As the world moves on, Myanmar confronts a mounting, hidden toll

Thousands have been injured or killed since the military takeover, but the human costs go well beyond that

Myanmar migrant workers wait in August at the Mae Tao clinic in Thailand, just across the border from their home country. (Chalinee Thirasupa for The Washington Post)
Myanmar migrant workers wait in August at the Mae Tao clinic in Thailand, just across the border from their home country. (Chalinee Thirasupa for The Washington Post)

NEAR THE THAI-MYANMAR BORDER — When Kyaw Shwe, 48, packed up his family to leave Myanmar, he knew there wasn’t much he could bring. The military was looking for him and the journey to the border was going to be long. In a backpack, he stuffed a few sets of clothes, his phone and his reading glasses. Then, carefully, he folded in a Burmese cheroot cigar and five packets of instant coffee.

One recent afternoon, in an empty house along Thailand’s western border where he’s been sheltering, Kyaw Shwe retrieved the coffee packets. He wanted to explain that his 18-year-old son had given him the coffee and the cigar the day before he disappeared. He wanted to say his name, Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw, and talk about what soldiers did to him when they found him in a safe house with other student activists.

Kyaw Shwe lifted the coffee in his hands but couldn’t bring himself to speak. His shoulders sagged. He let out a wail.

As fighting rages on in Myanmar, its citizens are faltering under the losses they’ve incurred in a year and a half of violent conflict. Entire villages have been razed; loved ones have been executed in secret; and 1.1 million jobs have evaporated from the economy. International attention has waned, drawn away by crises such as the war in Ukraine. But the costs of the military’s takeover — and the ongoing desperate push to resist it — have continued to mount.

Cynthia Maung runs a community clinic on the Thai-Myanmar border and has seen, over the past year, a trickle of war casualties become a flood. The military has killed more than 2,000 civilians, including some in apparent war atrocities, according to the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar. Nearly a million people, a quarter of them children, have been displaced, forced to live in temporary shelters where malaria, dengue and dysentery are rife.

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At some point, humanitarian groups may be able to tally the number of people lost to violence, famine or disease during this period, Maung said. But every day, she also sees signs of an invisible toll that will be impossible to calculate. Grief and despair are everywhere.

“We cannot even begin to understand,” Maung said, “how huge it’ll be.”

Not far from where Kyaw Shwe is sheltering, a young engineer who joined a rebel army is learning how to walk after his right leg was shattered by a land mine. A single mother begs for news back home of her 14-year-old son, who hasn’t spoken to her since the military put out a notice for her arrest, while a pair of newlyweds search for work after the garment factory they relied on in Yangon shut down. An esteemed professor who once held court in one of Myanmar’s best universities paces around an old, barren terrace house, terrified to slide open the gate because his family of six, including his two children, crossed into Thailand without documentation.

In nondescript buildings along the border, there are tens of thousands more like them. They traveled through jungles and combat zones to make it here. For many, it’s the first place they were able to pause — and take stock.

“I still don’t know how to believe it,” said Zin Moe, Kyaw Shwe’s wife. She held the T-shirt her son wore the last time he visited, unwashed after six months because she hoped it would keep his smell.

“We’ve lost everything.”

The steepest costs

Myanmar’s young people, who grew up during the country’s brief window of democracy, have led the resistance against the military junta, also known as the Tatmadaw. As the conflict drags on, many are paying the steepest costs while contending with a loss of faith in their future — and a sense of being abandoned by the world.

Violence has escalated in Myanmar’s northwest, particularly in the Sagaing and Magway regions, which are almost entirely isolated from international assistance. Experts warn that tensions are also on the verge of exploding in places like Rakhine state, site of the military’s systematic persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority — now considered by the United States to be genocide. The United Nations said it needs $826 million to address basic humanitarian needs in Myanmar for 2022. As of July, the world body had raised $106 million — 13 percent of that goal.

Powerful countries have done little to stem this downward spiral, resistance leaders say.

Japan, Australia and Singapore, all of which moved swiftly to punish Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, have made no move to do the same with the Tatmadaw. The United States adopted some sanctions but has stopped short of fulfilling key requests from activists, such as penalizing the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, a state-owned energy company that serves as a lifeline for the junta. The European Union imposed sanctions on the firm in February.

