PHOTO SET 2005-A: Children

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PHOTO SET 2005-A: Children

Published date:
Friday, May 27, 2005

SPDC forces do not draw a line between children and adults when they commit human rights abuses.  Children living within Karen regions of Burma are frequently the victims of forced labour, detention, torture, shootings, forced relocation, village destruction, displacement, landmines and all other forms of human rights violations documented throughout this photo set. They are deeply and sometimes permanently affected by abuses committed against them as individuals, against other members of their family or the family as a whole, and against their village community. 

In the struggle between the Burmese state, determined to militarise and control the lives of the population, and the civilians evading and resisting this domination, children are not bystanders.  On the state side, they are forcibly recruited to form a large part of the SPDC Army, while on the civilian side, they are active participants in the survival, evasion and resistance of their families, while some of them become soldiers in resistance groups.  Recognising this, SPDC forces do not draw a line between children and adults when they commit human rights abuses.  Children living within Karen regions of Burma are frequently the victims of forced labour, detention, torture, shootings, forced relocation, village destruction, displacement, landmines and all other forms of human rights violations documented throughout this photo set. They are deeply and sometimes permanently affected by abuses committed against them as individuals, against other members of their family or the family as a whole, and against their village community. 

Many of these human rights abuses tend to affect children more than they do adults, because of children's greater physical and emotional vulnerability and the smaller degree of control that they are able to exert over their own lives.  Their health is much more likely than that of adults to fail under harsh conditions; their education can easily be disrupted with lasting effects; and their dependency on other family members makes them more vulnerable to abuses on others.  Whether living in SPDC-controlled areas where they are subject to forced labour and the systematic repression and impoverishment of their families, or displaced in the hills where they face malnutrition, disease, landmines and the possibility of being shot on sight, their development as children is often cut off, and they are forced at a very early age to take on full adult responsibilities and more.

The photos below have been divided into seven sections: Violence Against Children (9.1) , Children and Forced Labour (9.2) , Children and Internal Displacement (9.3) , Orphans (9.4) , Health (9.5) , Education (9.6) , and Child Soldiers (9.7) .  Additional information regarding the situation of children can be found in KHRG reports on individual regions.  For the purposes of this report, 'children' are considered to be all people under 18 years of age. 

9.1  Violence Against Children

SPDC commanders do not appear to have a policy of singling out children for violence.  However, as part of the civilian population children are generally treated the same as adults, as potential or real 'enemies of the state' to be brought under direct and complete control.  If villagers are being detained, therefore, children are detained along with adults (see photo 8-13 ), and if an SPDC column is shooting villagers on sight, they show no hesitation in shooting children (see photos 5-33 to 5-40 , 9-1 to 9-2 , and 5-67 to 5-72 ).  In many shooting incidents documented by KHRG, it is clear that the soldiers were more than close enough to know for certain that they were firing on children.  Landmines, by their nature as indiscriminate killers, also maim and kill many children in Karen regions (see photos 11-19 and 11-32 to 11-36 ).  The use of children for forced labour and their enlarged role in supporting the family due to military oppression (see Sections 9.2, Children and Forced Labour , and 9.3, Children and Internal Displacement , below) increase their vulnerability to military abuse, shooting, and landmines.  It is worth noting that the children in photos 11-25 to 11-26 and 11-50 were wounded by landmines when they were trying to find food for their families, while the girls in photos 11-37 to 11-39 were wounded by a claymore mine while doing forced labour as porters.  For these and the many other children wounded indiscriminately by military abuses, their wounds will last a lifetime (see photos 9-1 to 9-2 ). 

