Rebels in Burma’s Kachin state are forcibly recruiting civilians, including children as young as 16, to join their ranks in a fight for independence against Burmese government troops, despite recent peace talks, a Kachin pastor said Friday.
The Rev. Thomas Gwan Rai Aung, an ethnic Kachin Roman Catholic pastor, said that soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) came to his village about 30 miles (50 kilometers) away from the Kachin state capital Myitkyina on at least two occasions and took several people away with them.
“We had a [traditional] Kachin Manao Festival on Feb. 11. The KIA came to this festival and took several people to serve as soldiers,” the pastor told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“And they came to a [separate] religious event and took about 20 people who were mostly students and teachers before this as well,” he said, adding that several of those taken were women and girls.
“I am very saddened by this.”
Thomas Gwan Rai Aung said that the soldiers, who announced themselves as members of the KIA, were unlikely to have known that the people they had taken were teachers, but said that “they were only there to recruit.”
He said that the students were around the age of 16 or 17.
“Nothing like this has ever happened in the past. Now we are trying to approach the KIA leaders to talk about the situation because the lower level KIA soldiers might not know that they shouldn't do things like this,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people have fled fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military since June 2011 when a 17-year cease-fire agreement was shattered.
Last week, after more than a month of particularly fierce fighting, officials from the Burmese government and the KIA met for talks brokered by Beijing and agreed to hold another round of talks by the third week of February with the aim of reaching a "strong cease-fire," but tensions between the two sides remain.
Thomas Gwan Rai Aung said he had sent requests by letter to the KIA headquarters in Laiza town, informing them about the incidents and advising them, as a religious leader, to release the villagers. But he said he had received no answer.
“I want to go and see them in person, but I can't do this because I am unhealthy. If I could go and see them in person, I could deal with them,” he said, noting that many ethnic Kachin follow the Christian faith.
Concerns for children
The pastor said that the family members of the villagers who were taken are extremely concerned for their loved ones.
“They are worried for their children because the children are students. They are the future hope of these families,” he said.
Thomas Gwan Rai Aung said he was unsure exactly how many children were among those forcibly recruited by the KIA soldiers.
“I don't know the exact number. I only know that there were at least two female teachers, two female students, a boy student and a ferry captain who took the students to school on the river that were included in the group taken,” he said.
The pastor said that he expects the KIA leadership to heed his call to release the villagers, but he added that a refusal would be particularly troubling in light of the recent peace talks between the KIA and the government.
“Now is the time to do so with the hope for peace. We expect developments towards peace—any development at all!”
When asked if he feared reprisals for speaking out against the actions of the KIA, Thomas Gwan Rai Aung said he had nothing to be afraid of.
“Why should I be afraid of them? I am ethnic Kachin and they are as well,” the pastor said.
“There are many good things that the KIA is doing, but there are some [KIA] people who don't do good things—just like there are both bad and good people in the government,” he said.
“The government’s policy is good, but some people in the government are not good … This shouldn’t prevent negotiations.”
Last month, the London-based Child Solders International said that Burma’s military is still recruiting children to work in the armed forces, even though the government signed an agreement with the U.N. last year to strive to end the practice, and urged President Thein Sein’s administration to give the issue a top priority.
It said children are also present in the ranks of Burma’s border guard forces, which are made up of armed rebel groups that have agreed to be incorporated into the military after signing peace agreements with Burma’s government, and which have no program to demobilize child soldiers or to verify the ages of their recruits.
Burma’s military and armed rebel groups have also been found to press civilians and children into forced labor which includes acting as porters, growing crops, and sweeping for landmines.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.