Joseph Kony isn’t the only one who forces children into war. A memoir from Burma’s military regime.
Across the world, protesters, like this one in Australia, have long raised an outcry over the Burmese military’s kidnapping and enslavement of children, among other human rights offenses. Photo by Rusty Stewart.
Last month, KONY2012 stormed the Net in a massively popular campaign to bring the world’s attention to indicted war criminal Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been snatching children from their Ugandan villages and forcing them into a program of indoctrination and war since the 1980s.
UNICEF estimates that some 250,000-300,000 children are involved in armed conflict in more than 30 places worldwide, including Sierra Leone, Nepal, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Burma (Myanmar). Minors are recruited through abduction, coercion, or enticement and are especially vulnerable in poverty-afflicted areas.
In March, the International Criminal Court at the Hague convicted Congolese rebel Thomas Lubanga—whose Union of Congolese Patriots has been called “an army of children”—for involving child soldiers in combat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the Court’s first-ever conviction.
In Burma, which has groaned under the violence of political and economic instability for decades, recruitment of children by the army has long been the norm, Human Rights Watch reports. Children are both the receivers and perpetrators of violent abuse, as they are forced to participate in rape, battle, and massacres after enduring years of violent programming during training.
Today, the world looks to Burma with anticipation. Earlier this month, the National League for Democracy, led by the wildly popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, announced that it won nearly every seat it ran for in one of the country’s first open and monitored elections in decades.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was widely supported both in Burma and around the world during her long years of house arrest, will be joining an overwhelmingly military-dominated government. The international community is currently discussing an end to sanctions—besides those related to arms—as the nation approaches what may or may not be a more democratic future.
Meanwhile, the legacy of decades of warfare remains imprinted on the people—from the networks of refugees in Thailand, Bangladesh, and beyond; to the rural families who lost children abducted by the army forever.
The following is a first-person narrative by former child soldier Hla Min, excerpted from Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime. Published by Voice of Witness, Nowhere to Be Home is a powerful collection of testimonies from men and women who have been affected by the repression of Burma’s military regime.
by Hla Min; compiled and edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West
I’d like to tell you the story of how I joined the army as a child.
I was nine years old, and I was living in the Hlaingthaya Township in Rangoon Division. It was a school holiday on the full moon day in November, and we were making a picnic. Traditionally, during school holidays, students in Burma have to hold a ceremony to honor their teachers, and then we make a picnic with our friends. At around 8 p.m., one of my friends and I went out to buy some chicken. At that moment, an army truck came and took us.
When they pulled us into the back of the truck, I found there were six or seven soldiers inside. My friend and I thought they were killers and I was worried. They made us lie down on the ﬂoor—there were no seats—and when I tried to shout, they covered my mouth with their hands. They said, “You keep quiet, you have to come with us.”
When the truck stopped, we got out and I saw the army base. My friend and I had been brought to a Burmese army battalion in Rangoon Division.
After about two months at the army base, I was sent to a recruitment center. When I ﬁrst arrived, I found almost seventy children there who were around my age. There were some children who had also been picked up from the street.
Sometimes the soldiers let me play with the other children, and sometimes they asked me to ﬁght with other children. The leaders would come to us and tell us to wrestle, so we had to ﬁght with each other until one of us fell down—the person left standing won. Sometimes I won, but sometimes I lost. I tried to beat the others and when I won, I was happy because I was given snacks. If someone won, they’d give a snack to them or buy them clothes. Sometimes the army soldiers and ofﬁcers told me, “When you grow up, you will have to hold a gun like me.” When soldiers told us that, we felt really pleased.
After dinner, we’d go back to the dorms and watch military ﬁghting movies. We watched movies about ﬁghting between soldiers and rebels almost every day. We were asked to go to bed at 8 p.m., and everyone slept in their own bed on the ﬂoor.
The dorm where I stayed had a wooden ﬂoor, brick walls, and a zinc roof. The door to the dorm was made of iron, and it was locked and guarded by soldiers outside while we slept.
