WRITTEN BY: Ashly Bloxon
MYANMAR.— Hein Min Aung was only 14 when he was recruited. At the time he lived with his parents and five younger siblings and worked at the market in Prome, north of Yangon.
One night in March of 1999, Aung went into town with two friends to make photocopies, on their way back home three military personnel dressed in civilian clothes arrested them.
“They arrested us and charged us with violating curfew,” Aung explained, “They gave us a medical test, took our fingerprints and made us sign forms asserting that we were 18, despite the fact that none of us were above 14.”
The boys were taken to a military recruitment center in Da-Nyin-Gone. There he joined about 100 other child soldier recruits. Yung explained he and the other children were forced into training, which included cleaning weapons, shooting on the range, planting and destroying landmines and learning the names of anti-government rebel forces. Mistakes were answered with beatings and escape attempts led to beatings by the rest of the battalion, Aung said.
“We weren’t allowed to talk to each other about our backgrounds and family members. If we wanted to share these details, we had to do so in secret,” he said. “If caught discussing our former lives, we were sent to army jail for two to three months and beaten with wooden sticks.”
In the mornings, the children were forced to transport heavy pails of water for cooking, find wood to make fires and cook breakfast for the entire battalion, Aung explained. The afternoon consisted of just one hour of rest before the evening chores, which included cooking and the night watch. To make matters worse Aung explained, everyone had diarrhea due to the food, which consisted of a daily ration of boiled potatoes, fish paste and lentil soup.
“All in all, we worked about 20 hours a day, sleeping for three to four hours if we were lucky. If the officers or generals were displeased with our work, we would be beaten,” he said.
Child soldiers also served as minesweepers, porters for army supplies and front-line soldiers. As a foot soldier Aung explained, he was forced to kidnap male civilians to serve as porters, other times he had to “clear” villages of civilians.
“My battalion would enter a village, shoot everyone alive and burn all homes, he said. Some of the kinder generals and officers would enter a village and fire warning shots into the air, granting the inhabitants time to flee. Others took great pleasure in destroying villages, torturing villagers before killing them, raping the young women and girls and stealing possessions,” Aung described.
In his first battle, his duty was to carry wounded soldiers from the field to the base army camp, while dodging enemy fire and crossing a field of land mines. During his attempt to rescue a wounded friend, a fellow child soldier, an explosion erupted from a nearby land mine launching his comrade several into the air, the boy was critically injured.
“I was suddenly aware that if I did not escape soon, I would not survive past my 15th birthday,” Aung said.
Two years later Aung saw an opportunity for escape. “I ran for three hours straight, without looking back,” he said.
In 2001, Aung ran into two former child soldiers in Mae Sot. They took him to a UNHCR camp, which helped him apply for refugee status. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross office, Aung was soon reconnected with his family for the first time in over six years.
After being granted refugee status in 2005, Aung moved to New Zealand where he has lived since.
Human Rights Watch said in a recent report on Myanmar, that despite the government’s cooperation with the International Labor Organization on demobilizing child soldiers, the state military “actively recruit and use” them.