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Child Soldiers Still Systematically Used in Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  July 15, 2013

FILE PHOTO OF A CHILD SOLDIER IN MYANMAR.Last 7 July, the Burma Army demobilized 42 child soldiers, bringing the total to 108 discharged in the past 12 months. Although it is unclear exactly how many remain in its ranks, some estimates put the figure at 5,000. Thus, 108 represents just a fraction of the child soldiers employed by the Burma Army to engage in fighting and provide support to the wars being waged in ethnic areas.

It has been over one year since the Burma government signed an action plan with the UN to end recruitment and use of children in the armed forces by December 2013. The results, as Joe Becker of Human Rights Watch points out, are pitiful, “One year into the Burma-UN action plan, the Burmese military has failed to meet even the basic indicators of progress.” A host of restrictions on access for the UN Task Force employed to implement this action plan have rendered that agreement almost worthless, as the army continues to use and recruit children for war. On four occasions, the UN Task Force was denied access to military sites believed to house child soldiers. Furthermore, the Burma Army refuses to grant access to the Border Guard Forces (BGF), an arm of the military that operates in many ethnic areas. There is no program within the BGF to identify and release child soldiers, nor to end recruitment. The BGF is under the direct command of the Burma Army and any measures towards solving this issue must include these forces.

Some of Burma’s non-state armed groups also recruit and use child solders, albeit on a much smaller scale than the Burma Army. Burma’s authorities also refuse the UN access to the non-state armed groups with whom the government has signed ceasefires. One such group is the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU). Yet the KNLA did offer to work with the UN, to cooperate in working towards an end of the use and recruitment of child soldiers, but the Burma government would not allow the UN Task Force to access the group.

While some steps have been made towards identifying and releasing some child soldiers, as seen in the 42 cases last week, there have been few moves towards ending the recruitment of children. Child Soldiers International (CSI), an international research and advocacy group on this issue, has found that many children are recruited into the Burma Army through intimidation and false promises in order to meet recruitment targets due to financial incentives and pressure from superiors on recruiters. This is embedded in military culture and is one of the root causes of the existence of child soldiers in the Burma Army. Neither the government, nor the Burma Army, has done anything about it. It is all very well releasing 42 children one week, but if 42 more children will be recruited the following week, the problem remains.

As UNICEF’s representative in Rangoon, Bertrand Bainvel, stated, “Children should be in schools. They should be with their families. They shouldn’t be in the military.” The Burma government, as well as the Burma Army, must show a genuine will to release all child soldiers, and end their recruitment. Specifically, they must give the UN Task Force complete access to all military bases, including those of the BGF. It must also allow access to ethnic areas in order for the Task Force to meet and implement programs with non-state armed groups, as some like the KNLA have requested. There must also be a program aimed at tackling recruitment, including the motivation of recruiters to enlist children. These measures must begin now if the government wants to fulfil the plan of action signed last year. The international community must also pressure the Burma government to fulfil these promises by holding them accountable for the actions of the Burma Army and ensuring that they comply with it’s international obligations. Otherwise, any claims of genuine reform hold no legitimacy.

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