I remember fairly little about my 14th year. I remember that I was a freshman in high school, that I found myself in the principle's office with surprising regularity, that my teachers grew increasingly frustrated with my raucous behavior both in an outside the classroom. I remember it was a happy year, but nothing in particular stands out to me when I think back.
In the past week, I've met someone who remembers his 14th year entirely too clearly. His name is Hein Min Aung, and he's a former Burmese child soldier, a young man brave enough to fly halfway around the world at the invitation of Human Rights Action Center to speak in Congress about his experience in the government army of the country of Burma. Mr. Aung was 14 when he was forcibly conscripted into the army, 14 when he was forced to shoot a gun at civilians and commit atrocities, and just 16 when he finally escaped the military.
The project to bring Mr. Aung to the United States to speak in Congress about his experiences in the Burmese army began two years ago, when my intern Grace Powell and I sat down and began to discuss human rights abuses in Burma. Given a choice of what specifically to focus on while interning at HRAC, Grace chose to focus on Burmese child soldiers. She was inspired by a Human Rights Watch report I'd given her that claimed Burma had more child soldiers than any country in the world.
I suggested that she work to raise awareness about the issue in Congress. Two years later, HRAC is hosting Mr. Aung in Washington, and preparing him for an informational briefing in the House of Representatives, as well as one for staffers on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Mr. Aung has already done an interview with Voice of America, BBC Burma and Radio Free Asia, and plans to do one with the Democratic Voice of Burma. He's spent the past week in Washington seeing the sights and meeting with members of the small but highly active Burmese community in Washington.
Mr. Aung has prepared testimony for both briefings, in which he will describe being kidnapped into the army at the age of 14. He'll talk about his time in training camps and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his superiors, as well as how terrified he was his first time in battle. He plans to describe the atrocities committed against Burmese civilians by the army, and his eventual escape to Thailand. From there, he'll describe what it's like to be in a refugee camp, and how difficult it was for him to eventually move to New Zealand.
He hopes that his testimony will raise awareness about the plight of the nearly 70,000 other child soldiers still fighting in Burma today. When I asked him how he felt about traveling halfway around the world to visit Washington, DC, he told me it had been fairly terrifying. However, he explained, "I'm doing this for my people. I have to do this for them."