BANGKOK—Burmese authorities have returned a child soldier to his family five months after recruiting him in violation of its own policy and United Nations conventions, according to the boy and his mother.
Fifteen-year-old Ye Lin Htet was returned to his family on Nov. 12, after the International Labor Organization (ILO) aided his mother in producing documents that proved the boy was too young to enlist as a soldier.
“We went around looking for him, and I…found out that he was taken away on a 2 a.m. train to Pa-an. I contacted the ILO. The ILO helped me by asking for the required documents, and it didn't take long,” Myint Kyway said in an interview.
I went because I was angry at my family."
Ye Lin Htet
“The township officers and chairmen were called, and they took our pictures. We had to sign when we were given the army discharge certificate,” she said.
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 are serving in armed ethnic insurgencies.
Pressure to keep quiet
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.
“People in civilian clothes arrived and said they were from the health department. They asked if it was Ye Lin Htet’s house and asked for his documents so we gave them. After that, the Hlaing Thaya township chairman sent us a letter, summoning us and threatening us so that we would not report [the authorities] to these organizations,” the activist said.
“He said that if children are missing, we're to go and tell him. He would make sure that they are set free within two weeks. If he could not get the child out, then we could report it to anyone we want,” the activist said.
‘I was angry’
Ye Lin Htet said he was taken from the Rangoon general train station in July by Corporal Khin Maung Sint, along with three other children, and put on a train to Pa-an.
From Pa-an, the group was taken to Thaton and placed in a basic military training camp.
“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.
In October, the boy’s mother described to RFA’s Burmese service how she had learned of her son’s recruitment. She ultimately met with Corporal Khin Maung Sint, she said, adding, “he admitted that he had taken my son…”
Myint Kyway visited her son in Thaton, accompanied by three soldiers. When she asked him to come home, he declined, he said.
“Afterwards, I noticed that he looked as if he was afraid of something. And in front of the child, the soldiers said that if he ran away, he should know what happens to those who ran away, how they get beaten, and that he has seen them himself. The child looked really scared, and tears started to fall from his eyes. I had to leave crying, after that.”
Health Ministry officials subsequently came to her home to ask for proof of her son’s age, she said.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, the Burmese regime may have the largest number of child soldiers in the world—with thousands swept up in massive recruitment drives.
Some are as young as 10, Human Rights Watch says, their enlistment papers routinely falsified to indicate their ages as 18 or older.
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 its most recent 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. 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.
Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Than Than Win. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Joshua Lipes and Sarah Jackson-Han.