Meeting Myanmar's former child soldiers

Teenagers continue to serve in both the state military and armed groups, despite new approach by country's leaders.

    Meeting Myanmar's former child soldiers
    Myanmar recently acknowledged, for the first time, the presence of child soldiers within its armed forces [AFP]

    Thai-Myanmar border
    - There is resilience in his voice despite his otherwise shy demeanour. As he sits down with us to a cup of instant coffee, on the floor of a traditional wooden house, he appears determined.

    There is not an inkling of hesitation in his voice, despite a slight quiver. "The truth must be shared with the world," he explains. "And that is why I am speaking about my experiences today, for the first time."

    Myat Win, a 19-year-old former child soldier, says he was forcibly conscripted into the Myanmar military, taken off a street by a pair of policemen at the tender age of 15 and sent to an army traning centre under deceitful promises, and without the knowledge of his family.

    According to numerous reports by human rights organisations, many other children of Myanmar have shared Myat Win's fate, while many more may have lost either their futures or their lives upon being forcibly conscripted into the state armed forces. Additionally, an unknown number of child soldiers continue to serve in non-state armed groups, thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of violence.

    Watch Myanmar's former child soldiers tell their own stories

    Those underage combatants who manage to escape the clutches of their army commanders often cross through the porous border to Thailand. They seek refuge in "safe houses", faced with little choice between being caught by Thai authorities and sent back to succumb to the will of their troop leaders, or living in secrecy without an identity or recourse.

    Amid all the 'reform'

    Although the 2010 elections may have brought little solace to the majority's democratic will in Myanmar, the new administration has surprised even some of the most harsh critics with an approach geared towards political and economic stability through never-before-made promises and initiatives - and even relatively free and fair by-elections in April of this year.

    As part of this trend, over the month of July, the government of Myanmar made unprecedented vows in relation to child soldiers.

    A joint action plan signed between the ministry of defence and a UN Task Force vowed to "halt child soldier recruitment and discharge existing recruits under age 18".

    It was the first instance in which Myanmar's leadership not only acknowledged the presence of child soldiers within their armed forces, but also promised to "repatriate" them to their families and communities.

    Most observers concur that Myanmar has entered a new era in its political history.

    Early this year, peace negotiations started with some tangible results and unprecedented levels of commitment from different sides of the nation's conflicts, albeit without full resolution of some issues that have persisted for decades, such as official autonomy and recognition for Myanmar's ethnic minorities. High levels of militarisation in these areas means that "normalisation" will be a long and gradual process.

    It has been fascinating for civil society actors, the UN, experts and journalists to witness a situation that was stagnant for decades to quickly transform into a positive start for "reform initiatives". Like a phoenix rising, just when observers thought Myanmar would either wither away without international attention or undergo a "Spring" uprising of its own, the new government in Naypyidaw appears to have adopted a progressive approach. Co-operating with humanitarian agencies has been part of the administration's attempts to convince the international community that they intend to rectify the country's apalling human rights record.

    "The Burmese army still forcibly recruits children from public places, often through civilian recruiters, and coerces them to join the army."

    - Matthew Smith, Human Rights Watch

    But, according to Human Rights Watch, total eradication of under-age recruitment will be a long process. "The Burmese army still forcibly recruits children from public places, often through civilian recruiters, and coerces them to join the army," explains Matthew Smith, a researcher at HRW.

    "Abducted kids are typically offered an option to go to prison or enlist, and they usually choose the latter, at which point their documents are falsified."

    International co-operation

    International and local human rights groups cite a gradual and significant change in the government's willingness to tackle core issues. Most point to a shift from a pervasive culture of official denial and lack of access, to acknowledgement of human rights abuses and, most recently, a pragmatic willingness to initiate "plans of action".

    The International Labour Organisation has, for the past five years, engaged in negotiations with the Myanmar government to formulate a plan of action under Security Council Resolution 1612. The resolution, adopted by the Security Council in 2005, established a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the use of child soldiers.

    "With the holding of the elections and the establishment of the new government, the situation has been markedly different with government representatives, military and civilian, prepared to address all elements of the issue culminating in the signing of an agreed plan of action in June of this year, " explained Steve Marshall, information officer at the ILO.

    "Intensive discussions are now underway and are progressing positively on protocols for its implementation."

    The signing of a memorandum of understanding between the ILO and the Myanmar government pledges to work towards elimination of all forced labour, including under-age recruitment, by 2015.

    Long-term preventative measures are integral elements of both the Security Council resolution and the ILO action plan.

    Marshall is confident that the cycle of recruitment can be broken through "extensive educational/awareness raising programmes targeted at military personnel, civilian government personnel and the general public".

    "A formal [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration] programme must be co-ordinated and systematic, and it should involve other stakeholders including members of the UN and civil society. "

    - Mike Paller, HREIB

    Additionally, he explains that the new agreement will include concrete procedures for monitoring children once they have been discharged from the military - to prevent those released from being re-absorbed into the armed forces.

    But anti-child soldier coalitions and NGOs are still awaiting the large-scale dismantling of child recruitment to take place with full transparency and access to information.

    Mike Paller, former director at the Thailand-based Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), explains that lack of "formal disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes" in Myanmar might make it difficult for the latest promises to be followed by sufficient action.

    "A formal DDR programme must be co-ordinated and systematic, and it should involve other stakeholders including members of the UN and civil society," he points out.

