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 neighborhood 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 U.N. 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 instill 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 neighborhood 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 brutalizing 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 organization,” 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, criminalizes 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 April 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.”