Kayah State is inhabited by Kayah, Kayan (Padaung) Mono, Kayaw, Yintalei, Gekho, Hheba, Shan, Intha, Bamar, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Pao. Kayah State had a population of 158.400 in 1983. In the estimated population was over 240,000. Kayah State is situated in eastern Myanmar and bounded on the north by Shan State and on the east by Thailand and on the south and west by Kayin state. According to Myanmar government figures 49 per cent of the population are are Buddhists. 43 per cent are Christians and 6 per cent are Animists. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

According to to the Myanmar government the Kayah are comprised nine different ethnic groups: 1) Kayah; 2) Zayein, 3) Ka-Yun (Padaung), 4) Gheko, 5) Kebar, 6) Bre (Ka-Yaw), 7) Manu Manaw, 8) Yin Talai, 9) Yin Baw. The famous long-necked women of the Paduang tribe are regarded as members of the Kayah ethnic group. The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribe of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

The traditional Kayah house is on stilts and cattle and pigs are bred under it. There is no window in their original houses because of the cold much of the time in Kayah State. To resist the severe weather roofing goes past the floor and nearly touches the ground. Kayah nationals produce cotton textiles with handloom handed down by their ancestors. Processing of materials is shown step-by-step. Cross-bows, arrows and fish traps are also shown. There are two fireplaces— one for the host and one for the guest to warm up when its cold and also to cook. The Kayah usually have a meal in a big circular bamboo-lacquerware tray with legs. They like to drink an intoxicating brew they make themselves can see receptacles for intoxicating drinks and mugs usually made of bamboo. Musical instruments such as the Phasi or bronze frog drum and buffalo horn used as clarion are also shown. Kayah women wear clothes usually woven on a back strap loom by themselves.

Karenni and the Karenni Insurgency

The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribes of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

Karenni Insurgency: Karenni Army (KA) and Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF)

Karenni insurgents also continue to fight. Soldiers as young as 14 train at Saw Maw camp in Myanmar near the Thai border. The Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF) controls much of northern Kayah state near the border with Shan state. No reliable figures are presently available on its troop strength. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 **]

The Karenni Army (KA) is the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and operates in eastern Kayah (Karenni) state. Though a ceasefire was agreed in 1995, it was broken by the Tatmadaw in 1996 and armed conflict has continued since then. Gen. Aung Mya, second in command of the KA, told Human Rights Watch that their forces are divided into a full-time professional army now numbering about 600, and a part-time militia also numbering about 600. He noted that ongoing Tatmadaw campaigns are displacing villagers in the Mawchi area of southern Kayah state, causing many displaced villagers to approach the KA wanting to join the militia, which is expanding. **

Karenni Army (KA) and Child Soldiers

Human Rights Watch reported: "The child soldiers you found before" refers to Human Rights Watch research in 2002, which documented the presence of child soldiers in the KA. Since that time, Khu Oo Reh and Gen. Aung Mya state that the KA has demobilized the child soldiers it had and has taken steps to ensure no further recruitment of children will occur. Following discussions with UNICEF and UNHCR, in April 2007 KNPP and KA leaders jointly signed a Deed of Commitment condemning the recruitment and use of child soldiers and stating: 1) We will not recruit or use in any circumstances 'voluntarily' or by force, persons under the age of 18 years under any circumstances; 2) We will undertake all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use of children as soldiers within the KNPP and KA; 3) We will permit the monitoring, by independent third parties agreed upon, of our commitment and adherence to the principles of the Optional Protocol [on Children and Armed Conflict] and compliance with the provisions thereof. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 **]

