In a Burmese border town cafe, in the midst of a military crackdown against pro-democracy protesters, a recently-fled child-soldier sat with me, talking about cell phones and girls. Thet Ye Htwe spent five years as a radio operator, punching bag, human “mine sweeper” and arsonist while soldiering in the Burmese military. He fled his brigade just days before September’s democracy protests began but already is considering returning. “We need to take up arms. Nothing else will stop them,” he told me, referring to the military junta that rules Burma (and renamed it Myanmar).
Thet Ye Htwe now hopes to join one of the 30 rebel forces, peppered throughout the nation’s jungles, that oppose the military regime. The week we chatted, Burma was a hot news item in North America for the first time in nearly 20 years. What’s more, child soldiers were being implicated in the beatings of monks in the largest anti-democratic crackdown the country had seen since a 1988 massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. I had a potential co-perpetrator of atrocities sitting right next to me.
For over a decade, the UN has documented the widespread use of child soldiers in Burma’s military and in the anti-government militias throughout the country. How many kids have been conscripted is unclear, partly because they are all registered as 18-year-olds, and partly because the size of the actual military itself is unknown. The government inflates numbers to intimidate would-be rebels, but the 400,000 man army roster is filled with the names of defectors and dead men, Human Rights Watch has found. The high desertion rates have left generals desperate for new recruits, and children have proven easy targets.
But I wasn’t allowed to ask about Thet Ye Htwe’s experiences in the military. In order to get the interview, I had to agree to an “I promise not to…” list that included any questions that would conjure up ugly, festering memories. While I urgently wanted to know how he was treated as a military member, what fighting was like, what his first experience was, and what made him leave, I wasn’t allowed to ask, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the one to bring those memories to the surface.We were in a town ill-equipped to deal with the emotional trauma Thet Ye Htwe had suffered.
Lacking any psychology background, I had no reason to believe I could discuss his brutal treatment without doing harm. But to let an NGO worker set the terms of my interview clearly pushed the limits of my independence. Reporters link integrity and independence closely. To accept such a conditional interview was to allow a stranger (and non-journalist) to shape my story according to her own agenda.
Maybe out of weakness, maybe out of curiosity, I decided to do the interview anyway, figuring it was worth knowing how an ex-child soldier, who can’t read or write and has never known anything but military orders, tries to become a civilian. But I couldn’t justify my decision with any sound journalistic ethical reasoning. I accepted the terms, and then I accepted a second term-laden interview with a child-soldier supported by a different NGO. In the course of these ethically compromised interviews, however, I learned of a child-soldier who had recently fled the border town hoping to be reunited with his family.
The NGO that had cared for him gave me all of his background information, details about his treatment and his responsibilities, and his family’s home address in Yangon. Outside of Shwe Dagon temple, the largest in Burma, tour guides had gathered around a tree, lamenting the utter void of tourists and seeking work from any and every passerby. When they spotted an American face, three eagerly offered their translating and guiding services. “I want to go to this address,” I said. “Why that one?” “It is where an escaped child soldier lives.” “I don’t understand, if he escaped, isn’t he in jail now?” “I’m not sure. Of course that’s possible.” “So you realize this is the house of a criminal? You want us to translate for a criminal. Who has probably served hard labor?” They looked at each other and muttered and exclaimed in Burmese. “Not if it puts you at risk.” “We can’t go here,” they said, not without regret. “It is fine for you, you are foreign. If we go here, government will see us and photograph.”
The military had been photographing protesters by day and visiting their houses by night, quietly arresting anyone they deemed insurgent. These guides knew that their mere presence near a criminal’s house could implicate them. They were strapped for cash and desperate for work, but they couldn’t take this job. “I’m sorry,” they kept saying. I took a taxi to the location, unaccompanied by a translator, knocked on the door, and no one answered. Maybe no one was home, maybe the sight of a young westerner was the last kind of trouble that family needed.
Days later, I left Burma without a story. All the hours that former child-soldiers and NGO workers spent talking to me were for naught. The stories they thought they could promulgate were left untold. Although I passionately wanted to tell the stories of child soldiering in Burma, to bring to light how the military is destroying its own members as readily as it destroys the lives of its citizens, I felt I couldn’t risk writing what I had seen. Was it the right move?
What had been at stake? The identities of these escaped soldiers, for one thing. But also the security of the NGOs that were working to help them. Thai authorities have an agreement with the Burmese military to return all escaped soldiers. Deserters’ ages are never checked before they are turned back across the border into government hands, so proscriptions against child soldiering are moot.
NGOs in Thai border towns shield deserters from would-be captors and reshape their identities to keep Thai authorities’ suspicions at bay. To expose the NGOs, in name or location, would be to ruin lives. Writing for publications that demand specifics, I couldn’t guarantee the security of anyone involved.