BANGKOK—The number of child soldiers in Burma is impossible to verify and recruitment appears to be ongoing in the Burmese armed forces and ethnic militias, despite some positive steps to curb the practice.
Burma’s ruling military has long stood accused of a practice perhaps better known in west Africa’s civil wars, popularized by scenes of drugged 12-year-olds firing AK-47s at Leonardo DiCaprio’s mercenary character in the movie “Blood Diamond,” which was set in Sierra Leone.
In 2002, Human Rights Watch estimated that there were about 70,000 child soldiers in Burma, a figure that has never been effectively confirmed or rebutted. The NGO Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says Burma as the only Asian country where government armed forces forcibly recruit children.
According to the US State Department’s newly-released “Trafficking in Persons” report: “The regime’s widespread use of and lack of accountability in forced labor and recruitment of child soldiers is particularly worrying and represents the top causal factor for Burma’s significant trafficking problem.”
Worldwide, there are thought to be between 250,000 to 300,000 combatants under the age of 18 in state armies or militia groups.
Speaking in Bangkok, International Labor Organisation (ILO) liaison officer in Burma Steve Marshall told The Irrawaddy that “Whilst a lot more still needs to be done, the [Burmese] army has taken positive steps toward enforcing the minimum age for recruitment and discharging children found to have been illegally recruited.”
The ILO is responsible for monitoring and reporting on the recruitment and use of children in the UN-led MRM Task Force under UN Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005), working through its complaint mechanism on forced labor established in February 2007.
The ILO has a complaint mechanism enabling Burmese to report that a child is being used by the army or a militia group—though this is limited to the parents concerned. The number of complaints is increasing over time as awareness of the procedure spreads—though whether this is having a decisive impact on the number of child soldiers across the country is unclear given the paucity of real information to hand.
“Perpetrators have been disciplined for breaches of the law,” said Marshall. “And children, being the subject of complaint to the ILO, are in most cases discharged back to the care of their families.”
While top brass directives state that recruiters should neither accept nor coerce underage people joining the army, and the military government seems generally cooperative when evidence-based cases of child soldiering are put before them, in practice the regime’s drive to create the largest army in Southeast Asia puts pressure on local officers to fill the ranks and meet recruitment quotas.
Precise military spending in Burma is unknown, but on top of senior roles in the country’s dominant institution, senior military figures enjoy a lifestyle and access to lucrative commercial contacts unknown to ordinary Burmese or lower level officers.
Desertion and low army morale is thought to be common—according to defectors interviewed by Benedict Rogers in research for his new biography of Burma’s military leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe. These factors, if replicated at local levels around the country, would make recruitment for the Burmese army more difficult and perhaps increase the temptation to use child soldiers.
It is thought that around one-third of child soldiers in the Burmese army volunteer to join or are asked to do so by family members due to extreme poverty and an inability to make a living or support their parents. Another third are tricked into joining by brokers who promise jobs in the private sector, while another third are coerced into joining.
Voluntary child soldier recruitment takes place among the country’s ethnic militias. A May 2009 report by the US-based Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, titled “No More Denial: Children Affected by Armed Conflict in Myanmar,” said, “Most non-state Armed Groups (NSAGs) have reportedly recruited and used children in their armed groups, albeit on a much lower scale than the Myanmar Armed Forces.”
According to Marshall: “There is evidence that a number of the NSAGs (encompassing both those with and without cease-fire agreements) also have children in their ranks.”
Listed alongside the Burmese army as violators in the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s latest annual report on children in conflict, are a number of the Burmese ethnic militias. The proportion of volunteer under-18s in ethnic militias is thought to be higher than that in the Burmese army, with some militias having, at various stages in recent years, a one-child per family recruitment policy to boost numbers. However, some of the armed groups say that they are working to stop child soldier recruitment.
Assessing the number of child soldiers in ethnic militias in Burma, and whether steps are being take to end the practice, is difficult; the ILO cannot access ethnic areas inside Burma to establish the full facts on the ground.
There is increasing pressure on the ruling junta to do something about the country’s child soldier problem, and during the June 16 UN debate on the Secretary-General’s report, junta envoy Than Swe said, “The Myanmar government had taken serious measures to address under-age recruitment, but in some cases, in the absence of official birth certificates or national IDs, some underage children slipped into the military. There was, therefore, stringent scrutiny at various stages, as a result of which, hundreds of children had been discharged and punitive actions taken against military personnel who failed to abide by rules and regulations.”
He was backed indirectly by Chinese representative Li Baodong who said, “Local conditions must be considered, as conflict situations—both on and outside the Council’s agenda—were different.”
The report outlined that “New information received by ILO indicates that recruitment and use of children by the Tatmadaw-Kyi [Burmese army] continued during the reporting period. Reports have recently been received from Shan State (north) and Irrawaddy Division, indicating that the Tatmadaw-Kyi is ordering Village Peace and Development Council chairmen to organize mandatory military trainings for village militias known as ‘Pyithusit.’ A trend may be emerging in both those regions, where adult males, who are the primary breadwinners of the family, are unable to attend the military training sessions and are sending their children instead.”
The junta clearly prefers that it be removed from the UN Security Council “register” of child soldier offenders. During the June 16 debate, Than Swe questioned the logic used to keep the junta on the list, saying that “Myanmar was not in a situation of armed conflict and, therefore, should not be discussed under the theme of children and armed conflict.”
He said he regretted that the country’s well-trained national army was still listed in Annex I of the report and urged that the progress achieved by the government be duly recognized and the army de-listed from future reports.
Than Swe received implicit support from Thailand’s representative Jakkrit Srivali, who said the report’s scope should be confined to situations of armed conflict and that “there should be more transparency on the listing and de-listing of parties in the annexes.” He added that “reference to countries in which there was no armed conflict and ‘sweeping generalizations’ were misleading and counterproductive.”
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is due to visit Burma in August, after a trip scheduled for 2009 was postponed due to the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi for alleged breach of house arrest terms.
With UN human rights envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana saying in March that a Commission of Inquiry should be set up to investigate whether war crimes and crimes against humanity have been carried out in Burma, the issue takes added significance. Child soldier recruiters may face prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose statute defines the use of children under 15 in hostilities as a war crime. It is thought that the bulk of child soldiers in Burma are 15-16 years of age, thought there are documented cases as young as 11.
In 2006, the ICC successfully prosecuted a Congolese warlord for the recruitment of child soldiers. Heads-of State are not immune, taking us back to West Africa . The indictment issued by the Special Court for Sierra Leone against former Liberian President Charles Taylor includes charges of recruiting or using children under the age of 15 to fight in Sierra Leone, where a proxy militia linked to Taylor sought to overthrow the government.
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