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Myanmar, Republic of the Union of

A new life after spending teen years in Myanmar army

© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Khine Zar Mon
Zwe Chit and his mother look at the child recruitment prevention billboard and point at the hotline number. Zwe Chit was 16 when he joined the army.

UNICEF is calling for the protection of children from recruitment by all parties to the conflict in Myanmar. Zwe Chit was 16 when he joined the army. One of 800 children and young people who have been released from the armed forces since 2012, he is receiving support to reintegrate into society.

By Mariana Palavra

KACHIN STATE, Myanmar, 22 May 2017 - Zwe Chit 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,” recalls the 21-year-old.

He spent four years in the army, the Tatmadaw. “It was uncomfortable and hard from day one, especially due to all the rules and regulations. It was very restrictive,” he says.

He found an escape when he started to practice boxing as part of the martial arts and defense technique training. “During that time in the army, my focus was only on sports,” he says.

He was fortunate not to be sent to the front line. One of his four friends lost a leg in a landmine explosion.

Zwe Chit decided he wanted to leave the army. A friend told him about a public hotline to report the recruitment and use of children in armed forces. He called and asked to be released in 2015.

He is one of 800 children and young people who have been 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.

>> Read the report: Lives on hold: Making sure no child is left behind in Myanmar

© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Khine Zar Mon
Zwe Chit training with his coach. He is one of the best boxers in Kachin state, and he has been travelling across the country for the sport.

A new start

UNICEF has been working with the Government and partner organizations across the country to help the long-term social and 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.

Children and young people can access different types of support, including education, vocational training and job placement schemes.

Chaw Su, a social worker at 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,” she says. “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.

Ongoing challenges

Being back in his community isn’t always 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,” he says.

His father is still an official in the army and the family lives in a military residence compound. This situation has been a great challenge for Zwe Chit’s reintegration since many 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.

Zwe Chit has been receiving driving lessons and will soon take the driving exam. “Currently, I am focused on sports, but in the next years, I think I want to open a grocery shop,” he says. 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.”

“UNICEF is calling on the 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, UNICEF Representative in 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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