BANGKOK—The military in Burma’s central Magwe division has returned a 14-year-old boy to his cancer-stricken mother after she took her plea for his release to the international media.
Sandar Win, who is suffering from cancer, told Radio Free Asia and the BBC’s Burmese service that army personnel had driven her away when she went to request Kyaw Min Htun’s release from a base where he had been held with other child recruits since Jan. 19.
But after Sandar Win provided interviews about her son's forced recruitment to the international media, authorities from Military Division 83 in Taung-dwin Gyi returned the boy to his home Jan. 30.
“On Saturday at 3:30 p.m., the district authority came to our home and took me on a motorcycle to the base [where he was held]. Four people were there. I’m not sure if they were soldiers because they weren’t wearing uniforms,” she said.
“They said they would return him to me and they asked me to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that he had not been harmed. They told me he had been well fed and treated with kindness.”
Sandar Win said that only after repeated appeals to the central authorities and her statement to the international press had the junta agreed to allow Kyaw Min Htun to return home.
Forced recruitment common
Sandar Win said that while she worked at her stall in the local marketplace Jan. 19, Kyaw Min Htun was offered alcohol by Sergeant Naing Win and followed the officer to a recruiting center.
She said that she had been allowed to see her son at the military base once following his recruitment, during which time he had pleaded with her to take him home, but military personnel barred her from leaving with the boy.
In a similar case, a boy named Ko Phyo, also from Taung-dwin Gyi, was returned to his home Jan. 25 after his parents agreed to pay the recruitment center 40,000 kyats (about U.S. $40).
Sandar Win said she was spared the fee in Kyaw Min Htun’s case because she is to poor to afford it.
A 10th-grader from Bago in central Burma was also released from military service last week.
Jo Becker, advocacy director for children rights at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said isolated incidents of children being released from military service in Burma after appeals by their parents or monitor groups like the International Labor Organization “are too few and too far between.”
She called the problem of child recruitment “much, much larger,” adding that “thousands” of children are likely recruited each year and not released because their cases are not brought to international attention.
“Unfortunately, the government hasn’t shown a clear commitment to identify all of the child soldiers in its forces and release them or to take preventative measures to make sure that children aren’t recruited in the first place,” Becker said.
She said recruiters also face tough quotas to meet recruitment goals.
“The recruiters are under tremendous pressure to meet recruitment quotas that are often unrealistic, and so they believe that the only way to meet those quotas is to basically coerce or lure children off of the streets,” Becker said.
Recruiters are also offered incentives in the form of either cash, bags of rice, or cooking oil, while officers taking in new recruits look the other way when children are underage.
“The government has said that they will take punitive or disciplinary action against recruiters that recruit underage children and they have given out some numbers, but they have not substantiated them in a really concrete way.”
Most child soldiers worldwide
Human rights groups and the United Nations have repeatedly cited Burma as possibly having the largest number of child soldiers in the world.
Thousands are swept up in recruitment drives by the ruling junta, and many also serve in armed ethnic insurgencies.
Some are as young as 10, their enlistment papers routinely falsified to indicate their ages as 18 or older, according to Human Rights Watch.
Aye Myint, a Burma-based human rights activist and lawyer who handles child soldier cases, said 121 incidents of forced recruitment were recorded in 2009 alone.
The United Nations Secretary General has cited Burma six times since 2002 in reports to the Security Council as among the world’s worst perpetrators of child recruitment.
Pressured to meet quotas
In a 2008 report on human rights practices around the world, the U.S. State Department noted that the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict had found evidence that:
"Both the government army and several armed insurgent and cease-fire groups, including the United Wa State Army, Kachin Independence Army, Karenni National People's Liberation Front, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Shan State Army-South, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Karen National Union Peace Council, recruited child soldiers."
The envoy reported that pressure to recruit for the junta had resulted in street children being lured into the army with promises of food and shelter.
Others were reportedly detained by police and offered the choice of joining the army or going to jail, according to the U.N. Special Representative.
Original reporting by Moe Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.