Sunday, November 16, 2008

‘I struggled to carry my gun’- the Child Soldiers of Burma

November 15th, 2008 by King Kong Janoi Print This Post/Page

Burma_Ckild_Soldier.JPGBurma has the largest number of child soldiers in the world.

The overwhelming majority of Burma’s child soldiers are found in the national army, which forcibly recruits children as young as 11, although armed opposition groups use child soldiers as well.

Burma’s army has doubled in size since 1988, and with an estimated 350,000 soldiers is now one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia.

The US based right ground Human Rights Watch says 20 percent or more of Burma’s active duty soldiers may be children under the age of 18.

Army deserters are severely punished so many child soldiers that escape the military flee across the border into refugee camps in Thailand.

At one such camp in Mae Hong Son province north of Thailand, King Kong Janoi met with some former child soldiers and has their story.

Children learn English in a refugee camp in Northern Thailand.

They’re all ethnic Karen and have fled across the border from Burma to escape the civil war.

Amongst them is 18 year old Yae Lay. He is a former child solider.

“They captured me while I was coming back from seeing a movie. They accused me of breaking the night time curfew and told me I had two choices- join the military or go to jail. As I was just a little boy I was afraid of jail so I decided to join the army.”

Yae Lay was just eleven years old when he began serving with the Light Infantry Battalion 135.

He is from Pugo Township in central Burma but he was sent to fight in the Shan State against Shan State Army troops.

“I was just a little boy so I couldn’t carry the gun. At first I was nervous. I was really afraid of all the gun fire around me. I will never forget seeing some of my friends die in front of me. They were my age. The young ones were often send to the front line to get more experience. I was very lucky that I survived and didn’t step on a land mine.”

Human Rigths watch says there are reports of children being used to clear land mines at the frontline.

Way Lin says he lost his foot this way.

He joined the Burmese military when he was 11 and fought against the Karen National Union in Southern Burma for seven years.

He tried to escape many times and finally managed to cross the border into Thailand with the help of Karenni troops.

Way Lin now walks with the help of a plastic foot. He says it still causes him pain.

“I sometime cry because I miss my mom and my family but there is no chance for me to find them. I have to stay calm. When I get refugee status in America or Australia I hope I can contact my family. That’s what the UNHCR has told me. I am waiting to leave this camp.”

While waiting to be granted refugee status in a wealthy nation he helps other disabled children in the camp.

He says it takes time for child soldiers to return to normal life.

Yae Lay says he often gets nightmares that he is back in the military.

“I often dream that they will find me and arrest me. When I wake up I have to calm myself done and tell myself that I am safe now. But I am still nervous all the time. If they find me again my life is over.”

Burma’s army has doubled in size since 1988, and with an estimated 350,000 soldiers is now one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia.

UNHCR Worker in the camp Sayar Tun Tun predicts the recruitment of children will continue.

“The reason they use children is because they can train then do do whatever they want. It’s hard to persuade adults to join the military because the salary is so low so they target young boys.”

Burma consultant Sunai Phasuk from Human Right Watch says while the Burmese military have made promises to end the practice of using child soldiers it’s unlikely they will do it.

“The Burmese government seems to be more sensitive to international pressure because having children in armed forces is so obvious, you cannot hide them from the international scrutiny. So we are seeing more and more responses from the Burmese government at least on papers with orders to units of the ground to stop recruiting children but the problem in Burma is that those orders have not translated into action on the ground. So we are still see children being recruited.

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