“When interviewed for this report in late July 2007, Gen. Aung Mya stated, "I just received a message from the front line near Shadaw that 15 children have been sent to the KA by their parents to join because their families couldn't care for them, but I ordered them not to accept them and to send them back to their parents. We can no longer take children."He reported that there are still two boys age 14 at one KA camp near the Thai border; these two boys attempted to volunteer and were rejected by the KA and sent to school, but have repeatedly run away and reappeared at the KA camp, where they sometimes stay for some time but are not allowed to engage in any military functions. Khu Oo Reh says children who try to join, if they have no other options, are sent to school with material support from the KNPP, but even then they are not pushed to join the KA when they finish school. "Some do, but few. Most end up working in the refugee camp-in the clinics, schools, CBOs [community-based organizations], or studying abroad." In 1986 the KA first set up school boarding houses in Karenni refugee camps in Thailand to provide an alternative for boys who wanted to join the army. After 2002, resources were short for running these boarding houses and some organizations expressed suspicions that they could be used as recruiting grounds for the KA, so in 2006 responsibility for the one remaining boarding house was taken over by the Karenni Student Development Program (KSDP), a new and independent foundation with outside funding. **

Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses including refugees, community and NGO workers, and health workers in areas where the KA operates, all of whom corroborated the group's claims that there are no longer child soldiers in the KA. Some noted that the Karenni Army does not hold the attraction for Karenni adolescents in the way that other groups do, such as the SSA-S or the KNLA, because in the current context most Karenni youth are more interested in finding paid work or resettlement to another country. One witness reported that the KA has been shrinking in size and to his knowledge had not held a basic training course for the past two to three years. Other witnesses reported that most professional KA soldiers are now age 30 and above. **

There remains some concern about recruitment to the Karenni militia, because as Gen. Aung Mya noted, villagers are coming forward to volunteer and are being screened only by local officials. The militia is controlled by the KNPP Interior Department "but operate under the same rules and under close watch of the army."General Aung Mya explained, however, We have informed them [the officers, about the minimum recruiting age], but there is no birth registration so we don't always know. Some lie about their age and we can't be sure. We ask them one by one whether they're really over 18. If we don't believe them we tell them to drop their underwear to check. We also listen to their voice to judge whether they're lying, and look at how strong they are. If there was any doubt, even if we believe them, we keep them at the army camp a month or two and ask their families to come and take them back. We do our best to tell if they're 18, but one problem in our communities is that most people don't know exactly how old they are. **

“The absence of adequate birth registration opens the possibility that even with a strict policy, children could be accepted to the militia or the KA. Moreover, the KNPP and KA have not defined specific disciplinary measures to be taken if their officers are found to have knowingly accepted child recruits. The KNPP and KA could partially remedy these weaknesses by defining such disciplinary measures, and imposing a requirement for volunteers to supply either proof of age or a support letter from parents or village leaders. Meanwhile, organizations such as UNICEF that are currently providing technical and material support to the SPDC to improve birth registration in Burma should extend similar assistance to groups such as the KNPP if their programs are to be balanced in line with the humanitarian principle of neutrality. **

“In the Deed of Commitment the KNPP and KA declared that they would "facilitate the provision of appropriate assistance by United Nations agencies, international development organizations and NGOs, for the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of demobilized or released children within the KNPP and KA." However, despite their demonstrated willingness to engage Human Rights Watch and other organizations on this issue, no aid has been forthcoming apart from a small amount from local organizations. Just prior to signing the Deed of Commitment in April 2007, the KNPP was notified by the UNICEF Bangkok office that UNICEF would henceforth cease all contact with the KNPP by order of the Thai Government.[237] Though negotiations have been ongoing to remove this restriction, at this writing contact had not resumed. On June 29, 2007, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy told journalists that she would be contacting the KA and the KNLA "within a month" once modalities for this contact were established; however, as of mid-September the KNPP and KA had received no contact from her office, although her office is responsible for preparing the list of parties recruiting and using child soldiers for the secretary-general's report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict. **

This situation had earlier led Gen. Aung Mya to comment, “People from outside view us the wrong way based only on secondhand information and we have suffered from their accusations for years, so now we welcome anyone to come and see the real situation. We've never had a conscription policy. Meanwhile the Tatmadaw does mass recruitment and nobody says anything, so we're not happy with these U.N. mechanisms. If you lie they believe you and if you tell the truth they don't. Based on the current absence of evidence of any ongoing recruitment or use of child soldiers by the Karenni Army, Human Rights Watch recommends that the KA be removed from the secretary-general's list.

Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front

Human Rights Watch reported: According to KNPP spokesman Khu Oo Reh, since 1973 the state constitution as drafted by the KNPP prohibits the recruitment of anyone under age 18: "Our policy is that we don't recruit anyone under 18, and we don't conscript anyone. There are only volunteers in the KA. Even the child soldiers you found before were volunteers who joined because their families had suffered and they wanted to retaliate against the Tatmadaw." According to a witness from the area who is affiliated to the KNPLF, the group has an official policy prohibiting soldiers under age 18, and does not accept children because "children are too small, they can't carry military equipment. Some really want to join so they're accepted but kept in rear areas and don't go to the frontline." In practice this policy is clearly not observed, because in the first half of 2007 six KNPLF soldiers deserted to the KA, some of them children. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 **]

Among these six, Human Rights Watch interviewed Koo Reh, a 15-year-old who was recruited in 2005 at age 13 when he was attending Third Standard at a school in Shadaw. His father was dead, and he was living with his 11-year-old brother and his mother, who supported the family by farming rice. A KNPLF recruiter approached him in a video cinema one evening and convinced him and five other children to join: Four were kept at the KNPLF camp at Shadaw, and two of us went to Loikaw together with the recruiter, by car to the KNPLF office there. The other boy was 11 or 12. They registered us. They asked, "Did your mother allow you to come here?" and I answered, "You called me to come here." They asked how old I was and I said 13-they didn't say anything, just said, "You have to stay here." There was also another recruit there who was about 13." **

For the next month the boys were ordered by KNPLF Major Kyaw Soe to work hoeing earth and clearing farmland at his mustard-seed farm near Loikaw, where they were supervised by a KNPLF soldier. Koo Reh was then deployed as a sentry at Shadaw camp and spent time at "frontline" camps at the Shan state border, where he had to patrol as a guide for Tatmadaw columns (he usually had to do this with two other KNPLF soldiers ages 16 to 18). He never received military training. **

Another recruit, Eh Reh, joined in 2003 when he was 22; he joined because the recruiters promised to support him to continue his education, a promise that was never kept. "They had other recruits in Shadaw because some young people had been persuaded to join. None of these recruits were forced. There were about 10 recruits. Some were very young and didn't know anything. Two were 12 years old, seven others were 15 to 17." He said that later some parents tried to buy back their sons who had been recruited, including his own parents, but that they were refused by the KNPLF. **

Three months after joining he received three weeks of military training. He said there were 30 trainees from the KNPLF and the Karenni National Democratic Army (KNDA, also known as "Naga" ("Dragon") group, another Karenni ceasefire group), and that seven of them were under 18, of whom two were ages 12 or 13-"They were so young they couldn't even march properly." Afterwards he was deployed and rotated between the KNPLF base camp at Shadaw and "frontline" camps on the border with Shan state, where they stayed together with Tatmadaw troops. He commanded a KNPLF section with seven soldiers, including two 15-year-olds, and one age 17. He says other KNPLF sections also had child soldiers, but claims that the children were left at camps if any combat was likely to occur.[271] Both Koo Reh and Eh Reh reported that about five of the 25 soldiers based at the KNPLF's Shadaw camp are under 18, some of them very young. **

When confronted with some of the above information, a KNPLF member interviewed by Human Rights Watch insisted that the group does not recruit children but suggested that Maj. Kyaw Soe is known to act as a rogue commander; the interviewee noted that the major had previously been questioned by the leadership because some of his soldiers had deserted. Both of the former soldiers interviewed were indirectly under Kyaw Soe's command and their testimonies suggest that he uses recruitment of young boys to obtain free laborers for his personal farms. However, these two soldiers were deployed to several different KNPLF bases and one underwent a training course, and saw child soldiers making up a significant proportion of the troops in each of these contexts, making it highly unlikely that the KNPLF leadership could be unaware of the significant presence of child soldiers within their forces. **

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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