On the way there was a checkpoint. The police stopped the car and checked ID cards. I couldn't show one. I was too young to have an ID card. . . . The police said, "You'll have to go to jail for six years for not having an ID card." Then they sent me to the police station and put me in the leg stocks. But I could pull my feet out because the holes in the stocks were too big for my feet, so two policemen guarded me. They kept saying, "You have to decide. You can join the army or go to jail." And then they gave me time to think. They could see I was only eleven, but if the police give a boy to the army they can get pocket money from the army, 3,000 kyat and two tins of rice. They gave me from 8 a.m. until the afternoon to decide. I didn't want to go to jail for six years, so I agreed to join the army.
When we arrived [at the recruit holding center] the soldiers asked us, "Would you like to join the army or would you like to go home?" Many of us said we'd like to go home. Then they took the thirty or forty of us who'd said that, stripped us naked, put us in the lockup and gave us just a tiny bit of rice. . . . There were about sixty of us in a room the same size as this one [four to five meters square] . . . . I don't think any were over eighteen. There were ten children who were just thirteen years old. The youngest was my friend who was eleven. He often cried because he didn't get enough food, and then he was beaten by the guards. I also cried often because I didn't want to join the army. I was beaten twice a day for crying. . . . We couldn't sleep. There were also rats and ants in the room. . . . For a toilet they'd dug a hole in the ground and it had a wooden cover over it. . . . There was a terrible smell. . . . Some of my friends were crying. . . . Two or three boys got sick and died.
The section leader ordered us to take cover and open fire. There were seven of us, and seven or ten of the enemy. I was too afraid to look, so I put my face in the ground and shot my gun up at the sky. I was afraid their bullets would hit my head. I fired two magazines, about forty rounds. I was afraid that if I didn't fire the section leader would punish me. . . . The corporal beat the soldiers, the sergeant beat the corporal, and sometimes the 2nd lieutenant beat the sergeant. It's always like this in the army.
I joined three years ago. I wanted to be a soldier so I went on my own. The Burmese army has made operations in my village since I was young, so I wanted revenge and decided to join. The Karenni soldiers were always close to our village and we always saw them, so I just went with them and became a soldier automatically. As soon as I followed them they gave me military training, but after the training I wasn't given a weapon at first because I was too young. Now I have been in battle many times.
Burma is believed to have more child soldiers than any other country in the world.2 The overwhelming majority of Burma's child soldiers are found in Burma's national army, the Tatmadaw Kyi, which forcibly recruits children as young as eleven.3 These children are subject to beatings and systematic humiliation during training. Once deployed, they must engage in combat, participate in human rights abuses against civilians, and are frequently beaten and abused by their commanders and cheated of their wages. Refused contact with their families and facing severe reprisals if they try to escape, these children endure a harsh and isolated existence.
Children are also present in Burma's myriad opposition groups, although in far smaller numbers. Some children join opposition groups to avenge past abuses by Burmese forces against members of their families or community, while others are forcibly conscripted. Many participate in armed conflict, sometimes with little or no training, and after years of being a soldier are unable to envision a future for themselves apart from military service.
The Burma Army
Burma's military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), claims that all of its soldiers are volunteers, and that the minimum recruitment age is eighteen.4 However, testimonies of former soldiers interviewed for this report suggest that the vast majority of new recruits are forcibly conscripted, and that 35 to 45 percent may be children. Although there is no way to establish precise figures, data taken from the observations of former child soldiers who have served in diverse parts of Burma suggests that 70,000 or more of the Burma army's estimated 350,000 soldiers may be children.5
After crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, Burma's military government began a rapid expansion of its armed forces. The army has doubled in size since that time and continues to expand, with a stated goal of 500,000 troops. As part of efforts to gain new recruits, small groups of non-commissioned officers and soldiers stalk the railway, bus and ferry stations, the streets, marketplaces and festivals. They generally approach boys aged twelve to seventeen, possibly because these are the easiest to intimidate. The boys are asked for an identity card, but most young boys do not have one yet and when they cannot produce one they are threatened with the choice of a long prison term or joining the army. Even if they still refuse to enlist, they are forced to a local army base or recruit holding camp, where they are often beaten, sometimes over a period of several days, until they agree. Protests that they are only, for example, twelve years old or that they are still in school only result in further beatings. One witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch presented his student card only to have it torn up in front of him. Whether they eventually agree or not, they are then registered as recruits. When the registration forms are filled out, the boys usually state their true ages but the recruiting officers almost invariably write on the form that they are eighteen or older.
