Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Child soldier seeks help to reunite family

Hein Min Aung says he was forced into the Burmese Army at 14 and made to clear landmines. Photo / Greg Bowker
Hein Min Aung says he was forced into the Burmese Army at 14 and made to clear landmines. Photo / Greg Bowker

A former Burmese child soldier who was used as a "human minesweeper" and is now living in New Zealand wants help from political leaders to reunite him with his parents.

Hein Min Aung, now 26, was invited to the United States this month to talk about his time with the Burmese Army with politicians in Washington - including Texas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, sponsor of a congressional resolution condemning the use of child soldiers.

Mr Aung is enlisting the help of activist group Burma Campaign New Zealand to arrange a meeting with political leaders, where he wants to appeal for help to be with his family again.

"Although I finally feel I am at peace, I feel very guilty as the eldest son ... that I have not been able to help look after my parents and younger brother," he said.

"I hope that I will be able to see them again one day, and it would be wonderful if we can be together here in New Zealand."

Mr Aung was 14 when he was captured while walking to his home in Pyay, a town on the Irrawaddy River north of Rangoon, and thrown into a truck that took him to a military camp where there were several hundred other child soldiers.

He has not seen his parents or his brother since.

"It was past midnight, and they charged me with breaking curfew," Mr Aung said through a translator.

"They then took my fingerprints and made me sign a document declaring I was 18, and then forced me into training."

Training included learning the names of anti-government rebel forces, live firing and planting and destroying landmines. Mistakes brought beatings with a cane.

For two years he served mainly as a minesweeper, porter and a frontline soldier.

"Our battalion would enter a village, burn the houses and shoot everyone who tried to flee," he said.

"Although some kind generals would fire warning shots, most derived great pleasure at burning villages, stealing, torturing villagers and raping the women before killing them."

His other duties included carrying the wounded during battles and providing security for other child soldiers, some as young as 12.

"I still get nightmares about seeing my friend, who was 15 then, getting flung in the air when a landmine he was defusing exploded.

"Seeing the medics slicing away his flesh during emergency surgery, I knew then if I didn't escape, I wouldn't even survive to see my 15th birthday."

He saw the opportunity while on guard duty near the Thai border one morning, when he noticed his superiors had fallen asleep at their post.

"I just ran for about three hours without stopping, and stripped off my army uniform as I reached the Thai border," said Mr Aung.

"In Thailand, I got a ride in a farmer's truck and an offer from the farmer to work for him."

In 2001, three months after his escape, he met two other former child soldiers who took him to a United Nations office to apply for refugee status.

The Red Cross helped him to reconnect with his family for the first time in six years, but it has been only exchanges of letters and photographs because international phone calls to his home are blocked.

After being granted refugee status in 2005, Mr Aung moved to New Zealand, where he now works as a capsicum picker in West Auckland.

Burma Campaign spokesman Soe Thein says there are about 11 Burmese former child soldiers in Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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