A Former Child Soldier Tells How UNICEF Aided His Transition To Peace

The Tatmadaw, Burma's armed forces, is composed of three branches, the Tatmadaw Kyi (Army), the Tatmadaw Lei (Air Force), and Tatmadaw Yei (Navy). The government also relies upon a complex array of paramilitary organizations and militias spread throughout the country to enforce its rule. This report focuses on the army, which is by far the largest branch of the Tatmadaw and which recruits and deploys child soldiers in the greatest numbers.

The Tatmadaw's Staffing Crisis

Following the suppression of nationwide democracy demonstrations in 1988, the ruling military council initiated a dramatic effort to modernize and expand the armed forces.Over the subsequent 19 years, billions of dollars in arms and military goods were procured-defense expenditures in some years came to comprise as much as 50 percent of central government expenditures.>[10]

To tighten its control over the populace, the Tatmadaw also instituted a dramatic expansion of military regiments and bases throughout the country. Infantry and light infantry battalions tripled in number from 168 to 504.>[11] The navy and air force also expanded dramatically, although they continued to comprise a much smaller part of the Tatmadaw.

This dramatic expansion of operational units necessitated a dramatic expansion in armed forces personnel. In 1988 the Tatmadaw comprised fewer than 200,000 soldiers.>[12] In the 1990s Burma army doctrine prescribed infantry battalion staffing of 750 personnel; this number was subsequently increased to 826. The army's 504 infantry battalions therefore require over 410,000 soldiers to be fully staffed. The army's numerous auxiliary units such as artillery, armored, signals, engineering, and supply battalions require many tens of thousands more personnel. Statements by senior military personnel in the mid-1990s announcing a targeted expansion of the Tatmadaw to 500,000 soldiers reflect these staffing needs.>[13]

In practice, however, the Tatmadaw has been challenged to meet these demands for new staff. Service in the armed forces is a dangerous and grueling existence subjecting enlisted men to combat, mistreatment by superior officers, low pay, and poor living conditions. Although military salaries have been adjusted on three occasions since 1988, double-digit inflation has rapidly eroded the purchasing power of army salaries. The minutes of a high-level SPDC meeting in September 2006 reported by Jane's Defense Weekly suggest that while reported recruitment rates appeared to rapidly increase between 2005 and 2006, average battalion strength had declined to only 140-150 per battalion, largely because of increasing desertion rates and soldiers going absent without leave.>[14] The document reported a loss of 9,497 soldiers during a single four-month period in 2006, many due to desertions. In response, Adjutant General Thein Sein called for the army to recruit 7,000 soldiers per month, four times the actual monthly recruitment rate reported for mid-2005 and double the actual rate reported for mid-2006.>[15] The staffing crisis has been exacerbated by the army's continued expansion: in the past five years, for example, the army has established at least seven new artillery divisions and several more armoured divisions.

Human Rights Watch interviews with soldiers who had recently served in the Burma army corroborate these reports. Soldiers consistently reported that battalions typically had 220 to 350 or more men prior to 2002, but that in the past five years staffing levels are more commonly 120 to 220 soldiers in a battalion. Noting that his light infantry battalion in Kayah State had only 150-170 men in 2006 because those who went on leave never returned, Htun Myint added that "I heard that other battalions also have fewer and fewer soldiers because people getting leave don't return, and because new battalions are always being created and the existing battalions have to give some of their soldiers to those battalions.">[16]

Former Tatmadaw soldiers also told Human Rights Watch that many infantry battalions are extremely "top-heavy," with more officers and non-commissioned officers than privates. Some of them said there were 20 to 50 amputees still held in their battalion to keep up the numbers.>[17] They also stated that discharges are never granted even after 10 or 20 years of service unless the applicant can bring in three to five new recruits to replace himself. In one extreme case, a former soldier said that in 2004-05 his infantry battalion had 200 soldiers, but of these 50 were amputees and only 20 were privates: "For example, in Column 2 in the frontline we were only four privates out of two companies, so we were always very tired. Column 2 headquarters had 25 soldiers, including officers and other ranks.">[18]

Current staffing levels are unknown. In 2002 the SPDC informed Human Rights Watch that the army, navy, and air force numbered 350,000 men.>[19] Independent sources cite similar numbers,>[20] although the SPDC's statistics may substantially overstate current staffing levels.>[21] The continued creation of new battalions coupled with steady attrition has led to falsified reporting within the army such as under-reporting desertion rates and inflating recruitment figures. What is beyond doubt is that the army is under constant pressure to increase recruiting to fill out new units and offset its high rates of attrition. This results in intense recruitment pressures on officers and units throughout the army and increasing rewards for anyone who can bring in new recruits.


The high ranking officers realized that recruitment by recruiting offices alone was insufficient, so they issued orders that recruitment should also be done as part of each battalion's operations. We had a quota system: we recruit for our battalion and also for other units like the Regional Command. Our battalion was ordered to recruit 12 people every four months. We couldn't meet this quota, so at every meeting they scolded the battalion officers. To solve the problem, battalion officers pressured their junior officers to recruit. We set a rule that soldiers who wanted their 30 days' annual leave must guarantee that they will return with at least one recruit. Any soldier who wanted a discharge after 10 years of service had to get four new recruits for the battalion before we would approve his discharge. That's why there is a problem of child soldiers.
-A former battalion commander>[22]
When we reached Toungoo railway station a lance corporal approached me. He asked for my ID card and I told him I had a pass letter. He said no, an ID card is required, otherwise you'll go to prison. I was afraid so I said, "I'll give you money." He said, "I don't want money." I said, "I'll call my mother and she can vouch for me." He said, "I don't want to see your mother or father and I don't want money. I want you to join the army." I said no but he dragged me to a cell at the police station and told the police, "Detain him for a while" but without any charge. I think they had connections.
-Myin Win, describing being recruited for the second time in 2003, at age 14>[23]

The Conscription Act of 1959 states that conscription to the Burma army for a period of six months to two years is allowable for men ages 18 to 35 and women ages 18 to 27.>[24] In practice, neither women nor girls are recruited into the armed forces. Despite the Conscription Act, the SPDC maintains that "[t]he Myanmar Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) is an all volunteer army," and that "the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces is 18 years.">[25]

Key Factors in Child Recruitment

After the army's violent crushing of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, the ensuing program of rapid army expansion was at odds with a dramatic drop in the number of volunteers. Rather than employing the Conscription Act to secure new soldiers, recruiters began using intimidation, coercion, and physical violence to gain new recruits and maintain the appearance of a volunteer army.

According to a former Tatmadaw battalion commander, "Those who volunteered were people who'd failed their school exams, or had financial or family problems. Volunteers probably account for only 5 percent of recruits, but even among those many don't want to fight, they just joined because of personal problems.">[26] Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch were forced to join the army, and made similar estimates that no more than 5 or 10 percent of army recruits are volunteers.

A former Tatmadaw officer who had worked on recruitment matters at the War Office, the Tatmadaw's command headquarters in Rangoon, told Human Rights Watch that in 1996-1998 the army recruited 10,000-15,000 soldiers per year nationwide. Adjutant General Thein Sein's order in September 2006-reflecting the Tatmadawstaffing crisis discussed above-to recruit 7,000 soldiers per month, if implemented over the subsequent one-year period, would have resulted in rates of recruitment six times greater than rates in the previous decade.

These staffing trends are a major factor behind the army's recruitment of children, as noted by former soldiers who were interviewed for this report. Kyo Myint, who was forced into the army at age 14 in 1992 and remained a soldier until 2005, said his battalion was often in combat and had a high attrition rate so they received 10 to 30 new recruits every six months. Over time he noticed a steady increase in the prevalence of children among new recruits; eventually children comprised more than half of all new recruits arriving at the battalion.>[27]

When asked his opinion on recent SPDC promises to stop recruiting children, a former Tatmadaw battalion commander told Human Rights Watch,

Even if there are orders [to demobilize children], battalion commanders will keep the children but hide them in the battalion compound or battalion farms, but they'll keep them because they don't have enough soldiers. When I was in the army we always felt we had too many officers and not enough soldiers.>[28]

Poverty as a factor in children's vulnerability to recruitment

Prevailing social conditions often work to the advantage of recruiters. Burma's economy suffers from rapid inflation in basic commodity prices, a steadily declining currency, extremely poor infrastructure, and regular shortages in basic needs. Most analysts attribute these problems to economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and the diversion of much of the country's finances and resources to the support of the military, while very little is spent on social services.>[29] The World Food Programme reports that 32 percent of children under five are malnourished and lists among the main causes for this the restrictions on the movement of commodities, regional production disparities, and weak infrastructure.>[30] School fees and expenses for school materials, even at primary level, are more than many families can afford, causing most children to be pulled out of school before completion so that they can work to support their family.>[31]

This social and economic environment leads many children to leave their families, either because they feel like a burden on their parents or due to family fights or their involvement in petty crime activity. Out of school and looking for work, children are alone, exposed, and vulnerable to recruiters. Lacking knowledge about the law and their right not to be conscripted into the military, many are ill-equipped to resist recruiters' threats and coercion.

Myin Win, who was recruited twice as a child, before finally escaping in 2005, described the first time he was taken into the army at age 11:

I come from a very poor family. My father died when I was very young, and my mother is unemployed. I'm the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters.... I never went to school, and at age seven or nine I started working, tending herds of buffalos and cattle. I was born in 1989, and in 2000 I went to Rangoon to sell some garden produce like ginger. On the way I lost my travel pass from the Ward leader, and at Bago railway station some soldiers came on board and asked everyone for ID cards. I realized I'd lost my recommendation letter, and they took me. The same day they sent me to the Mingaladon Su Saun Yay in handcuffs.>[32]

Recruiter quotas and incentives

The Tatmadaw operates specialized recruitment units throughout the country that are headquartered in Rangoon, Mandalay, Magwe, and Shwebo.>[33] These command units oversee smaller detachments that are spread throughout the country. The No. 1 Tatmadaw Recruitment Command based in Da Nyein Gone, for example, has over 100 subordinate units located across lower Burma.>[34] These units are tasked with obtaining recruits directly, as well as collecting recruits obtained by other armed forces units in their areas of jurisdiction. Recruitment detachments, which are often attached to regular Tatmadaw units, act as feeder units that transfer conscripts to one of the four main recruitment holding centers.