Soldiers who bring in new recruits are usually paid 1,000 to 10,000 kyat6 in cash and fifteen to fifty kilograms of rice per recruit. In some battalions, soldiers who have already been in the army for over five years can get a discharge if they bring in five new recruits. As a result, more soldiers and even some police and civilians are going into the business of recruiting children. Police and soldiers manning road checkpoints stop public passenger vehicles, pull off the boys and young men and force them to enlist. After using civilians for forced labor, some army units keep the boys and sell them to the recruit holding camps. Burma's growing population of street children are the targets of frequent roundups, and many of those caught are taken directly to recruit holding camps.
Human Rights Watch interviewed boys who were taken directly into the Burma army at ages as young as eleven. Boys younger than this are recruited also, but they are often detained until they grow slightly larger before becoming soldiers. One boy interviewed was captured at age ten, and was then detained in a cell in an army camp and used as a servant by the officers for three years before being forced into the army. Another source of recruits is the Ye Nyunt system. Ye Nyunt, meaning "Brave Sprouts," is a system whereby Burma army battalions take in young boys, keep them at the battalion base and send them to school; there are probably between fifty and one hundred Ye Nyunt camps now at battalion bases throughout Burma, each with fifty to 200 boys. In the past ten years the system has changed: originally taking in young boys who had been orphaned or displaced, many young boys are now being kidnapped and forced into Ye Nyunt camps. Human Rights Watch interviewed one boy who was forced into a Ye Nyunt camp of one hundred boys when he was twelve years old. The boys in his camp were aged four to sixteen. Organized like a military company, all were forced to wear military uniforms and those aged seven and up had to participate in military training with weapons. The boys are allowed no contact with their families or the population outside the army base and are regularly beaten, even for crying. If boys are caught trying to escape, the entire group is forced to beat them. There is no way out of the Ye Nyunt except into the army. Ye Nyunt boys are taken directly to the army's Su Saun Yay recruit holding camps as soon as they are considered physically strong enough, usually between the ages of twelve and sixteen.
All new recruits to the army pass through the Su Saun Yay recruit holding camps. Some spend a week or more at a local Su Saun Yay, which is usually a fenced enclosure within an army base, but eventually nearly every recruit is sent to the central Su Saun Yay camps at Mingaladon (just outside Rangoon) or at Mandalay. At any one time there are 500 to 1,000 boys at Mingaladon and 300 to 500 at Mandalay. The function of the Su Saun Yay camps is to assemble recruits into groups of 250 that can then be sent for military training. Most recruits spend one to two weeks at Mingaladon or Mandalay Su Saun Yay, during which they are used as free labor to maintain the camp or work in the officers' business ventures. Beatings are frequent and no outside contact is allowed. Those who try to escape are beaten and put in the detention block, where they are stripped naked to discourage escape and held in fetid cells so crowded that they cannot lie down. Boys who had been held in these detention blocks told of as many as sixty to one hundred being held at a time, almost all of them under eighteen. Some boys contracted malaria and other diseases in the detention block and later died in the camp clinic.
From the Su Saun Yay the recruits are sent to one of more than twenty training camps throughout Burma for four to five months of basic military training. The training exercises are often difficult for the youngest boys, so they typically are beaten more often than older recruits. One boy told of a live fire exercise during his training when three trainees under sixteen years old were accidentally shot dead. Rather than report the deaths, the trainers made the other trainees bury the bodies in the forest and reported that the three boys had escaped. In addition to the military training the recruits also have to do forced labor at the officers' houses, cut and haul logs and firewood, and do sentry duty and other work. Boys under fifteen years old are often forced to massage the commanders at night. The trainees are forbidden to contact their families, who are never notified of their sons' whereabouts. Most of those interviewed said that they cried at night and were sometimes beaten for it. Several boys told Human Rights Watch that others in their group died of illnesses during training.
Many trainees attempt to escape, but for those who are caught the punishments are barbaric. One boy who was fourteen at the time told Human Rights Watch that after being caught escaping he and his fourteen-year-old friend were forced to walk on their knees across sharp gravel and were then beaten and tied up naked in the hot sun all day; a month later his friend died. Others are locked in leg stocks for weeks and tortured with bayonets. The most common punishment is to force the entire group of 250 trainees to line up and beat the victim one or more times each with a stick. Those who do not hit hard enough are beaten themselves. Witnesses had seen this punishment inflicted on boys as young as twelve, and at many different training camps. They described how by the end of the beating the young boys were often unconscious, unable to walk and bleeding. In one case, a sixteen-year-old was beaten so badly that he was unconscious with blood all over his face. He was then locked in leg stocks for a week and later died in the camp clinic.
