RANGOON — The sun is sinking into the Rangoon River, one of lower Burma's main waterways. It is dotted with small boats on their way to dusky moorings. Arkar Min, 21, rides a water taxi with seven men, all of them silent. They've spent the day hauling fish into trucks. Now they rest against one another, backs between knees, arms around shoulders, heads on laps, lulled by the rhythmic thump of the engine.
Arkar Min has worked on Rangoon's docks since his release from the Tatmadaw, Burma's armed forces, six years ago. He left school at the age of eight to help his struggling family. One day when he was a teenager, on the way home from his factory job, a man approached him, asking whether he'd like to earn better money as a driver. "I was so happy that I was going to learn to drive," he says quietly, his eyes trained on the ember of his cigarette. His father, Tin Win, wanted him to be a farmer, but "the only thing that excited me then was driving fast."
Arkar Min and the man left immediately. They stopped for snacks, two identical jam pastries. Arkar Min didn't notice that his had been opened previously. It was likely drugged and made him drowsy, and he woke up the next afternoon. The man, a civilian broker working for the army, had collected US$80 for delivering a new recruit and was long gone.
Living under armed guard, Arkar Min received one meal a day—a bowl of rice with some oil and salt. He had no bed and slept on the concrete, using his lungi as a pillow. There were six other conscripts, most of them 15; the eldest was 17. None of them had joined voluntarily—they'd been offered work, hoodwinked, kidnapped, and sold into service.
Arkar Min's father, Tin Win, had retired from the army—he'd been a sergeant for most of his life—and quickly realized what had happened. He knew where new recruits were sent: to a base near Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon's landmark Buddhist temple. He went to the police, but they did nothing. Arkar Min says that "the police wouldn't help until my father mentioned the International Labor Organization (ILO)."
The ILO works alongside Unicef to free underage soldiers in Burma and eliminate the practice of child recruitment, which has stained the army's reputation for decades. Small local NGOs are helping to contribute to end the practice too. Thein Myint works for the Child Protection Organization, which connects families affected by child recruitment to international organizations such as the ILO.
Thein Myint also looks for kidnapped boys in the 12 army training camps across Burma. If their location is unknown, she searches for them on foot or takes considerable risks in finding them; sometimes she bribes her way into an army base with meat or fish for the malnourished guards, in hopes of finding the children.
She is small, hunched, and "old enough to retire," she tells me. With short black hair, cheeks painted white with the traditional thanaka paste, and calm eyes, she has a temperament that is at once stern and caring. Twelve years ago, she moved to Dine Su, a village on the outskirts of Rangoon, after the government razed her 12-acre farm to make way for a luxury golf course. "It is in my nature to help needy people and people who are in trouble," she says. "This work demands a lot of love and sacrifice."
"Times have changed," Thein Myint says when asked whether the problem of child recruitment has improved. There has been steady pressure on the Burma Army and non-state militias in recent years to fall in line with ILO and UN conventions that ban child recruitment.
In the UN secretary general's most recent Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict, the Burma Army is mentioned as one of seven national armies listed for recruitment and use of children in the Annexes of the report. The report also includes 50 armed groups which are known to use and recruit children across the world.
In 2012, at the encouragement of Unicef, the ILO, and Save the Children, the Burmese government and the UN signed a joint plan of action outlining terms for the gradual release of child soldiers from the Tatmadaw, including fighters over 18 who were recruited as minors. The document also outlines accountability measures for offending officers and brokers.
The army and Burma's ethnic armed groups are making small acts of compromise in appeasement since, and during the final few months of 2014 they increased their releases of child recruits. "There is international pressure now regarding forced labor, child labor," Thein Myint says firmly. "They can't keep doing it."
In November, the Burma Army released 80 child soldiers from active service, bringing the total number of freed minors to 845 since 2007. Slowly, soldiers who were forcibly recruited as children are returning to their villages, to families who have long thought them dead.
Village Child Recruitment
Dine Su contains an army base, a shipping port, and factories. Its bamboo, mud, swaying pampas grass, and dusty football pitches match the landscape of many poor settlements throughout the country. Tracks between huts are paved with broken bricks, stepping stones for crossing puddles, or bags of cement. Many of its residents have come here from faraway, victims of government-backed land grabs.
An illegal settlement in the eyes of the law, residents of Dine Su are especially susceptible to exploitation by authorities. "In the past, I've rescued three boys from this village from the military," Thein Myint says. "Most are struggling financially."
Police typically arrest village boys for being out too late or committing petty crime. Sometimes, civilian brokers offering better work lure the boys in, like in Arkar Min's case. Intimidation is the norm, and the boys are physically and psychologically pressured into signing up. Fake national registration cards are then issued that state they are 18, the legal minimum age to join. If recruits are less than 100 pounds, they're force-fed bananas and water until they meet the weight requirement.
After four months of training, they are shipped to a post, often on the remote front lines of the country's lingering ethnic conflict in forested, mountainous regions that are alien to the boys, who are mostly from central Burma.
The ILO's Forced Labor Convention of 1930, to which Burma is a signatory, defines underage recruitment as a form of forced labor. This enables the ILO to assist those who were recruited underage, "whether years previously, or those still considered child soldiers," says Steve Marshall, an ILO liaison officer. In 1991, Burma also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, agreeing to protect minors from participating in war. And in 2007, the ILO and the Burmese government agreed upon the Forced Labor Complaint Mechanism, a system designed to offer victims of forced labor a platform for release without fear of retaliation.
Since 2007, the ILO has received 1,260 reports of underage recruitment by the Tatmadaw. "The numbers of complaints increased exponentially over time, as public awareness and confidence grew," says Marshall. Four hundred eighty-five of these underage recruits have been discharged. Seven died before their releases could be secured. Under the 2012 joint plan of action, there have been 472 discharges, which include 112 of the aforementioned ILO cases. These developments notwithstanding, recruitment of underage males is still commonplace.
