A supporter of the ruling National League for Democracy rides a buffalo during an election campaign event in Myingyan in Myanmar's Mandalay region on Oct. 16. (Photo: AFP)
United Nations agencies in Myanmar have voiced shock and sadness over the killing of two boys allegedly used as human shields by security forces in Rakhine state.
The boys were killed in Buthidaung township in crossfire between Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army (AA) on Oct. 5.
The children, part of a group of 15 farmers, were alleged to all have been forced to walk in front of a Tatmadaw unit to ensure the path toward a military camp was clear of landmines and to protect the soldiers from potential enemy fire, according to the UN.
On the way, fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw and the AA, after which the two boys were found dead with gunshot wounds.
The UN agencies — co-chairs of the UN Country Taskforce on Monitoring and Reporting on Grave Violations against Children in Myanmar (CTFMR) — have called for a “full, transparent and expedited investigation of the incident and for anyone responsible for the use and for the killing of the children to be held accountable.”
“This egregious incident serves as a stark reminder that children are put at risk of being killed or injured whenever they are associated with armed forces and groups in any capacity or function, regardless of the duration of their association,” CTFMR said in an Oct. 14 statement.
The UN is concerned that the latest reported incident occurred within 12 months of the delisting of the Tatmadaw for underage recruitment in the UN secretary-general’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict of 2020.
Buthidaung township has been a hot spot for the use of children by the Tatmadaw for non-combat purposes since mid-2019, according to verified reports.
More than 100 children were killed or maimed in conflict during the first three months of 2020, amounting to more than half of the total number in 2019 and significantly surpassing the total number of child casualties in 2018, according to the UN.
“We urge all parties to the conflict to intensify efforts to ensure children are protected from all grave violations, to ensure access to humanitarian assistance and services, and to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force where civilians are present,” UN agencies stressed.
The Tatmadaw and the AA have been embroiled in a 22-month conflict in Rakhine and Chin states, where more than 90,000 people have been displaced and taken shelter at temporary camps including churches, monasteries and schools.
The AA is a largely Buddhist militia fighting for greater autonomy for indigenous ethnic Rakhine in the state.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has called on concerned parties not to take military advantage by exploiting the pandemic and the electoral process in the country.
“Fighting, wars and attacks need to be stopped. But the peace process and ceasefire must not be stopped,” Suu Kyi said in a speech marking five years since signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement on Oct. 15.
Suu Kyi has pledged to prioritize peace and bring all ethnic groups to the negotiation table but her promises remain elusive as fighting intensifies in Rakhine and sporadic clashes erupted in Shan state.
Despite the surge in Covid-19 cases, the government will go ahead with the general election on Nov. 8 that observers see as a test for democratic reforms.
Myanmar had reported 32,351 confirmed cases of Covid-19 including 765 deaths and 14,706 recoveries as of Oct. 15.