9.2  Children and Forced Labour

Forced labour is usually demanded from villages by quota, either a certain number of people per village, or one person per household.  If for example 10 people are demanded from a village of 30 houses, then the village head chooses 10 families which must each send a person, and the next time a different 10 families will take their turn.  If the demand is for one person per house, then each family must send someone without exception.  Either way, when a demand comes, the family must either send a person or hire someone else to go in their place.  Multiple and overlapping demands for forced labour and materials compete with the work which needs to be done in the fields or elsewhere for family survival, forcing families to divide the work among themselves.  At busy times in the farming cycle or their other livelihoods, adults take on the work for family survival, while the 'less important' forced labour often falls to the children.  This is particularly true when forced labour requires a large number of villagers, like road labour, preparing and delivering large quantities of thatch, or portering; for short-term labour where the family's turn seldom comes (like set tha messenger labour), children are involved less often.  Some people would chastise parents for subjecting their children to forced labour in this way, but in their view the child is dependent on the family, so family survival must come first.  The fault here lies not with the parents, but with those who demand forced labour.

When adults go for forced labour, they often have no choice but to take their infant and toddler children along with them.  Similarly, in Karen villages children as young as 6 or 7 are already caring for their younger siblings, so when these older children go for forced labour their baby or toddler siblings often accompany them, and even take part in the work; this is why children as young as 4 or 5 can be seen hauling or breaking rocks for road work in photos 6-115 to 6-118 .

When large numbers of forced labourers are demanded, so many children are involved that village schools often close down.  For example, when villagers in Thaton district had to gather stone for over two months from April to June 2004 to build a road for the SPDC, children often formed over half the workforce, especially because this work occurred when ricefields had to be prepared, ploughed and planted (see photos 6-115 to 6-118 and 6-119 to 6-122 ).  Children are regularly involved in forced labour clearing the scrub along roadsides (see photos 6-25 to 6-34 , 6-168 to 6-171 , and 9-7 ), preparing and delivering thatch to SPDC and DKBA camps (see photos 6-227 , 6-228 to 6-236 , and 6-248 to 6-250 ), and even girls as young as 11 are forced to do the difficult and dangerous work of portering Army supplies (see photos 9-6 and 6-44 to 6-46 ).

In most cases the children must do the same work as the adults, though if small they may get a smaller load or slightly less gruelling job.  They sometimes have to sleep in the open at the worksite (see photo 6-152 ), exposing them to malaria.  Portering and road work also exposes children to landmines.  The girls in photos 11-37 to 11-39 were among a group of villagers forced to porter supplies along a road the SPDC suspected was mined, and ended up badly wounded when one of the group triggered a tripwired KNLA claymore mine.

Though much forced labour is done without on-site military supervision, the SPDC is fully aware that children are doing much of the work.  The 12 year old girls in photos 9-4 and 9-5 were paid by an SPDC officer for the work they did rebuilding roads in Papun District, so he clearly knew who was doing the labour.  Past KHRG interviews and written SPDC order documents have shown that SPDC commanders only object to children doing forced labour if it results in the work not being completed on time.

9.3  Children and Internal Displacement

The greater burdens imposed on families by living under military control force children to take on a much larger role in helping to ensure their family's survival, and this role is magnified even further when the family becomes displaced.  On the move, children help carry the food and belongings the family will continue to need, and bigger children sometimes carry their smaller siblings.  Adults travelling alone can move more than twice as fast as families with small children, yet unlike the elderly, children are never knowingly left behind.  Many of the photos below show the extra effort parents are willing to go to for the sake of their children (see for example photos 10-123 to 10-128 ), even when they know that the whole family may be captured by SPDC soldiers as a result.  While living a mobile life in hiding, children's food and shelter needs are always prioritised (see photos 1-13 to 1-16 ) and taken care of by the extended family.  Their education suffers, but adults place priority on keeping some form of rudimentary schooling going no matter how difficult the circumstances (see Section 9.6.1, Education for Displaced Children ).  At the same time, they become more central to the family's survival by participating in farming and other livelihoods (photos 1-22 and 10-134 to 10-138 ), fishing, and foraging.

