Curiosity beckoned and bribed me to Myanmar, a land historically hidden to outside eyes, a nation suspended between the oppressive dictatorship of a military junta and the democratic hints of protest and political reform.
In efforts to lift suffocating foreign sanctions and attract international investment, Myanmar has submitted to human rights recommendations. Labor laws have improved, and ceasefire agreements with non-state armies have been discussed. But after decades of instability, religious conflict is still fierce, black markets rife, and a once prominent military leadership pulls strings off-stage.
Published with: BBC, The Washington Post, Human Rights Watch, Marie Claire, Foreign Policy, Vice Magazine. Supported by: The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Burma’s transition from a military-controlled state to a fledgling democracy has been touted by the Obama administration as one of its most impressive first-term foreign policy achievements. So much so that the president plans on visiting the country in two weeks. It will be his first foreign trip after his reelection.
But cycles of revenge attacks between two religious groups in the country’s most westerly state, Rakhine, have complicated the picture of a peaceful, Buddhist democracy flourishing in southeast Asia.
Violence between Burmese Rakhine Buddhists and immigrant Muslim Rohingya people caused the death of around 60 people and the displacement of over 90,000 residents of that region. That ethnic conflict has once again escalated in the last few weeks.
I traveled to Rakhine in June 2012 and found communities paralyzed by turmoil. Workers had stopped turning up for work since the fighting began. At night they defended their villages from creeping arsonists. Acres of downtown Sittwe, the state’s capital, were blackened wastelands, whole blocks of wooden houses turned to ash.
People built ten-foot high wooden fences between Buddhist and Muslim areas. Rakhine men sharpened bamboo spears, and prowled the dirt streets clutching screwdrivers, rocks, or anything they could use as weapons. Even children snuck about with slingshots made of rusty metal and bicycle inner tube. They fire six-inch barbed nails, called “jinglee,” into villages, and set fire to homes.
The Rakhine accuse the Rohingya of invasion, believing they plan on creating a separate Muslim country. More and more Rohingya villagers have been displaced, fleeing the Buddhist-led violence. As Burma’s military struggled to contain and downplay the violence, President U Thein Sein admitted that the country's push for democracy is jeopardized by ethnic strife.
The sun is sinking into the Yangon River, one of Burma's main arteries. It is dotted with small boats on their way to dusky moorings. Arkar Min, 21, rides a water taxi with seven men, all of them silent. They've spent the day hauling fish into trucks. Now they rest against one another, backs between knees, arms around shoulders, heads on laps, lulled by the rhythmic thump of the engine.
Arkar Min has worked on Yangon's docks since his release from the Tatmadaw, Burma's armed forces, six years ago. He left school at the age of eight to help his struggling family. On the way home from his factory job, a man approached him, asking whether he'd like to earn better money as a driver. "I was so happy that I was going to learn to drive," he says quietly, his eyes trained on the ember of his cigarette. His father, Tin Win, wanted him to be a farmer, but "the only thing that excited me then was driving fast."
Arkar Min and the man left immediately. They stopped for snacks, two identical jam pastries. Arkar Min didn't notice that his had been opened previously. It was likely drugged and made him drowsy, and he woke up the next afternoon. The man, a civilian broker working for the army, had collected $80 for delivering a new recruit and was long gone.
Living under armed guard, Arkar Min received one meal a day—a bowl of rice with some oil and salt. He had no bed and slept on the concrete, using his lungi as a pillow. There were six other conscripts, most of them 15; the eldest was 17. None of them had joined voluntarily—they'd been offered work, hoodwinked, kidnapped, and sold into service.
Arkar Min's father, Tin Win, had retired from the army—he'd been a sergeant for most of his life—and quickly realized what had happened. He knew where new recruits were sent: to a base near Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon's central Buddhist temple. He went to the police, who did nothing. Arkar Min says that "the police wouldn't help until my father mentioned the International Labor Organization." The ILO is a group that works alongside the United Nations to free underage soldiers.
Today Arkar Min sits on the floor of Thein Myint's bamboo hut in his home village of Dine Su, his legs pulled up to his chest. He is surrounded by villagers desperate to reclaim their stolen sons. They crowd the tiny space in the shantytown on the edge of the Yangon, the men spitting betel juice onto the worn floor, the women fanning one another to keep cool. Thein Myint works for the Child Protection Organization, an NGO that connects families to larger international organizations such as the ILO. She also looks for kidnapped boys in the 12 army training camps across Burma. If their location is unknown, Thein Myint searches for them on foot. Systematically she bribes her way into each base with meat or fish for the malnourished guards, in hopes of finding the children.
