By LAWI WENG
MYITSONE, Kachin State — The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) released 21 villagers, including one teenager, on Friday after their families complained that they had been forcibly recruited by the rebels earlier this month.
The Burma Army hosted a ceremony at Myitsone, a village located about 10 km north of the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, to welcome the group and claim credit for their release.
Col. Khin Maung Win, who heads the military’s Northern Command, said, “We have deployed a lot of troops along the roads and riversides to block KIA troops. Because we blocked them, they have to release you alls.”
Families of the victims, which included Shan, Kachin and several Muslim villagers, said their loved ones had gone missing earlier in May after a column of KIA soldiers forcibly recruited them in their village of Myitsone.
They said they had since complained at the KIA Liaison Office in Myitkyina, after which the boys and men were eventually released. The group—aged between 35 and 16 years, and all with an army crew cut—looked exhausted as they posed for a photo with an army officer.
A total of 40 people were apprehended by the KIA in the area in May and the rebels are keeping the remaining soldiers in their units because they are ethnic Kachin, the families said.
Ohn Tin, mother of 16-year-old Zaw Win Aung, said, “We do not know what to say as we are so happy that our kids are released. I could not eat anything from the first day that my boy was arrested.”
Zaw Win Aung said he told the KIA when he was arrested that he was underage, but they told them that they would establish his age at their military training camp.
“We walked in the area of May Kha river. They forced me to clean and cook a lot during the trip as I am the youngest one. We have two meals every day. They did not tell me I had to join their military training. They only told older persons about the military training,” said Zaw Win Aung.
Aung Myo Thant, 20, and Yan Naing Soe, 19, said their meals had been poor, consisting only of rice and some spices, which they put down on their rain coats and ate by hand. “We have to eat it as we have no choice. We have to walk during a long trip and we need food for energy,” said Aung Myo Thant.
The two young men said they were arrested on May 7 when KIA troops came to their homes at 11 pm when their families had gone to bed. “They tied our hands and I was kicked one time,” said Yan Naing Soe.
They said they were then forced to walk for four to five days from Myitsone to a KIA training camp in the mountains.
“We had breakfast in the morning and then walked until noon time. We rested for a while during lunch time. Then, we have to walk the rest of the day again,” said Zaw Win Aung. He said that KIA troops threaten to shoot the recruits if they tried to run away.
“I did not trust them when they told me they will release all of us. It was around 9 am when they told us. All of us then had to walk back in one day and a night to arrive here in Myitsone,” said Zaw Win Aung.
Both the Burma Army and the KIA have been accused of forced labor and recruiting and deploying child soldiers during the conflict in northern Burma, which erupted in mid-2011 when a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) and UNICEF have been trying to work with the army and ethnic rebels groups to end forced labor and child soldier recruitment. The ILO has said significant progress has been made in recent years, yet reports of child soldier and forced labor recruitment continue to emerge.
Last week, dozens of ethnic Shan families protested at the KIA Liaison Office in Myitkyina, when the Kachin rebels and the government peace negotiations team met for ceasefire talks. The families said men and women, as well as teenage boys and girls, were forcibly recruited by the KIA and some have not been seen since 2012.
KIA deputy commander-in-chief Gen. Gun Maw said in a public meeting in Myitkyina that he would look into the complaints of forced recruitment of soldiers among Shan communities. “We told the mothers of victims already that our KIA will release their kids,” Gun Maw said, without elaborating.
He went on to offer only a vague explanation as the why his units continue the practice, which represents a serious violation of human rights.
“We have a history of armed revolution against the central government by joining Kachin and Shan [forces]. We agreed with each other to share food and join armed force together at that time. But, now we have a misunderstanding with each other and have bad communication,” he said.