In addition to the pressure on recruitment units to fill new battalions and replace soldiers lost through desertion and attrition, the army has assigned recruitment quotas to other army units stationed throughout the country.>[35] A former sergeant who served as clerk of his battalion in Rakhine state in 2004-05 explained,

The Defense Ministry imposes a quota. Each battalion had to recruit eight new soldiers every four months. For example, if someone requests leave, we'd tell him that if he brings back a new soldier he'll get paid 50,000 kyat,>[36] no matter how you recruit him. That money is supposed to be for the recruit but really goes to the recruiter, and maybe he only gives the recruit 10,000 of it. Sometimes it came from the battalion budget, sometimes the battalion commander himself had to put in his own money, because if he didn't send 24 recruits a year he'd be summoned by the regional commander and he worried about that. That is why children are recruited. Sometimes we went to the recruiting centers and bought recruits from them.>[37]

Another soldier who worked as a clerk in the headquarters of a military operations command (MOC) in 2004-05 stated that the MOC's 10 subordinate battalions were ordered to recruit soldiers:

Every battalion has to recruit at least two people, so that's 20 from the whole MOC, over a period of one or more months as specified by the orders from above. We sent them to the Su Saun Yay [recruit gathering center] in Mingaladon. They recruit them in various ways-they tell people they can get money or food, or they catch them in train stations or on the streets at night. When they're really desperate they just grab any beggar or any children they see. Also criminals who have been arrested, they tell them "the case is closed" but then take them to join the military.>[38]

Army battalions and recruiting centers use various methods to reach their recruitment quotas. Commonly one or more non-commissioned officers are assigned to find recruits and are rewarded with cash and food for each recruit they obtain. Soldiers are also required to gain new recruits in order to obtain leave or a service discharge. A former sergeant who served as clerk of his battalion in Rakhine state in 2004-05 condemned the most common methods used: "This way to recruit is illegal, but it's still accepted [T]here are ways that the recruiting centers get children, for example by approaching them in train stations, asking for their ID and intimidating them, or saying they'll take care of them.">[39]

Battalions may also issue orders to nearby villages to supply them with recruits. According to a health worker from Rakhine state, "Now they have two ways of recruiting: they come to the village and demand a certain number of recruits, or they demand [forced labor] porters and later keep them as recruits. When children go as porters and don't come back, people know they've been forced into the army.">[40] Aung Moe, a former Tatmadaw soldier from Rakhine state, added that in recent years SPDC units in Kyauk Phyu township had imposed recruit quotas on local villages. Recent reports from Kachin state indicate that Burma army battalions based there have ordered village heads and other local authorities, including local fire brigades, to supply recruits, and that illegal teak traders have been forced to obtain recruits if they want to remain in business.>[41] A resident of Kachin state told us that in her town a local government official notified households that on August 3, 2007 a government order had specified that each town quarter must provide two recruits.

Human Rights Watch has also received reports (which we have been unable to confirm) that some non-state armed groups operating in Shan state under ceasefire agreements with the SPDC have received requests from SPDC battalions to obtain recruits from the areas that these groups control.>[42]

The majority of forced recruitment, however, is still done by soldiers either on recruiting duty or seeking incentives from their battalions. As noted by Htun Myint, who served as a child soldier until 2006, "When battalions return from the frontline they change into mufti [military jargon for civilian clothing], go to the train and bus stations and catch young people to send to the recruiting center. If they recruit one soldier they can get 30,000 kyat and a sack of rice as reward from the battalion officers. Also, if you want to transfer to another battalion or leave the army you have to get three or four recruits.">[43] In 2006 Maung Zaw Oo, 16 at the time, was ordered to accompany his battalion's recruiting sergeant to Yezagyo town to get recruits. He says they rented a hotel room for five days for 10,000 kyat and the sergeant went to the train station every morning looking for recruits:

The targets are usually bottle and bag collectors. Sergeant Tin Htun would grab a couple of them, take them to a teashop and buy them lots of food, then show them lots of money. Then he'd say, "You need some education. Join the army and they'll send you to training school and you'll get more uniforms and clothes than you can even carry, and after training you'll get one stripe [lance corporal rank] and lots of money." The sergeant has links with the police. He said there are two types of targets: if they were wearing good clothes, he'd get the police to ask them for ID cards and threaten them. If they were wearing poor clothes, he'd approach them directly and flash money in front of them. He got four people, one was 60 years old and the others were about 20, scrap collectors. He sold the 60 year old to another recruiter for four-and-a-half bottles [slang for 45,000 kyat]. The other recruiter paid that much because he was a sergeant who's planning to retire from the army so he needs to bring in recruits. Sergeant Tin Htun took the other three back to the battalion and for each recruit he received 20,000 kyat cash, a sack of rice, and a tin of cooking oil.>[44]

Htun Myint related an extreme case of a recruiter forcibly enlisting an active duty soldier:

One soldier got leave to visit his family but wasn't sure of the way home. A recruiter in the train station stopped him, offered him food and then tried to recruit him. When he showed his soldier papers the recruiter tore them up and took him to the recruiting center anyway. This happened to someone in our neighboring battalion, I heard it from a senior officer.>[45]

Recruiters target public places, including markets and bus stations, looking for unemployed and vulnerable adolescents and young men. Adolescents traveling alone or with other young men by train are particularly vulnerable to recruitment, as train stations have become the favorite hunting grounds of recruiters.

A 16-year-old volunteer recruit, Ko Ko Aung, described the scene on his arrival at Mingaladon Su Saun Yay (recruit holding centre) in April 2006:

There were many, and most had been forced to come. They'd been brought by soldiers who filled up their forms, gave them to the officer, and then went to a room to get their money. The police had caught those people and then called the soldiers from the Su Saun Yay who went and brought them back. After filling out my form and getting his money, the Su Saun Yay soldier went out to the bus station to catch more people.>[46]

A common tactic is to demand to see people's national registration cards (NRC), knowing that most adolescents do not carry them. If the adolescent presents a student identity card, he or she may be told it is an unacceptable form of identification. Typically the recruiter then offers a choice of joining the army, or a long prison term for failure to carry a card. Although minors cannot be legally imprisoned for failing to carry an NRC, many adolescents are unaware of this and can be easily intimidated into believing it.

According to Burmese law, children can get a "temporary" card once they reach age 10, which they can convert to a permanent card at age 18.>[47] Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch were unaware of this and believed that registration cards are only available to those over 18. Maung Zaw Oo had been aware of the rule but was denied a card when he tried to apply for one: "My aunt and I had gone to register and they said I'm underage so they wouldn't give it. My brother applied when he was about 15 and had to pay 35,000 [kyat] for his, but when I went they said I would have to renew it again anyway when I reach 18 so they said I should just wait until then.">[48] Rather than pay the expensive card issuance fee twice, many families opt to wait until the children reach 18. Even those who have cards at a younger age are unlikely to carry them on a daily basis, because the card is very expensive to replace if it is lost. At present the SPDC is reportedly pressing local officials to ensure that all adults over 18 register for NRC cards, probably in anticipation of a constitutional referendum and census which the SPDC has stated will be held by 2009. This has made it even harder for children under 18 to get cards: with adults prioritized in the queue, minors reportedly have to wait up to several months now to be issued an NRC.

A resident of a town in Kachin state described to Human Rights Watch being notified that anyone found on the streets after 8:30 p.m. would be recruited and would not be released even if they paid a fine or bribe. She reported that some men and boys were conscripted on leaving a cinema at 9 p.m. one night.>[49] Similarly, a community leader from Myitkyina stated that youth leaving a cinema in Alam at 9 p.m. had been arrested by Myitkyina police offers for "lurking in dark places" and offered the choice of a jail term or army enlistment; in at least one case a parent was able to bribe police officials to release her son.>[50] Htun Myint's recruitment in 2001 took place in similar circumstances:

I was about 11 years old and a student in Fifth Standard. When I was returning from watching videos one night, it was dark and there are no lights along the road to my house. I met two soldiers and they arrested me for "hiding in the dark." They took me to the local Su Saun Yay unit at their army camp and asked me, "Do you want to join the army or go to jail?" I was afraid of jail so I said I'd join the army. They asked about my parents' names and my family members and they filled in a paper. They asked my age so I told them the truth, but they wrote 18.>[51]

Human Rights Watch continued to receive accounts of child recruitment as this report went to press in October 2007. One eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that while traveling by train in early September 2007, he saw many new recruits who appeared to be between age 14 and 17 among a group of approximately 140 new recruits being transported on the train from Rangoon to Yemethin, near Mandalay.>[52]

Children as Commodities: The Recruit Market

The officers are corrupt and the battalions have to get recruits, so there's a business. The battalions bribe the recruiting officers to get recruits for them. These are mostly underage recruits but the recruiting officers fill out the forms for them and say they're 18.
-Than Myint Oo, forcibly recruited twice as a child>[53]

The pressure to obtain recruits, and the money and power incentives available to those who do so, have turned recruits into commodities that are bought and sold with impunity. The former sergeant who served as clerk of his battalion in Rakhine state in 2004-05 said that at that time the going price was 30,000 to 50,000 kyat per recruit, paid to the recruiting center officers so they would credit the recruit toward the battalion's quota.>[54] A battalion commander recounted the following complex transactions:

In 2005 in Mingaladon [a major recruitment holding facility] the price of a new soldier was 25-35,000 kyat, which must be paid [to the recruiting officers] if the battalion couldn't recruit enough itself. Battalions have to find this money to buy recruits. We buy them from civilian brokers and also from soldier brokers in Mingaladon. We also negotiated with the Su Saun Yay units [holding camps for new recruits], because they could reject our recruits if they were underage or underweight, so we had to bribe them. Now the prices are getting higher. It's like a marketplace between the battalions and the Su Saun Yays. The battalions recruit and then receive a receipt from the recruitment unit, and then we've done our job. If we want them back after the training we request that with another form. All types of battalions have these quotas.>[55]

Myin Win, who was conscripted in 2000 and again in 2003, said, "Recruiters never release their victims easily. If they fail when they approach one Su Saun Yay then they'll take you to another, and there's lots of bribery, so most approaches to Su Saun Yays are successful.">[56]

The "brokers" mentioned in the above quote from the battalion commander are most commonly civilian businessmen with army and police connections, who have made a lucrative business out of recruiting for the army. When 15-year-old Maung Zaw Oo was forcibly recruited in 2005 with two others, the three of them were sent to three different Su Saun Yay centers (at Mingaladon, Mandalay, and Shwebo) hundreds of miles apart, based on the best prices offered for them. His account of this exchange, sounding like a stock transaction, is fairly typical of the recent stories of child recruits:

The corporal sold me, and later I learned that a recruit costs 20,000 kyat, a sack of rice, and a big tin of cooking oil. I learned that I'd been sold by one corporal to another. He said he'd send me to Shwebo Su Saun Yay and then after training he'd see me again in the same battalion, but it was a lie. Actually he'd sold me to Battalion 252. Corporal Tin Oo got 50,000 kyat from Shwebo Su Saun Yay just for me. I heard him say, "Give me five bottles [slang for 50,000 kyat]." That same night he left. Before leaving he gave me 1,000 kyat.>[57]

Recruitment of the Very Young

Kyo Myint, who served in the Tatmadaw from 1992 to 2005, says that upon recruitment boys are classified not by age but by height and weight, and that during his time in the army the standards grew progressively lower, accepting smaller and weaker (and therefore most probably younger) children who would have been rejected in previous years.