    As explained by many civil society activists such as Paller, successful re-integration of child soldiers into their communities would require investment in psycho-social support, education, vocational training and other means of facilitating a return to normal life.

    Meanwhile, Marshall explains "children released or discharged from the military both by the military itself and under the ILO mechanism are routinely referred to UNICEF" for rehabilitation. But NGOs point out that much of the long-term effort for re-integration and rehabilitation would eventually need to emanate from a domestic level - to come from Myanmar itself.

    Despite the latest agreements, new reports of child soldiers deserting the Myanmar military and being recaptured by their units have emerged, although without verification of the details and whereabouts of these children. Without full access to the military's training centres and security threats for child soldiers who defect, it appears impossible to verify the number of under-age soldiers in the armed forces.

    Additionally, human rights groups point out that the latest agreements are not "public documents" and therefore not binding.

    Among the rebels

    "It is common to encounter families who enlist troubled children to the ethnic army for disciplinary reaons. These would be alcohol- and drug-addicted kids who should be in drug treatment programmes rather than learning basic combat."

    - Matthew Smith, Human Rights Watch

    While the forcible conscription of underage recruits by the state army is deemed a "black and white" situation in terms of violation of international laws, the issue of child soldiers in non-state armed groups has been a comparatively murky issue, given the informal political status of the self-proclaimed ethnic leaderships and the frequent "willingness" and "voluntary commitments" of the children serving on the side of the "rebels".

    HRW's Matthew Smith further points out that, in minority areas exposed to high levels of militarisation and chronic strife over decades, children often volunteer to serve in non-state armed groups, with the consent of their families.

    Despite the under-age soldiers volunteering their services to the armed groups, does this still constitute forced labour? "All types of recruitment are inexcusable and are violations of international law," explains Smith.

    "It is common to encounter families who enlist troubled children to the ethnic army for disciplinary reasons. These would be alcohol- and drug-addicted kids who should be in drug treatment programmes rather than learning basic combat."

    Although the government has yet to provide NGOs with unimpeded access to their military sites, there has been some co-operation and dialogue between organisations such as HREIB and some non-state armed groups.

    "It would be impossible to characterise the attitude of all leaders, but the few that I have met with are open to dialogue and have expressed commitments to comply with international standards," explains Paller, who has facilitated human rights training and educational workshops for leaders of armed groups and those serving in them.

    But, just as with the government forces, the "rebel" groups must also prove their commitment through active demobilisation and preventative measures, says Paller.

    There has been increasing documentation by HRW and other groups of child soldiers serving in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and of the capturing of conscripted child soldiers from the Myanmar forces by KIA rebels since fighting broke out in Kachin State in July 2011.

    Returning home

    Months after my first interviews with the former child soldiers in 2011, I met again with Myat Win.

    The desperation in his voice was evident. He had "lost" his ID to the local police who arrested him for being "illegal", and had just spent two months' wages to be set free.

    At 20 years of age and a former combatant, lacking any non-military training or experience, Myat Win is left with few options in Thailand, is unable to return to his hometown in Myanmar and is unlikely to be accepted for resettlement into a third country.

    Marshall explains that "cases of children recruited underage who run away - and are subsequently declared as alleged deserters - are encompassed in the action plans [which] would include all such persons whether they remain inside Myanmar or have left the country".

    Paller also advises formal re-integration programmes inside the country over ad-hoc re-settlement initiatives in third-party countries, which are sometimes the only options due to slow progress.

    "The government must guarantee that children are not under threat if they return to Burma."

    - Mike Paller, HREIB

    "The government must guarantee that children are not under threat if they return to Burma," he said.

    Translating promises to action

    The time is opportune, claim all observers, to maximise the benefits of the expanding humanitarian space that is being afforded by the government in Naypyidaw.

    Kim Jolliffe, an expert on conflict and displacement in ethnic minority states, said that the international community can play a pivotal role in ensuring the implementation of new agreements.

    "I think organisations aiming to apply this pressure would get further by taking a stance of helping the Myanmar government integrate into the international community and developing a professional and functioning military more than it would by making threats of penalisation for previous war crimes," he explains.

    Given the purportedly endemic practice of using under-age civilians in conflict by the different sides, total elimination will require continued documentation of child soldier recruitment and holding perpetrators accountable without impunity.

    "Unadulterated reportage from human rights groups, outlining the severity of the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Myanmar and how that violates both Myanmar and international law," is crucial at this juncture, says Jolliffe.

    It is likely that the process of "repatriating" current and former child soldiers to their communities can only be successful if the government guarantees their safe return and facilitates this in coordination with UN agencies and NGOs - with full disclosure of their numbers and locations.

    Meet three of Myanmar's former child soldiers, and a battalion commander, and listen to their stories here: Myanmar's former child soldiers speak out

    Follow Preethi Nallu on Twitter: @preethinallu 



    From the US to Afghanistan: Rediscovering the mother who left me

    From the US to Afghanistan: Rediscovering the mother who left me

    Tracee Herbaugh's mother, Sharon, abandoned her when she was born, pursuing a career from which she never returned.

    Could mega-dams kill the mighty River Nile?

    Could mega-dams kill the mighty River Nile?

    For Ethiopia, a new dam holds the promise of much-needed electricity; for Egypt, the fear of a devastating water crisis.

    The evening death came for me: My journey with PTSD

    The evening death came for me: My journey with PTSD

    On a gorgeous Florida evening, a truck crashed into me. As I lay in intensive care, I learned who had been driving it.