The Burmese military, notorious for recruiting under-aged fighters, has released two child soldiers to their families following pressure from a global labor rights watchdog.
Zaw Wai Lin, 16, and Nay Ye Lin, 15, who were conscripted into different military units, were both allowed to leave their barracks on Friday after each had spent nearly a year in forced service.
Both children had been the subject of RFA coverage after their parents reported the boys missing and local rights group Human Rights Defenders and Promoters (HRDP) filed cases on their behalf with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Zaw Wai Lin, of Rangoon division’s Hlaing Tharyar township, told RFA that he was released from the Mandalay 111 Directorate of Signal in front of local authorities and his parents.
"A group of army officers, one local authority, and my parents were present when they released me. They didn’t say anything when I was set free,” he said.
“I will be going back to school next year. For now, I will help my mom with farming."
Zaw Wai Lin said he was forced to join the army in September last year at the age of 15.
When his parents asked the HRDP for help and filed the case with the ILO, he said, the military withheld his salary. Six months later, he said he has never received the money.
Nay Ye Lin, of Zigon township in Bago region’s Pyay district, was forced to join the military in early 2011.
During his training, Nay Ye Lin said he managed to escape twice, but was arrested by the army each time and tortured on his return.
When his case was brought to the attention of the ILO, the military promised to pay him 100,000 kyat (U.S. $150) for his suffering as a minor, but he never received the compensation.
He was also released Friday and returned to his parents’ home in Yetarshe village.
In a separate case, authorities last week released a former child soldier who had spent more than seven years in prison for a shooting incident during his time in the military.
Phyo Sithu, of Bogyok village in Rangoon division, had been forcibly recruited by the military in 2003 when he was 13 years old.
He was sentenced to death at the age of 14 for his involvement in a shooting that left one person dead and another injured following a dispute with fellow soldiers.
Robert San Aung, an attorney who assisted with the case, told RFA that authorities had illegally sentenced Phyo Sithu to death.
"When he was sentenced to death, they ignored the fact that he was a child, and according to Article 46 of the 2003 law that protects children rights, the sentence was wrong,” he said.
San Aung said he appealed to higher authorities, the ILO, UNICEF, and other relevant agencies beginning in December 2010.
In May 2011, after historic elections ended junta rule of Burma and ushered in a nominally-civilian government, Phyo Sithu’s sentence was commuted to life in prison as part of a general amnesty granted by incoming President Thein Sein.
San Aung again appealed to authorities to release Phyo Sithu, claiming that children are by law subject to a maximum of seven years in prison for the crime he had committed.
"We appealed again to the defense minister and to the chief of army, as well as to international organizations in July 2011,” he said.
It was with the help of the international community and other concerned groups that he secured Phyo Sithu’s release on Sept. 2, seven years and nearly four months after entering Kalay prison.
Phyo Sithu said he had no idea that he would be released.
"They told me only 30 minutes before the release. They told me, ‘Take your belongings and pack.’ Then they brought me to the office, handed me a paper and released me," he said.
"There was no explanation about my release. On the paper I received, it said my sentence was commuted to seven years—that's it."
In its annual Human Rights Report, the U.S. State Department said Burma’s government army continued to recruit and use child soldiers in 2010, despite an age requirement of 18 years to enlist and an official policy to avoid conscripting children.
It said sources indicated the number of child soldiers may have risen to 12,000, although accurate statistics were difficult to obtain.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Burmese army has recruited children as young as 10 years old.
Parents seeking assistance in freeing their children from military duty have enlisted HRDP to investigate 24 cases of forced conscription from April 2010 to April 2011.
Despite intervention from the ILO, only five of the children have been released.
The Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, one of the largest armed forces in Asia with an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 personnel, has often been charged with committing abuses on ethnic minorities, including the forced relocation of villages, forced labor, and systematic human rights abuses, including rape.
Human Rights Watch and Karen Human Rights Group said in a jointly issued report in July that the military also carries out deliberate attacks on civilian villages and towns, torture, extrajudicial executions, and the use of child soldiers.
Reported by Zaw Moe Kyaw and Ko Ko Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.