Thai-Myanmar border - Hiding with or joining the rebels, fleeing to Thailand or remaining on the run, the fates of Myanmar's former child soldiers differ greatly, though trauma and suffering haunt them all.
Under-age combatants - especially those who escaped after being forced to serve in the state armed forces - are currently unable to return home due to a combination of ostracism, the risk of being caught by authorities and a lack of legal protection under domestic laws. At the same time, they are reportedly afforded neither refugee nor asylum seeker status in Thailand because of their "combatant" backgrounds. In the absence of clear international and domestic mechanisms, many former child soldiers remain pariahs, awaiting a better future while confined to safe houses without a legitimate status or legal identity.
These former child soldiers claim they were forcibly conscripted by the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw). The testimonies were collected in late 2011. Since then, significant changes have reportedly taken place, in terms of the attitude of the new administration, unprecedented levels of cooperation with UN agencies in initiating comprehensive plans to "dismantle" under-age recruitment, and the returning home of current child soldiers. Meanwhile, comprehensive peace talks between 11 different ethnic groups and the government have yielded tangible results, albeit without a full resolution of conflict issues.
To further complicate legislation, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, "state parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities". The optional protocol to the convention calls for all parties to conflict to take "all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces".
Neither convention calls for absolute measures to end conflict, instead resorting to the term "feasible". Also, children who are between 15 and 18 years old are not fully protected, even if under-aged.
|Myat Win, recruited at age 15
"At Hokho labour camp in Shan State... a watcher always kept a close eye on me, counting the seconds loudly. If I fell short of the time limit, he would push me over and beat my legs and back with a stick.
"My body was bruised black and blue with a lot of bleeding under the skin. I was in so much pain. I was not allowed to scream. The more, I did, the more he beat me. I could not escape from him...
"I just tried to distract myself and closed my eyes. I missed my home."
During a series of interviews, Myat Win explained that he was stopped on his way home from a football match by two policemen and taken into custody for breaking curfew. He was then told by the officials that he was being sent to "football training" but was instead taken to a military training centre. He escaped from training and went into hiding but eventually turned himself in, due to pressure from local authorities on his family. He was sentenced to hard labour and, upon being released, crossed the border to Thailand after being ostracised within his community.
|Aung Ko Khine, recruited at age 14
"I fought against the rebels for eight months as part of the Myanmar Army... During that time I was forced to kill my close friend, my comrade, with my own two hands... I took my gun and killed my commander who gave the order and then ran away.
"I arrived in a village under the Karen 5th brigade and I told them that I would keep my gun and fight alongside them."
Aung Ko Khine said that he was taken off a street by a pair of state army officials and forcefully conscripted. He also claimed that, upon escaping from the state armed forces, he joined an ethnic non-state armed group to fight against the atrocities being committed by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army).
According to his testimonial, he lost his eyesight and sustained severe injuries during a de-mining operation. This interview was interrupted by an impromptu inquiry by local Thai police and had to be shortened due to security concerns for Aung Ko Khine.
|Myint Khine, recruited at age 17
"They put me in a pitch black cell, scraped my shins and electrocuted me... they tied me up and electrocuted my legs and if that did not work, they would scrape my legs again.
"They would then force me to kneel on broken glass with my arms in an airplane position. The worst thing is that they would beat me with a stick after this... until I fell unconscious.
"They would shove a huge piece of fish and chili paste in my mouth and I had to hold it... I wanted to commit suicide. I just wanted to die."
Myint Khine claims he was forced to serve in the state armed forces by recruitment officials, who used his father's politically active background as a threat against him and his family.
He said that prior to being conscripted he was detained and severely tortured for six months because of his family background. He was made to serve in the army despite his poor eyesight and chronic health problems.
|Pyin Zaw, former battalion commander
"I had around 20 ranked under me... There are a total of 1,000 to 1,500 battalions in the army. So if each has 30-50 total in each, you can do the math yourself."
Pyin Zaw volunteered information on systematic recruitment practices encouraged by the state armed forces with financial incentives and mandating officials to contribute a certain number of new recruits every year.
He explained that, unlike when he first started to serve in the military in the 1970s, the morale of low-ranking soldiers and the reputation of the establishment had diminished, with the army unable to provide basic supplies to its serving members.
He claims the army's desperation to maintain a large force has been a leading reason behind recruitment of child soldiers. Children as young as 11 are, therefore, considered "valuable investments".
Since ending his military service, Pyin Zaw has worked with human rights NGOs along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The video testimonials are excerpts from the documentary Men at 15, by Preethi Nallu and Kim Jolliffe.
Follow them on Twitter: @preethinallu and @KimJollife8