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Myanmar still enlists boy soldiers despite reforms

Last Updated: Monday, December 2, 2013 - 16:21

Chaung Tha (Myanmar): He disappeared when he was 12 years old, a skinny boy named Min Thu from the wrong side of town who thought he`d stumbled onto the golden ticket.

It began one afternoon when a swaggering, potbellied businessman bumped into Thu at the market, offering him an escape from a neighborhood where the houses are made of lumberyard scraps and the air smells of fish and decay and woodsmoke.
It ended with four years in the army.

The businessman, a small-town mogul of plastic kitchenware and cheap polyester clothing, has three tiny shops. To Thu, whose father makes a living pedalling a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of this small beachside town, he seemed impossibly successful.

"The guy comes by and says, `You`ll have a great life if you come with me,`" says Thu, now a stone-faced 17-year-old, still skinny, and occasionally revealing a stutter he developed in the years he was gone.

The older man made promises: that Thu could eat his fill at every meal, that he`d get a salary he could use to help his parents. Thu could barely believe his luck, even if he understood little of what was happening.

"I was in fifth grade. I didn`t even know what the guy was saying," says Thu.
This is what he was saying: Thu was joining thousands of boys who have been swallowed up over the years by Myanmar`s army, one of the most feared institutions in this country, also known as Burma.

The businessman was also a broker for army recruiters, most likely paid the standard fee about USD 30 and a bag of rice for every person he persuaded to sign up.
It didn`t matter if his recruits hadn`t reached puberty.

Over the next four years Thu would spend countless days carrying supplies and working on army-owned farms. He saw people die, in combat and in training. He`d see much of his USD 30-a-month salary taken by his superiors.

Once, when he was 14, he fought in a chaotic gunbattle with ethnic Karen rebels, alternately crawling and shooting as his heart pounded. He speaks with no pride about the experience.

"I just did what I was told to do," he says. "It was all about fear."

As Myanmar shifts away from decades of military rule, emerging as a quasi-democracy where generals still wield immense political power, the government craves international respectability.

Political prisoners have been freed, censorship has been abolished and, the government promises, the days of child soldiers are over.

First Published: Monday, December 2, 2013 - 16:21
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