An Unpopular Army
The Tatmadaw were formally created by independence hero Gen. Aung San just after Burma gained independence from Britain in January 1948. After more than a decade of fragile democracy afflicted by a destabilizing civil war between the central government and the country's ethnic minorities, the army took over.
In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup and stepped up his fight against the ethnic rebels, waging a brutal internal war; the country has not seen peace since.
Ne Win's regime faced routine challenges from its citizens and he lost power to a new generation of generals after the 1988 democratic uprising, which was brutally crushed by the army. Soon after, the new junta decided to rebrand Burma as the Union of Myanmar; among its priorities was a great expansion of the army in terms of both arms and personnel in order to win the ethnic conflict.
A recruitment drive was ordered and the army's ranks swelled to some 400,000 men under arms by the late 1990s, a number that has since dropped to around 300,000. The figure still places the Tatmadaw among Southeast Asia's largest armies, and one that has over the years been filled with a great number of forcibly recruited soldiers, including many who are under age.
Prior to 1988, most recruits were volunteers over the age of 18. But after the uprising, the military was less popular than ever and the Tatmadaw relied heavily on coerced manpower to achieve its ends.
Since President Thein Sein's nominally civilian government replaced the junta in 2011, reforms have been taking place. The army has sought to modernize its operations and improve its tarnished reputation. Conflict has lessened after more than a dozen tentative ceasefires were signed between Naypyidaw and the ethnic armed groups. Since then, ending child recruitment has ostensibly also become an army priority.
In 2013 and 2014, the ILO received complaints of 69 cases of underage recruitment. Yet to this day, soldiers will often be denied leave unless they can come back with one or two new recruits. Other soldiers and civilian brokers are incentivized by cash and in-kind rewards. The current rate is $80 per conscript—the equivalent of four months of sergeant-rank wages. Sometimes recruits are exchanged for bags of rice or oil.
When a child enters the army his education stops. When he is released, he begins again at square one. With limited education, often lacking vocational skills, ex-child soldiers struggle to reintegrate into society and working life. "The soldiers come back unemployed," Thein Myint says. "They take whatever job they can find, usually manual labor. Those whose family can afford it may start up a business."
When soldiers are asked by aid workers what type of job they like to do, the deprivation they've experienced means they typically don't have an answer. So it's decided for them—they are bought some pigs because their father was a pig farmer, or a trishaw because they earned money that way when they were young.
One international NGO reportedly offered around $100 to support returning child soldiers (though the charity officially denies this). But as funding dries up, this is happening less. Government programs for reintegration exist too, offering routes for returning soldiers to reenter the education system, but for Burma's stunted young veterans, the basic requirements for participation are often too high.
Just outside of Dine Su village, another of Thein Myint's success stories, Kyaw Thura, has returned to his mother. Kyaw Thura pours tea sweetened with condensed milk as he describes the guerrilla fighting he saw on the front lines and his defection to the enemy, the Karen National Union (KNU)—how they faked his death on a wooden crucifix, with animal blood and entrails, and how he lived in hiding from the Burma Army.
He speaks in an even tone, but his pauses are vacant. He recalls being sent to Mon State in southeastern Burma for four months of training. "There were rocks in the soup and sand in the rice," he says. "I missed home terribly." Deployed to the jungle, he and his squad camped in tents at night and hunted monkeys and pigs to add to their inadequate rations.
Fearing for his life, he deserted with two friends. Without weapons or money, they went over to the KNU, whose leaders gave them a choice: join the rebels for pay and rations, or leave and try to make it to the Thai border. They opted to break for the border.
In Thailand, Kyaw Thura says, he "couldn't move. There were people searching everywhere for me," he says. Time passed, and he eventually found work in the border town of Mae Sot as a welder, met a girl, married, and fathered Thant Zin, now four years old.
He came back to Rangoon to find his mother. Although the ILO gave him a letter of protection, he was arrested by the army anyway, sentenced to two years and six months for deserting, and jailed in Hpa'an Prison in Karen State. "Conditions [in prison] were better than when I was in the army," he says wryly. "The food was better. We were able to exercise. We farmed and made bricks."
Living in his mother's house with his son, he is now seeking compensation from the military for wrongful arrest. Little Thant Zin climbs into his lap and plays with a plastic motorcycle. Kyaw Thura was gone for so long that his son now calls him "uncle."
Tun Tun Win is 30. At 14, he was sold to the Tatmadaw by a broker. He didn't give them his full name. "I wanted to keep some of my identity for myself," he says, "so I told them I was called just Tun Tun." In a camp in the jungle near Mandalay, he tattooed the last part of his name into his forearm using a blunt needle, soot, and juice from a betel nut—"Win" inside a heart with two crossed swords behind it.
He spent most of his time repairing tanks or on security detail, moving from base to base. "I learned how to drive, shoot, do security, not much else." His pay was $4.50 a month.
Thirteen years later, he rents a small house from his brother in the village where he grew up. He lives with his two-year-old daughter, who suffers from malnutrition, and his five-year-old son. A year ago, his wife left him with the children. "She has a gambling problem," he says. "She was not good for the kids." His eldest sister pitches in.
With $100 from an international NGO, he set up a small library in front of his house, loaning out books and magazines to villagers for 100 kyats (about 10 cents) a day. "I want to be my own boss now," he says. His father loaned him money to buy a small motorcycle, which he hopes to use as a taxi. "I don't have any ill feelings toward army recruiters. Karma will be their judgment. I have freedom now. In the army I was renting out my body."