Aug 24, 2012
Always an enigma, Myanmar has always fascinated many. Benedict Rogers' first-hand journalistic account of Burma brings out the many complex facets of the country; and shows a nation at the crossroads of change.
'I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon' John Newton
Aung San Suu Kyi is a very great leader, but our government does not like her very much: These words caught me by surprise not because of the words themselves or the sentiment they expressed, but because of who they were spoken by: a serving military officer in Burma. ‘She is in a very difficult situation: he continued.
‘But I pray for her: Discontent with the current regime, and a desire for change in Burma is not limited to students, monks and political activists. In the junior ranks of the military, morale is believed to be so low that rates of desertion and defection have reached worrying proportions for the regime. A confidential report allegedly from the regime claims that desertion rates have reached 1,60Q a month, and that between May and August 2006 alone, a total of 9,467 desertions were reported,’ while 7,761 desertions were reported between January and April 2000.2 In early August 2009, seventy soldiers deserted from just one battalion, Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 324, in Kachin State, and a month later twenty officers stationed near Gangdau Yang and Nam San Yang villages on the Myitkyina-Bhamo highway in Kachin State defected to the KIA. Narinjara News reported in 2007 that desertions in Arakan State were increasing ‘by the day with sixty-nine soldiers deserting and twenty-seven retiring in one month alone.
Most of those who desert do so because of the poor working conditions:
low pay, few rations and ill treatment. Some, however, defect, joining the democracy movement or ethnic resistance organisations, literally switching sides. I have met dozens of Burma Army deserters and defectors who have fled to Burma’s borders, some of whom were child soldiers. AU of them knew the risk they were taking when they fled their units — if they had been caught, they would almost certainly have been executed. Those fighting in the ethnic areas were also fed dire warnings by their senior officers about what the ethnic resistance groups would do to them if they were caught.
Kyaw Zeya was taken from a bus stop in Rangoon when he was eleven years old. A truckload of Tatmadaw soldiers pulled up alongside him as he waited for a bus to go to visit his aunt. They grabbed him, and told him if he did not join the army, he would go to jail. ‘I had no choice: he told me when I met him three years after his abduction.
Taken to Ta Kyin Koe First Battalion Camp in Danyigone district, he was prohibited from contacting his parents. He was one of at least thirty other children of a similar age at this camp, where he was held for eight months before being sent to a training facility for regular soldiers in the Fifth Battalion. There, he went through five months of basic training, which included running five or six miles every morning. He was then transferred to Light Infantry Battalion 341 in Papun District, Karen State, and then sent to the front line. In a unit of thirty soldiers, he said, at least fifteen were children his age.
Subjected to cruel treatment, including regular beatings for failure to carry out basic tasks, Kyaw Zeya said that life in the Burma Army ‘was like helE He witnessed attacks on Karen villages, civilians being rounded up and forced to work as porters for the military, and claimed that troops were under orders to burn, rape and kill when they entered a Karen village. ‘There was no law: he explained. He was repeatedly warned that if he ever escaped and was captured by the Karens, they would kill him. He believed them, but life became so intolerable that he decided to flee. ‘I did believe that the Karen were very bad, and I knew that if I escaped, I might face the Karen: he admitted. ‘But I did not want to live.
The reality was diametrically opposed to the Tatmadaw propaganda. Almost as soon as he escaped, Kyaw Zeya was captured by the Karen, but instead of killing him, they provided him sanctuary With the Karen, he told me, he felt ‘safe and free and loved.
The above is an excerpt from the chapter 'Defectors, Deserters and Child Soldiers' from the book, ' Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads' by Benedict Anderson published by Random House Limited, 2012