Parents in Myanmar have found another way to protect their children from an ongoing conflict that has gripped the nation for over 60 years: by staging fake funerals.
The conflict, which started at the end of British colonial rule, is the world’s longest-lasting civil war. It consists of a series of clashes primarily between the military and insurgent groups that demand autonomy. The effects of the ongoing crisis have led to numerous human rights violations and has touched civilians in countless ways, forcing many of them to leave their homes.
By hosting these funerals, parents are effectively removing their children from the reach of rebel groups that are known to forcibly recruit child soldiers, according to a report by Al-Jazeera.
Ake Xi, whose name has been changed for his own safety, was one of these children. Now 18, he watched his family conduct his own funeral over a Skype call last year as he sat miles away.
“I felt so strange. I wanted to shout, ‘I’m not dead!’” he told Al-Jazeera.
Ake Xi’s family is situated in Shan State, in the east-central region of Myanmar which borders China. Certain armed groups in the region, such as the Shan State Army–South (SSA-S) have up to 15,000 soldiers.
In June 2017, his family was given a choice by SSA-S soldiers: to either hand Ake Xi over to the group or pay $7,000 to find a replacement for the role. If they declined either option, the family would be held hostage.
Ake Xi was subsequently tied to a tree as soldiers interrogated him at their base. After three days, soldiers monitored him as he handed over the entirety of their family’s savings.
“It felt like a bad dream,” Ake Xi said.
By hosting the funeral, Ake Xi was no longer on the radar of the SSA-S, who are known to scour villages for new recruits.
The SSA-S is just one of the many groups involved in a conflict that has ravaged the country.
Between 2015 and 2016, there were 45 abductions of children by the SSA-S and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, another group operating primarily in the Namhsan region. Militants have been known abduct children from vehicles or their own homes.
In 2002, Myanmar—then known as Burma—reportedly had the world’s highest number of child soldiers. The vast majority of them were a part of the country’s widespread recruitment schemes.
The forced recruitment of child soldiers was first brought to light in 2003 when the United Nations reported that children were being conscripted into Myanmar’s military. The SSA-S is one of the groups cited by UNICEF as “persistent perpetrators” of the act. The organization further reports that 924 minors have been discharged by the military over the past seven years.
Even with evidence of these recruitments and other forms of forced labor, the country has carried out very little legal action. The US State Department, in a recent report on human rights practices in Myanmar, outlined that these acts “rarely result in investigations of prosecutions."
Parents are now doing anything they can to protect their children. While some have resorted to fake funerals, others are sending their children to China, away from the gaze of these insurgent groups.
Yar San Taw, a mother who sent one of her sons away, is one such parent.
“Nobody wants their children to join the rebels,” she told Al Jazeera. “He cried when we sent him to China to work … but he didn’t have a choice, I won’t let him stay here.”
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.