Lost Boys: Returning Burma’s Former Child Soldiers

In Dine Su, a settlement of bamboo huts on the banks of the Yangon River, residents live in close quarters. They are largely victims of government land grabs outside of the city to make room for luxury golf courses or housing condos. The Burmese Army uses the area as a hunting ground for new recruits. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Arkar Min and his colleagues leave their job hauling fish from trawlers to trucks, and walk towards a boat that will take them an hour up the Yangon River to their village. Their boss is a Chelsea fan, and requests that they wear the football strip as a uniform at work. Anyone missing the kit is fined 2000 kyat, the equivalent of $2, the same as their average daily wage. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Tun Tun Win remembers playing football at the edge of his village. A patch of dusty ground squeezed between an army base and a shipping port was used as a pitch. It was here that Win was lured into the army by a civilian broker at 14 years old. “If the military released all of the child soldiers, there would be no one left,” he said. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Yangon Train Station. The Burmese Army and its civilian brokers use the city’s dark bus stations, train stations, and ferry ports as recruiting grounds for young conscripts. Boys who are traveling home late at night are approached by the army and threatened with false charges. They are offered an ultimatum: a long prison term or recruitment. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Alongside the Burmese Army’s partial release of its child soldiers, and regardless of its continued forced recruitment of minors, billboards can be seen around Yangon displaying various messages of military innocence. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

At 15, Arkar Win (center) was lured away from his village by a man offering him driving lessons. He was drugged and awoke in an army base. “I was told I’d been sold to the [Burmese] Army for $80,” he said. Now 21, he’s free and working in a fish yard on the River Yangon. He earns $2 per day, and commutes an hour up the river to his village, Dine Su. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

The photograph of Aung Than Zaw is the only way for his parents to remember him. Two years ago he was arrested by police for playing in the street with two friends and was shipped to Da Nyin Gone Army recruitment base for forced processing. By the time he was 15 he was fighting on Shan State’s front line. With the help of the International Labour Organization, and the Child Protection Organization, Win Myint is negotiating his son’s release. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Win Myint and his wife, appealed to the International Labour Organization for the release of their son from underage enrollment into the Burmese Army. “This is human trafficking, it’s the same as prostitution,” says Win Myint, 52, as he waits for the return of his young son from the military. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Thein Myint works as an intermediary between villagers, and the International Labour Organization. She helps families find evidence of kidnapped children in the army’s training camps. Often she bribes her way into the 12 training facilities around the country, using meat or fish to pass to the malnourished guards. When she’s sure of a child’s location, she directs the family to the ILO with their case. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Tun Tun Win shows his army ID card, proving that he’s been discharged legally. Usually the army doesn’t begin awarding pensions until 60 years old. Tun Tun Win is drawing his now at the age of 30: $27 per month. He served a 14-year stretch with the army, beginning when he was 14 years old. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Kyaw Thura, 15, after finishing his four month training in Mon State in Eastern Burma. “There were rocks in the soup and sand in the rice,” he said. “And I missed home terribly.” Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Akar Min shows the pastry used to conceal sedatives by a broker that delivered him to the Burmese Army. “After I ate this, I couldn’t stay awake,” he said. “I woke half way though the next day. I was told I’d been sold to the [Burmese] Army for $80.” Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Kyaw Thura on his fifth day at his new welding job. He’s been out of military prison just over one week after defecting to the enemy and over the Thai border when he was 17. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Kyaw Thura is reunited with his 4-year-old son, after spending a year and a half in military prison. He’d been fighting at front line battles with the Burmese Army in the jungles of Karen State for over two years, and eventually defected when he was 17, hiding at the Thai border for four years. Now 23, he is a free man. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

One of the two jetties that former child soldier Arkar Min and his group work at together. When there is no work at one jetty, they make their way to the other. Usually they hope to earn around 2000 kyat, the equivalent of $2 per day. Image by Spike Johnson. Myanmar (Burma), 2014.

Thein Myint’s bamboo hut is filled with villagers looking for help: Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of the missing. Their boys were kidnapped by the Burmese Army and recruited for active service. In the 20 square foot shack in the shanty town of Dine Su, on the edge of the Yangon River in the country also known as Myanmar, people crowd into the small space filling every available crevice. The men spit betel juice though the cracks in the worn boards and the women fan each other to keep cool. Younger children peek in from outside, their fingers clawing through the steel mesh in the glassless window.

Since the violent crushing of student protests in 1988, the army’s need for rapid expansion has encouraged the forced recruitment of boys–many as young as 11–to fulfill quotas. Kidnapping, beatings, even drugging are common tactics used to lure boys off the streets and on to the front lines, to sweep for mines and fight. An exact number of missing children is hard to ascertain because of speculated identity forgery committed within the army.

Photojournalist Spike Johnson has documented humanitarian aid issues throughout Asia, Europe, and the United States. In 2014, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded Spike to produce a body of work on the Burmese Army’s release of its forcibly recruited child soldiers.

The military government stepped down in 2011, and the new government has undertaken reforms, although the process has been contentious. For the past few years, the army been releasing the boy soldiers as part of an agreement with the United Nations. As recently as December 2014, the army released 80 child soldiers from active service, bringing the total of freed children to 845 since 2007. There has been steady pressure on the army and militias to fall in line with ASEAN human rights recommendations, and International Labour Organization conventions.

However, although Burma is a member of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the use and recruitment of child soldiers is still commonplace. Slowly though, soldiers who were forcibly recruited as children are returning to their villages, to their families who have long thought them dead.