Hiding in mosquito-infested jungles in Myanmar in a makeshift tent with her father, her young world has been shattered.
“I want to sleep with my mother, but the police have taken her,” she said in an audio clip recorded by her father, Soe Htay, on his phone and sent to CNN in early August.
He says his family is now paying the price for his activism. His wife and teenage daughter remain behind bars, and his youngest daughter says she was forced into a half-sitting, half-standing pose during the 18 days she was detained – a stressful position that the UN Committee against Torture sees as a form of torture.
The military has not responded to CNN’s detailed emails and texts about the girl’s detention and treatment.
But Soe Htay and his daughter are not alone.
In the months since the coup, the junta has waged a bloody campaign against its opponents, shooting dead protesters in the street and detaining thousands of doctors, activists, journalists, artists – anyone it considers an enemy.
Sometimes the junta can not find its opponents. And the military is increasingly targeting another group of people to sow fear among the population and make them fall into line: family members of dissidents, according to Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar.
“It’s just awful, it’s terrible, it’s outrageous, it’s totally unacceptable and the international community should be up in arms,” he said. “That is the brutal reality we are facing in this country and most important of all that the people of Myanmar are facing.”
Strike against protests
After the military took over
Soe Htay took to the streets in protest. And like thousands of others in the country who opposed the takeover, Soe Htay became a target for the military junta.
In June, months after he stopped protesting for fear of being shot by the military, soldiers came to his home in Myanmar’s central Mogok city to arrest him, Soe Htay told CNN from her jungle hiding place.
They attacked his house four times, but he had already hidden with his two sons, he said, leaving his immediate family behind.
On the last visit in June, they instead arrested his wife and two daughters.
“This is a hostage situation,” he said. “Because they arrested my family when they could not arrest me … my youngest daughter was not even five years old.”
Su Htet Waing spent her fifth birthday in prison, says Soe Htay. She was released on June 30 after 18 days as part of a mass release. Her mother and sister remain behind bars, sentenced to three years in prison, said Soe Htay. Local media reported that the couple was accused of incitement – a common punishment directed at pro-democracy activists.
While Su Htet Waing was in custody, she was forced into a half-sitting, half-standing position, which caused her “mental trauma,” says Soe Htay.
Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur, said he had heard of many similar cases in which children were brutally punished for their parents’ political views in the months since the military junta took control.
“The stress position is outrageous,” he said.
“I’ve seen reports of children being beaten, reports of children, of iron bars burning their legs, ‘I’ve seen them detained for days … I’m speechless and upset and really angry at the contemptuous behavior we see.”
The UN Committee against Torture considers that stressful positions are contrary to the Convention against Torture.
Khaing Zin Thaw also tried to fight the junta – and like Soe Htay, it is her family that pays the price.
The 21-year-old used his role as a social media influencer to raise money for the civil disobedience movement, which forced thousands of people to leave their jobs to destabilize the coup and the economy. She helped raise donations for those who lost their jobs and struggled to make ends meet. Khaing Zin Thaw also made posts that support the movement on Facebook, where she has about 700,000 followers.
But that soon put her on the military radar.
Shortly after the February coup, she left home for safety and has been moving constantly in Myanmar ever since. But in April, she received an alarming phone call.
“One of my friends called me and told me there were military trucks outside my house. They called back half an hour later and said your parents had been arrested,” she said.
Her parents have not done anything wrong, she said and her voice faltered. Her dad does not even know how to use Facebook.
Her sister-in-law was also taken in her place, said Khaing Zin Thaw, but has since been released.
“I heard that my father has been tortured and has not asked for his medicine … sometimes I get worried and I feel like I’m losing my mind,” she said, adding that both her parents have been accused of incitement.
The military has not responded to CNN’s detailed requests for comment.
At least 182 people, including children, have been detained instead of their family members since the coup – and 141 of them remain in custody, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
The group characterizes these arrests as hostages, and emphasizes that the military’s actions are contrary to international law.
According to the AAPP, they are not sent to prisons, for example when children have been taken into custody infamous Insein
where thousands of demonstrators for democracy are held.
Instead, they are sent to interrogation centers, police detention centers, military barracks or junta administration offices.
“The children held hostage are placed in the same cells as their families. But exact details inside the detention center are difficult to confirm,” the AAPP said in a written interview. “As far as we know, the hostages are not mixed with other pro-democratic detentions.”
The AAPP said that because the junta is making this distinction, it clearly understands what it is doing is taking the hostages.
The group warns that practice is likely to increase.
Myanmar has been on the brink of collapse since the coup, with the junta waging a bloody campaign against nationwide protests and strikes.
The economy collapses and a deadly Covid-19 wave destroys the nation. Civilian uprisings in cities and border regions have declared a popular war against the military, with local militias carrying out guerrilla attacks on military forces.
“(The hostages are taking) is a strategy by the junta to cause ‘concern’, it is part of the junta’s wider terror campaign against the population,” the group said. “(It) will only get worse as the junta loses more and more on the front lines, with attacks in cities like Yangon and Mandalay also escalating.”
The practice of detaining relatives aims to suppress dissent, but it does not seem to work.
Far away from her happy childhood in their family home, little Su Htet Waing spends her days with her father, exposed to Myanmar’s monsoon period, mosquitoes and the risk of disease.
Soe Htay says he thinks the military is still looking for him so he has to stay in a makeshift tent in the jungle. His daughter has her backpack ready in case they have to run again.
He is determined to continue the fight for democracy in every way he can, despite his seemingly desperate situation.
Soe Htay has been told by friends in the democracy movement, who are leaking information from prisons and during the prisoners’ release, that his daughter and wife have been separated since the convictions.
He has also been told that his daughter received Covid-19, but has since recovered.
“As I see it,” he said. “Their grief will only heal after the revolution … my only thought is to eradicate the dictatorship, because now I have to bury my bitterness and hatred in the revolution.”
Khaing Zin Thaw said she is now in “a safe place” but must continue to move for fear of being tracked down by the military.
“I’m sad and depressed, and I’m frustrated because I can ‘t do anything for my parents in prison,” she said.