Some boys are forcibly recruited so young that they cannot realistically be made into soldiers. Rather than releasing them, army units retain them until they are sufficiently strong to undergo military training. Though some boys interviewed for this report were taken straight into training and battalions at ages as young as 11, it is also common for boys age nine to 13 to be held back for a few years by army units before being sent for training as soldiers. Previously, the army ran a system of Ye Nyunt ("Brave Sprouts") schools in which young boys received some education mixed with military training, and were subsequently inducted into the army, often between the ages of 14 or 16.>[58]

The SPDC claims that it terminated the Ye Nyunt program in 2000, shifting the boys into schools run by the Ministry of Progress for the Border Areas and National Races and Development Affairs.>[59] Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain any information to conclusively prove or refute this claim, but remains concerned that boys as young as nine are still occasionally kidnapped and detained at army camps for later induction into the army, as described below.>[60]

One former child soldier interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that in 2005 while he was being trained at the Infantry Battalion No. 34 headquarters in Rakhine state he saw about 60 children aged 13 or 14 lodged in a separate barracks in the camp. None attended school. He was told these boys had been "adopted by the army," that many of them were orphans, and that they would be inducted into the army when they were old enough. Although they wore full uniforms on parade days, they generally only wore partial uniforms to perform their odd jobs around the camp, during which he sometimes saw them being cursed and kicked by soldiers. One of his fellow trainees had been among this group when younger, and told him he had been picked up by the army after both his parents died; he said he now had to become a soldier to repay his debt to the army for adopting him.>[61]

In another case, Sai Seng was between nine and 11 when he was detained in 1997 or 1998 by soldiers while walking home alone one evening. The soldiers sent him to Lasho the next day against his will and without informing his parents. For the next year he worked as a house servant for a battalion commander, who kicked and abused him and prohibited from contacting his family. He was then sent to school in the battalion camp for four years, where he met "some other children who had been arrested like me. More than 10 of us, all under 14 years old. They were all staying in the camp as servants in the houses of the soldiers who had caught them." After failing his Ninth Standard exams, he was forced to work as an unpaid servant for two more years in the battalion commander's house before being sent to MandalaySu Saun Yay. In 2005 he was inducted into the army,with 10 or 11 boys under 15, of whom he thought three were age nine or 10.>[62]

The Su Saun Yay Recruit Holding Camps

They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16, I was slapped and he said, "You are 18. Answer 18." He asked me again and I said, "But that's my true age." The sergeant asked, "Then why did you enlist in the army?" I said, "Against my will. I was captured." He said, "Okay, keep your mouth shut then," and he filled in the form. I just wanted to go back home and I told them, but they refused. I said, "Then please just let me make one phone call," but they refused that too.
-Maung Zaw Oo, describing the second time he was forced into the army, in 2005>[63]

The military processes both volunteers and forced recruits through Su Saun Yay recruit holding camps, which combine a recruiting office with a barracks for holding new recruits until the military's basic training schools are ready to receive them. Some battalions have small basic Su Saun Yay camps within or adjacent to the battalion camp, but these act mainly as temporary sites feeding recruits to the larger Su Saun Yay camps at Da Nyein Gone (often referred to as Mingaladon),>[64] near Rangoon; and Nan Dway just outside Mandalay. The vast majority of new recruits pass through one of these two camps. However, one former soldier reports that since 2004 the Su Saun Yay at Shwebo (north of Mandalay in Sagaing division) has been expanded and now gathers recruits and sends them directly to training, and that it may now be acting as a third main processing point; while another former soldier told Human Rights Watch that the same happened to him from the Su Saun Yay at Pyi in Bago division. Tatmadaw recruiting brochures list four main recruiting offices at Rangoon, Mandalay, Magwe, and Shwebo.

On arrival at the Su Saun Yay centers recruits are thumb printed, given medical checks, and registered before being held in barracks to await transfer to basic training. Ko Ko Aung, a 16-year-old volunteer recruit, told during initial processing us that at the Mingaladon Su Saun Yay in April 2006 he suddenly changed his mind about volunteering and asked to go home, but was told it was too late because he had already been thumb printed.>[65]

According to Tatmadaw rules, recruits are supposed to present proof of age to be enlisted.>[66] Only one former soldier interviewed by Human Rights Watch was asked for proof of his age, and he was a 22-year-old volunteer. He said that even as he was producing his documents and enlisting, there were 15 to 20 forced recruits being registered without documents: "About four, five, or six of them were under 18, some even looked 13, 14 or 15.">[67]

The recruiters know that many of those they are registering are under 18 and that this is in direct violation of Tatmadaw regulations, so recruits are threatened and even beaten into saying they are 18, then listed as age 18 even if they still refuse to say so. Even if they do not meet the physical requirements and cannot pass the medical exam, this is ignored. A former battalion commander said, "Recruits with glasses have their glasses taken off, if underweight their weight is increased on the form, if they're underage they're recorded as 18.">[68]

Although Tatmadaw regulations prescribe that recruits must be under the age of 36, two former soldiers testified that there are also groups of recruits in their fifties and sixties:

The elders stayed in a separate barracks and were told their age had to be 25 on their forms. One day at the Su Saun Yay the corporal said to them, "You are all 25 years old." One elder said, "Can I be a bit older than that?" and he said, "No." Another elder said, "But I'm 60 already," and the corporal kicked him. At training, out of 250, about 150 were underage and 30 were in their sixties. We had a nickname for their platoon: we called them the "Stand and Watch column." They were unemployed men who were tricked by telling them, "We'll find you a job and a place for your family," and some had been arrested while walking home drunk at night.>[69]

Former soldiers describe the recruit barracks at Mandalay and Mingaladon as consisting of large rooms about 60 meters (200 feet) long with wooden floors, where 300 or more recruits are squeezed in, sleeping on the wooden floors with no mats or blankets. The MandalaySu Saun Yay holding center reportedly has one such room, and Mingaladon has four located in two large two-storey buildings. The entrances are blocked and the toilets are inside; recruits are only allowed outside to eat and work in the camp compound. Su Saun Yay detachments have similar accommodation on a smaller scale.

New recruits are held at the recruitment centers for periods ranging from one day to a month or longer, depending on when a training school is ready to receive them. At the Shwebo Su Saun Yay center recruits are sent out to work at the battalion brick kilns and to plant castor bean for biofuel,>[70] but at Mingaladon and Mandalay there is little to do, so they are assigned duties cleaning toilets or gathering and killing bugs. Htun Myint told us, "There were many bedbugs, so the officer said each of us must find 50 bedbugs each week or we'd be punished. I found enough, but two others who didn't were beaten with a stick. They were 14 or 15 years old.">[71] Some are allowed to work outside cleaning the camp compound, but most are confined inside most of the time. Another soldier said, "Sometimes recruits moved around or talked or tried to go outside, and were beaten and kicked for that. They shouted at us when we didn't obey them. Every day each person had to find and kill 30 bugs, and if we couldn't we were beaten. I was beaten, because there were many people there so there weren't enough bugs for everyone.">[72]

In 2003, Than Myint Oo was at the MandalaySu Saun Yay center when there was an inspection by "Majors and captains. They asked my age so I said, 'I'm 14 and I was forced, I don't want to be here.' They said, 'That's impossible' and left. After they left we were made to lay down and were kicked and beaten.">[73]

There are cases where parents realize their son has been recruited and set out to secure his release. At the Mingaladon Su Saun Yay center in 2005:

In one case the parents arrived with a student card and said their son was underage, but the recruitment officer sent them away and told them, "Once he joins the army there is no way to go home." It was late afternoon. We were having a bath, and we heard the mother shouting and crying a lot, she was saying their son was just a student. The NCOs [non-commissioned officers] at the gate told the parents they could take the case wherever they wanted, but the army has no procedure to release anyone. We listened for half an hour, but then soldiers arrived with sticks and chased us away. The next day this recruit's sister came with food for the boy, they were allowed to meet and she told him, "Don't worry, we've informed the US embassy and we'll inform the UN." The next day he was separated from us and disappeared. I heard that some other people paid for their sons to be released, but I don't know for sure.>[74]

Some parents arrive later, during training or even at their son's battalion camp. For example, in mid-2006 Ko Ko Aung's parents tried to retrieve him: "They came to the training school and asked for me to be released but they failed. They were told to pay money if they wanted me released-500,000 kyat. They couldn't afford it so they failed.">[75] After being recruited for the second time in 2005 at age 16, Maung Zaw Oo was only able to telephone his aunt to tell her he had been forced into the army when he was leaving training en route to his battalion, and she made the long trip to his battalion camp in northern Burma with his grandmother:

Later my aunt appeared at my battalion and asked them to send me back. She'd come with my grandmother. First they spoke to the caption of the battalion company, and he said, "If you want him then bring me five new recruits." My aunt said, "What if I give money to the battalion?" They said, "Yes, that's possible." I told my aunt, "Don't do this. I don't want five others to face this, it's very bad here. I'll just stay and face it myself." When my aunt had left the captain was angry and said, "Why did you talk like that about the army? Who do you think you are?" He was going to smash me but then he said, "You go with Sergeant Tin Htun to town and recruit some new soldiers," and he said to Sergeant Tin Htun, "Take him to town recruiting.">[76]

The state-run daily newspapers Myanma Alin and Kyemon frequently contain classified ads placed by parents looking for their children. Several Rangoon residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch believed that in many of these cases the children were abducted by recruit brokers or otherwise conscripted into the armed forces. In some cases, well-off families are able to buy their sons out of the army, but these are probably rare exceptions. Aung Moe said that when he was trained in 2005 the trainees were not even allowed to write home, and afterward at his battalion their letters were screened by the officers before being sent. When some parents showed up at the battalion in Rakhine state looking for their sons, they were generally told, "He's away," and were prevented from meeting their sons.


In the mornings we had to do long and short runs with backpacks. We had to run five miles a week, and do long marches of about 30 miles. I was 11, so I couldn't keep up but had to do my best, otherwise they whipped me with the strings attached to their whistles. When we had to run and I couldn't carry my gun anymore, the older ones tried to help by taking my gun and running along with me.
-Htun Myint, describing his training at age 11>[77]

Most recruits are sent for 18 weeks of basic training at one of over 20 training camps located throughout the country. They are trained in groups of 250 referred to as "training companies." According to the testimonies of former soldiers, when training camps are operating they usually have three to six companies at various stages of training, though they may not always be in operation. When a training camp has an opening for a new company and 250 recruits are available from the various Su Saun Yay camps, they are transferred to begin training. This trip can take them halfway across the country, crammed into overcrowded railway carriages with the windows blocked up and guards on the doors, or crowded into the backs of army trucks.

All of the former soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported the presence of children in their training companies and platoons. Sai Seng, who was trained in 2005, estimated that 14 of the 25 trainees (56 percent) in his training company at Tha Byay Kyin were under 18, while Maung Zaw Oo (a boy recruited twice by age 16), who was trained at Monywa in 2006, estimated the percentage of children at 60 percent. Only one former soldier reported that fewer than 30 percent of the trainees in his training company were below age 18.>[78] Maung Zaw Oo had two boys aged 11 or 12 in his company when he first went through training in 2005: "The trainers discussed their future and said, 'You should stay about one year more in training,' and they agreed." There was never any discussion of discharging them.>[79]

On arrival, new conscripts are assigned a training company number and divided into four platoons of 60 to 65 trainees, each of which is assigned a barrack, and are issued uniforms, blankets, mosquito nets, and other necessary items. Myin Win, who escaped the army but was re-conscripted and therefore went through training twice, said that in 2000 he was issued all of a recruit's supplies, including needles, soap, equipment, boots, and slippers, but when he arrived for training again in 2003 he noted a significant decline in supplies and rations:

I realized many items we'd been issued last time weren't issued this time, like toothpaste, toothbrush, and big and small towels. The first time I got three pairs of underwear, the second time only one. Also the food was worse the second time: In my first training, breakfast included an egg, fried rice, and tea, the second time it was only plain boiled rice. The salary was the same though-3,000 kyat.

He believed the reason provisions were so poor the second time was due to the corruption of the training commanders. He also told us that trainees saw little of their salary: "We had salary of 3,000 kyat but received only 200 kyat. We were told the rest was saved in the bank for us but we never saw any bank account.">[80] (When a private's salary was 4,500 kyat per month, trainees were allotted 3,000; now that it is 21,000 kyat per month trainees are supposed to receive 15,000.)

In some cases trainees were allowed to write letters home, though replies never seemed to come so most were skeptical that the letters were ever mailed.

