Thursday, January 26, 2017

A new life after spending teen years in the army

By Mariana Palavra 

Myitkyina, Kachin State, November 2016 - Zwe Chit (fake name) left school when he was in grade eight. He started hanging out with four older friends. They all wanted to join the army and pushed him to do the same. He was 16 years old when he was recruited. “I never dreamed about being in the army. I didn’t have that ambition. I just followed my friends as I didn’t know what else to do with my life”, he recalls.  

Zwe Chit and his mother look at the child recruitment prevention billboard and point at the hotline number
©UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Khine Zar Mon
He spent four years in the Tatmadaw. “It was uncomfortable and hard from day one, especially due to all the rules and regulations. It was very restrictive.” He immediately found an escape when he started to practice boxing, as part of the martial arts and defense technique training. And he never left boxing again. “During that time in the army, my focus was only on sports.” He was relatively lucky as he wasn’t sent to the frontline. However, one of his four friends was and lost a leg in a landmine explosion.

Zwe Chit desperately wanted to live in freedom, so he decided to leave the army. A friend told him that there was a public hotline to report the recruitment and use of children in armed forces. He called and asked to be released. This happened in 2015. 

Zwe Chit is one of the 800 children and young people who were released from the Myanmar armed forces since the signing of the Joint Action Plan between the United Nations and the Government of Myanmar in June 2012. 

UNICEF has been working with the government and six partner organizations nation-wide to ensure long-term socio-economic reintegration of children released from the army or ethnic armed groups. “Trained social workers are assigned to each of the released children and, in collaboration with parents and communities, they accompany the transition to civilian life including through immediate support on civil documentation and health checks”, explains Emmanuelle Compingt, UNICEF child protection specialist. “Psycho-social support, mediation with parents and discussion of life projects are also part of the first steps of the reintegration process.”

Children and young people can access different types of reintegration support, namely education, vocational training and job placement, and/or income generation activities (livestock production, grocery shop, agriculture, motorbike taxi, hairdresser, computer science, are some of the examples).    

Chaw Su, social worker from Ratana Metta Organisation (RMO), a local NGO supported by UNICEF, has been assisting Zwe Chit. “I visit him at least once a month. My role is to get to know him better, to understand how he has been received by his community and what he wants to do”, she explains. “Together we discuss the different options available, taking into consideration his dreams, ambitions and local business opportunities. I do my best to change these boys’ lives after their experience in the army.” Social workers follow up every case for at least two years to make sure the reintegration is successful. 

But having his life back and being reintegrated into his community hasn’t always been easy for Zwe Chit. “I don’t have many social and talking skills as I am only used to speaking with military staff in a short, respectful and very precise way”. But in real life, social conviviality is done in a different way. 

Zwe Chit training boxing with his coach
©UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Khine Zar Mon
The 21 year-old doesn’t like to mention it, but his father is still an official from the army and the family lives in a military residence compound. This has been a great challenge for his reintegration since most of his neighbours don’t look upon him favourably. “They call him a deserter and he is not well accepted in the compound”, the case worker explains. 

In fact, UNICEF wants to prevent stigmatization of children formerly associated with armed forces and to ensure that support is also benefiting other children indirectly affected by conflict. Therefore, community support is often provided to the community in which the child in reintegrating. 

Zwe Chit has been receiving driving lessons and soon will pass the driving exam. Then, he will get further support to pursue his professional dreams. “Currently, I am focused on sports, but in the next years, I think I want to open a grocery shop”, he reveals.  Boxing has been taking him throughout the country. He is a light flyweight (49 kgs) champion, one of the best in Kachin. 

Zwe Chit’s mother has been his number one supporter: “I have been by his side since he came out of the army. I have encouraged his choices” she says. As a mother of three boys, she believes that the army is not a place for children. “Children should focus on their wellbeing and on their life, namely by studying.” Her third and youngest boy agrees and leaves a message to all children: “You should dedicate your life to school and sports, the military life is not the right way”.  

The Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR), co-chaired by UNICEF, has also accelerated the dialogue with ethnic armed groups. “UNICEF is calling on government to allow the signature of agreements between the UN and ethnic armed groups to ensure the protection of all children in Myanmar and to support a formal release framework with those groups”, says Bertrand Bainvel, Representative to UNICEF Myanmar. “Protecting children from being recruited and used by parties to the conflict is a first step towards sustainable peace. We cannot postpone taking action until a full peace agreement is in place.”

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