When I was grown up—around thirteen or fourteen years old—I was sent to a training center for four and a half months in Pathein, in Irrawaddy Division.
At the training center, we had to train in the heat under the bright sun, and even in the rain. There were more than 250 trainees there, and the training was very hard; sometimes I couldn’t stand it. They asked me to run with a gun, and I was punished if I failed—my trainer would come and kick me with his shoe and then make me stare directly into the sun for an hour.
Every morning we had to declare our loyalty to the army. By the time I’d completed training, I started to believe in the army. I was granted a uniform, a gun, and my private rank ID number—I was a soldier. After they gave me these things, I started to feel a little excited and conﬁdent that I could handle this kind of work. I believed I would be able do things like go to battle, like the soldiers who had trained us.
I was around fourteen years old when I was ordered to go to the front line. My ofﬁcer told me, “You have to go and ﬁght the guerillas in Karen State.”
During my training, and then at our battalion meetings, the leaders always preached about how cruel the rebels were, so at the time I believed the guerillas were trying to take my country and kill my people.
We were asked to search for the guerillas and ﬁght them. I was sent to the front line with soldiers who were older than me, and also some who were around my age.
It took us over four months to go around and search for guerillas. Sometimes we starved because food rations had not been sent to us by our battalion, so we ate anything we could ﬁnd.
While we were on the front line, our ofﬁcers ordered us to completely destroy the local people. They told us that even the children had to be killed if we saw them. I saw soldiers abducting young girls, dragging them from their houses and raping them. At the time, I felt that those girls were like my sisters.
Sometimes the ofﬁcers would ﬁnd one of their soldiers who they didn’t like, or who was very frightened, and the ofﬁcer would order the soldier to do that kind of thing, like rape the local women. If the soldiers did not follow the orders, they were shot or beaten. We could not refuse their orders; we had to follow them.
I once saw the guerillas at their camp in Three Pagodas Pass in Karen State. I didn’t know anything else about them at the time other than they looked like us—they had black skin and they wore uniforms. I felt sympathetic for them because we had a base to go and rest at, but they had to stay in the jungle all the time.
I was in Buthidaung when the Saffron Revolution started. My commanding ofﬁcer said everyone must be ready. We were told that if the monk or student protests grew, and if they were ﬁghting against the authorities, then we needed to ﬁght back. At this time, I started to feel really bad about the army.
I was in the streets in Sittwe for three days monitoring the protesters, but we didn’t do anything to the monks and students because they were protesting peacefully. At ﬁrst, I thought that the monks and students were just rioting, but later, I learned that they were protesting because of the people’s hardship and suffering. They were demanding that the government do something to solve this problem the people were facing.
I realized it was similar to the situation in our battalion, because soldiers are poor and get only a small salary. The people who were demonstrating had many difﬁculties similar to those of soldiers’ families. I felt very empathetic and I realized that what the leaders told us was not true.
Since that moment, I stopped believing in the army. I really respect monks and I could not do this to them, so I decided to ﬂee. I felt conﬁdent about my decision. I decided I would rather be killed than stay and attack
One day that October, my friend and I packed up all of our things to try escaping again. It took us ﬁve days altogether to reach the border to Bangladesh.
Life is very difﬁcult in Bangladesh. Now I am staying apart from them and working on a tobacco farm to survive. Sometimes I feel ill there because I don’t get to have meals regularly.
Now I know that the guerillas are ﬁghting for their freedom, for their rights, and that they don’t like the ruling
military regime. When I was in the army, I thought the guerillas were trying to break my country, to destroy my country—this is how I used to think. Not now, now I’m not the same.
The testimonies from Nowhere to Be Home were compiled and edited by writers Maggie Lemere and Zoë West. The book is the seventh title in the Voice of Witness series. To learn more about the book and the work of Voice of Witness, visit www.voiceofwitness.org. To purchase a copy and read Hla Min’s full story, visit the McSweeney’s store.
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