The physical aspects of training are particularly difficult for the youngest, like Myin Win who was only 11 years old, four foot three inches tall and weighed 70 pounds when he first did basic training in 2000:

I couldn't do all the training. Even lifting the gun was too hard for me. The G3 [assault rifle] came up to my shoulder. But the trainers were sympathetic and understanding, they favored me and the other youngsters. I think about half were underage but can't guess exactly. In my platoon, about half were my age. The trainers didn't say anything about my age but they were sympathetic. They said to the youngest, "We don't want to train you but it's our duty, we have orders." I was missing my family and I cried. For some parts of the training we young trainees were allowed to stay in the barracks, but then whenever people lost things we were blamed and punished by the camp authorities-five lashes with a bamboo stick, and I cried then too.>[81]

Training starts early each morning with exercises, followed by physical and combat training throughout the day. Often in the afternoons trainees provide labor on farms or for the profit-making ventures of the training camp officers. In the evenings they are lectured on military subjects. In the early weeks the daytime training focuses on drill, parade, and discipline, but as the training progresses they practice frontal assaults, hand-to-hand combat, and weapons training. One child soldier reported, "The hardest was hand-to-hand combat. Also run, shout, dive on the ground, carrying guns with full equipment. Sometimes older trainees shouted for permission from the trainers, 'Please allow us to take the youngsters' guns for them.' But some trainers were strict and wouldn't allow it. They said, 'You must be trained properly, it's for your own good.'">[82]

Another former child soldier said that when the smallest trainees couldn't keep up during assault and combat training they were forced to dig latrines and plant physic nut bushes (a biofuel crop) as punishment. Several complained of being forced to do hard training in the hot sun, with one interviewee noting that young boys sometimes collapsed on the parade ground from the heat.>[83]

At night trainees are forced to take turns as sentries and the barracks are also watched by non-commissioned officers, but almost every training company experiences a number of attempted escapes; most of those interviewed for this report knew of escape attempts numbering from two or three to as many as 10 or 15 from a single company during the 18 weeks. Several interviewees commented that it was usually older recruits who attempted escape, because most child soldiers lacked the confidence unless an older recruit escaped with them. Some get away successfully, but many are captured and brought back. When this happens there is a standard punishment that seems common to most of Burma's training schools and has not changed in the last 10 years: the trainee is paraded in front of his entire training company, who are then forced to line up and take turns hitting him hard once or twice with a stick while NCOs or other trainees pin him down and look on. Sai Seng describes his experience of this in 2005, when he was 17:

Only one person was caught. All 249 people had to beat him on the buttocks and the back of his thighs with a green bamboo. I felt pity on my friend so I hit him lightly, and the NCO came and said, "Don't hit like that, hit like this" and hit me, and then made me hit my friend again. Three sections [150 recruits] had already beaten him by then, and he was crying. The NCO was pinning his arms down with his back to me, so I couldn't see his face, he was face down with his legs in the stocks. He was bloody because sometimes the sticks broke when they hit him. After the beating the NCOs carried him to the barracks with his legs still in the stocks, and laid him on the cement floor without a mat. He died that night. His name was Thet Naing Soe, he was 18. After that the NCOs said, "If you run away we'll do the same to you.">[84]

More commonly the recruit does not die but is given treatment, and is then held in wooden leg stocks for about a week before being forced to rejoin the training. Though there are slight variations on this practice (for example, sometimes the beating only involves the 60-65 members of the platoon, and sometimes the recruit is beaten severely by the officers first and his comrades are then forced to hit him two or five times each), it is remarkably consistent between training centers across the country: even the youngest recruits who attempt escape are not exempt. In mid-2006, 16-year-old Ko Ko Aung escaped successfully but was sent back to training by his relatives, who feared arrest:

When I returned I was beaten by the sergeants and the training company commander until I couldn't stand any more, so I was sent to the clinic. Then I was put in the leg stocks for a week. I was never allowed out of the stocks. They put a bedpan beside me for a toilet, and brought my food to me. At the end they told me to stand up but I couldn't, so I was sent to the hospital and was there for two weeks. Then I was confined to barracks until I could follow the training again. I could walk again, but when everyone had to carry backpacks my lower back got really painful, so I could only watch and take notes.>[85]

Though the presence of underage recruits at training is usually not discussed by the training officers, 14-year-old Than Myint Oo had an unusual experience during his training in 2002:

During my twelfth week in training there was an inspection, and in my company they did a roll call, and they announced "Everyone under 18 raise your hands." We raised our hands and they took our names. There were 80 or 90 of us. We were happy, we thought we were being released. They gave us some caneballs and footballs and said "Take these, you'll be released soon." But instead we were sent to the forest and slept there for two days. The balls disappeared and we weren't allowed to play, instead we had to stay in small huts and keep silent. It was two or three kilometers away, we couldn't see the training camp from there. On the way there we passed some villages and one sergeant said, "Let's take a rest," but another said, "No, we're not allowed." They told the villagers we were practicing long marches. We stayed there for two nights and three days. Later we went back to the normal training.>[86]

The reason for the above incident is unclear, though the authorities have been known to conceal children serving prison sentences for desertion when expecting prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.>[87] Since 2004 the SPDC has allowed UN agency representatives to visit recruitment centers and basic training facilities on five occasions;>[88] it is possible to speculate that this 2002 incident may have been connected to such a visit by a senior government or army official or an outside agency.

Some infantry battalions have begun conducting their own basic training in lieu of sending their recruits to normal training centers. Infantry Battalion No. 34 in Rakhine state is one such battalion. In 2005 Aung Moe was recruited by the battalion and trained there, along with over 100 others including 40 child recruits, at a site a signboard identified as the "No. 3 Training Camp." He said the training only lasted three months but otherwise described a course of basic training like that provided at the major training centers. Afterward they were sent to do road and bridge construction for four months, then returned to the battalion. He only received 120 kyat per month salary and says he was never aware of being issued a soldier number.>[89] Human Rights Watch has also received other reports of soldiers being picked up by battalion recruiters and put in uniform without any formal training.>[90] The extent and rationale of such practices, and whether such soldiers are added to the central army register, remains unclear.

Deployment and Active Duty

I had the name lists. On the lists it says 18, but when I meet them and they speak I know they're younger. In the 10 battalions there were about 80 soldiers under 18-16 or 17 years old. About five or six of those were under 15-they have to stay with their officers. The under-eighteens are used in combat, but not those under 15.
-Chit Khaing, a clerk for a military operations command, overseeing 10 infantry battalions, 2004-05>[91]

Based on witness accounts and the testimony of former soldiers, the prevalence of child soldiers appears to vary significantly between different Tatmadaw battalions. Two former child soldiers who served as recently as 2006 reported that in newly formed battalions the proportion of soldiers who are under 18 can be as high as 50 to 60 percent of all privates, and 20 to 30 percent of the entire battalion.>[92] Of these, a small percentage are under 15, often used as servants by battalion officers. In addition to children, most battalions have a significant number of soldiers who joined the unit as children but have now passed age 18; some witnesses even report seeing NCOs who are only 17 or 18 years old, although one usually has to serve in the army for several years before being promoted to lance corporal.

Human Rights Watch obtained detailed staffing lists from three infantry battalions and a combined auxiliary regiment. Sources within the battalions confirmed that the list included 30 children, including 10 who were undergoing training, and seven who were under the age of 15.>[93] In one infantry battalion child soldiers comprised 15 percent of all enlisted men and nearly 5 percent of the entire battalion. In other infantry battalions child soldiers comprised 2.3 percent to 4 percent of staffing. Human Rights Watch was able to independently verify the presence of all 30 children in these regiments.>[94]

Most recruits are told their battalion assignments shortly before their basic training is finished. If recruited by an artillery or air defense battalion they are often assigned back to that unit, but if recruited by infantry or light infantry they are sent to wherever the need is greatest. Anywhere from three to 15 recruits from a training company might be sent to the same battalion, which provides a soldier and possibly a truck to come and pick them up.

In mid-2006 Ko Ko Aung was sent to a light infantry battalion in Papun area of Karen state with seven others, one of whom escaped when their train stopped at Bago. Among the other seven, he said three were his age, 16, and the other four were older. On their arrival:

The deputy battalion commander called us and asked our backgrounds. He told us to answer honestly. When several of us said we were 16 he said nothing, just shook his head and said, "That's what I'd guessed." Then he assigned us duties at the battalion. I was a sentry, another was assigned to the office as a clerk, two others to the intelligence unit, and the rest became ordinary soldiers.>[95]

New soldiers are initially sent to the battalion headquarters, but if it is a "frontline" battalion and they are assigned to a frontline company, they are soon sent out on normal rotation, which alternates four to five months at the frontline followed by one to two months back at the battalion base. The assignments given to underage soldiers vary by battalion. Kyo Myint stated that in his battalion child soldiers were sent into combat situations like anyone else, and in combat zones each child soldier was usually attached to an adult soldier. Others interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that although they were only 15 or 16 years old, they were sent into combat zones within a few days to a month after arriving at the battalion.>[96]

In some battalions the officers keep the youngest soldiers at the battalion headquarters until they grow older. Myo Aung, a battalion headquarters sergeant-clerk in 2004-05, stated that his "battalion commander would ask the sergeant for a list of those to be sent to the frontline. I had to list the duties of all soldiers, so I always put the soldiers under 18 on the list for the farm or the battalion camp so they wouldn't have to go to the frontline.">[97] This is often the case for the very youngest soldiers:

Because I was young [age 11] I had to stay with the battalion commander as a sniper and bodyguard. I did this for one year. Then I did communications training, radio operator. I trained at Taunggyi for two months. I was 12 or 13. Sometimes I was unhappy because I was young and had bad memories, and it was stressful because I was too slow typing Morse code. But that was my job for the rest of the time I was there.>[98]

After his communications training, Htun Myint was nevertheless seen as sufficiently experienced to be sent on frontline operations even though he was still only 13. At the frontline, "The NCOs looked down on us radio guys because they thought our job was easy, so the sergeants put heavy loads on my back when I already had to carry heavy radio equipment. They made me carry thick and heavy blankets too.">[99] Even at the battalion headquarters, conditions can be very hard for children. The following comments by former child soldiers are typical: "I had malaria all the time for a year in Pah Saung when I was 12, because our battalion was new so we had to work erecting camp buildings.">[100] "We had to do 'fatigue,' which was planting physic nut and sometimes working on the road. The corporals and lance corporals sometimes beat us for not finishing our 'fatigue.' They were supposed to help us but went drinking, and when they returned and saw the work not done they beat us. The more senior officers did this too.">[101]

Soldiers' salaries have increased exponentially over the past 10 years in order to spur recruitment; since 2002 a private's minimum salary has increased from 4,500 kyat per month to 15,000 kyat.>[102] Former soldiers, however, report that even these increases are insufficient to keep pace with Burma's inflation rate, that it is still possible to make more money outside the army, and most importantly that they never see most of this salary because much of it disappears in the form of deductions. Some vaguely-named deductions are simply a form of corruption by battalion officers and may include deductions for "savings" which often cut a soldier's monthly salary in half. Ko Ko Aung said his salary in late 2006 was 21,000 "but they cut 10,000 every month for 'savings,'" while Maung Zaw Oo says that in training in early 2006 his salary was 15,000 kyat "But we got only 5,000, and 10,000 went to 'savings.' I don't know which bank, but a government bank">[103]; this is presumably the military-owned Myawaddy or Inwa Bank. However, none of the soldiers interviewed for this report had ever heard of anyone being able to access this money even after being discharged from the army.