All of these activities expose them dangerously to shooting or capture by SPDC patrols (see Section 9.1, Violence Against Children ) and landmines (see photo 9-14 ).  Small children easily become malnourished, particularly if their parents fall ill or are killed.  Lack of access to medical care makes every illness a threat (see Section 9.5, Health ), and wounds, whether from landmines or jungle thorns, can be fatal due to bleeding or infections.  Yet amid all of this they remain children, trying to carry on with play (see photos 10-12 to 10-15 and 9-9 ), school, and family life.  Even play can now be dangerous, as it is for the children in photo 9-10 playing in the burned and possibly mined ruins of their destroyed village.  Some families try to take their children to Thailand, where they know there are relatives and schools in refugee camps, or even send their children ahead with other families while they try to continue surviving near home.  However, even if they reach the border children are not safe against forced repatriation by Thai troops (see photos 10-162 to 10-163 ), or from the difficult and sometimes dangerous  life of refugees (see photos 10-182 to 10-194 ).

9.4  Orphans

Every time a villager dies, whether tortured to death by SPDC soldiers, killed by a landmine during forced labour, or killed by illness due to the SPDC blockade on medicines entering the hills, the lives of many people are affected – first and foremost those of his or her children.  Compensation is almost never paid in such cases, and insurance is unknown in rural Burma.  The surviving parent must find a way to support the children alone, sometimes with the help of other families.  Making this more difficult, despite the loss of a parent the family is still considered one household for forced labour purposes, and must therefore still fulfil SPDC forced labour quotas (see Section 9.1, Violence Against Children , above) – meaning the children will now have to do even more forced labour in addition to supporting the family.  If no parents are left the orphans fall into the care of the extended family (see photos 9-17 , 9-20 to 9-21 , 5-52 to 5-57 , and 9-25 ).  This usually means grandparents, uncles, or aunts, though if the orphans are small this makes survival even harder for elderly couples or families who may already be struggling to survive.  The baby in photo 9-22 no longer has any close relatives surviving, and fell into the care of the village community as a whole after SPDC troops beat his father to death.

After losing one or both parents, the elder children become the main providers for their younger siblings and sometimes for the surviving parent.  After her father was tortured to death, 13 year old Ma M--- had to leave school to help her mother (see photo 4-13 ).  Already three years an orphan, the 12 year old boy in photos 9-18 to 9-19 has become adept at many kinds of labour in order to support his widowed mother and younger siblings.  Pa G---, newly orphaned at age 12 ( photo 5-47 ), now faces the same situation.  Even more than other children in the villages, the orphans must learn to act as adults very early.

9.5  Health

The burdens of forced labour, extortion and other demands in SPDC-controlled areas, the deliberate undermining of village food security in hill areas which the SPDC is trying to depopulate, and the lack of access to sufficient food and clean water in forced relocation sites, are all leading to widespread malnutrition among children in Karen State, and this in turn makes them more vulnerable to illnesses, infections, and other complications. 

Hospitals and medical clinics, however, are inaccessible to most rural children.  Care and medicines at town hospitals and village clinics are far too expensive for most people to be able to afford them, partly because corrupt doctors inflate the prices.  The local clinics which smaller villages are ordered to build at their own expense usually sit abandoned, because the medics sent from town have disappeared never to be seen again.  In SPDC-controlled villages, children therefore receive medical attention either from traditional healers using forest medicines, or sometimes questionable 'injections' and pills prescribed by local medicine sellers.

For children in villages beyond direct SPDC control the situation is worse, because the SPDC blockades medicines and medics from reaching Karen hill regions, and has outlawed even the possession of medicines in many of these areas to prevent medicines reaching IDPs and Karen forces.  These blockades do not kill many Karen soldiers, who have their own supply lines, but they are killing many IDPs and hill villagers.  The eleven year old boy in photo 9-25 lost both parents to illness because of the SPDC medical blockade.  Karen villagers in the hills are forced to rely on traditional forest remedies, animist practices, and traditional healers, which can be helpful but often prove insufficient (see photos 10-3 to 10-4 ).  'Modern' medicines, dressings and treatment are only available from mobile medics (see photos 9-23 and 10-151 to 10-153 ) – sometimes KNLA medics, sometimes travelling medical teams from local IDP assistance organisations – but their presence is sporadic and they themselves are usually short of medicines (see photo 9-24 ), because most international organisations refuse to give aid to Karen groups seen as having 'political connections'.  Ironically, these same international organisations do give money and aid to organisations controlled by the SPDC, like the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association, reflecting the hypocrisy of their claims of 'humanitarian neutrality' and 'apolitical humanitarian aid'.

