A large number of child soldiers have reportedly been found among 34 government troops being detained by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) at its Laiza headquarters.
The captives were seized by the rebels during battle and are currently in limbo as they do not dare to go back to their families for fear of being arrested under military law.
KIA spokesman La Nan told The Irrawaddy on Friday that his organization would allow the soldiers to return but they are worried about coming to harm or being imprisoned.
Around 30 of those captured are under age while two are only 15 years old, according to La Nan. Fighting broke out in Kachin State in June last year to put an end to a 17-year ceasefire between the rebels and Burmese government.
La Nan added that only once has the KIA officially handed captured troops back to the government since the resumption of hostilities over a year ago.
Leaders of the 88 Generation Students group from Rangoon met the 34 captives during a trip to Laiza last week that was principally organized to meet some of the 70,000 or so Kachin refugees who have fled the ethnic conflict.
Video footage of the meeting shows young soldiers describe how they began their military careers by being grabbed on the street and forced to enlist despite protesting they were underage.
Soe Min said that we was recruited by the military when he went to Rangoon to find a job and a soldier checked him for ID. The 17-year-old confessed that he had no documentation and so was immediately sent to an army recruit camp for training.
Another 17-year-old called Ne Myo Oo admitted to have been hiding in Laiza for seven months. The youngest captive, a 15-year-old from Tanai township in Kachin State, said that his family has not known his whereabouts since his detention by the KIA.
The captives said they do not know when they can safely return to their families as there is no peace in Kachin State with daily fighting between rebel troops and the government.
Aye Zaw Moe, another former government soldier, said that he did not want to go back to his family even though the KIA gave permission as he will not be safe. He will only return once the government guarantees that he will not be punished, he said.
Human rights groups have long accused both the Burmese armed forces and various ethnic rebel armies of recruiting underage soldiers during decades of civil war in the Southeast Asian nation.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in 2007 that youngsters are often kidnapped on their way home from school. They are then brutalized and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s border areas.
Ninety-three child soldiers were discharged from the Burmese army through government mechanisms during 2010, according to the UN secretary-general’s office.
A UN task force regularly followed up on reported cases that year but said access restrictions in Burma limited what members were able to verify. The majority child recruitment cases took place between the ages of 15 and 17 and were from Rangoon Division, it reported.
Children were usually persuaded or duped to join the army by relatives already working in the Burmese armed forces, soldiers trying to earn a promotion or brokers, according the UN. The Burmese government signed a UN action plan in Naypyidaw on June 27 which pledges to abolish the use of children in the nation’s military by 2014.