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 wood smoke.
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 pedaling a bicycle rickshaw through this beachside town, he seemed impossibly successful.
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“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 $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 $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 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.
The United Nations and local rights activists say recruiting of underage soldiers has gone down, but many boys remain in the army, despite a government agreement to clear the military of anyone under age 18 by Dec. 1. Some have been inducted in just the past few months.
“What we see and what the government is saying are completely different,” says Mya Sein, 65, who has worked with the families of child soldiers. “I don’t believe their promises.”
Still, in the often paradoxical ways of the new Myanmar, a system has been created to get children out of the army. If a boy soldier — or more likely his family — is able to contact an activist or international aid group, a bureaucratic process can be started leading to the boy’s discharge.
Officials in numerous government ministries, and the military, did not respond to requests for comment. But senior military officers regularly appear, along with relief-group officials, at discharge ceremonies for underage soldiers.
“Some time ago, the government came out of denial, which was excellent, and now there is firm policy in place,” says Steve Marshall, Myanmar head of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, which has helped arrange many child-soldier releases. “The critical issue now is getting that policy applied.”
Analysts say it’s unclear how many children are in Myanmar’s military. About 500 have been discharged in the past few years, some as young as 11, though most between 14 and 16 years old, Marshall says. He adds, though, that those children “are a small proportion” of Myanmar’s total number of child soldiers.
Every village has story
Go into Myanmar’s villages, where poverty is the norm and high-school degrees are rarities, and the stories of boy soldiers come tumbling out. There’s the 15-year-old troublemaker with a second-grade education given the choice of arrest or the army; the 16-year-old who went to the market, met a recruiter, and never came home.
There’s San Htet Kyaw, 16, who left home in July, hoping to find work as a day laborer in Yangon. Instead, an army recruiter dazzled him with tales of the money he’d bring back to his mother.
The village he left behind, Kanyin Kauk, is a speck in the Irrawaddy River delta.
“There was nothing for him here,” says his mother, San Myint.
Myanmar has some of the deepest poverty and highest unemployment in Asia. The country of 55 million has one of the largest armies in the region, analysts say, with at least 400,000 soldiers.
While top generals have turned their power into immense wealth, at the bottom of the army is a vast underclass of soldiers.
They work in the army’s farms, its timber reserves and its factories. They are sent into battle, and work as household staff for officers.
Their salaries are not bad by the standards of rural Myanmar — now about $60 a month — but officers regularly skim off much of that.
That is the army Thu saw.
Within hours of meeting the businessman, and with his parents completely unaware, Thu found himself at an army camp, terrified and confused.
“As soon as we got to the base I knew we were in the wrong place,” he says. “I started crying.”
Tears did not help. “They punched us and slapped us, shouting, ‘This is not a place for crying.’ ”
So Thu learned to get by.
For years, occasional phone calls were his parents’ only connection. Then, suddenly, he called from a Yangon military hospital, saying he needed help. They found a boy so swollen from kidney disease that he was barely recognizable.
His father, Saw Win,
did not hesitate.
“ ‘We’re running away,’ ” he told his son.
They slipped out of the room, out the back door of the hospital, and into a taxi.
Months of more medical care followed, paid for with loans, and finally a return to Chaung Tha.
Thu barely knew how to act around his family, and felt distant from his friends. Fearing arrest, he spent days hiding in a nearby swamp.
While the authorities now leave him alone — an activist has started the paperwork to have him officially discharged — he’s always ready to run. He cannot imagine returning to school. Occasionally, he cuts timber for a couple dollars a day.
They all still see the businessman who persuaded Thu to join the army.
Given his relative wealth and his army connections, the family knows he won’t be punished.
“We pass in the village, but I don’t think he recognizes me,” Thu says. “He doesn’t react at all.”