Attempts by SPDC columns to force villagers out of hill areas have a dire effect on maternal and infant mortality and morbidity.  When villagers have to stay on the move to avoid these columns, infants cannot be properly cared for (see photos 8-10 to 8-12 ) and women giving birth must do so in unsanitary conditions with no outside help.  Unable to flee when the columns approach, women giving birth or with newborns but sometimes remain behind to face the soldiers alone (see photo 2-30 ).  Children with disabilities also have difficulty fleeing with the other villagers, so their parents remain behind with them to face the soldiers (see photo 10-148 ).  The lack of sufficient nutritious food resulting from a life on the move and SPDC destruction of rice supplies lead to maternal and infant malnutrition (see photos 8-21 to 8-23 ), and many children die before age five.  Those who survive beyond that age must then face the threats of SPDC violence against children and forced labour which were discussed in earlier sections.

9.6  Education

Schools in Karen regions can be divided into state-controlled schools and non-state schools.  State-controlled schools exist in most SPDC-controlled villages.  They are built by the unpaid labour of villagers and at their expense, but the SPDC sets the curriculum and forbids any language but Burmese being taught.  Some of the teachers are sent by the SPDC education department, while others are hired locally.  Students must pay fees and provide all their own materials, so many children either cannot attend or drop out early.  Non-state schools are outlawed by the SPDC, but they exist in villages remote from direct SPDC control.  These are set up by villagers to teach their own children, staffed by rotating local volunteers or low-paid village teachers who receive some support from the villagers.  Villages establish these schools because they cannot afford to pay for state-controlled schools; they need the children to help at home and there is no state-controlled school nearby; they do not dare send their children to SPDC-controlled villages due to the risk of forced labour; they do not accept the SPDC school curriculum and want their children to become literate in their own language; or any combination of these reasons.  Most of these schools only reach primary level, because the teachers themselves may have had only primary-level education.  If the SPDC finds these schools, they are destroyed.  Another form of non-state school is established when villagers go into hiding to avoid SPDC abuse, and set up rudimentary schools in IDP hiding places to continue education for their children.  In some areas, the KNU has helped to set up middle and high schools which teach a Karen curriculum using Sgaw Karen as the main medium of instruction.  Primary school runs from Kindergarten to 4 th Standard (Grade 4); middle school from 5 th to 8 th Standard, and high school from 9 th to 10 th Standard.  Post-secondary education is only available at universities and colleges in the cities, or by distance education from the main towns.

Village and IDP schools are discussed below in Section 9.6.1, Education for Displaced Children , and state-controlled schools are discussed in Section 9.6.2, Education in SPDC-controlled Villages . 

9.6.1  Education for displaced children

When SPDC forces attempt to clear villagers out of an area, village schools are one of the main targets for destruction – probably because village schools are a symbol of villagers' ability and desire to organise outside the state system, and because they form focal points for community and Karen identity and solidarity.  Village schools are therefore burned by SPDC columns (see photos 1-52 to 1-55 and 9-31 ).  The villagers, however, carry their commitment to education into their displacement, such that one of the first priorities of displaced villagers is to continue schooling their children.  Their motivation for doing this is not material or utilitarian, because in remote rural areas schooling is not seen as a ticket to material success; in Sgaw Karen there is even a saying, "Go to school, eat rice.  Don't go to school, eat rice."   Yet Karen villagers still see schooling their children as essential to the continuation of their identity, culture, language, and sense of community, which are needed if they are to retain hope in their struggle against state oppression.  This is why schooling, though it would not appear immediately essential to survival, is continued by displaced villagers the moment they can stop in one location for more than a day or two.  Village teachers, or volunteers with some education themselves, immediately assess the number and ages of children, plan and begin teaching, usually on the ground with a makeshift blackboard (see photos 10-154 to 10-156 , 1-52 to 1-55 , 9-37 , and 9-26 ).  The teachers may have no more than primary education themselves, and the students only have whatever notebooks and pencils they managed to bring with them.  Yet this provides the entire community with a sense of continuity, dignity, and solidarity despite the difficulties of survival as IDPs (see photos 10-7 to 10-11 , 10-160 to 10-161 , 9-30 , and 9-33 ), and forms a centre of community activity which helps buoy the spirits of everyone (see photos 10-157 to 10-158 ).