Mandated leave and discharges are very difficult to obtain and often carry a requirement of bringing in new recruits. As one soldier commented, "It's very hard to get leave. You need a reason. My family wrote that my mother was sick and in hospital so I tried to get leave from the commander, but I couldn't get it.">[104] Another remarked, "There were no discharges granted while I was there. They only discharge those they can't use anymore, like those who go mad, or get HIV or chronic health problems. If they announced that all who want to leave can quit, only [Senior General] Than Shwe himself would be left.">[105]

As a result morale tends to be very low, particularly among child soldiers. According to a Karen civilian health worker who lives near an army camp:

Many are children! I know because I go to play sports with them, and they think I'm a villager. Many are 17, 18 and 19. Some look pale and weak. They look tired and depressed, maybe they are homesick and thinking about their families, and because they have to stand sentry at night and work in the camp at night. There are about 30 at their camp, and I've met four or five who are under 18. They all seem to be at least 15. Last year two of them about 17 years old went to my aunt's house to pawn a ring and said they needed the money to buy food.>[106]

Some battalion officers tell their soldiers to minimize contact with the civilian population, and they are sometimes barred from entering villages near their camp; instead, the officers send their orders directly to village leaders, and ordinary soldiers encounter civilians when they are already doing forced labor. In some cases interviewees seem reluctant to say much about their interaction with villagers and other people such as convicts doing forced labor, but there are exceptions. Aung Aung, for example, became a medic while still only 16, and wanted to help local villagers:

I wanted to treat patients but I couldn't because the officers took the medicines and sold them for themselves. One time I took some medicine and treated the villagers in [village name withheld], but when I got back they punished me and put me in a cell, and the officer told me he'd take me to Rangoon and put me in jail. I wasn't allowed to treat villagers. After he told me that, I fled that same night.>[107]


I can't remember how old I was the first time in fighting. About 13. That time we walked into a Karenni ambush, and four of our soldiers died. I was afraid because I was very young so I tried to run back, but [the captain] shouted, "Don't run back! If you run back I'll shoot you myself!"
-Aung Zaw, describing his first exposure to combat >[108]

Most army soldiers only face combat sporadically in the form of hit-and-run attacks and ambushes by resistance forces. When they encounter combat, most child soldiers say they were frightened and ineffective the first time but gradually became accustomed to it. Aung Aung describes a typical example from when he was 15 years old:

Fighting happened one time with the KNU. It lasted 10 or 15 minutes. When it began I was scared, but then I wasn't afraid. During the fighting the other boys under 18 were afraid too, and some cried. Some of them ran away and didn't shoot. The fighting occurred up ahead, and those at the back with us ran away.>[109]

Maung Zaw Oo described what happened when he was on patrol in 2005, at age 16:

The KNLA ambushed us once with a remote control mine [a claymore fragmentation mine detonated by pulling a wire], but I'd already passed it and they hit a sergeant. Two officers and one sergeant died on the spot. When I first heard the explosion I shook, but after firing some rounds I felt better. I liked looking for mines. I felt if I volunteered to go point I'd be okay, but not if they forced me. My sergeant taught me, "Never take others' duty or you'll be injured." He left me an amulet when he left the army, it's very powerful.>[110]

Those who acquire bravado through combat experience often lose it again, however, when they see others their age killed and wounded for the first time. Htun Myint told us,

We were replaced [on sentry duty] by two others, including one new soldier only two months at the battalion-he was my age [14] and had malaria. When we were eating, the Karenni soldiers fired a few shells and then withdrew. By the time we got in position they were already gone. We found the new soldier with malaria-he'd been shot, and we tried to treat him but 30 minutes later he was dead. I felt very sad and unhappy, and when I saw his body I thought, "When will I be shot?">[111]

When Than Myint Oo first experienced combat, "My first feeling was, it's very different from the movies. Afterward when I was on sentry duty I thought about the value of life, and I was afraid.">[112] This was the point when he seriously began thinking about deserting. Similarly, the initial trigger for Sai Seng was when he saw his commander shoot dead several of their own soldiers in the column who had been seriously wounded in an enemy ambush: "When I saw those soldiers being shot I felt scared and pitied them but couldn't help them. That's when I started feeling scared and wanting to run away.">[113]

Abuses against Civilians

Sai Seng was 17 or 18 and patrolling with a column in Shan state in 2006 when he saw his corporal attempting to rape a village woman, then shooting her in the back when she broke free and tried to run. Sai Seng was a Shan himself, and said, "I wanted to shoot that corporal but I couldn't, so I suffered a lot, because these were my people. But I was the only Shan there so I couldn't do anything.">[114] The corporal's sole punishment consisted of being ordered to dig the woman's grave. This incident became a major factor in Sai Seng's decision to desert.

Others, however, become accustomed to unthinkingly executing orders. In 2004, when Myin Win was 14, the tactical operations commander ordered Myin Win's unit to burn down Shan Si Bo village after a landmine explosion southwest of Toungoo killed and wounded several soldiers. "I myself torched four or five houses, and many livestock died. Some chickens and pigs burned to death in their pens. Three men villagers we saw there were shot by our battalion, but I'm not sure who did it." When asked if he would have shot a villager on sight, he replied,

Yes I think so, because we were ordered that if we see anyone we should shoot them. The battalion commander himself said "Shoot everyone you see and burn the village." He didn't exclude women and children, whomever we saw we were ordered to shoot. I felt that the villagers had no connection to the explosion, but as a soldier it is impossible to disobey orders. The orders divided black areas from white areas.>[115] Bu Sah Kee was black area. We were ordered that if we see anyone, including women and children, then we must approach and catch them and take them to our officers for interrogation. If they try to run, shoot them. Even when they allowed themselves to be caught they were never released. If they agreed to show us the location of a KNLA base they might survive, but otherwise they were probably killed, though I didn't see that. In summer we burned down fruit trees-coconut, betel, cardamom. In dry season we tried to burn the rice fields, and in rainy season the battalion was ordered to trample the rice plants.>[116]

While telling this story he showed no remorse, and when asked what he would now say to the villagers whose homes he burned he said he would make no apologies but would be willing to speak to them politely.

Desertion, Imprisonment, and Re-recruitment

Many desert. In all of Burma, I think two of every five soldiers tries to run away from the military at some point. Some flee within Burma, some reach the borders or Thailand. While I was there, the people who deserted outnumbered the new recruits. If we replaced 10 percent of our strength from new recruits, then 20 percent ran away. But officers often lie and say people don't flee. If 30 run away, they only report two of them.
-Chit Khaing, a sergeant who kept records for 10 battalions as a military operations command clerk in 2004-05

With discharges and leave extremely difficult to obtain, most soldiers determined to get out of the army have no option but desertion or suicide. Htun Myint said, "Some kill themselves because they can't stand it any more. Myint Zaw and Soe Aung in 2004, and Nyi Nyi in 2005. They were about 15 years old. They shot themselves when they were on sentry duty.">[117] Suicides occur occasionally, but desertion has become extremely common. As noted above, government documents reported a loss of 9,497 soldiers during a single four-month period in 2006, many due to desertions.>[118]

When Myo Aung was a clerk sergeant in his battalion office in 2004-05, he estimates that "at least one person per month" deserted. "Some were caught. They were interrogated by the mother battalion and asked 'Do you want to continue your duty?' Most say yes, and then they're held in the battalion lockup for a while. If they say no, we transferred them to other jobs like the police.">[119] He said that the latter option was not available to child deserters from his battalion, however, because the police did not want children. In other battalions, deserters are not given such options at all, but are usually locked up and punished for a month or two and then forced to return to duty.>[120] Most former soldiers interviewed for this report estimated that 10 to 30 soldiers deserted their battalion each year. Given present low battalion staffing levels, this may suggest an annual desertion rate of as high as 20 percent, although these accounts are from operational frontline battalions and may not be representative of desertion rates from army battalions not engaged in combat.

During his time in the army from 1992 to 2005, Kyo Myint says desertion rates from his battalion consistently increased, and he attributes this to the increasing burdens being placed on soldiers, such as heavier duty to compensate for declining battalion strength; corruption and deductions from salary and rations that leave soldiers impoverished and hungry; and the added personal work that soldiers are forced to do for officers, whether on the officers' personal money-making schemes or as recruiters and servants.

Most of those who successfully escape either try to return home, or head to other towns to start a new life anonymously, as their homes are watched and many are recaptured that way. Deserters caught by their own units are usually punished at the battalion camp for a month or more and then returned to duty without the desertion being reported, but if caught later or further afield they are sentenced to prison for six months to a year. A former political prisoner told Human Rights Watch that he saw many child soldiers in prison for desertion. When the International Committee of the Red Cross was about to visit the prison to speak to prisoners in 2003, the prison authorities transferred all of the child deserters-he estimated the number at 25 to 30 at the time-to a juvenile detention center in another city so the ICRC representatives would not see them.>[121]

Less than a week after deserting and returning home to care for his sick mother, 14-year-old Than Myint Oo was stopped by the police and arrested:

They handed me to military police who beat me and detained me for 14 days in Bago, then sent me back to my battalion. There an officer told me, "Here you have opportunity, we'll train you to drive a truck and do judo and boxing, you'll be a man." I said, "I'm not interested, please just punish me and then let me go home." He said, "Okay, we'll send you to prison for six months but then you'll have to come back and serve the battalion." I was sent to Mandalay Prison for six months. I wasn't 15 yet. >[122]

He reported that at Mandalay Prison those in for desertion are kept separate from criminal prisoners, allowed to wear civilian clothes, and that selected inmates are allowed to go on work details outside the prison. Than Myint Oo took advantage of this to escape from prison, but was later picked up at home again by a recruiting sergeant. "The sergeant said, 'You're young so we don't want to send you to your battalion because they'll send you to prison and it will be worse, so it will be better if we send you to the Su Saun Yay to enlist as a new recruit." He agreed, but later begged and pleaded and the sergeant agreed to use him as a servant for a year before re-enlisting him. Others also tell stories of being recaptured by recruiters who would rather enlist them as a new recruit than turn them in for desertion; by doing so the recruiter gets cash incentives and a recruit towards his quota, whereas he gets nothing for turning in a deserter.

Whether returning home or attempting to start a new life elsewhere in Burma, child deserters are as vulnerable as any child to forced recruitment; perhaps more so, because they tend to be without resources, out of school and looking for work, often alone and vulnerable, though they have the advantage of knowing some of the recruiters' tricks and the truth about army life. When he first deserted at age 11 in 2000, Myin Win was able to stay at home because he had given a false address when he was first recruited. He worked with his mother for three years frying and selling vegetables. He told us, "My mother suggested I should never travel alone until I was fully grown up." The first time he did so, at 14, he was grabbed at a train station by a recruiter and forcibly re-enlisted. This time they got his real address from his travel pass, so when he deserted for a second time in 2005 he fled to Thailand, no longer daring to return home.>[123]

Three of the child soldiers interviewed for this report had been forcibly recruited a second time (while still children) after deserting the army, getting caught by recruiters and enlisted as new recruits rather than being punished for desertion. When Myin Win went through training for the second time, he noticed that "about 30 in my company [of 250] were there for the second or third time. The trainers could tell this from the way we stood at attention and other things, but they didn't ask why, they just said, 'We understand your situation.'" Even though he was still only 14, the trainers weren't sympathetic the second time: "They could see it was my second time so I felt they hated me. They threatened me, 'You must do it, you shouldn't fail.'">[124]

Many who desert in conflict areas surrender to non-state armed groups. Some groups operating under ceasefire agreements with the SPDC have agreed to hand Tatmadaw deserters back, but many groups try to help deserters if they can. In most cases there is little they can do except to feed them, give them some civilian clothes and pocket money, and point them in the direction of home. Some deserters express an interest in joining resistance armies, but they are very rarely accepted. In such cases they are often transferred to resistance groups that are not ethnicity-based, such as the All-Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF). The ABSDF does not accept child soldiers in its ranks, so if under 18 they are sent to school, and even those over 18 are only accepted if deemed suitable and if resources allow. An ABSDF representative told Human Rights Watch that they have helped many Tatmadaw child soldiers but that their resources only allow them to care for three or four at a time in each region. In mid-2007 the Karen National Union wanted to send them another group of several child deserters but they had no resources to care for them, so the KNU sent them back into central Burma on their own at great risk.>[125]

If deserters opt to look for work in neighboring countries, the armed groups can usually escort them to the border and sometimes help find them a job through their contacts, but are not in a position to provide any protection for them once they cross the border. Restrictions, arrest, and deportation of "illegal" migrant workers in Bangladesh, India, and Thailand have become much stricter over the past five years, making it much more difficult and dangerous for deserters to find work and safety in these countries. In Thailand, international organizations such as UNHCR, UNICEF and the ICRC have faced increasing restrictions which make it difficult or impossible for them to provide even rudimentary protection for former child soldiers who cross the border.>[126] Meanwhile there are still reports of an unwritten agreement by the Thai-Burma Joint Border Cooperation Committee, a forum made up of army, paramilitary, police, immigration, and regional government officials from both sides of the border, that Thai authorities will hand back to Burmese authorities any Tatmadaw deserters caught in Thailand. The Thai government reportedly denies the existence of this agreement, and Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain any firm evidence of its existence, though there have been several reported cases over the past five years of Tatmadaw deserters being forcibly repatriated. Once in a neighboring country and working illegally, former child soldiers must keep a low profile and many conceal their histories, making it doubly difficult for any organizations that might wish to help them.

