Two-Year-Old War in Myanmar’s Rakhine Takes Toll on Children

Two-Year-Old War in Myanmar’s Rakhine Takes Toll on Children An emergency medical technician carries a child injured by a landmine explosion in Maungdaw township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, as he is being transported to Sittwe General Hospital for medical treatment, Nov. 17, 2020.

Two years of war between the government military and a rebel ethnic army have made Rakhine state Myanmar’s deadliest place for children, who suffer trauma and hunger on top of violence, local civil society groups said Wednesday.

Fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) has inflicted on children psychological trauma, physical injury and death from crossfire and landmines, and left more than 80,000 minors displaced in camps where they face hunger and disease, relief workers said.

“There are many children who have died during the armed combat,” said Khine Myo Aung from the Nyaung Chaung IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Kyauktaw township.

“They [also] are forced to live in squalid conditions in IDP camps at a time when they are supposed to be learning and playing freely in their home villages,” he said. “I’m devastated about that. We have seen them being affected physically and psychologically.”

Between January and September, 56 children were severely injured, and 13 children died from explosions of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Myanmar, according to UNICEF.

Children represent 35 percent of casualties from landmine and UXO explosions countrywide, with Rakhine state having the highest rate of child casualties with 47 percent of the total, the U.N. children’s agency said.

Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the humanitarian group the Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC) said many clashes in the two-year-long conflict have occurred close to civilian villages, with heavy shelling directed at civilian villages and landmines planted near civilian communities and villagers’ farmlands.

“Children are naturally drawn to playing outside their homes and outside their villages,” Zaw Zaw Tun said. “Parents cannot babysit them all the time.”

“There are unexploded artillery shells and mines left by armed groups near the villages,” he said. “Many children were killed by stray bullets from the armed combat.”

The war in several northern Rakhine townships has left about 300 civilians dead, injured hundreds of others, and displaced about 226,000 villagers. More than 40 percent of the IDPs in the state are under 18 years of age, according to the REC.

‘Rules of engagement’

Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said during a press conference on Nov. 27 that government forces try to minimize the number of civilian deaths and injuries, including those of children.

“The military is complying with the rules of engagement whenever we conduct military operations or security patrols,” he said.

“There could be side effects from armed combat,” he said. “It’s not just for the children that we are seriously adhering to the rules of engagement and policies to minimize the damage in military operations during armed conflicts.”

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said genuine peace talks and a longstanding cease-fire agreement are needed to ensure that children no longer will become casualties of war.

Aung Myo Min, director of the Yangon-based human rights education organization Equality Myanmar, said children’s rights in Myanmar have not reached international standards, especially when it comes to minors in strife-ridden Rakhine state.

“Among the children in Rakhine state, those who are in conflict areas and those who are in IDP camps live in horrible conditions,” he said.

Those who live in the IDP camps eat only the rice, cooking oil, and beans provided by the World Food Programme and the government.

“Every child needs access to health care for their survival and development,” Aung Myo Min said. “The undernourishment during the armed conflict has been pretty bad for their development. It can lead to the deaths of many children.”

Children and adults living in Tin Dalat Chaung village tract, which sits along a creek in Ann township, are suffering from severe malnutrition because roads and waterways leading out of the village have been blockaded by the government military, said a resident who declined to give her name for fear of her safety.

This prevents villagers from leaving there community to buy rice and other food.

“The children here are starving,” she said. “Even if they want to eat a meal without curry, they still will not have enough due to dwindling rice supplies. ”

Hungry and sick children

Khine Kaung San, director of a Rakhine humanitarian group providing basic health care to those living in IDP camps and in remote villages in Rathedaung, Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships, said many child IDPs are “not in a normal condition.”

“Many of them are malnourished, and many children in most camps have pneumonia,” he said. “All children and even some adults are suffering from psychological trauma. They become scared and shaken whenever they hear loud bursts or something resembling gunfire.”

Myanmar signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 and drafted a new Child Rights Law in 1993. The law wasn’t enacted until July 2019, however.

Win Naing Htun, director-general of the Rehabilitation Department under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said the government has drafted and approved a national-level action plan to protect children from death and injury during armed conflict and from sexual violence.

“Citizens can file complaints in person or by email or snail mail,” he said. “We also plan to set up a hotline for complaints. The plans to establish these mechanisms for complaints are still pending.”

President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to RFA’s request for comment on the plan.

UNICEF issued a statement on Nov. 23 expressing deep concern over the killing and maiming of children in Rakhine, citing an incident a week earlier when a landmine explosion killed a child and his parents and injured four other minors as they drove along a road in Maungdaw township.

“The safety and rights of children must be the primary consideration in all contexts,” UNICEF said.

“Landmines and UXOs often result in civilian casualties, with children the most vulnerable,” the organization added.

Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA) have not engaged in combat since Myanmar’s general elections on Nov. 8.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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