A man who escaped from the army after joining at the age of 13 has been given a three-and-a half year prison sentence for desertion.
Despite being illegal under Burmese and international law, the use of child soldiers in the Burmese army is common. Only children over the age of 15 are legally able to volunteer for the army, while only adults over 18 can be forcibly recruited.
The army eventually caught up with Zin Maung, now in his mid-twenties, in Pegu division’s Waw township in September last year and arrested him.
“He was arrested and sent to jail. It happened without us knowing. When we heard the news about it, he was already in prison,” said his mother, Kyi Win.
Zin Maung had enlisted himself in the Burmese army at the age of 13 along with two friends who were quickly rejected on the grounds that they didn’t meet the physical requirements. The following year, in 2001, he was sent to boot camp in Magwe division’s Taungdwingyi.
Due to his young age, he was unable to finish the boot camp training and so was sent to a chicken farm owned by a local army captain in Pegu’s Intakaw township. It was then that he deserted.
According to his mother, Zin Maung‘s grandfather was a witness to his arrest last September, and died on the spot. She added that his father became bed-ridden after hearing of his arrest.
“I want my son back in my arms. His father is also very ill so we are requesting that he is released. We need our son back who has been looking after us and feeding us.” she said.
The story is common in Burma, where 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. A recent law that makes military service compulsory for men and women over the age of 18 is likely to increase this further.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2002 said that as many as 70,000 children could be in active duty, although more recent estimates are hard to obtain.