CHAUNG THA, Burma - He disappeared when he was 12 years old, a skinny boy named Min Thu from the wrong side of town who thought he'd stumbled onto the golden ticket.
It began one afternoon when a swaggering, pot-bellied businessman bumped into Thu at the market, offering him an escape from a neighborhood where the houses are made of lumberyard scraps and the air smells of fish and decay and woodsmoke.
It ended with four years in the army.
The businessman, a small-town mogul of plastic kitchenware and cheap polyester clothing, has three tiny shops. To Thu, whose father makes a living pedaling a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of this small beachside town, he seemed impossibly successful.
"The guy comes by and says, 'You'll have a great life if you come with me,'" says Thu, now a stone-faced 17-year-old, still skinny, and occasionally revealing a stutter he developed in the years he was gone. The older man made promises: that Thu could eat his fill at every meal, that he'd get a salary he could use to help his parents. Thu could barely believe his luck, even if he understood little of what was happening.
"I was in fifth grade. I didn't even know what the guy was saying," says Thu.
This is what he was saying: Thu was joining thousands of boys who have been swallowed up over the years by the Burmese army, one of the most feared institutions in this country, also known as Burma. The businessman was also a broker for army recruiters, most likely paid the standard fee about $30 and a bag of rice for every person he persuaded to sign up. It didn't matter if his recruits hadn't reached puberty.
Over the next four years Thu would spend countless days carrying supplies and working on army-owned farms. He saw people die, in combat and in training. He'd see much of his $30-a-month salary taken by his superiors.
Once, when he was 14, he fought in a chaotic gun battle with ethnic Karen rebels, alternately crawling and shooting as his heart pounded. He speaks with no pride about the experience.
"I just did what I was told to do," he says. "It was all about fear."
As Burma, also known as Myanmar, shifts away from decades of military rule, emerging as a quasi-democracy where generals still wield immense political power, the government craves international respectability. Political prisoners have been freed, censorship has been abolished and, the government promises, the days of child soldiers are over.
The United Nations and local rights activists say recruiting of underage soldiers has gone down, but many boys remain in the army, despite a government agreement to clear the military of anyone under age 18 by Dec. 1. Some have been taken in just the past few months.
"What we see and what the government is saying are completely different," says Mya Sein, 65, a small-town rights activist who has worked with the families of child soldiers. "I don't believe their promises."Still, in the often paradoxical ways of the new Burma, a system has been created to get children out of the army. If a boy soldier -- or more likely his family -- is able to contact an activist or international aid group, a bureaucratic process can be started leading to the boy's discharge.
Officials in numerous government ministries, and the military, did not respond to requests for comment. But senior military officers regularly appear, along with relief group officials, at discharge ceremonies for underage soldiers.
"Some time ago the government came out of denial, which was excellent, and now there is firm policy in place," says Steve Marshall, Burma head of the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, which has helped arrange many child soldier releases. "The critical issue now is getting that policy applied."
Analysts say it's unclear how many children are in Burma's military. About 500 boys have been discharged in the past few years, some as young as 11, though most between 14 and 16 years old, Marshall says. He adds, though, that those children "are a small proportion" of Burma's total number of child soldiers.
Go into Burma's villages, where poverty is the norm and high school degrees are rarities, and the stories of boy soldiers come tumbling out. There's the 15-year-old troublemaker with a second-grade education given the choice of arrest or the army; the 16-year-old who went to the market, met a recruiter, and never came home.
There's San Htet Kyaw, 16, who left home in July, hoping to find work as a day laborer in Yangon. Instead, an army recruiter dazzled him with tales of the money he'd bring back to his mother.
The village he left behind, Kanyin Kauk, is a speck in the Irrawaddy River delta. Twenty minutes by boat from the nearest paved road, it has no electricity, no stores and no jobs but farming. It's a place where five families will pool their money to buy a cheap mobile phone.
"There was nothing for him here," says his mother, San Myint.
Sometimes, activists say, young recruits are simply forced into the army. More often, as with Thu, they are boys who fall victim to fast-talking pitches, cannot reverse course once they realize what has happened, and are kept in the military by a toxic combination of fear and disorientation.
Burma has some of the deepest poverty and highest unemployment in Asia. Government jobs, particularly in villages and small towns, are seen as holy grails offering small-but-reliable paychecks.
But despite that, the Tatmadaw, as the army is called, has long had trouble attracting recruits.
The country of 55 million has one of the largest armies in the region, analysts say, with at least 400,000 soldiers. It has grown immensely since a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising against military rule.
While top generals have turned their power into immense wealth, at the bottom of the army is a vast underclass of soldiers who don't even have ranks. They are the barely educated muscle that keeps the Tatmadaw running. They work in the army's farms, its timber reserves and its factories. They are sent into battle, and work as household staff for officers. Their salaries are not bad by the standards of rural Burma - now about $60 a month - but officers regularly skim off much of that.
That is the army Thu saw.
Within hours of meeting the businessman, and with his parents completely unaware, Thu found himself at an army camp, terrified and confused.
"As soon as we got to the base I knew we were in the wrong place," he says. "I started crying."
Tears did not help. "They punched us and slapped us, shouting, 'This is not a place for crying.'"
So Thu learned to get by. He stifled his tears, he marched in formation, he did what he was told.
For years, occasional phone calls were his parents' only connection. Then, suddenly, he called from a Yangon military hospital, saying he needed help. They found a boy so swollen from kidney disease that he was barely recognizable.
His father, Saw Win, is a tough-looking man with tattoos running down his arms. Now 60, he walks slightly hunched over, after decades pedaling customers on a battered blue rickshaw with its ripped seat. Nearly all his life has been spent in a military dictatorship, and until then he would not have dared breaking army rules. But that day, he did not hesitate.
"'We're running away,'" he told his son. So they slipped out of the room, out the back door of the hospital, and into a taxi.
Months more medical care followed, paid for with loans, and finally a return to Chaung Tha.
Thu hadn't seen his hometown for four years. He barely knew how to act around his family, and felt distant from boys who were once his friends. Fearing arrest, he spent days hiding in a nearby swamp. While the authorities now leave him alone -- an activist has started the paperwork to have him officially discharged -- he's always ready to run. He cannot imagine returning to school. Occasionally, he cuts timber for a couple dollars a day.
He has become a silent presence in the family's two-room wooden house, where the rickshaw is parked out front and thumbnail-sized crabs scuttle in the dirt yard.
"He doesn't care about things anymore," says his mother, Daw San, 58, painfully thin from the years her son was gone. "He's forgotten how to live with his family." As she spoke, Thu, in a black shirt advertising Lucky Eleven whiskey, sat silently.
They all still see the businessman who persuaded Thu to join the army. His little stores are thriving. Given his relative wealth and his army connections, the family knows he won't be punished. That's not how things work in places like this.
"We pass in the village, but I don't think he recognizes me," Thu says. "He doesn't react at all."