She is small, hunched, and "old enough to retire," she tells me. With short black hair, cheeks painted white with the traditional thanakapaste, and calm eyes, she has a temperament that is at once stern and caring. Twelve years ago, she moved to Dine Su after the government razed her 12-acre farm to make way for a luxury golf course. "It is in my nature to help needy people and people who are in trouble," she says. "This work demands a lot of love and sacrifice.
"Times have changed," Thein Myint says. There has been steady pressure on the Myanmar Army and non-state militias to fall in line with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, human rights recommendations, and ILO conventions. The armies are making small acts of compromise in appeasement, and during the final few months of 2014 they increased their releases. "There is international pressure now regarding forced labor, child labor," Thein Myint says firmly. "They can't keep doing it."
In 2012, at the encouragement of UNICEF, the ILO, and Save the Children, the Burmese government and the United Nations signed a joint plan of action outlining terms for the gradual release of child soldiers from the Tatmadaw, including fighters over 18 who were recruited as minors. The document also outlines accountability measures for offending officers and brokers.
In November, the Myanmar Army released 80 child soldiers from active service, bringing the total number of freed minors to 845 since 2007. Slowly, soldiers who were forcibly recruited as children are returning to their villages, to families who have long thought them dead.
Dine Su contains an army base, a shipping port, and factories. Its bamboo, mud, swaying pampas grass, and dusty football pitches match the landscape of many poor settlements throughout the country. Tracks between huts are paved with broken bricks, stepping stones for crossing puddles, or bags of cement. Many of its residents have come here from faraway, victims of government land grabs. An illegal settlement in the eyes of the law, Dine Su is especially susceptible to exploitation by authorities. "In the past I've rescued three boys from this village from the military," Thein Myint says. "Most are struggling financially."
Police typically arrest village boys for being out too late or committing a petty crime. Sometimes civilian brokers offering better work lure the boys in, like in Arkar Min's case. Intimidation is the norm, and the boys are physically and psychologically pressured into signing up. Fake national registration cards are issued that state they are 18, the legal minimum to join. If recruits are less than 100 pounds, they're force-fed bananas and water until they meet the weight requirement. After four months of training, they are shipped to a remote post, often on the front lines.
The ILO's Forced Labor Convention of 1930, to which Burma is a signatory, defines underage recruitment as a form of forced labor. This enables the ILO to assist those who were recruited underage, "whether years previously, or those still considered child soldiers," says Steve Marshall, an ILO liaison officer. In 1991, Burma also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, agreeing to protect minors from participating in war. And in 2007, the ILO and the Burmese government agreed upon the Forced Labor Complaint Mechanism, a system designed to offer victims of forced labor a platform for release without fear of retaliation.
Since 2007, the ILO has received 1,260 reports of underage recruitment by the Tatmadaw. "The numbers of complaints increased exponentially over time, as public awareness and confidence grew," says Marshall. Four hundred eighty-five of these underage recruits have been discharged. Seven died before their releases could be secured. Under the 2012 joint plan of action, there have been 472 discharges, which include 112 of the aforementioned ILO cases.
These developments notwithstanding, recruitment of underage males is still commonplace. The Tatmadaw were formally created just after Burma gained independence from Britain in January 1948. The Burma Campaign, one of World War II's bloodiest offensives, had ravaged the land and the economy, which might explain why Burma chose not to become a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary organization of 53 countries, mostly territories of the former British Empire, united by shared history and ideas on democracy and human rights. It was a fragile and short-lived independence: In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup, and since then the country has never seen peace. Ne Win's regime faced routine challenges from its citizens, culminating in the 8888 Uprising of August 8, 1988. After protests by students at Yangon's Institute of Technology, Ne Win called for the closure of universities, and the ranks of demonstrators swelled to include ethnic minorities, Buddhists, Muslims, students, and workers. The military killed thousands of civilians. Soon after, the junta decided to shed the colonial associations of the country's name, rebranding the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma as the Union of Myanmar in 1989. In 1997, the junta changed its own name, from the State Law and Order Restoration Council to the State Peace and Development Council. Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, leaving up to 1 million people homeless. Throughout, the Tatmadaw has been in constant combat with as many as 20 armed resistance groups at a time. Slowly, tentative ceasefires are being made, with non-state armies beginning to stand down fully.
