A father faces prison as Myanmar’s coup claims another child’s life

Moe Thandar was an adorable toddler who had just learned how to ask for things she wanted by raising her hand.  

She was the firstborn daughter of Than Soe Aung and Nandar, a young couple from Kengtung in Shan State. She had just turned 14 months old and was the pride and joy of her family.

“Although she couldn’t speak yet, she would always gesture at us with her mouth when she was hungry and wave at animals and say ‘come, come’ whenever she saw them,” said her 23-year-old mother, Nandar. “If we called out to her to come to sleep, she would bring her own pillow and lie down.”

But in a country thrown into crisis by a military coup, even a child of Moe Thandar’s age and innocence can fall victim to the spiral of violence that has gripped Myanmar. 

On the day that she died, her father was taking her to see a doctor for her diarrhoea. But as he was navigating the streets of Kengtung on his motorbike, he ran into a convoy of regime forces that was patrolling the town.

It was then that he became involved in a collision that knocked both him and his daughter off the motorcycle. Moe Thandar suffered a head injury that claimed her life a few hours later.

It was a devastating loss for her parents. But exactly what led to that tragic accident has become the subject of a lawsuit that now threatens to deprive Nandar not only of her child, but also of her husband. 

True to its practice of avoiding accountability for its actions, the regime has blamed Than Soe Aung for his daughter’s death. In a case that has attracted considerable attention on social media, he is now facing trial for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The case has also highlighted the impact of the coup on some of Myanmar’s youngest citizens, who like many others have been caught up in the regime’s indiscriminate use of force to impose its will on the nation.

‘Pure agony’

Nandar said that her husband was sleeping soundly after a hard day of work as a cargo handler when she woke him up late in the evening of June 19 to tell him that their daughter needed medical attention.

“It was past 9pm that day. Our baby had diarrhoea all day, so my husband got up to take her to a doctor. He left on the motorbike, really worried about her,” she said. 

With his daughter cradled in his left arm, Than Soe Aung set off to find a clinic that was still open at that late hour. When he couldn’t find one, he stopped at his uncle’s house to ask for help. He left there at around 10pm to return home.

It was near a restaurant called Shwe Nagar that he encountered the three-vehicle patrol convoy, which included military and police personnel, as well as the local general administrator.

What happened next is in dispute, but according to a police report circulating on the internet, Than Soe Aung failed to stop when one of the patrol vehicles blinked its headlights at him to signal that he should pull over for inspection.

However, another account offered by township police claims that the motorbike crashed after hitting the side of the car driven by the deputy chief of the township General Administration Department (GAD).

A third version of events—the one offered by Than Soe Aung himself, and conveyed to Myanmar Now through his wife—is that a car struck his motorbike from behind as he was trying to dodge a police car coming towards him on the wrong side of the road.

According to Nandar, a witness to the incident told her that her husband was also beaten by police and soldiers after being knocked off his motorcycle.

“He had to scream ‘I have a child here! I have a child here!’ in order for them to let him go pick our daughter up. Even then, it took quite a while to find her,” said Nandar, citing the witness.

“It was pure agony. I couldn’t even believe my own ears when I first heard about it.”

14-month-old Moe Thandar (Supplied)

A second blow

After the couple got permission to collect their daughter’s body from the morgue at the Kengtung Public Hospital, they held a funeral for her at the cemetery right away.

“I cried my eyes out. She was all we had. This whole incident filled me with rage and hatred,” recalled Nandar.

But before they could even begin to grieve, the now childless couple received another blow at the hands of the authorities.

When they returned to their home at around 5:30pm after spreading their daughter’s ashes in the river, a community leader arrived to summon them to the police station. That’s when they arrested Than Soe Aung.

“We begged them to wait just seven days so that we could hold a memorial service for our daughter. But they just wouldn’t let us,” said Nandar.

Than Soe Aung now faces up to seven years in prison for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”—an offence under Section 304a of the Penal Code that applies to cases of impaired driving that result in death.

The move has outraged local citizens, who believe that the GAD official was the one responsible for the accident, and who should therefore be facing charges.

Despite her own anger over the incident, however, Nandar says she has no desire to press charges against anybody for what happened.

“I don’t want to file a lawsuit. We’re just day labourers. We don’t have that much money. Besides, if we sued [the GAD official], he would have to serve seven years. He’d lose his job. He’s got a family and children of his own,” she said.

Now living alone in the small apartment that they had rented for 500,000 kyat (about $300) a month, Nandar said she wouldn’t wish her fate on anybody, even those who had inflicted this suffering on her family. 

“I think it was unfair that I had to lose my daughter and see my husband go to prison, but there is nothing I can do, is there? I just hope my husband will be released soon,” she said.

Innocent victims

However the case proceeds, it has served as a reminder for many of the toll that the coup has taken on children. 

According to the United Nations, more than 60 minors under the age of 18 have been killed by regime forces since the military seized power five months ago. Many others have been injured.

Most were not involved in protests. Many happened to be in public places when police and soldiers were cracking down on demonstrators, while others were gunned down in their own homes during raids.

On the same day that Moe Thandar lost her life, Pho Thingyan was shot dead while running away from soldiers who suddenly appeared while he was playing in Yangon’s Bahan Township. He was just 13 years old.

Less than a month earlier, on May 27, a 14-year-old teen named Sunday Aye was shot in the head while fleeing from soldiers during a raid on the village of Kayan Thar in Kayah State’s Loikaw Township.

Kayah State is one of several areas, including Chin State and Sagaing Region, where the deployment of military forces to crush armed resistance to the coup has resulted in massive displacement of local civilians.

In many of these areas, illness is rife among the elderly and the very young due to a lack of access to basic shelter and healthcare. There have also been reports of infants and children dying due to harsh living conditions. 

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