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Jackboots Too Large For Them

Jackboots Too Large For Them

Author: Teresa Rehman
Publication: Tehelka
Date: August 2, 2008
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main40.asp?filename=Ne020808jackboots_toolarge.asp

Introduction: Militant groups in Manipur are forcibly recruiting children to fill their ranks

Subadani, 40, a distraught mother lies in her bed, insensate. At times she whispers plaintively "I want my son back". While conducting a frenetic search for her youngest son, AK Ajay, missing since July 6, she fainted and had to be hospitalised. Later, the militant group, People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (General Secretary) (PREPAK (GS)) delivered a shocker. Ajay, the 13-year-old student in Class 8, was one of many "recruits who had joined out of their own volition", they claimed.

AK Milan, Ajay's older brother, an undergraduate, takes over from where the mother cannot. "Our house is near National Highway 39, also known as the Indo-Myanmar Road. My brother was fishing at a pond outside. He was called by two other young men who had come riding a bicycle. He spoke to them for a bit and went with them. He never came back." Boys in the locality said they had never seen those men before. Later, they found out that another 13-year-old boy, AK Bipanchandra, from the adjoining village of Thoubal Kiyam Siphi Amurijam, had also gone missing under mysterious circumstances.

On July 9, 2008, PREPAK called Bipanchandra's father and told him that the two boys were with them. Bipanchandra's father, a constable in the Manipur police asked PREPAK to release the children. He was warned not to mobilise people and told that the boys would be freed. Later, the police too stated that the boys were in the militant group's custody.

Looking at his unconscious mother, Milan says, "She was demoralised and exhausted after she returned from meeting some of my brother's abductors". Ajay and Bipanchandra's families were summoned by the militant group to Namphalong in Myanmar on July 15.

"They told us that both the boys were in their safe custody and threatened with dire consequences if the protest rallies organised by the parents against recruitment of children by militant groups didn't stop. One of the mediators identified himself as Sunil, the Recruiting Officer (RO) of PREPAK (GS)," adds Milan. The parents were not allowed to meet their children and were instead told that their sons would be trained and educated by the outfit.

Khoijam Medha, 42, mother of Bipanchandra says, "We'll respect these militants only if they release our children. My son was a bright student and wanted to join the Navy." In fact, Medha had appealed to the outfit to sign an agreement that they would release the boys when she went to meet them at Myanmar. "They simply laughed it off," she laments.

Milan adds that his family, residents of Thoubal Kiyam Siphai Khongahanbi village in Thoubal district, some 16 km from Manipur's capital, Imphal, can barely make both ends meet. Ajay's father AK Ibothe, 45, is an auto driver and a local agent for kerosene distribution. Milan says, "Our life has literally come to a standstill and we have spent over Rs 15,000 on my mother's treatment and on looking for my brother. My brother is 13 - too young and immature to even understand what a militant group means. In fact, this is the first time that we had such a close brush with a militant group. How can they say he went on his own volition?"

Parents are panic-stricken over the abductions and are unhappy over the role of security forces. Over 20 children have gone missing in the past few months and many more cases might be unreported. Local residents claim that militants are trying to lure gullible youngsters with promises of mobile phones and luxury goods. Civil society organisations and meira paibis (women activists) have protested the recruitment of child soldiers in Manipur, which has more than 15 militant groups.

The Women's Committee of the United NGOs Mission, Manipur (UNM) appealed to armed groups to formulate a common 'code of conduct', refrain from recruiting children and respect the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol. "We are totally against child soldiers. We appeal to all the militant groups to keep children away from arms. We also clearly state that there are international conventions which should be respected by militant outfits as well as the state," says N. Nonibala, a member of UNM.

According to Human Rights Watch, the average child soldier is aged 13-17, while some are as young as eight or nine. Most are unwilling militants, abducted from their villages to serve as guerrilla fighters, or in supporting roles in armed conflicts in more than 50 countries. They bear arms in battle, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions and act as spies, messengers or lookouts.

Wasbir Hussain, director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati says, "[The abduction] is unprecedented in Manipur and has incurred the wrath of the common people. This also shows that militancy is slowly degenerating into mindless terrorism. The children and their parents will undergo psychological trauma. In addition, for the first time, civil society groups which normally protest excesses by security forces are unanimous in condemning an act by a militant outfit. The support base, if any, of these militant groups will erode if they don't mend their ways."

In fact, alarmed by mass protests and growing agitation among the masses, PREPAK (GS) invited some journalists to their secret hideout on July 19 and clarified
that though some of the children were in their custody, they were not meant to be recruited as 'child soldiers'. Sukham Nanda of the Imphal Free Press, one of those who trekked to the militants' headquarters in Myanmar, states that 20 children were paraded before them and that Ajay and Bipanchandra were among them. Nanda says, "The children told us they had come willingly and that nobody had abducted or lured them. They claimed that they wanted to be revolutionary soldiers and serve their motherland and appealed to their parents not to raise a hue and cry over their recruitment. They also claimed that they were getting special care and attention at the camp."

NANDA REVEALS that the militants clarified that they are aware of the international humanitarian conventions on the protection of rights of women and children and assured the reporters that these children would be allowed to return once they had been given military training and education. "They said that these children from economically weaker sections of society will be provided proper education and honed into 'perfect men' and that they have informed their families of their whereabouts," adds Nanda.

However, Anjuman Ara Begum, a researcher on International Humanitarian Law at Guwahati University says that legally, children below the age of 18 cannot give valid consent as they don't understand the implications or consequences of such consent. "Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, 1949 places an obligation on both State and non-State actors in an internal armed conflict situation not to target women, children and non-combatants. The recruitment of children violates this."

Meanwhile, there are parents across Manipur who remain traumatised. N. Mohila, a vegetable vendor and mother of 14-year-old Ningombam Sharda, lies in shock at RIMS hospital in Imphal. Sharda and her classmate Longjam Jenevi, who had vanished mysteriously, recently appeared on a local cable television channel claiming that they were safe in PREPAK's hideout. Jenevi's mother Bidyapati Leima claims that her minor daughter was lured by the militant group and wants her back. What will be the fate of the child soldiers of Manipur?

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