Military 'tortures' child conscripts, cuts contact with parents
Two deserters from Burma's government army have recounted in exclusive interviews with RFA how they were forced into military service as children, beaten, and prevented from contacting their parents.
Corporal Than Naing was a member of a Burmese military group that deserted in the Thai-Burma border region to the opposition Shan State Army (SSA) on Nov. 24. He said army personnel in his hometown lay in wait for young boys of 13 and 14 in teashops and forced them to join the army.
"At the end of school, students would take pocket money from their parents and go to teashops," he told RFA after his arrival at an SSA camp. "The SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] government was lying in wait for that. As soon as the classes were dismissed, they would run to snatch the students. They would go and drag them away."
Children who didn't have national registration cards on them would be beaten up under interrogation, before being sent away to the army and prevented from contacting their parents, Than Naing said. He added that he was conscripted in exactly that manner in Ma U Bin city for failing to carry identification, at the age of 16.
"They would interrogate the children: 'Do you have your national registration card?' If they didn't have it, they would hit and beat them. Only after that did they send them away to the army," Than Naing said.
Another deserter, Yan Paing Soe, said he was dragged away by soldiers in spite of having an identification card, and a reference letter on him-his captors tore up these documents and accused him of not having them.
"They took me to the army camp in Tamwe and punched me," Yan Paing Soe said. "There were about two people in front of me. They had also been punched that way. There was bleeding, so I got scared and said I would join them."
He said that poor food, constant deductions from salaries, and backbreaking toil even for those just returned from fighting meant that many more government troops would desert if they got the chance.
"It was as if they were torturing the soldiers. And that's why the soldiers who remained back there didn't want to do it any more. Everyone knew that we could come here but there's been no opportunity yet — ; I'm 75 percent certain that they'll come here," he said.
According to Than Naing, the Burmese junta runs many training schools and recruitment centers. "There are quite a lot of them. The training schools are in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mingaladon, Mandalay, and Toungoo," he said.
"They did say that we could contact our parents and that we would get a reply if we wrote them a letter. We did write them letters but we never got a reply," he added.
Some parents were able to redeem their children by paying steep fines, but most heard nothing more from their children for several years-seven years in Than Naing's case, he told RFA.
Once in the military, the children were expected to shoulder the same tasks as grown men, he said. "They would beat or swear at children who are unmanageable when climbing mountains. There were children who couldn't climb the mountains. They beat them and made them climb," Than Naing said.
"Some died because of their health conditions. Some became ill and died. Some caught malaria. Malaria was really bad. They were buried when they died... But what difference is it going to make for the parents? They're already dead," he said.
The government has denied recruiting or using child soldiers. According to a 2003 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, thousands of boys, some as young as 11, have been forced into Burma's national army, with soldiers under the age of 18 making up around 20 percent of troops.
Once deployed, conscripts are forced to fight against Burma's ethnic minorities and other opposition forces, and to participate in human rights abuses against civilians, including rounding up villagers for forced labor, burning villages, and carrying out extrajudicial executions.
On Dec. 3, RFA reported Than Naing and Yan Paing Soe's defections-along with two dozen other soldiers-to opposition forces in the Shan States border region, after killing their commanding officers.
One group of 13 soldiers led by Lt. Kyaw Win of the 132nd Light Infantry Division based in Mauk Mai, southern Shan State, surrendered to the rebel Shan State Army (SSA) Nov. 24. Another group of 13 soldiers from the 4th platoon of the 514th Light Infantry Division from Tone Long Camp surrendered to the SSA Nov. 26.
The military is the single most powerful institution in Burma, having run the country without interruption for four decades. Military officers and their families enjoy privileges unknown to civilians, and desertion by such a large group of soldiers is unprecedented.