Myanmar’s armed forces and some of the Southeast Asian country’s ethnic armed groups have long recruited and trafficked children to serve as soldiers, particularly in conflict-prone ethnic areas in the borderlands.
Military recruiters often snatch children under the pretext that they have committed a minor or nonexistent offense and tell them that they must serve in the army or go to jail. Others voluntarily join military organizations because their families are poor.
Some parents believe that their children — boys and girls — should serve in ethnic armed groups out of a sense of duty.
In any case, the children are forced to undergo training in often harsh or inhumane conditions and are routinely subjected to physical abuse by military personnel.
The highest rate of child soldier recruitment in Myanmar took place from 1990 to 2005 during a time when military juntas ruled the country.
The Myanmar army has discharged 849 children and young people from its ranks since 2012, when the country signed an agreement with the United Nations to stop recruiting children under 18.
Yet security forces continue using child soldiers in Myanmar. The practice appears to have increased in war-torn northern Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states because of an escalation in fighting between the government army and various rebel groups, London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a report issued in June on the displacement and abuse of civilians in northern Myanmar.
The recruitment of children under 15 years of age and their forced participation in hostilities are both war crimes under customary international humanitarian law, the group said.
Meanwhile, the U.N continues to list the Myanmar military and seven ethnic armed groups on its blacklist of organizations around the world that recruit and use child soldiers.
Aung Ko Htway was a typical child soldier recruit. He was abducted by a Myanmar army sergeant at the main railway station in the commercial capital Yangon in October 2005.
A friend who was with him managed to escape while going to the restroom, leaving Aung Ko Htway behind to be forcibly taken to a recruitment center in Mingaladon township in the northernmost part of Yangon.
When the 14-year-old arrived at the center, the sergeant told a major that he had taken the boy by force.
The officer told the sergeant to return Aung Ko Htway to his home, but he failed to obey the order.
“Although this sergeant was asked by a major to take me back home, he took me instead to a military market in Mingaladon and sold me for 100,000 kyats (U.S. $72) to another soldier,” Aung Ko Htway told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
From there, he was taken to a soldier recruitment center in the central Myanmar town of Mandalay for two months, calling his stay there the worst days of his life.
“We were treated like animals, trapped in an army hall,” Aung Ko Htway. “There were about 100 boys in a 50-by-50-foot room with no bathroom. If we needed to leave the hall to use the bathroom, we’d have to go out without any clothes because they were worried that we’d run away.”
The child soldiers were taken out at midnight to perform work such as unloading timber from trucks, he said.
Another training camp After two months, Aung Ko Htway was sent to another training camp in Monywa, capital of northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, about 136 kilometers (85 miles) northwest of Mandalay.
“The army camps are worse than jails,” said Aung Ko Htway, now 26 years old. “I was entrapped and saw no one, including any family members.”
After completing four months of training, he was assigned to the Myanmar army’s Infantry Unit 332 in 2012 in Laukkai, capital of the ethnic Kokang region in the northern part of Shan state near the Chinese border. He served as a security guard there for a year.
Because Aung Ko Htay dreamed of becoming a doctor, he asked military officials to let him return to school. The officer to whom he reported obliged, and he was sent to a school for soldiers in Lashio, the largest town in northern Shan state. He quickly discovered, however, that the “students” there were required to work in the fields all day.
“I was able to go to a school for soldiers, but we were not taught,” he said. “We couldn’t study. We had to work on corn and sugarcane farms. When we got back from the farms, there was no food left for us, so we ran away.”
Aung Ko Htay and two other child soldiers escaped from the unit and robbed the owner of a motorcycle. One of the other boys choked the man to death. All three were caught and sent to the Lashio military camp, where they were investigated for seven months.
Aung Ko Htay said he wasn’t involved in the motorcycle owner’s murder.
“I told the investigator we didn’t kill him, but we were not freed,” he said. “We were in a prison cell for seven months with shackles on our hands and feet and fed rice mixed with sand.”
Unable to withstand these conditions any longer, he agreed to sign a document saying that he had been involved in the killing.
Authorities then sent him to Lashio prison where he learned that he had received a death sentence. He was 16 years old at the time.
The conditions in the jail were better than those in the army’s prison cells, and he was allowed to contact his family, Aung Ko Htway said.
Release from prison
In 2008, Aung Ko Htway’s older sister Nayzar Htun received word that the teenager was in jail in Lashio, and she immediately began working for his release.