The Future of Tatmadaw Child Recruitment

Than Myint Oo, who was recruited at 14 and subsequently imprisoned for desertion, described the army as "a huge blind machine" whose "victims are schoolboys who know nothing about being soldiers." He stated that recruiters "use many tricks and threats too, and these practices should be completely stopped. As for those involved in recruiting, I want to kill them.">[127] Others also expressed a desire to kill the recruiters for destroying so many adolescent lives. The recruiters, however, are themselves only part of the "huge blind machine."

The prevalence of child soldiers within the Tatmadaw reflects a culture of impunity and the steady de-professionalization of Burma's armed forces. Child recruitment will continue as long as the Tatmadaw's senior generals impose unsustainable recruitment quotas, tolerate and ignore the blatant recruitment of children, and fail to address poor working conditions within the armed forces.

The Government of Burma's Response to the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers

It is necessary for us to always refute the accusations [about the forcible recruitment of child soldiers] systematically . [and] always project before the international community the correct efforts being made by the committee and refute baseless accusations.
-Adjutant General Thein Sein, in his concluding speech to the Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children, 2005>[128]

The government of Burma has publicly affirmed its legal commitment to protect children as evidenced by its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in August 1991, and its enactment of the Child Law in 1994 and rules of procedure in 2001.>[129] In 1993 the government of Burma formed the National Committee on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) as a main coordination mechanism for the implementation of the Child Law, and subsequently established state, division, district, and township Child Rights Committees. A Monitoring and Evaluation Subcommittee was founded in 1999 to share information and knowledge in Asia-Pacific countries.

The government's "National Plan of Action for Children" identifies child protection as one of its major focal points.>[130] In conjunction with UNICEF, the Burmese government has also conducted child protection workshops at the township level, and implemented a variety of initiatives to prevent the trafficking of children. These include the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, and the drafting of a "Five Year Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking" both of which include within their purview recruitment of child soldiers.

Despite Burma's stated commitments to protect children and statutory prohibitions against the military recruitment of persons less than 18 years old, Burma has not ratified the ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), or the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflicts.

For over a decade, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations and international organizations such as the United Nations and the ILO have all made repeated expressions of concern to the government of Burma about its recruitment of child soldiers.>[131] Despite extensive documentation about the systematic and widespread use of child soldiers, the government of Burma has continued to ignore, deny, and impugn the credibility of such reports.

In response to a Human Rights Watch 2002 study on child soldiers in Burma, the government of Burma's only public response was a one-page press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rejecting as baseless Human Rights Watch's findings that the Burma army had recruited large numbers of children. It asserted that enrolment in armed forces was "purely voluntary" and that minimum age regulations were strictly enforced. The statement impugned deserters who had provided Human Rights Watch with testimony for the report as "anti-government elements.">[132]

In November 2003 the UN secretary-general listed the Tatmadaw for recruiting or using children in violation of international standards in his report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict. The report recommended that parties so listed be subject to a range of Security Council sanctions if concrete measures were not taken to end the practice.>[133] In January 2004 the SPDC formed the Committee for Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children(hereinafter referred to as the Committee).>[134] The formation of the Committee preceded, by just a few days, a Security Council open debate on children and armed conflict at the United Nations in New York.

Despite the formation of the Committee, the government of Burma maintained its public stance that it did not recruit child soldiers into its armed forces.>[135] In 2004 delegates representing the government acknowledged the formation of the Committee in their oral statement to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. However their report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child evaded any discussion of Article 38 (child recruitment) despite the Committee on the Rights of the Child's expression of "grave concern" following its previous review of Burma. The government of Burma's report similarly failed to elaborate any measures implemented in response to the Committee on the Rights of the Child's recommendations regarding the recruitment of children. In its comments under Article 22 (refugee children), the government went so far as to state that "there is no problem of refugees" associated with Burma, that "there is peace in the country," and that "there are no children in armed conflict.">[136]

The Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children

Because the government of Burma presents the Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children as its primary initiative to prevent the conscription of child soldiers the remainder of this chapter assesses the work of that body.

The Committee's "Plan of Action" (see Appendix A) establishes three objectives: to prevent the forced recruitment of underage children>[137] as soldiers; to protect the interests of underage children; and to ensure faithful adherence to the orders and instructions issued for the protection of underage children.>[138] The Committee's Plan of Action briefly elaborates five types of activities: the demobilization of child soldiers, the reintegration of former child soldiers, public awareness raising, the punishment of persons who violate recruitment laws and procedures, and cooperation with international agencies.>[139]

The Committee is chaired by the adjutant general of the Tatmadaw, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, who is also Secretary 2 of the SPDC and one of 12 members of the military council that rules Burma; as adjutant general, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein oversees administrative matters in the armed forces including recruitment. Other senior Ministry of Defense members in the Committee are the vice-chief of armed forces training, the director of the Directorate of Military Strength, and the judge advocate-general. Committee members also include the deputy attorney general and senior ministers from the ministries of home affairs, foreign affairs, labor, and social welfare, relief and resettlement.>[140]

In July 2004 the SPDC established the Directorate of Military Strength to supervise military recruitment and ensure that minimum age requirements are met.>[141] The Directorate of Military Strength reportedly oversees all aspects relating to armed forces recruitment, including the supervision of the armed forces recruitment units and recruitment holding centers and their adherence to Tatmadaw recruitment quotas and directives on the minimum standards for recruits. The directorate is headed by Maj. Gen. Ngwe Thein, previously the commander of the 22nd Light Infantry Division.>[142] In February 2006, the SPDC also established a Working Committee for the Prevention of Recruiting Child Soldiers, chaired by Maj. Gen. Ngwe Thein. Details about the composition of the working group and its activities have not been publicly reported.

The inclusion of senior officials from the Ministry of Defense and senior ministers from other key branches of the government within the Committee and its subsidiary organs would appear to enable these bodies to provide substantive redress. However, the Committee has met only seven times over the past three and a half years.>[143]

Human Rights Watch's assessment of the Committee's work reveals that it has primarily served a cosmetic public relations function, making little progress in achieving its stated objectives, and failing to substantively address the army's institutionalized and pervasive forcible recruitment of children.


The Plan of Action states that all persons under 18 receiving military training or serving in the armed forces are to be demobilized and returned to their parents or guardians; orphans and those without guardians are to be placed under the care of the Ministry of Social Welfare. The Plan of Action further commits to register and offer a voluntary discharge to all adults in the armed forces who were conscripted before they were 18 years of age.>[144]

Gauging the extent to which the Committee has demobilized child combatants is complicated by the secrecy in which the Tatmadaw shrouds itself, and its prevarications about the existence of child soldiers among its ranks. As elaborated below, the SPDC has occasionally provided murky reports about the numbers of child soldiers it claims to have demobilized. Elaboration has never been provided and details about specific cases have never been made public.

In a 2005 press conference Adjutant General Thein Sein reported that the Tatmadaw had discharged 213 minors from military service between 2002 and February 2005. These included 85 child soldiers in 2002, 75 in 2003, and 50 in 2004.>[145]

In 2007 the SPDC reported that "[i]n exactly counting facts and figures, 122 most youngest children, 268 recruits who did not meet with qualification and 177 recruits who failed in medical examination were sent to their parents from 2004 to 2006.">[146] One reading of that statement suggests that a total of 122 minors were discharged. However, the government delegation to the UN Human Rights Council subsequently reiterated these figures, stating that "[b]etween 2004 and 2006, 567 persons were discharged from the armed forces as they neither met the minimum age nor the designated qualifications [emphasis added].">[147] Although the statement of the government delegation suggests that the Committee has demobilized a far greater number of child soldier recruits than implied by the first report, it also suggests that the Tatmadaw does not prohibit all minors from enrolling in the armed forces, only those who are "most youngest," or who fail to meet medical or other qualifications.Similarly, the Committee's September 2006 periodic report reports the discharge of persons who were "underage and unwilling to serve," suggesting that the government's official policy may not be to discharge all minors from military service but only those who are unwilling.>[148]

One reading of these statistics indicates that the SPDC has demobilized a total of 282 child soldiers over the five-year period between 2002 to 2006.>[149] From 2002 to 2004, child soldiers were demobilized at an average rate of 80 per year. Since the formation of the Committee, child soldier recruits have been demobilized at an average rate of only 41 per year-that is, at half the rate prior to the formation of the Committee.

These apparent declines in the rate at which the SPDC is demobilizing child soldier recruits might be explained by decreasing incidences of child conscription by military recruiters. However, Human Rights Watch's research suggests that child soldier recruitment has not appreciably declined. Indeed, Human Rights Watch is concerned that children may even be more vulnerable to forcible recruitment in light of increasing desertions within the Tatmadaw and its intensified recruitment drives.

The low rates of demobilization clearly represent only a small percentage of the total numbers of children who are annually recruited into the Tatmadaw. Former child soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that they had personally witnessed numbers of children within the holding centers, training camps, and operational units that were substantially higher than the number of children which the Committee claims to be demobilizing. The Committee's statistics thus provide clear indication that it has failed to impact the Tatmadaw's systematic and widespread practices of conscripting children.

The government's statements about the Committee suggest that it is only demobilizing child soldier recruits, not active duty child soldiers who are already posted to military units, as was apparently the case prior to 2005. In sharp contrast to the SPDC's commitment to demobilize child soldiers, the military, in conjunction with civilian law enforcement officials, has continued to arrest and incarcerate child soldiers for desertion since the formation of the Committee.>[150] Despite its commitment in the Plan of Action, there is no indication that the SPDC has granted a right of voluntary discharge to adult Tatmadaw members who were recruited as minors. This commitment should not only result in the release of adult soldiers recruited as children who wish to leave the Tatmadaw, but also should entail granting immunity from sanction for any soldier who was recruited as a child but deserted as an adult.

In all of the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, children were released from military service only when a parent or guardian advocated on their behalf. Human Rights Watch also received numerous reports that military officials had demanded parents or guardians pay them bribes to secure the release of their children.>[151]

Because the Committee does not appear to discharge child soldiers in the absence of a complaint, and because the ILO and the ICRC have acted only on the basis of complaints by parents or guardians, it seems unlikely that orphans or children without guardians would be demobilized.


