Friday, August 21, 2009

The Story of a Child Soldier

The Irrawaddy News

PAPUN, Karen State—Sixteen-year-old Htun Htun Oo, looked relieved and happy when he learned he would be leaving the conflict zone controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers on the Burmese bank of the Salween River, opposite Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province.

The prospect of going to study instead of facing more military duties gave him new hope.

Told he could leave, Htun Htun Oo quickly packed his clothes in a sling bag, put on a watch, applied some Thanaka (Burmese traditional makeup) to his cheeks and said goodbye to the Karen soldiers who had temporarily taken care of him.
A young soldier with the Burmese army (Not Htun Htun Oo)

Speaking quietly against a background of birdsong and eddying water in the fast flowing Salween River, he told us his story before he left.

Htun Htun Oo escaped from the Burmese Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 341 in Papun District in northern Karen State in July, making his way through the forest eastwards, even though he was not sure whether he would be killed when he reached KNLA-controlled territory.

Before he escaped, senior officers had regularly warned the troops that they would be tortured and killed if they surrendered to Karen rebels.

“Whether I lived or died didn’t matter anymore,” Htun Htun Oo said, “All I wanted to do was escape. I was ready for anything so long as I didn’t have to stay another day in that battalion.”

He said that he had to sleep rough in the jungle for three days before he reached the KNLA area.

“When I arrived on the Burmese side of the Salween River, I started to swim across,” he said, pointing to the waters swollen with monsoon rain streaming by.

“The water was too fast and I was drifting downstream, trying to swim,” he said, “Luckily a boat came along and picked me up.

“The Burmese officers would continually punish us and order us to do additional duties—we were no better than slaves,” he said.

“They didn’t give us enough food, and when we were too exhausted to follow orders, they liked to beat us. I was beaten three times for falling asleep when I was on guard duty at night.

“Every morning we had to get up at five and do military exercises,” Htun Htun Oo said. “Around three in the afternoon we would be ordered into the jungle to cut bamboo and collect leaves to make temporary shelters.

“We didn’t get enough time to sleep as we had guard duty at night. I couldn’t take it any more and decided to run away,” he said.

Htun Htun Oo earned 21,000 kyat [US $19] a month, but said he only got about 7,000 kyat [$6.40] after senior officers made deductions.

Htun Htun Oo said he saw child soldiers in other Burmese battalions, and he knew of eight other child soldiers in LIB 341 alone.

During military training, he said he spoke with a younger comrade called Ye Thew, who told him he had been sexually abused by higher ranking officers on several occasions.

Htun Htun Oo was seized by the Burmese army at a railway station in June 2007 while he was on his way to visit his uncle, who was a policeman in Rangoon,.

“A Burmese soldier asked me for my ID card, but I didn’t have one because I hadn’t applied for one by then. So they took me away,” he said.

Htun Htun Oo’s case is not untypical. The recruitment of child soldiers in Burma is still widely practiced by the Burmese army, according to Aye Myint, a leader of Guiding Star, a Burma-based social and labor rights group.

In the last three months, more than 20 children who say they were forced by Burmese officials to serve as soldiers were helped by Aye Myint’s group and the International Labour Organization to return to their families.

Commenting in early August on reports that the Burmese government had released some children from the military, the UN’s special representative for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, was quoted by Reuters as saying: “We still are not sure how comprehensive that is and the extent of it. And so I am dispatching a team [to Burma] at the end of this month.”

The team would hold talks with the Burmese regime and rebel groups, said Coomaraswamy.
In a report in June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused the Burmese military government and “ethnic rebel militias” of recruiting children to serve as fighters, saying that there had been “grave violations” against children in Burma.

According to a 2002 report by the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, there is no precise figure of the number of child soldiers serving in the Burmese army, but it was estimated that 35-45 percent of new recruits were children, some as young as 11, who were forcibly conscripted and brutally treated during training.

The report estimated that as many as 70,000 recruits were under the age of 18.
Htun Htun Oo said, “I have only one message for the youth of Burma—don’t even think about joining the Burmese army. It is like being in a living hell. You will go so far from home that you will forget it even exists.”

Asked about the Burmese regime’s announcement that the military did not recruit child soldiers, he said, “They are lying.”

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