Saving Myanmar's child soldiers

by gabeatkinson / 24 November, 2012
A former Kiwi high-flyer has a new mission in rapidly changing Myanmar.
Myanmar child soldiers

Tears fall from Daw Khine’s chin as she wraps her thin arms around her son. It’s as if she doesn’t believe he really is alive. A child soldier who was abducted from his village at the age of 14, Ko Kyaw received a death sentence for the murder of three soldiers during a failed army escape attempt. Kyaw’s accomplices fled but he was left behind – a terrified teenager wrongfully charged with murder and sentenced by a martial court. He would have died if his cellmate, political prisoner Htet Linn, had not been convinced of his innocence. Linn had heard a UN agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), might help, so once he was released he travelled to Yangon to plead for Kyaw’s life. At the ILO office he met Kiwiborn liaison officer Steve Marshall.

As head of the New Zealand Employers’ Federation in the 1990s, Marshall had often found himself butting heads with unions over labour issues. But in 2001 he effectively swapped sides, leaving New Zealand to work for the ILO in Geneva. In 2007 he was appointed its envoy in Myanmar. Under President Thein Sein, the war-ravaged country is slowly moving towards democracy. This month, US President Barack Obama is visiting Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, as is John Key, after a summit of Asean leaders in Cambodia. As well as showing support for the country’s political and economic changes, Key is keen to maximise trading opportunities. He will also meet Marshall, whose mission is to end all forms of forced labour in Myanmar.

Kyaw is one of almost 300 child soldiers Marshall’s team has had released in the past two years. The ILO office is a haven of hope for mothers like Daw Khine. The mothers borrow from loan sharks for their bus fares to travel to remote areas to find their children. “When we meet complainants, we have to get over the fear barrier and gain their trust, so we can get all the facts,” Marshall explains. In Kyaw’s case there was injustice on two points of law: the forced labour of a child illegally recruited into the army at the age of 14, and the sentencing of a youth under martial law when his case should have been heard in the juvenile court.


The Myanmar Government is a signatory to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which prohibits governments and rebel groups from using children under the age of 18 in any form of armed conflict. However, Marshall says conversations he has had with child soldiers indicate there might be thousands of children serving the country’s 12 armies. “There was no deliberate plan to recruit children,” he says. “The driver is poverty.” A third of the children volunteer because they need food and shelter. Another third are tricked by brokers who offer them jobs driving trucks. The remainder are abducted and sold by traders who get a commercial fee – in other words, they are part of a trade in humans.

Marshall remembers arriving in a country rated by the UN as the worst in the world for human trafficking. According to the UN, the main factors were the regime’s economic mismanagement and human rights abuses, the military’s use of forced and child labour, and the recruitment of child soldiers. “The use of civilians in conflict zones is essentially a war crime,” says Marshall. “Gradually the Government’s responsiveness has changed. Today, if we can prove a boy who has been recruited into the military is underage, I can almost guarantee we will get him discharged and back to his family.

“I can also assure you military discipline will be applied against the official responsible.” High levels of desertion plague Myanmar’s armies and defectors get up to seven years’ imprisonment and hard labour. “Child desertion was a testy issue. Kids who find themselves on the frontline exposed to fighting, killing and landmines exploding get scared and attempt to run home.” It took the ILO two years of persistent advocacy to persuade Myanmar’s military Government that a child illegally recruited could not be charged with desertion. Marshall’s next priority is to track down such children.


No one knows how many child deserters might be living in fear, hiding in the jungle or simply keeping a low profile outside the army, he says. Human trafficking is still a problem, but the UN has acknowledged the Government is trying to improve and comply with international law. The issues at stake include bonded child labour, selling children into the sex trade or to beg, girls being put into domestic labour, and young boys sent to work in tea shops and heavy manual jobs in extreme conditions. “These things are unacceptable in any society – it doesn’t matter if it is poverty-driven or not,” says Marshall.

Changing the mindset of the military, the Government and local authorities is the work of deputy liaison officer Piyamal Pichaiwongse, who invites child soldiers and their mothers to attend ILO courses that give authorities an understanding of the suffering endured under forced labour. “My best community advocate is the mother of a child soldier who was recruited when he was 13,” says Thai-born Pichaiwongse. After escaping, the boy was sent to a labour camp. His mother found him and four other child soldiers at the camp and got in touch with their families.

Two years later, the network of mothers is getting stronger. “In Myanmar at the moment, truth-and-reconciliation hearings are fundamental for rebuilding lives and long-term stability,” says Pichaiwongse. Liaising between the Myanmar Government, the army and 11 non-aligned ethnic armies, Marshall’s team and similar agencies are trying to help communities beyond ceasefires into peace agreements, so people in “restricted black zones” can begin to address livelihood, education and social issues. Marshall is hopeful. “In the past two years there has been really dramatic change in every aspect of policy and life. Before, the country basically ran on fear … you issued orders, you obeyed orders, you passed orders on. Today there is a completely different mindset – this is reform of everything.”

Jenny Macintyre is a New Zealand journalist living in Myanmar.
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