Tue, Jul 13, 2010 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE : Myanmar troops seize vulnerable boys to work as child soldiers to keep numbers up

AFP , MAE SOT, THAILAND

A former child soldier Win Sein, whose name has been changed to protect his family, poses for a ­photograph on June 22 at an undisclosed location in Mae Sot, Thailand, near the border with ­Myanmar.

PHOTO: AFP

The spiky-haired teenager said he clearly recalls the day when Myanmar state troops whisked him from the streets of Mandalay, accused him of stealing and forced him to become a child soldier.

“They said if you don’t want to go to jail, you must join the army. I said I didn’t want to join, but whenever I said it they beat me again and again. When I agreed to join they stopped beating me,” Win Sein said.

He said he was homeless and aged about 15 — although he doesn’t know his birthday — when he was recruited less than two years ago, joining thousands of under-18s believed to be in Myanmar’s state army and ethnic armed groups.

After four months of boot camp, involving a grueling fitness regime, weapons training and corporal punishment, the youngster said he was sent to the frontline of civil war against ethnic rebels in remote jungle regions.

A year later, Win Sein fled his post and eventually escaped from the country, arriving in the Thai border town Mae Sot in March.

“The main reason was not the fighting, but because the sergeants were really, really brutal. They always insulted and beat the child soldiers,” he said.

“So I decided to run away, whatever happened to me,” he said.

While it is difficult to verify former child soldiers’ backgrounds, Myanmar analyst David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said Win Sein’s story was “sadly typical, in terms of training times, locations and the workload.”

Win Sein, whose name has been changed for this article to protect him and his family, is now in the care of Mae Sot-based aid group Social Action for Women (SAW), where he was initially reluctant to discuss his harrowing experience.

“After he arrived, he would lose control. He broke bottles and used the glass to cut his arm,” SAW’s director Aye Aye Mar said. “He didn’t talk. He didn’t answer any questions we asked. He didn’t trust anyone.”

Such psychological damage is typical in youngsters who have spent time in the army, said the director, who has looked after around 20 former child soldiers from Myanmar.

Win Sein said the children at his boot camp were forced to tell the ­lieutenant they had signed up voluntarily, and “­because they were afraid of the sergeants who recruited them, they lied about their age.”

Such underage enlistment, which is banned by law in Myanmar, is a result of regimental efforts to keep numbers up in the vast army rather than a central junta directive, Mathieson said.

“It’s basically free market recruitment,” he said. “It’s certainly not official — there’s no paper trail saying it’s coming from the war office in [the capital city] Naypyidaw.”

Mathieson said there are likely to be thousands of child soldiers in the state military, which is thought to be up to 400,000 strong.

And the problem is not confined to the official force in Myanmar, a nation ruled by the military since 1962 and embroiled in civil war in ethnic minority areas since gaining independence in 1948.

A UN report released in May named nine of the country’s ethnic armed groups, as well as the government army, for recruiting and using children in conflict, noting “extremely limited access” to monitor such forces.

Win Sein, who before his recruitment had run away from home to escape abuse by his stepfather, said street children were a particularly easy target for state troops who get paid or rewarded for filling military personnel quotas.

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