Villagers who manage to establish themselves in hiding sites scattered throughout their home area sometimes cooperate to establish a school in some hidden central location for all of their children, and build a semi-permanent structure to house it (see photos 10-160 to 10-161 , 9-35 , and 9-38 ).  These schools are plagued by a lack of education materials (see photos 9-27 to 9-28 , 10-157 to 10-158 , and 9-33 ).  Photo 9-30 shows one such primary school set up by villagers in Dooplaya District after they fled an SPDC forced relocation site where they were not allowed to have a school.  Though the poverty of the displaced children is clear in the photo, their parents are determined to keep them in school.  In some areas where teachers are available, villagers have managed to set up middle or high schools with KNU support (see photos 9-27 to 9-28 ).  These schools teach a curriculum established by the KNU education department, with Sgaw Karen as the main medium of instruction.

All of these schools, however, are subject to the same situation as the displaced communities themselves; children sometimes cannot participate when they need to support their families (see photo 9-34 ), and the schools are frequently closed or abandoned when SPDC columns enter the area (see photos 9-27 to 9-28 , 9-29 , 10-160 to 10-161 , 9-32 , 9-33 , and 9-36 ).  The teacher at the hidden school for displaced villagers shown in photo 9-32 , for example, said that her school can only remain open for an average of one week each month due to the degree of SPDC military activity in the area.

9.6.2  Education in SPDC-controlled villages

Many Karen villages have state-controlled schools.  The construction of these is ordered by local SPDC officials without consulting the villagers.  If money is provided by the state it is all purloined by the officials, and the villagers are ordered to supply all needed materials and build the school without pay (see photos 9-42 to 9-43 ); sometimes they are even forced to pay additional 'construction fees' to add to the profit of the officials.  These orders can be highly erratic, particularly when officials want the school to be an ostentatious showpiece for their own prestige.  For example, photos 9-48 to 9-49 show a school which villagers were ordered to build, only to be told when they were half-finished that they must build a more elaborate school on a different site.  After the villagers have done all the work and paid all the costs, the schools are proclaimed as 'government' schools set up out of SPDC generosity (see photos 9-39 , 9-41 , and 9-50 ), and plaques are mounted giving credit to Army and SPDC officials (see photos 9-42 to 9-43 ).

Some teachers are sent from towns by the SPDC education department, while others are hired from the local population.  The villagers must pay most of the salaries and support the teachers with rice, and students must pay school tuition fees and buy all education materials themselves.  Sometimes the teachers sent from town disappear on some pretext and never return.  In the past, some of these have been discovered to have paid bribes to town officials to continue paying their salary as if they were still at the village school.  The school curriculum is set by the SPDC, including an SPDC version of history which glorifies Burmese kingdoms and the Army and portrays non-Burman ethnic groups as backward and undeserving of political representation.  The medium of instruction is Burmese.  Karen languages are not taught, and some schools even forbid students from speaking them (see photos 9-51 and 9-52 ).  If children want to become literate in their own language, they must do so at home.  The purpose of the schools is stated as "Morality, Discipline, Education" – in that order (see photos 9-42 to 9-43 ).

