A man who was recruited into the Burmese army at the age of 14 and fled the following year is now being hunted by troops under orders to arrest him, his family said.
A letter was sent last week by the army to Htun Htun Aung’s family in Taungdwingyi in Burma’s central Bago division. Although now aged 22, having escaped seven years ago, the army has declared him a deserter.
“He is paranoid because he is wanted for desertion and is not staying at home now,” said his mother, Pyone Kyi. “I worry for him being in a situation like this, waiting for [the army] to come and arrest him.”
Htun Htun Aung and two friends were approached by troops as they played in the grounds of their school in Taungdwingyi in September 2002. The troops promised the boys’ families a bag of rice each and 50,000 kyat (US$50) if they agreed to go, which they did.
They were then sent to a Basic Military Training programme in Yeni, in Bago division. Htun Htun Aung was subsequently posted as a private at a Rangoon-based battalion, before escaping in late 2003.
The story is common in Burma, where battalion commanders regularly send troops out on recruitment drives to fill quotas set by the junta. The ruling generals have been aggressively expanding the Burmese army, which is now thought to number nearly 500,000 troops, one of the world’s largest standing armies relative to population.
The exact number of child soldiers serving is unknown, but a 2002 Human Rights Watch report put the figure at some 70,000, or around a fifth of the total army size at the time. It added that desertion can be punishable by three to five years in prison.
Recruitment of minors is illegal under Burmese law; under international law, boys and girls aged 15 or over had been legally able to volunteer for the army, while only adults over 18 can be forcibly recruited.
But according to an ‘optional protocol’ law established in 1992, states “shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces”.
The ruling junta is not the only guilty party in Burma, with some of the country’s multiple armed ethnic groups, such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA), known use child soldiers.