Lonely life of Myanmar's boy soldiers
Aged 12, Min Thu joined Myanmar's notorious army, one of thousands of child recruits who disprove official claims those days are over
He disappeared when he was 12, a skinny boy named Min Thu from the wrong side of town who thought he had stumbled onto the golden ticket.
It began one afternoon when a swaggering businessman bumped into Min Thu at the market, offering him an escape from a neighbourhood where the houses are made of timber scraps and the air smells of fish.
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 Min Thu, whose father makes a living pedaling a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of the small beachside town of Chaung Tha, the man seemed impossibly successful.
"The guy comes by and says, 'You'll have a great life if you come with me'," says Min Thu, now a stone-faced 17-year-old, still skinny, and occasionally revealing a stutter he developed in his years away. The man made promises: that Min Thu could eat his fill at every meal, that he'd get a salary he could use to help his parents. He could barely believe his luck, even if he "didn't even know what the guy was saying".
This is what he was saying: Min Thu was joining thousands of boys swallowed up over the years by Myanmar's army, one of the country's most feared institutions. The businessman was a broker for army recruiters, paid the standard fee about US$30 and a bag of rice for every person he persuaded to sign up. It did not matter if his recruits had not reached puberty.
Over the next four years Min Thu would spend countless days carrying supplies and working on army-owned farms.
He saw people die, and much of his US$30-a-month salary taken by superiors. At 14, he fought in a chaotic gunbattle with ethnic Karen rebels.
As Myanmar shifts away 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 UN and local rights activists say recruiting of boy soldiers has gone down, but many remain, despite a government agreement to clear the military of anyone under the age of 18 by December 1. Some have been taken in the past few months.
"Some time ago the government came out of denial, which was excellent, and now there is a firm policy in place," says Steve Marshall, Myanmar head of the UN's International Labour Organisation. "The critical issue now is getting that policy applied."
Analysts say it's unclear how many children are in Myanmar's military. About 500 boys have been discharged in the past few years, some as young as 11, though most between 14 and 16, Marshall said. He said those children were "a small proportion" of Myanmar's total number of child soldiers.
Some young recruits are simply forced into the army. More often, as with Min Thu, they are boys who fall victim to fast-talking pitches, kept in the military by a toxic combination of fear and disorientation.
The country of 55 million has one of the largest armies in the region, according to analysts, with at least 400,000 soldiers. It has grown immensely since a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising against military rule.
While top generals have turned their power into immense wealth, at the bottom of the army is a vast underclass of soldiers who don't even have ranks. 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 US$60 a month - but officers regularly skim off much of that.
That is the army Min Thu saw.
Within hours of meeting the businessman, and with his parents completely unaware, he found himself at an army camp, terrified, confused and tearful.
He said: "They punched us and slapped us, shouting, 'This is not a place for crying'."
So Min Thu learned to get by. He stifled his tears, and did what he was told. 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 recognisable.
They slipped out of the room, out the back door, and into a taxi. Months of medical care followed, paid for with loans, and finally a return to Chaung Tha.
Min Thu hadn't seen his home for four years. He barely knew how to act around his family. Fearing arrest, he spent days hiding in a swamp. The authorities leave him alone - an activist has started the paperwork to have him discharged - but he's always ready to run. He has become a silent presence in the two-room house.
His mother, Daw San, 58, said: "He's forgotten how to live with his family."