“There are villages in Magway and Sagaing literally on fire,” said a 31-year-old rebel who asked to be identified only by his battlefield name, Comrade Kite. “And who is helping us?”

Like many who have joined Myanmar’s rebellion, Comrade Kite was not a fighter — he had never even held a gun — until the coup in early 2021. A computer network engineer, he enlisted with a rebel army after watching the junta’s soldiers open fire at peaceful protesters.

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In April, he was on a reconnaissance mission in the southern jungles when he heard a high-pitched whistle. There was a buzzing in his ears, he recalled, before he fell to the ground. When he woke up in a hospital on the Thai side of the border, the bottom of his right leg was gone.

Land mines have long been a weapon of the Tatmadaw, and since the coup, soldiers have been laying mines in conflict zones at a “massive scale,” possibly constituting war crimes, rights advocates say.

In the Thai hospital, Comrade Kite was surrounded by young men just like him, he said. Some had lost limbs; others were blinded or left paralyzed. In the daytime, he kept himself distracted with his laptop, watching YouTube tutorials and Marvel movies. But at night, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t block out the sound of crying.

“It’s not easy for us, mentally,” he said. “We’re young. Most of us aren’t married; we don’t even have girlfriends.”

“We worry about how we’re going to fit back into society. We worry about whether we’ll ever be able to be happy.”

The narrowing of hope

It’s hard to know how many Myanmar families have been separated since the coup. In addition to people who have been killed, thousands are in prison and even more in hiding. Under pressure from the military, some families have started cutting ties with relatives associated with the resistance, posting public notices disowning sons, daughters and siblings.

Ma Cho, 48, lived with her teenage son in the southeastern state of Karen before the coup. They were close, she said, and ate nearly every meal together until soldiers came looking for her a year and a half ago.

Ma Cho was a volunteer for a women’s committee within the National League for Democracy, the political party led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. After the coup, Ma Cho said, she found her face broadcast on state-run TV stations — a single mother and motorcycle saleswoman transformed into a “political criminal” wanted by the junta. She’s tried contacting her son numerous times after fleeing Karen, she said, but he’s been too afraid to respond.

“This, really, is a very painful feeling for me,” Ma Cho said, choking back tears. “I think I’ll meet him only after the revolution.”

Many others along the border sustain themselves on similar hopes — at least, for as long as they’re able.

Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw, the oldest of Kyaw Shwe’s three children, had been an ordinary teenager before the military takeover. He was interested in soccer, poetry and music, and hated bullies. He had just started learning how to play the guitar, and on Instagram, he posted covers of folk songs that he and Kyaw Shwe recorded together. It made his father happier than he ever knew.

After the coup, Kyaw Shwe, a Yangon taxi driver, took Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw to his first demonstration and saw him blossom. The teen was thoughtful and charismatic, and when he rose to speak at the back of pickup trucks, people stopped to listen.

Student activist Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw addresses a crowd in Yangon. (Video: TWP)

On Feb. 25, Kyaw Shwe said, Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw disappeared. Kyaw Shwe and Zin Moe went to the safe house in Yangon he’d been sharing with other student activists, and neighbors told them that a convoy of five military trucks had come by. Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw was in the house with two others and was helping one of them, a 15-year-old girl, escape over a wall when soldiers shot him twice. Once in the chest and once, after he had fallen onto the ground, in the head. Soldiers dragged his body onto the street, neighbors said, then loaded him onto a truck and drove off.

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Kyaw Shwe showed a photo he had taken of a dirt-streaked wall with a hole where sunlight was streaming through. It had been left by one of the bullets that killed his son.

“Merciless,” he said.

Kyaw Shwe spoke slowly, leaning against his knee as he sat on the floor. It was painful to talk about his son, but his death was the reason Kyaw Shwe had made his family leave Myanmar. It wasn’t possible to mourn publicly in the country anymore. And he had wanted Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw’s life to amount to more than that bullet hole.

“I will let myself be hurt,” Kyaw Shwe said, “because the world needs to know.”

Early this year, he recalled, on one of the few quiet weekends the family had together, Bhone Wai Yan Kyaw announced that he planned to have a birthday party when he turned 19 on Sept. 6.

Zin Moe told him that he was already an adult and that adults didn’t need birthday parties. But he shook his head.

“No,” he said, smiling at his parents. “I’m not an adult.”

“I’m still just a kid.”

Aung Naing Soe contributed to this report.

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