Many children cannot attend these schools because their families cannot pay the tuition fees, or because they are needed to perform their family's quota of SPDC forced labour so their parents can still produce food for the family (see photos 9-40 , 9-44 , and 9-47 ).  Teachers, even those sent from town, sometimes flee the village when SPDC authorities are demanding forced labour, causing the school to close down (see photo 10-159 ).  Photos 9-45 to 9-46 show the 2003 school closing ceremonies in one village tract of Papun District, held a month early because SPDC columns in the area were capturing people for forced labour.  This is not unusual.  Even as the ceremony occurred, the children of one village couldn't attend because they were being detained in their village by SPDC troops.

"In Commemoration"

Bilin Township, Meh Na Tha village tract, K--- village self-help primary education school.  This new school was built under the supervision of Light Infantry Division #66 headquarters and Light Infantry Battalion #5.  With the cooperation of K--- village this school was finished.

 1365 Thadin Kyut full moon 
2003 October 10 th

Morality, Discipline, Education 

9.7  Child Soldiers

The SPDC, DKBA, and KNLA all recruit boy children to their ranks.  In 2002, the Human Rights Watch report 'My Gun Was as Tall as Me': Child Soldiers in Burma estimated there to be 70,000 child soldiers in the SPDC Army, making up twenty percent of all SPDC soldiers, while the DKBA and the KNLA had roughly 500 child soldiers each.  None of these armies appear to have taken action to stop child recruitment since then.  By any estimate, it is clear that the SPDC is by far the worst offender in recruiting child soldiers, and testimonies show that it is also the worst in its treatment of child soldiers.

Most SPDC soldiers are forcibly conscripted.  In central Burma, recruiters are paid incentives for each recruit obtained, and they target children as the easiest recruits.  Tricks are used such as threatening boys that they will be sent to prison for failure to possess a National Identity Card if they don't join the Army (see photo 12-9 ).  They are then conscripted as 'volunteers', and their age is inscribed as 18 because official Army rules set this as the minimum (see photos 12-7 to 12-8 ).  If too young to stand training, they are held for long periods in Su Saun Yay ('gathering place') camps until considered ready (see photo 12-13 ).  According to former child soldiers, they are beaten and otherwise abused during their four months of training, and any who try to escape are publicly tortured.  Once assigned to active units, child soldiers often have trouble keeping up with older soldiers and are regularly beaten as a result.  Officers steal part or all of their salaries (see photo 12-11 ).  Some are used for road labour and other non-military work (see photos 12-7 to 12-8 and 12-9 ), while others become errand-boys for officers.  They are beaten when they make a mistake (see photo 12-12 ) or when their officers get drunk (see photos 12-4 to 12-6 ).  They are also used to round up villagers for forced labour, destroy villages, and take part in combat.  Most of them are never allowed any contact with their families, who in most cases never find out what has happened to their son from the moment he disappears from his home (see photos 12-11 and 12-7 to 12-8 ).

Some manage to escape, but even then there are few options open to them.  If they try to return home they are usually caught, sent to prison for desertion, then a year later forced back into the Army (see photo 12-3 ).  Many end up in the hands of Karen resistance forces, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Unicef, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have consistently refused to help in any way.  Only since the beginning of 2005 has UNHCR begun to show some interest in assisting escaped child soldiers who reach Thailand, but they are hampered by an agreement between Thai and SPDC authorities specifying that Thai forces will hand any deserters back across the border to the SPDC.  With no other options open to them, many escaped child soldiers end up crossing the border and working illegally in Thailand, or joining resistance armies even if they are still children (see photos 12-11 and 12-12 ).

Many children who join the KNLA and DKBA do so as volunteers, but both groups also do some forced recruitment.  Villages are ordered to send a certain number of recruits, and some of those sent are usually children.  Rather than sending them home, the armed groups accept them.  Photo 12-10 shows one boy who was forcibly recruited to the KNLA in this way, and photo 12-15 shows two boys who were forcibly recruited to the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), a KNLA-affiliated militia.

For further background on these issues, see also Abuse Under Orders: The SPDC and DKBA Armies through the Eyes of their Soldiers (KHRG #2001-01, March 2001).