A Former Child Soldier Recounts Years of Attempted Escape
By KHIN OO THAR / THE IRRAWADDY|
Ye Lin is a native of Kyopinkauk Township in Pegu Division who was forced to become a child soldier when he was 13. Now 25 years old, he was in the army for nearly four years until he deserted his unit in 2006.Ye Lin now works as a teacher in a Karenni refugee camp located in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son Province.
Question: How old are you and when did you become a child soldier?
Answer: I was only 13 when I became a child soldier. Actually, the first reason I became a soldier was due to watching videos. I love movies. My family’s finances weren’t in good shape, so I felt lost and kept going out to watch movies.
One night, I met with three soldiers, who were recruiters, and got arrested for being out late at night. They threatened me, said they would put me in jail for being in a dark place at night. If I don’t want to be imprisoned I will have to join the army, they said.
Since I was very young, I was afraid of going to jail. Also, my parents used to warn me that prison is not a good thing and it will be black mark on my record. So I decided to be a soldier rather than being in prison. I dropped out of school and was helping my mother.
Q: What did you do to help your mother?
A: I did whatever my mother wanted me to make her workload lighter. There are five members in my family and I am the youngest.
We didn’t own a house so we had to rent one. We were totally dependent on daily income so we couldn’t save. It also means that everybody in my family had to work to meet our daily needs. My father was a trishaw driver. My mother worked on a market stall.
Depending on how much they made, sometimes we had to eat only boiled sweet potatoes. Sometimes, we only had rice soup.
The worst thing is that my father died when I was nine years old and about to attend the fourth grade. It was one of the biggest losses in my life and a lesson to remember always.
Q: What do you mean by ‘a lesson’?
A: Well, because my father didn’t die of natural disease or any other cause. He was killed by three of his closest friends. That’s why I got a lesson that I can’t trust anyone in this world.
My mother was pregnant when my father died. She delivered my younger brother a week after my father’s death.
Q: Where were you taken after being arrested that night?
A: I was taken to Rangoon by train around midnight. When I arrived there I was sent to Danyinkon Recruitment Center in Insein Township. I was there for a week to have medical tests. During that time I saw many young boys like me in the center.
Q: Which units were you assigned to? What were your living conditions like?
A: A week after I became a soldier, I was sent to Shan State to participate in a military training. Food was really bad. I had to try hard to endure the situation.
In my experience, what really made me unhappy was the fact that people living in ethnic areas ran away once they saw the government soldiers. They were very afraid of us.
I couldn’t even carry my gun properly when I first joined the army. The battalion I was assigned for was also just established so I had to get involved in camp construction such as cutting trees and bushes, and building barracks. During that time, I was infected by malaria and hospitalized.
Q:What was health care in the army like?
A: I was suffering from malaria on and off for over a year. I couldn’t rest although I was sick. I was still assigned to stand guard at night. I was ill-treated whenever I couldn’t finish my duties.
No-one cared for me when I was ill, and I was even ordered to go outside the army compound to fetch supplies and other stuff.
One of my friends and I used to think about committing suicide, but we didn’t. I wanted to look after my mother and see her before I died so I convinced myself that I had to live.
However, I didn’t want to be a soldier anymore so I ran away from my unit in 2003. Unfortunately, I didn’t escape and was recaptured by other soldiers.
Q: You said you used to think about committing suicide. Has this happened before in your unit?
A: Yes. Three soldiers around my age killed themselves. Two of them put the barrel of their guns in their mouth and pulled the trigger, while the other shot himself in the stomach.
Q: When were you able to flee and escape? When did you arrive at the Karenni refugee camp?
A: As I said earlier, I was captured during my first attempt. I ran away again but was caught in Mawchi Township in Karenni State. This time, I was tortured. My hands were tied up behind my back and I was hit in the chest. Soldiers also kicked and beat me. Then, they put me in a concrete cell naked. It was very cold to sleep on the floor but they had me stay there wearing only underwear.
I was allowed to put my clothes on the next days but had to sleep with my hands tied.
The last escape attempt was in January 2006 and I managed to escape finally. At first, there were six of us planning to run together. All were child soldiers like me. But, when we were about to leave our unit, three boys said they changed their minds and didn’t want to accompany us anymore.
We started running away from the outpost of our battalion at 2 am. And, we reached the ridge bordering Burma and Thailand, where troops belonging to the Karenni National Progress Party [KNPP] were stationed, at around 10 am. In the evening, we were able to contact some KNPP members so they took us to their camp.
Q: Did you guys bring any weapons? What was the KNPP’s response on your arrival?
A: We all brought weapons and hand grenades. I was 17 then. Responsible persons from the KNPP asked if we wanted to join their organization and become soldiers again or attend school. Since I had bitter feelings toward my former unit, I said I would choose the first option. However, a Karenni man called Htun Htun interrupted me, saying that I am still young and should not be a soldier again. He also urged me to attend the school so I decided to follow his advice.
Even though I was 17, I resumed my study in the sixth grade in the Karenni refugee camp. After I finished tenth grade I continued my studies for another two years at a social school run by the KNPP.
Following the completion of two years of social studies, I became a teacher at my first school. I am now teaching junior high school students and also involved in the school’s administrative matters. I am also studying law.
Q:Do you have a plan for the future?
A: I want to see my mother again. Then, I want to protect children under 15 in my community and the surrounding area. They have to work from hand to mouth but their lives are not secure. That’s why I want to be a lawyer to protect poor children.
Many child soldiers remain in the army and are facing hardships so I also want to help them. In connection with that, I am very interested in the Burma Lawyers’ Council.
Furthermore, I want children in this refugee camp to change their temperament. I want to help them in building self-confidence in order to improve ways of thinking and acting.
Q: What do you think of forced recruitment of children to be soldiers?
A: This is a big problem. There are many child soldiers in the army without their will. Some already died in the frontline. So, I want to tell the authorities that these children are the future leaders of our country. Please let them live freely. Please do not destroy their freedom and future.