Prior to 1988, most recruits to the Burmese army were volunteers over the age of 18. But after the uprising, the military was less popular than ever. The Tatmadaw now relies heavily on coerced manpower—or the small bodies of kidnapped boys—to achieve its ends, since modern weaponry has been difficult to obtain because of international arms sanctions imposed by many countries against the present regime.
In 2013 and 2014, the ILO received complaints of 69 cases of underage recruitment. Often existing soldiers will be denied leave unless they come back with one or two new recruits. Other soldiers and civilian brokers are incentivized by cash and in-kind rewards. The current rate is $80 per conscript—the equivalent of four months of sergeant-rank wages. Sometimes recruits are exchanged for bags of rice or oil.
When a child enters the army, his education stops. When he is released, he begins again at square one. With limited education, often lacking vocational skills, ex-soldiers struggle to reintegrate into working life. "The soldiers come back unemployed," Thein Myint says. "They take whatever job they can find, usually manual labor. Those whose family can afford it may start up a business."
When soldiers are asked by aid workers what type of job they'd like, the deprivation they've experienced means they typically don't have an answer. So it's decided for them—they are bought some pigs because their father was a pig farmer, or a trishaw because they earned money that way when they were young. Save the Children used to offer an investment of around $100 to returning veterans (though the charity officially denies this). But as funding dries up, this is happening less. Government programs for reintegration exist too, offering routes for returning soldiers to reenter the education system, but for Burma's stunted veterans, the basic requirements for participation are often too high.
Just outside of Dine Su, another of Thein Myint's success stories, Kyaw Thura, has returned to his mother. Kyaw Thura pours tea sweetened with condensed milk as he describes the guerrilla fighting he saw on the front lines and his defection to the enemy, the Karen National Union (KNU)—how they faked his death on a wooden crucifix, with animal blood and entrails, and how he lived in hiding from the Myanmar Army. He speaks in an even tone, but his pauses are vacant. He recalls being sent to Mon State for four months of training. "There were rocks in the soup and sand in the rice," he says. "I missed home terribly." Deployed to the jungle, he and his squad camped in tents at night and hunted monkeys and pigs to add to their inadequate rations.
Fearing for his life, he deserted with two friends. Without weapons or money, they went over to the KNU, whose leaders gave them a choice: join the rebels for pay and rations, or leave and try to make it to the Thai border. They opted to break for the border.
In Thailand, Kyaw Thura says, he "couldn't move. There were people searching everywhere for me," he says. Time passed, and he eventually found work in Mae Sot as a welder, met a girl, married, and fathered Thant Zin, now four years old.
He came back to Yangon to find his mother. Although the ILO gave him a letter of protection, he was arrested by the army anyway, sentenced to two years and six months for deserting, and jailed in Hpa'an. "Conditions were better than when I was in the army," he says wryly. "The food was better. We were able to exercise. We farmed and made bricks."
Living in his mother's house with his son, he is seeking compensation from the military for wrongful arrest. Little Thant Zin climbs into his lap and plays with a plastic motorcycle. Kyaw Thura was gone for so long that his son now calls him "uncle."
Tun Tun Win is 30. At 14, he was sold to the Tatmadaw. He didn't give them his full name. "I wanted to keep some of my identity for myself," he says, "so I told them I was called just Tun Tun." In a camp in the jungle near Mandalay, he tattooed the last part of his name into his forearm using a blunt needle, soot, and juice from a betel nut—"Win" inside a heart with two crossed swords behind it. He spent most of his time repairing tanks or on security detail, moving from base to base. "I learned how to drive, shoot, do security, not much else." His pay was $4.50 a month.
Thirteen years later, he rents a small house from his brother in the village where he grew up. He lives with his two-year-old daughter, who suffers from malnutrition, and his five-year-old son. A year ago, his wife left him with the children. "She has a gambling problem," he says. "She was not good for the kids." His eldest sister pitches in.
With $100 from Save the Children, he set up a small library in front of his house, renting books and magazines to villagers for ten cents a day. "I want to be my own boss now," he says. His father loaned him money to buy a small motorcycle, which he hopes to use as a taxi. "I don't have any ill feelings toward army recruiters. Karma will be their judgment. I have freedom now. In the army I was renting my body."