe and her family were later told that he was being moved to a prison hospital.
Then, on the night of Mar 27, came the news that stunned them: 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 in the hospital, and nothing since. Shwe remembers hearing her brother tell their anguished mother, “Thar ah sin pyay tal.” 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.
“Even though we are all in distress, we try to look on the bright side that at least we know where he is,” she says. “We are lucky that he was only abducted.”