According to the Plan of Action, the Ministry of Social Welfare is responsible for returning demobilized child soldiers to their parents and guardians and "making arrangements to give vocational training, other alternative educational options and livelihood supports with special focus on orphans, those without guardians and other vulnerable underage children.">[152] In no case reported to Human Rights Watch were former child soldiers escorted to their parents by the Ministry of Social Welfare, or offered any form of reintegration assistance.>[153] In one case a minor was escorted back to his parents after they made a formal complaint to Senior General Than Shwe.>[154]

The SPDC claims that it terminated the Ministry of Defense's Ye Nyunt ("Brave Sprouts") program in 2000, and subsequently transferred all children in that program to Nationalities Youth Development Training Schools.>[155] Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the veracity of this claim or meet with any former Ye Nyunt child soldiers.The SPDC has not allowed the UN or any other international agency to have access to former Ye Nyunt members.>[156]

Although Human Rights Watch regards the termination of the Ye Nyunt program as a positive step, it regards the SPDC's response as otherwise wholly inadequate. The Ye Nyunt program placed boys as young as 11 within the custody of army battalions, ostensibly as a means of educating and caring for orphans and children without guardians. A former Ye Nyunt member interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2002 reported being subjected to harsh military training and discipline, physical abuse, and forced labor. Former Ye Nyunt recruits are clearly children in special need of care. The Nationalities Youth Development Training Schools, which offer little more than free room and board, are clearly not equipped to handle the special needs of children who have been subjected to physical and mental abuse at a young age. Moreover, testimony to Human Rights Watch revealed that in many cases Ye Nyunt were not orphans or parentless but that the military had abducted them. The SPDC, in cooperation with UNICEF and the ICRC, should ensure that all such persons are immediately returned to their families.

Measures for Raising Awareness

The Plan of Action indicates that the Committee will undertake a range of measures to raise public awareness. In reviewing the work of the Committee over the past three-anda-half years, Human Rights Watch could find very little evidence of government-led awareness raising initiatives either within the armed forces or among the public.

Human Rights Watch collected testimony from four officers, five NCOs, and nine soldiers who had served in the army after the formation of the Committee. None was aware of any serious initiative to prevent child recruitment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two non-commissioned officers who served as office clerks subsequent to the formation of the Committee. A sergeant who served as an office clerk in a military operations command headquarters from April 2004 to August 2005 stated that he had never heard of the Committee, nor did he recall ever receiving directives that ordered army units to halt the recruitment of children. He stated that even if such a directive had been received "the MOC [Military Operations Command] would continue to do this, because they need more soldiers. They were ordered that they must recruit, and they must obey this order. If he doesn't provide the requested recruits the commander can be dismissed for failure to obey orders.">[157]A clerk sergeant responsible for administrative matters in an infantry battalion in 2004-05 also stated that he was unaware of any orders to operational army units concerning child conscription.>[158]

The Plan of Action states that the Committee's public awareness raising initiatives will include placing "signboards in visible places at recruitment centers stating that entry into the armed forces is voluntary and permissible only after the attainment of 18 years of age." Even this minimal step does not appear to have been taken. Although Human Rights Watch was not able to verify whether signboards have since been installed at recruitment centers, a 17-year-old who was processed through the Mingaladon recruit holding center in 2005 stated that there were no signs or indications that servicemen must be over age 18, and that at no point was he required to provide proof of his age.>[159] Similarly, a 16-year-old boy who was also processed into the army through Mingaladon in April 2006 stated, "I didn't see anything saying that I had to be 18, only signs with army slogans and office rules.">[160]

In any event, the placing of signboards in recruitment centers beyond public view does not qualify as a public awareness raising initiative. Nor are such signboards likely to prevent the conscription of minors already present in recruitment centers. As noted above, the testimony of Tatmadaw soldiers and civilians indicates clearly that army recruiters frequently violate recruitment rules and regulations by coercing underage recruits to join the armed forces and falsifying their ages. In some cases recruiters have even changed the names of underage recruits, presumably to prevent parents or guardians from locating them.>[161]

Tatmadaw recruitment materials disseminated over the past five years in both English and Burmese clearly indicate that the minimum age for enrolment in the Tatmadaw is 18, and that documentary evidence of such is required.>[162] Recruitment materials produced before the establishment of the Committee do not differ in this regard. These materials are clearly focused on obtaining new recruits rather than preventing the conscription of minors, as evident through the economic inducements that they advertise, and the opportunity to work abroad as a military attach.

The Plan of Action specifies that the Committee will "disseminate widely" information about the minimum age for military service and the voluntary nature of such "through newspapers, journals, magazines, publications, radio, TV and video-plays" as well as circulating pamphlets, and raising public awareness with village- and ward-level authorities.>[163] Human Rights Watch could find no evidence that the government has taken measures to raise public awareness through any of the media identified in the Plan of Action. None of the Tatmadaw recruitment materials disseminated either before or since the establishment of the Committee indicate that service must be voluntary.>[164]

Human Rights Watch could find no evidence that the government has publicly disseminated the Committee's Plan of Action, publicized the existence of any redress mechanism by which citizens can report cases of underage recruitment, or even acknowledged that minors may be subject to forced recruitment. Although the state-run media reported the June 2007 visit of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy, no mention was made about the purpose of her visit.>[165]

Leaders of non-state armed groups that cooperate with the SPDC are also unaware of the workings of the Committee. None of the officials of such groups interviewed by Human Rights Watch had ever been told of the workings of the Committee or been engaged by Burmese officials on the legality of using child soldiers. Hkun Thu Rein, secretary of the SNPLO splinter group who cooperated with Burmese military officials for several years during their ceasefire in Southern Shan State, told Human Rights Watch,

I've heard Kyaw Hsan [the SPDC information minister] say in the media that they [SPDC] have no child soldiers but this is a plain lie. They are using child soldiers. How can people know about this Committee? I've never heard of this Committee.>[166]

In practice, the principal public awareness raising function of the Committee appears to be focused on disavowing that child soldiers are forcibly recruited to serve in the Tatmadaw.>[167] For example, a report in the newspaper New Light of Myanmar about the fourth Committee meeting states bluntly that "conspirators are framing the Tatmadaw for the alleged forced recruitment of juvenile soldiers for the front lines, and trying to raise the matter at the UN for the global body to take action against Myanmar. Thus, the committee will have to pay attention to refuting the matter.">[168]

Under the auspices of the National Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has reportedly conducted a series of child protection workshops that include educative talks about preventing child recruitment. No details are available about the content of these talks. In 2005, the ILO noted that similar public awareness raising workshops focused on preventing forced labor had "no apparent impact.">[169]

The Myanmar Literacy Research Council, a UNICEF partner agency, is also conducting a series of child protection workshops in various parts of the country in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. These trainings reportedly include a discussion about preventing the recruitment of children.>[170] Human Rights Watch was able to assess neither the content of these programs nor their effectiveness in preventing and raising awareness about child conscription. However, UNICEF, as well as an international NGO operating inside Burma and a local community group all cited instances in which communities which had received such training were able to successfully intervene in several cases of child recruitment.>[171] (See additional discussion in Chapter VII, "The International Response.")

Enforcement of Recruitment Laws and Regulations

The Plan of Action states that the Committee will "take effective action against transgressors if recruitment is not done in accordance with order, instructions, rules and regulations.">[172] In practice, the SPDC has failed to acknowledge the pervasiveness of child conscription, has failed to seriously prosecute perpetrators, and has failed to openly report the details in the few instances in which it apparently has taken disciplinary action. The Committee's inaction in this regard reinforces the atmosphere of impunity that inhibits society from reporting abusive practices, while emboldening state officials to act extra-legally.

In 2002 the SPDC reported 85 demobilizations and 17 cases of disciplinary action against recruiters; in 2003 this dropped to 75 demobilized and only five disciplined; while for the three-year period between 2004 and 2006 the total number was 122 demobilized (a yearly average of 41) and only six disciplined, all of the latter in the first year (no one was disciplined for recruiting children in 2005 or 2006).>[173] These statistics provide strong indication that the government's enforcement of its conscription laws and regulations is extremely weak and haphazard, if not perfunctory.

The government of Burma has not publicly reported any information about the specific crimes that these personnel were charged with or the disciplinary sanctions imposed. In one instance it is known that a case of child conscription reported by the ILO in 2007 prompted a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident; further details are not available.>[174] In a separate incident, which may be included in the statistics reported above, a sergeant was demoted to the rank of lance corporal, apparently because the parents of a child he had recruited lodged a complaint.>[175] In 2002 the SPDC informed Human Rights Watch that military personnel who recruit children in contravention of the Defense Services Act may be punished under article 65 of that act and, if found guilty of any act or omission "prejudicial to good order and military discipline," may be convicted by court martial and imprisoned for up to seven years.>[176]

These few instances in which the Ministry of Defense has imposed disciplinary punishment occur within a broader context of impunity and public disavowals of any problem. Adjutant General Thein Sein, the most senior official in charge of military recruitment, has made repeated public denials that the Tatmadaw engages in the forcible recruitment of children; in at least one instance he attributed instances of child recruitment to minors who lied about their ages.>[177] Government-controlled media generate a steady stream of similar propaganda stressing the government's strict adherence to the law and denouncing reports of child recruitment as false.>[178]

The atmosphere of impunity cultivated by the military is exemplified in an article on the Committee's work entitled "Alleged Forced Recruitment of Child Conscriptions are Based on False Information.">[179] After issuing blanket denials of all allegations of forced recruitment of children, the article goes on to note that the few instances in which minors were recruited were "due to inefficiency of recruiting personnel" or were a "mistake." While noting that action was taken against the responsible parties, no details are provided about who was punished, specifics as to why, or any indication of the punishment they received (whether it was simply a written reprimand, transfer, demotion, a fine, or a jail sentence). In stark contrast, that same article then elaborates actions taken to prosecute four "unscrupulous businessmen" for selling answers to national matriculation exams. The article notes "their greedy acts amount to breaching the education policy of the State and ruining the moral character of the new generation youths." The article then lists the names and addresses of the individuals accused (a court had not yet found them guilty), the specific crimes they had (allegedly) committed, the statutes under which they would be prosecuted, and the punishments to which they would be subject.>[180]

The government's blanket denial that Tatmadaw officials forcibly conscript children is often coupled with assertions that all reports of such are "slanderous accusations" fabricated by neo-colonialist powers like the United States and United Kingdom supported by "alien-reliant national traitors at home and abroad." Citizens are intoned to "guard the country against such danger with the strength of national unity and nationalist spirit.">[181]

Characterizing the issue in this manner sends a clear message to Burmese citizens that the government regards its recruitment practices as a matter of national security, and that it is not receptive to receiving complaints by citizens about the wrongs committed by its officials. In several well publicized cases, the government has prosecuted and imprisoned persons it accused of reporting human rights violations to international organizations and dissident political groups.>[182] In other instances, domestic courts have imprisoned persons for defamation of character after they brought cases against local government officials for human rights violations.>[183] One particularly blatant example of military impunity occurred in March 2007, when four girls between the ages of 14 and 16 years were imprisoned after news services reported that they had been gang-raped by seven army soldiers the previous month in Putao, Kachin state.>[184]

The military's impunity acts as a significant disincentive for citizens to bring cases of child conscription to the government's attention, and may even inhibit parents from trying to secure the release of their own children. While conducting research for this report, a Human Rights Watch researcher suggested to one community leader that the parents of four children ages 13 and 14 might wish to report their children's conscription to the ILO in order to secure their release. His vehement response was that it was too dangerous to do so, that local authorities would surely punish the parents, and that the ILO and UN would be powerless to then protect the parents. To illustrate this he specifically referred to the Putao rape incident.>[185]

Government Cooperation with International Agencies

The Plan of Action states that the Committee will cooperate with UNICEF, the UN resident coordinator, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Such cooperation is regularly extolled in state-run media.>[186] In 2006 Adjutant General Thein Sein stated that "due to the co-operation of UNICEF and UNDP under the United Nations, there are very few cases of recruiting minors for military service in the Tatmadaw.">[187] In September 2007 the New Light of Myanmar even went so far as to report that the government was "working in cooperation with UN agencies to reveal that accusation concerning child soldiers is totally untrue.">[188]

In practice, however, the government's cooperation has generally been perfunctory. In certain disturbing instances the government has deliberately obstructed the work of international agencies. In the three-and-a-half years since its formation the Committee has not participated in constructive dialogue with international organizations on issues related to child conscription, has completely failed to cooperate in reintegrating child soldiers, and its members have undermined the ICRC's most important protection activities. The Plan of Action also states that the Committee will provide timely information about its work through the Myanmar permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. However, when Human Rights Watch requested information on child soldiers, the permanent mission, in its written reply, declined to answer any of the questions submitted (See Appendices B and C).>[189]

Despite commitments made in the Plan of Action, the Committee has failed to operate transparently and to engage the United Nations in dialogue on issues related to child conscription and provide it with unhindered access to carry out its work.