Once they are deployed to battalions throughout the country, child soldiers in the Burma army continue to be brutalized by their commanders and they are also forced to be brutal to civilians. They are not allowed leave during their first five years in the army, and most are still unable to contact their families. Most of those interviewed never saw anyone discharged from the army, even after ten years of service. Their commanders beat them for little or no reason, steal their pay and their rations and then send them out to the villages to steal their own food and round up villagers for forced labor. Fearful of the beatings and punishments they will face if they fail their assignments, they round up women, children and the elderly to fill the specified numbers for forced labor, or kick and push civilians who are carrying army supplies to make sure they reach the camp on time. When participating in combat for the first time, most young boys say they were afraid; they cried or closed their eyes and fired their guns into the air. They are ordered to commit human rights abuses which they know are wrong. One boy described being beaten for refusing an order to execute a civilian when he was fourteen years old. Others described the regret they felt when ordered to burn houses. Two boys were forced to participate in a massacre of fifteen displaced women and children in Shan State when they were thirteen and fifteen years old. A mental health professional who reviewed transcripts of interviews with one of the boys indicated that his responses were consistent with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The isolation from their families, the brutality of their officers and the abuses they are forced to commit against civilians make many child soldiers desperate to escape. Many are too afraid because they know that desertion is punishable by three to five years in prison, sometimes by execution,7 and that their desertion would cause their family to be placed under military surveillance. Seeing no other alternative, some commit suicide. A much larger number run away; the desertion rate appears to be increasing and most deserters say that the majority of their fellow soldiers would flee if they could.
Child soldiers who escape the Burma army have very few options. If they return home they risk arrest and a jail term followed by conscription back into the army, and their family may also be harassed. Some join opposition armies and continue fighting. Many flee into neighboring countries, where they seek illegal work and are sometimes trafficked into bonded labor. The few refugee camps in neighboring countries are not open to deserters from the Burma army, and official recognition as refugees by host countries or offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is almost impossible for them to obtain. In this situation, children who escape the Burma army or any other army have no access to assistance or services when they arrive in a neighboring country. They have no choice but to survive however they can, and they live in constant fear of deportation back into Burma.
The recruitment and use of child soldiers by opposition armies vary. Of over thirty armed opposition groups in Burma, more than twenty now have ceasefire agreements with the SPDC. All of these groups have retained their arms, however, and are still recruiting soldiers. From the evidence gathered, it appears that all but a few of the smallest groups have child soldiers in their armies and continue to recruit children. Exact numbers are impossible to obtain, but Human Rights Watch estimates that the combined non-state armies have approximately six to seven thousand soldiers under the age of eighteen. In the past five years the number of child soldiers has decreased, because ceasefire groups are getting fewer recruits and armies that are still fighting the SPDC have shrunk significantly in size and resources.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is the largest armed opposition group, and has cooperated with the SLORC and SPDC under a ceasefire agreement since 1989. About two thousand of its estimated 20,000 troops may be children, making it by far the single largest user of child soldiers among the non-state armed groups. Many of them are forcibly conscripted. None of the other armies have more than 5,000 or 6,000 troops in total. While it is difficult to assess the number of child soldiers in each army, it appears that only the UWSA has more than 1,000 child soldiers; most opposition armies reportedly have fifty to 500 child soldiers. Of the groups researched by Human Rights Watch, none appear to be recruiting any women or girls or have any women or girl soldiers with the exception of the Kachin Independence Army, which has an unknown number of women and girl soldiers and is reportedly still on occasion forcibly conscripting girls under eighteen.
Different armies take different approaches to the issue of child soldiers, and generalizations cannot be made. The UWSA forcibly conscripts children with no apparent restraint. Many other armies appear to have reduced the number of soldiers they conscript. Most armies, however, do accept children who volunteer even though some have policies setting the minimum recruiting age at eighteen. Several of these armies admitted this to Human Rights Watch, with the explanation that many young boys approach them to volunteer after being displaced from their villages or losing their families. If there is no school available or if the boy refuses to go to school, they accept him. Some armed groups showed an active interest in providing alternatives for boys who want to join the army and in demobilizing their child soldiers, while other groups denied the existence of child soldiers despite evidence to the contrary. Child recruitment in many opposition armies appears to be decreasing and several groups appear willing to respond to international pressure on this issue.