“We didn’t believe that he committed murder,” Nayzar Htun said. “It was impossible. When he was with us at home, he didn’t dare to kill even a chicken for food, although I did.”
“Since I had been in contact with him, I was trying to get him freed,” she said. “I got to know many politicians and lawyers whom I’ve asked for help to get my brother released.”
She said two attorneys in particular — Zaw Win and Aung Thein— helped her greatly.
“Aung Ko Htway’s sister Nayzar Htun came to my office and told me everything about her brother, Aung Thein told RFA. “I asked her if she had evidence to show that her brother is not a legal soldier. She brought Aung Ko Htway’s birth certificate and documents from the school he attended until the eighth grade.”
After he received the documents, Aung Thein sent letters about Aung Ko Htway to the president, the head of the country’s armed forces, and the international rights group Human Rights Watch.
Aung Ko Htway had his death sentence reduced to life in prison during an amnesty under former President Thein Sein’s administration (2011-2016).
In 2015, his life sentence was reduced to 10 years in prison under another presidential amnesty, and he was released on July 15 of this year when he turned 26.
Maung Maung Lay of the domestic rights group the Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters said it is easy for the Myanmar Army to recruit child soldiers because officers and others can just take them “like chickens or birds.”
Obtaining their release, however, has been a long and difficult process in the past, he said.
Under Thein Sein’s administration, it took about two to three years on average for family members, lawyers, and others to secure the freedom of child soldiers recruited by force, Maung Maung Lay said.
Now, under the current administration of President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it takes between six months to a year, he said.
“I think they [authorities] have a time frame to release the next group,” Maung Maung Lay said. “We are working on freeing other child soldiers still in the army. They will be released during the next period.”
The most recent group to be discharged by the Myanmar army included 67 children and young people on June 23, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.
At the time, Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s representative for Myanmar since 2012, said the agency welcomed the move along with other measures the Myanmar army had taken to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
“It is much more difficult to recruit a child today than it was four years ago” because recruitment procedures have been centralized, physical checks have been increased, and military personnel have been made aware of the standards, he said in a statement.
UNICEF noted that the Myanmar government has adopted two other measures this year to address the issue. In February, the government signed the Paris Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, which provides guidelines on the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of children associated with military organizations.
Three months later, the government relaunched a national campaign to raise public awareness about its commitment to stop recruiting children into its armed forces.
Once released from the armed forces, former child soldiers are sometimes stigmatized in civilian life for having committed violations or used weapons.
But Aung Ko Htway appears to have gotten onto the right track.
Now that he is back home with his sister, he has started a business with her help selling cotton clothing in Kalawae village in Yangon region’s Thanlyin township.
He laments that he will never achieve his goal of becoming a doctor.
He said he wants the current civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government to conduct another investigation of prisoners and release those who received unfair sentences from military courts when the country was ruled by military juntas before Thein Sein came to power in 2011.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s first act under the NLD government, which came to power in April 2016, was to secure the release of up to 200 jailed political prisoners, students, and activists facing trials on charges that were deemed politically motivated.
“I met a soldier named Tun Tun when I was in jail.” Aung Ko Htway said. “Once, while we were on duty as patrol guards, he said that he would take the gun he had and [escape] to go underground into a jungle. He received a death sentence just because of these words. He is still in Mandalay’s Obo Prison.”
Even though child soldier recruitment continues to be a hot-button issue, the U.S. government has eased up on Myanmar, saying it has made efforts to release children who are still serving in its military.
The U.S. State Department in its annual report on human trafficking issued in June moved Myanmar to its Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3 a year ago, based in part on the country’s continued progress in eliminating the use of child soldiers.
Tier 2 Watch List countries do not fully comply with the minimum standards set by U.S. law but are seen as making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.
Myanmar was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in 2012 after the country’s military junta handed power to Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government, but then fell to Tier 3 in 2016 — an automatic drop in rank after lingering on the Watch List for three years.
Though the State Department praised Myanmar’s progress in its 2017 report, it recommended that the government stop requiring troops to source their own labor from local communities and that it strengthen the prosecution of military officials who recruit child soldiers.
International rights groups decried a decision by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the time the State Department’s report was released to remove Myanmar from a U.S. list of the world’s worst offenders in their use of child soldiers.
The delisting of the Southeast Asian nation from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act means that Myanmar is no longer subject to restrictions on certain security assistance and the commercial licensing of military equipment.
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Wai Mar Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.