According to the UN resident coordinator, the Committee has provided his office with "periodic letters which provide some information on troop demobilization, a letter following Coomaraswamy's>[190] visit on activities against recruitment officers, and we have visited Mandalay and Yangon recruitment centers, but what is missing is a mechanism with regular interaction by which we can ask for clarifications.">[191]

More bluntly, Special Representative Coomaraswamy has stated that the information the Committee has provided to the UN has not allowed it to verify facts and that "a new and more open approach" to the Committee's work is necessary.>[192]

On September 18, 2007, the SPDC announced that the director-general of International Organizations and Economic Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been designated as the focal point for communication with UN resident agencies; previously the focal point had been the director of the Directorate of Military Strength of the Ministry of Defense.>[193] This shift effectively removes the UN Country Team's direct line of communication with the Ministry of Defense, and suggests that the SPDC has no intention of substantively engaging the UN to establish a monitoring mechanism in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1612.

At the request of Radhika Coomaraswamy, the SPDC recently provided to the United Nations an "annotated list" of military personnel whom they claim were disciplined for violating the government's recruitment policies with regard to minors, as well as a list of children who have been demobilized from the armed forces. UN officials declined to share either of these documents with Human Rights Watch as they considered them confidential and too sensitive. However, a diplomat described the documents as incomplete and inadequate, noting the "annotated lists" provide neither information about why the military personnel were disciplined, nor the punishments imposed; consequently, he suggested, the lists were unclear as to whether the disciplinary measures were imposed for recruiting children, or perhaps might reflect sanctions against military officials for failing to meet their recruitment quotas.>[194]

The Committee's periodic reports and the four reports of the National Committee on the Rights of the Child issued in 2007 are similarly lacking in substantive information. One such report, a double-sided one-page document, indicates one instance in which a 15-year-old was discharged from the army and returned to his parents, and provides lists of areas where awareness raising and educational activities have been conducted.>[195]

Since 2004 the SPDC has allowed UNICEF and UNDP officials and other diplomats to visit army recruitment and basic training facilities on five occasions. One government-issued statement referred to these highly publicized visits as "[a]rrangements for enabling those UN agencies to frequently meet newly recruited members at the [recruitment] units.">[196] In interviews with Human Rights Watch, diplomats were quick to discount these orchestrated gatherings as "Potemkin visits" and "showcase events.">[197] Planned well in advance, and under the escort of senior military officials, these short visits offered no opportunity for private or sustained interaction with new recruits, nor any means to verify the Committee's claims that it strictly enforces its minimum age requirements. As the earlier testimony from Than Myint Oo suggests (see this chapter, section "Training"), authorities may well remove all children from these facilities prior to such visits. The primary value of such visits, according to UN officials, is that they provide rare opportunities to interact with Committee officials, and thus an opportunity for "trust building" that, they hoped, might someday evolve into more substantive future cooperation.

Of broader concern is the SPDC's continued restriction of the United Nations' access to conflict-affected areas and to other areas where a ceasefire may be in effect. The Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development coordinates and seeks approval for visits by national staff of UN agencies and projects. In some cases the process results in delays of up to two weeks. Guidelines also specify that national staff may be accompanied on the trip. As noted by the special representative of the secretary-general on children and armed conflict, such restrictions are "clearly inadequate to the needs for independent monitoring and verification central to the SCR [Security Council resolution] monitoring and reporting practice.">[198]


The Plan of Action states that the Committee will ensure cooperation with UNICEF on the reintegration of child soldiers, the raising of awareness on child rights, and the registration of births. In practice the Committee has not allowed UNICEF to provide former child soldiers with reintegration assistance in any form, although UNICEF formally requested to be involved in such. UNICEF's request for access to minors in prisons is also pending. In one instance, UNICEF was allowed to provide one half-day lecture on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and child protection to recruitment officers from the Directorate of Military Strength.

The most successful area of collaboration has been a series of workshops on child rights and child protection conducted by UNICEF through a partner agency, the Myanmar Literacy Resource Center, in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement (see further discussion in Chapter VII).

Statistics reported by UNICEF suggest that birth registration efforts have yielded dramatic progress.>[199] However, this success is likely to have only minimal impact in preventing child recruitment, since government officials are known to consistently falsify recruits' ages, and even to change their identities.

In June 2007 the SPDC agreed to appoint a focal point at the Ministry of Social Welfare to engage directly with UNICEF. The agreement to do so came at the end of the visit of Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special representative of the secretary-general on children and armed conflict. Details of the agreement are still being negotiated.>[200]

The International Committee of the Red Cross

The Plan of Action states that the Committee will cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross in accordance with existing laws of Myanmar.

The ICRC has intervened on behalf of minors conscripted into the Burmese armed forces, when requested to do so by a parent or guardian of the child.>[201] In accordance with their principle of confidentiality, the ICRC cannot publicly elaborate the number of instances in which it has done so. A person previously imprisoned in Toungoo stated that in 2003 he reported to the ICRC that some 25 to 30 minors who had deserted from the Burma army were imprisoned in his facility. He stated that prison authorities then transferred the minors to the juvenile detention center in Meiktila prior to the ICRC's subsequent visit in order to hide them from the ICRC. He was unaware of what ultimately happened to them.>[202]

The government's increasing interference in ICRC prison visits from mid-2005, including demands that such visits be supervised by government escorts, ultimately prompted the ICRC to suspend all prison visits in January 2006; the last visit was in December 2005.>[203] In a rare public condemnation in March 2007, the ICRC's director of operations reported the closure of field offices in Kengtung and Moulmein because "drastic restrictions" were jeopardizing the ICRC's work.>[204] In 2007 the ICRC's office in Taunggyi was also closed. In June the ICRC issued a rare public denunciation of the government for "major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law." The statement highlighted the military's use of prisoners as porters, resulting in exhaustion, malnutrition, degrading treatment, and in some cases murder. The statement also elaborated abuses against civilian populations including "the large-scale destruction of food supplies and of means of production" and noted that the "armed forces have committed numerous acts of violence against people living in these areas, including murder, and subjected them to arbitrary arrest and detention." The statement further notes that "increasingly severe restrictions imposed on the ICRC by the government have made it impossible for the organization's staff to move about independently in the affected areas and have hampered the delivery of aid intended for strictly humanitarian, apolitical purposes.">[205]

The International Labour Organization

Although the Plan of Action does not identify the ILO as an agency with which the government will cooperate on issues related to child conscription, it is nonetheless obligated to do so under its agreements with the ILO's governing body. The government's shortcomings in this regard are symptomatic of broader trends in its cooperation with international agencies, and scrutiny of them is useful in identifying potential pitfalls that will confront any future initiative to protect children against military recruitment.

On February 26, 2007, the SPDC and the ILO concluded a Supplementary Understanding by which victims of forced labor may "channel their reports" to the government through the ILO liaison officer.>[206] Child conscription violates the Forced Labour Convention (No.29) and is therefore encompassed by this agreement. At least two cases of child conscription have reportedly been resolved through the mechanism.>[207] In the first instance, the adjutant general reportedly instituted a Court of Inquiry against the responsible person(s).>[208] In the second instance, the minor had reportedly lied to recruiters about his age.>[209] Both cases resulted in the discharge of the minor and his return to the parents. Additional child soldier cases are reportedly pending.

In meetings with Human Rights Watch, the ILO expressed particular optimism about the government's commitment to act on instances of child recruitment under the Supplementary Understanding.>[210] Although these recent successes are welcome, the Supplementary Understanding should be evaluated in light of the government's broader policies and practices.

In the past the government has made commitments to halt human rights abuses only when it is faced with the threat of substantive international sanction. Its subsequent adherence to such commitments has generally been lax. Notably, the government concluded the Supplementary Agreement only 10 days prior to the convening of the ILO Governing Body which had announced its intention to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice relating to the government of Burma's forced labor practices.>[211] The government of Burma was similarly prompted to make public commitments in 1994 when (as noted above) it formed the Committee to Prevent the Recruitment of Underage Children a week prior to a Security Council open debate on children and armed conflict at the United Nations, and in June 2007 when it made a series of commitments to the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict several months prior to the UN Security Council working group on children and armed conflict's consideration of Burma under Security Council resolution 1612.

The Supplementary Understanding follows a decade of overt governmental obstruction of the ILO's work. At least six people on three separate occasions were arrested and imprisoned for lodging forced labor complaints to the ILO; in one instance a sentence of life imprisonment was imposed.>[212] Others have been subject to intimidation, interrogation, temporary detention, and threats for having contact with the ILO.>[213] In at least one instance, persons who independently lodged complaints of forced labor through local courts were given six-month prison sentences after being sued by local officials for defamation of character, despite the government's publicly stated commitments to end forced labor.>[214]

The government's past performance in resolving reported cases of child conscription has been equally poor. Of the 15 instances that the ILO reported to the government in 2004 and 2005 (prior to the Supplementary Understanding), only five resulted in the discharge of the minor.>[215] In eight cases, the government asserted that the persons were voluntarily recruited, over age 18, and that the parents had been pressured to file false claims. The government made these claims despite the ILO's presentation of documentary proof of the ages of the children and discrepancies in the Ministry of Defense's documents concerning the dates of recruitment.>[216]

The terms of the Supplementary Understanding also impose significant constraints on the ILO that may undermine its work. The ILO is only able to act when an aggrieved party makes a public complaint.>[217] In at least one case, human rights workers' efforts to secure the release of a child soldier from military service reportedly failed because military officials dissuaded parents from making a formal report by offering the parents money and foodstuffs.>[218] More significantly, the government's past record of arresting and intimidating complainants is likely to inhibit many from lodging complaints with the ILO for fear that doing so may endanger them.>[219] Although the Supplementary Understanding prohibits "judicial or retaliatory action against complainant(s)," it is unclear that the ILO could protect victims in any meaningful manner if there are acts of retribution, or even whether it would be aware of such unless the victims or their agents were able to bring this to the attention of the ILO.

Source : https://www.hrw.org/report/2007/10/31/sold-be-soldiers/recruitment-and-use-child-soldiers-burma

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