The ongoing forced conscription of children to the Burma army and the methods used to accomplish it are in violation of Burma's national laws and policies as well as the Burmese government's commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Likewise, many opposition armies are violating their own stated policies by continuing to accept children under eighteen as soldiers. Burma's position as the world's leading user of child soldiers makes it especially urgent that all armies take immediate action to put an end to the recruitment of children and demobilize all children presently in uniform.
This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Thailand and border areas of Burma between February and July 2002. During the course of the investigation, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews with current and former soldiers, including twenty former Burma army soldiers and more than twenty-five current or former soldiers and officers with armed opposition groups. Interviews were also conducted with more than ten senior officials of various armed opposition groups or their political parties. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of several humanitarian nongovernmental organizations based in Thailand and Burma, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, local human rights researchers in the Burma-Thailand border area, independent Burma analysts and others. SPDC representatives declined to meet with Human Rights Watch but forwarded answers to written questions on two occasions; these are presented as appendices to this report.
The twenty former Burma army soldiers were recruited between 1991 and 2001; their length of army service ranged from several months to ten years. The majority had been recruited as children. More than half of them were recruited after 1997. Fourteen of those interviewed had deserted in the previous twelve months; three had left their units fewer than ten days before being interviewed by Human Rights Watch. They come from homes in most states and divisions in Burma, including Rangoon, Pegu, Mandalay, Irrawaddy and Sagaing Divisions, and Chin, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan States. They underwent military training at twelve different military training camps located in Pegu, Mandalay, Sagaing, and Tenasserim Divisions and Shan, Mon, Chin, and Kachin States.8 They were then posted to infantry and light infantry battalions (and in one case an Engineering battalion) and served in different parts of the country, including Sagaing (in the far north), Tenasserim (far south), Magwe, and Pegu Divisions, and Rakhine (far west), Shan (far east), Kayah, Karen, and Mon States.
The opposition soldiers and officers interviewed are presently serving or have previously served in the Karen National Liberation Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karenni Army, United Wa State Army, Shan State Army-South, People's Democratic Front, All-Burma Students' Democratic Front, and Mong Tai Army. Twenty-one of them are still serving as regular soldiers or auxiliary members in these armies, nine of whom are still children.
Most interviews lasted between one and a half and two hours, with the assistance of independent translators selected by Human Rights Watch when this was required. Interviews were conducted in private, and interviewees were assured that their names would not be published. Each interviewee was asked detailed questions regarding their recruitment, training and deployment, and also asked for information regarding the ages and treatment of fellow soldiers with whom they served.
The names of all present and former soldiers quoted in this report have been changed. In some cases officials and spokespeople of armed opposition groups gave permission for their names to be used, and these have been included. Some opposition group, nongovernmental and intergovernmental agency representatives requested that they or their organizations not be identified in order to protect themselves from reprisals by government and military authorities, so these names have been omitted.
1 All names of children, soldiers and former soldiers have been changed.
2 See Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Global Report 2001. The Coalition estimates that 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in armed conflicts in more than thirty countries.
3 In this report, the word "children" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen. The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines as a child "every human being under the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 1, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/RES/44/25 (adopted November 20, 1989; entered into force September 2, 1990).
4 Letter to Human Rights Watch from the Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar to the United Nations, New York, May 8, 2002. See Appendix D
5 Previous estimates, based on a case study for the 1996 UN Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, placed the number of child soldiers in Burma's army in 1996 at more than 50,000. See Rachel Brett and Margaret McCallin, Children: The Invisible Soldiers. Save the Children Sweden, 1998. Estimates of numbers of child soldiers in this report are extrapolated from the observations of all former soldiers interviewed. Though a conservative interpretation of the data was used, these figures should only be seen as rough estimates. For a fuller discussion of the derivation of these figures, see the section "The Scope of Child Recruitment in the Burma Army" later in this report.
6 This is U.S.$166 to $1,666 at the official rate of six kyat to the dollar or U.S.$1.17 to $11.76 at the more commonly used market rate, presently about 850 kyat to the dollar. This is anywhere from one week to three months' income for an average person.
7 The Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar to the United Nations, New York, responded to a Human Rights Watch query on this point in a letter dated July 17, 2002 that "[a]ccording to the article 37 of the Defense Services Act, any person subject to this Act who deserts or attempts to desert the service shall be court-martialed, and on conviction, be liable to suffer the punishment as handed down by the court-martial."
8 A more specific list of the camps where the interviewees were trained is provided in the "Training" section later in this report.