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Ex-child soldier recalls Myanmar military life

By Elizabeth Yuan, CNN
Hein Min Aung, now 26, was barely a teenager when he says he was recruited into the Myanmar army.
Hein Min Aung, now 26, was barely a teenager when he says he was recruited into the Myanmar army.
  • Aung says he and his friends were 14 when arrested and forced into the military in 1999
  • Myanmar says forced conscription is banned, as is enlistment for anyone under 18
  • 2008 global report on child soldiers found Myanmar as "most notable offender
  • This month Aung briefed U.S. lawmakers, including sponsor of resolution condemning practice

(CNN) -- Hein Min Aung remembers the March day in 1999 when he was recruited as a child soldier into the Myanmar army.

Only 14 at the time, Aung said he had lived with his parents and five younger siblings and worked at the market in Prome, also known as Pyay on the Irrawaddy River north of Yangon. One night he had gone into town with two friends to make photocopies for a 10th grade exam the next day, he recalled. On their way back home, around 1 a.m., three military personnel dressed in civilian clothes confronted them, he said.

"They arrested us and charged us with violating curfew," Aung, now 26, said in an email through a translator. The boys were forced into a jeep and taken to a military recruitment system in Da-Nyin-Gone. "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."

There he said he joined about 100 other child soldiers, among a few hundred recruits there, and was forced into training, including cleaning weapons, shooting on the range, planting and destroying landmines and learning the names of anti-government rebel forces, he said. Mistakes led to cane-beatings; escapes led to beatings with sticks by the rest of the battalion, Aung said. The latter occurred about four to five times in as many months he had endured the training, he recalled.

"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."

According to a 2008 global report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, thousands of children are recruited and used in Myanmar's Tatmadaw Kyi (state army) and in armed political groups. Of the handful of governments that have used children in combat or other frontline duties in their armed forces, Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) remains the "most notable offender," according to the report.

Aung said he found himself with 100 other child soldiers from all over Myanmar at the Tha-Htone training military camp No. 9 near Ah-Lan-Ta-Yar Pagoda. He stayed there for four-and-a-half months. Mornings involved carrying water for cooking, finding wood to make fires and cooking breakfast for the entire battalion, Aung said. Afternoons involved an hour rest before evening chores, which included cooking and assuming the night watch. "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.

...if I did not escape soon, I would not survive past my 15th birthday
--Hein Min Aung

In addition, he said, everyone had diarrhea because of the food, which consisted of small boiled potatoes, fish paste and lentil soup that was mostly water.

According to Aung, child soldiers served as minesweepers, porters for army supplies and front-line soldiers during battles. Aung said that as a foot soldier for the Myanmar army, he participated in kidnapping male civilians to serve as porters for the army's supplies and clearing Karen 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," he said.

During his first battle -- on the hills of Bayint Naung and Ka-Nae-Lay -- Aung said his duties included carrying wounded soldiers from the top of the hill to the base army camp at the bottom under a hail of bullets and then taking over another hill filled with landmines. He was forced to provide security for his friend, a 15-year-old soldier, while he defused landmines along the way. All of a sudden, Aung said he heard a loud explosion and then saw his friend thrown into the air. Aung still remembers seeing medics slicing away his friend's flesh during emergency surgery and stuffing the wound with cotton to stanch the bleeding. "I was suddenly aware that if I did not escape soon, I would not survive past my 15th birthday," he said.

Aung's opportunity to escape came one morning two years after being in the army. Soldiers had fallen asleep at their post. "I ran for three hours straight, without looking back," he said. As he neared the Thai border, he stripped off his military uniform and kept just his jean shorts. At one point, he had to walk by an army barrack but was luckily mistaken for one of the many boys working as loggers and was not questioned. He then caught a ride on a farmer's truck into Myawt, a small village on the Thai border, after filling the vehicle with 50 loads of wood -- "on an empty stomach," he added -- in exchange.

In 2001 after having working for the farmer for three months, Aung went to Mae Sot where he ran into two former child soldiers who led him to a UNHCR camp, which helped him apply for refugee status. The International Committee of the Red Cross office, meanwhile, helped him reconnect with his family for the first time in six years.

Granted refugee status in 2005, Aung then moved to New Zealand where he has lived since.

This month Aung briefed U.S. lawmakers in Washington, including Congresswoman from Texas Eddie Bernice Johnson, sponsor of a Congressional resolution condemning the global use of child soldiers and seeking remedies to end the practice.

CNN contacted the Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar to the United Nations for comment on Aung's account and allegations that it uses child soldiers, but there was no response to our emails. The government's web site, however, does address the issue of child soldiers, saying "child protection is part and parcel of our culture and tradition."

Myanmar maintains that under the country's Defense Services and War Office Council instructions, forced conscription is banned, and enlistment barred for anyone under 18.

In its latest world report on Myanmar in January, Human Rights Watch said that despite the government's cooperation with the International Labor Organization on demobilizing child soldiers in some cases, all parties in the country's conflicts, including the state military, "actively recruit and use" them.

"Child soldiers had to be at the front lines of battle," said Aung, "the most dangerous place to be."