Scarred for life

> Child sol­diers in Myan­mar’s civil war find it painfully hard to in­te­grate back into so­ci­ety af­ter their re­lease

The Sun (Malaysia) - - FEATURE -

DARK­NESS was fall­ing across the pagoda out­side Yan­gon when a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer walked up to Su Thet Htoo and gave him two choices: go to jail or join the un­told ranks of child sol­diers in Myan­mar’s army.

Fright­ened and alone, the then 16-year-old chose mil­i­tary ser­vice, be­gin­ning a two-year or­deal that would see him cut off from his fam­ily, beaten, sent to the front line and turned into an al­co­holic.

No one knows ex­actly how many chil­dren are still among the es­ti­mated 500,000 troops that serve in Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary or the rebel mili­tias wag­ing in­sur­gen­cies against the state.

The army and seven eth­nic armed groups have been listed by the United Na­tions as us­ing un­der­age fight­ers – those be­low the age of 18 – as they clash in the coun­try’s bor­der­lands.

In ma­jor cities such as Yan­gon and Man­dalay, re­cruiters are known to scour parks, pago­das and bus and rail­way sta­tions for poor and vul­ner­a­ble boys who they threaten, drug or tempt with prom­ises of well-pay­ing jobs.

Many, like Su, are taken with­out a word from their fam­i­lies, who as­sume they are dead af­ter months with­out con­tact.

Now 21, the as­pir­ing me­chanic says he is fo­cused on build­ing a new life on his own af­ter years of painful rein­te­gra­tion into so­ci­ety.

“I do not want to re­mem­ber those painful ex­pe­ri­ences,” he tells AFP.

Re­cruit­ment of un­der­age fight­ers has slowed since the mil­i­tary stepped down from junta rule in 2011 and started eas­ing its grip af­ter five decades of bru­tal dom­i­na­tion that drove the South­east Asian coun­try into dire poverty.

The army vowed to end the use of child sol­diers the fol­low­ing year and has worked with rights groups to re­lease hun­dreds of these young­sters in spo­radic batches.

But ex­perts say chil­dren re­main at risk as new un­der­age re­cruits con­tinue to trickle into the mil­i­tary.

“The Tat­madaw (Myan­mar army) have to keep up a level of strength, but they have dif­fi­cul­ties in re­cruit­ing, so they snatch peo­ple who are vul­ner­a­ble,” said Piya­mal Pichai­wongse, deputy li­ai­son of­fi­cer for the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ILO).

Many are sent to con­flict ar­eas such as the north­east­ern states of Kachin and Shan, where the army is fight­ing rebel groups.

Lo­cal chil­dren are of­ten swept up in the clashes – many are forced to join the eth­nic in­sur­gents but oth­ers vol­un­teer to fight in a bid to pro­tect their com­mu­ni­ties.

Su was taken to the Danyinkone re­cruit­ment camp out­side Yan­gon where of­fi­cers told him to lie and say he was 18.

He spent four-and-a-half months in train­ing be­fore he was de­ployed to work as a pa­trol guard on the front­line in the south­ern state of Karen, the site of long-run­ning eth­nic re­bel­lion.

Star­ing down at his tat­tooed hands in the dim light of the me­chan­ics’ of­fice, a wea­ried look in his eyes, he de­scribes how reg­u­lar beat­ings drove him to drink.

“I was beaten if I did some­thing wrong. Some­times, if I made a small mis­take, I was punched. So I started drink­ing al­co­hol,” he says.

Twice Su ran away to his par­ents and younger sis­ter. Both times he was caught, beaten and sent back to the army.

It was only when his mother called a hot­line set up by the UN for peo­ple to re­port child sol­diers and showed the army his birth cer­tifi­cate, that he was fi­nally al­lowed to leave.

He is among 800 un­der­age re­cruits that have been re­leased since 2012, ac­cord­ing to Unicef, which pro­vides coun­selling and helps the for­mer sol­diers re­turn to school or set up busi­nesses.

Pichai­wongse said the ILO also has a back­log of some 200 to 300 more cases of run­aways.

Like many, Su has found ad­just­ing to life out­side the army dif­fi­cult.

His re­la­tion­ship with his fam­ily broke down as his drink­ing con­tin­ued be­fore he fi­nally went to a Bud­dhist monastery to kick the habit. He now lives alone and is train­ing as a me­chanic.

Ber­trand Bain­vel, Unicef’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Myan­mar, said many for­mer child sol­diers are also spurned by their neigh­bours when they re­turn home.

“Many com­mu­ni­ties do not want to have among them a child who has com­mit­ted vi­o­lence,” he says.

“This is why it’s im­por­tant to work with the whole en­vi­ron­ment around the child.” – AFP

(left) No one knows how many child sol­diers are still in Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary but those who have been re­leased like Su (be­low) have had prob­lems rein­te­grat­ing into so­ci­ety.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.