NORTHERN THAILAND—Burmese military commanders routinely assign troops to recruit children to work in military compounds, enticing them with false promises of a monthly salary, an army officer who fled to Thailand this year said.
Enlisted soldiers “are just told to go and look for new recruits. Some are asked to look for new recruits while they are on home leave. There are also some who are specifically assigned to look for new recruits,” the former army captain said.
“They would have to go to Rangoon, and to Mandalay and to other places. They have to look for new recruits in those places,” he said. “It’s all official.”
“When they enlist new recruits they usually use their own methods to get them. For example, they would tell the new recruits that in the army they will be given free food and that they will be paid a monthly salary,” he said in an interview here.
The former captain, 24 and a member of the Arakanese ethnic minority, served for four years in Burma’s all-powerful military. He also described in detail how officers pocket the salaries, eat the rations, and sell the uniforms of deserters.
He fled the country in mid-2009 and now lives near the Thai-Burma border, where he is protected by other former officers who served in the armed forces of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as Burma’s ruling junta is known.
He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relatives who remain in Burma. His account is consistent with those of other former soldiers and of children who have escaped from military service.
Poorly educated children
Many of the children who are recruited “don’t have a lot of education, and their intelligence is quite underdeveloped,” he said, adding that some appear as young as 13.
Asked how many he had seen, the captain replied, “Quite a lot. Sometimes up to four, five, six of them. But they don’t last long with us. They run away.”
Some of the child recruits “are no longer under the care of their parents. These young children hang around in tea-shops doing odd jobs, so it would be easy to forcibly take them in. Sometimes they are enticed with promises of a better life in the army,” he said.
Once they arrive at military camps, young recruits live with soldiers in the barracks.
“Usually they are assigned to help in the kitchen where food is cooked for the soldiers. Like looking for firewood, carrying water, and other odd jobs around the kitchen…They are not given any monthly salary before they become soldiers.”
Asked if any of the children were beaten, he replied, “Only if they clash with the soldiers who are looking after them.”
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 New York-based Human Rights Watch.
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.
In a report last year 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.
Brokers received up to U.S. $32 per recruit, while 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.
The officer also said troops in the junta’s armed forces routinely fail to report desertions when soldiers flee, then pocket their salaries, consume their rations—rice, oil, salt, chili and beans—and sell their uniforms.
When soldiers run away, “battalion commanders do not immediately report this to the higher levels. They would keep the list of AWOLs secret for about two to four months with an understanding within the battalion.”
“The battalion commanders would keep the salaries, rations, and uniforms of the AWOLs themselves without issuing them to anyone else,” he said, using the U.S. military acronym for deserters, Away Without Leave (AWOL).
“Our battalion commander keeps all of that only for himself,” he said. “There are at least 20 deserters a year.”
A battalion commander’s monthly salary is 150,000-160,000 kyat (U.S. $150-160), while an enlisted private earns about 21,000 kyat (U.S. $21), he said.
The U.S. dollar is commonly traded on Burma's black market at the rate of U.S. $1 to 1,000 kyat, although the official rate of exchange is U.S. $1 to six kyat.
In a case first reported by Radio Free Asia, Burmese authorities returned a child soldier to his family in November 2008, five months after recruiting him in violation of its own policy and United Nations conventions.
Fifteen-year-old Ye Lin Htet was returned to his family on Nov. 12, 2008, after the International Labor Organization (ILO) aided his mother in producing documents that proved the boy was too young to enlist as a soldier.
A community member and activist who assisted Myint Kyway in reporting her son’s situation to the ILO said authorities pressured her to keep quiet.
Ye Lin Htet said he was taken from the Rangoon general train station along with three other children and sent to a basic military training camp in Thaton.
“They said, ‘Come along if you want to join the army’ and took us away. I went because I was angry at my family,” Ye Lin Htet said.
Original reporting by Khin May Zaw for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.