At the age of 13, Wai Yan Naing went missing.
As the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, the family finally began to piece together what had happened. Their young son had been forcefully recruited into the Burmese military and was sent to the army’s training school in Hmawbi.
“He served as a child soldier at the frontline”, Wai Ya Naing’s mother told DVB. “I cannot forgive the government for its unjust treatment of my son. They have tormented him since he was 13, and now he is 20-years-old.”
Wai Yan Naing’s story is a stark reminder that despite promises of openness and democracy, Burma’s transition to democracy is fraught with difficulties.
After completing his military training, Wai Yan Naing was forced to serve in the 285th Infantry Batallion – supporting the Tatmadaw in its fight against ethnic insurgencies. He deserted from the army three years later. He was sixteen years old at the time.
[pullquote] ‘I cannot forgive the government for its unjust treatment of my son’ [/pullquote]
In April, Wai Yan Naing was arrested in his home and taken to court, where he was charged with desertion and sentenced to one year in prison by the very same battalion that had kidnapped him as a child.
“I was not informed about the jail sentence,” Wai Yan Naing’s mother told DVB.
“I went to see the commander, but they would not let me in. The army officers and military police threw me out, because they knew I had been in touch with the International Labour Organisation.”
Wai Yan Naing’s story is tragically common in Burma, where military commanders are ordered to fulfil quotas of troop numbers and are rewarded with food or money when this is achieved, hence the ongoing forced recruitment of children.
Despite signing an action plan with the UN last year and releasing dozens of child soldiers from time to time, as the Tatmadaw did yesterday, experts assert that the military continues to recruit and use children in its armed forces.
The ILO’s representative in Rangoon Steve Marshall confirmed that he was aware of Wai Yan Naing’s case and has initiated contact with the Burmese government in order to attain the former child soldier’s release.
“This case demonstrates the ongoing need to raise awareness of the issue of people’s rights,” said Mr. Marshall.
“There are lots of kids who have run away [from the army]. They think they’re safe, but the fact is that you are never free from the army until you have an official discharge paper. Until then, you are considered to be AWOL or to have deserted.”
According to Mr. Marshall, if Wai Yan Naing had come to the ILO after his desertion, then the agency would have been able to help him attain a formal discharge from the military, which would have freed him from the risk of arrest.
However, the ILO representative admitted that while attitudes towards child soldiers at the higher levels of the military may have changed, at the lower levels “the message has still not been understood that different rules apply requiring different behaviours”.
-Aleksander Solum contributed additional reporting