(Names changed for security reasons)
Han See Dei was just 10 years old, studying in his 5th grade class when a commander from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) took him. “My parents could not pay the money they [the DKBA] asked for, and the teachers dared not say anything for me, so I had to become a soldier,” he said. Sadly, Han See Dei wasn’t the only child they took from his village that day: two other boys’ parents were unable to pay the bribe to keep them from becoming child soldiers, so the boys spent 4 long years in the DKBA, where two of them still remain.
Three years later, another boy, Myint Paw Lin, age 14, shared a similar fate when the DKBA attacked the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) at a neighboring village and needed more soldiers. As in the other boys’ scenarios as well as nearly all such cases, his parents were unable to pay to keep him out of the army, so he spent the past year as a soldier.
Myint Paw Lin and Han See Dei ended up in the same brigade for the same reasons. They also recently decided to defect for the same reason. The Burma Army, ironically also known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has demanded that all ethnic armies in Burma disarm and become part of what they call their “Border Guard Force.” Essentially, this means that the ethnic militaries must surrender their autonomy and control to the SPDC. Both boys could not stand the thought of wearing the SPDC patch on their arm because of what their mothers had told them about the oppression the Karen people had suffered, so they ran away and found refuge, exchanging their guns and uniforms for food, shelter and normal clothing.
The boys dream of returning to school and being able to defend their people after graduation as adults…not as child soldiers.