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BANGKOK, Jul 2 2007 (IPS) - Talks between a senior United Nations envoy and Burma’s acting prime minister Thein Sein in Rangoon, last week, may actually see an end to the recruitment of children into the armed forces, say observers.
Following the five-day visit to Burma of U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy, Burma’s military leaders agreed to set up a special government post to work with the U.N. on the issue of using child soldiers to quell ethnic rebellions.
"The good news is they agreed to set up a focal point at the ministry of social welfare to engage directly with UNICEF," Coomaraswamy told presspersons. Officials involved in the talks with the government said Burmese leaders were accommodating and were committed to reducing the recruitment of children into the army.
"We feel there is a chance the government may be fairly serious about cooperating – or at least being seen to be – on this issue," a U.N. official told IPS on condition of anonymity. "If nothing else, because it's on the Security Council agenda and because it gives them a chance to discredit the figure of 70,000 child soldiers that is being bandied about.’’
Opposition activists agree that the government’s apparent willingness to cooperate is because they know this issue comes with a U.N. Security Council tag, and the last thing the regime wants is for the U.N. to have another excuse to put Burma back on the Security Council agenda.
The head of the U.N. team in Burma Charles Petrie told IPS that since 2003 the U.N. has been able "to start addressing some very difficult issues" with the military government, including the problem of child soldiers.
"In the past when army recruiters were short of new recruits they would press gang young kids from the few street children’s centres that operate in Rangoon," a former aid worker in Burma Karl Dorning told IPS: "Since the committee was set up and we pointed out that it’s illegal to recruit children under the age of 18, they have left us alone."
Burma has been heavily criticised by human rights groups over the past two decades for recruiting large numbers of child soldiers, some as young as 11.
The United States-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates that more than 40 percent of the 350,000-strong army may be child soldiers. These youngsters are often kidnapped on their way home from school. They are then brutalised and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s border areas. HRW has also accused some ethnic rebel guerrilla groups of using child soldiers.
During her visit, Coomaraswamy met senior government officials, military commanders, representatives of civil society and affected children from conflict areas, according to U.N. officials.
The envoy has been at pains to dismiss suggestions that her trip was a fact-finding mission. "This was not an investigation mission or a fact-finding mission," she told journalists in Rangoon at the end of her trip last week. "There are various reports with regard to child soldiers and the government gave me their point of view. But the purpose (of this trip) was to set up a monitoring mechanism, which the government has now agreed to."
The next step is for the U.N. agencies on the ground in Burma, especially the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), to gather information on child soldiers and clarify the real situation before reporting back to the Security Council later this year, according to the special envoy.
The government has become increasingly sensitive about the issue of child soldiers. HRW’s comprehensive report, released in late 2002, provoked an international outcry and stung the junta into doing something about the forcible recruitment of child soldiers.
The military regime set up a committee for the prevention of military recruitment of under-age children in January 2004. It developed a plan of action, which was adopted by the government in October 2004.
But U.N. agencies and diplomats in Rangoon have continued to report the use of child soldiers by the armed forces as well as by rebel groups.
No independent comprehensive assessment of the use of minors by government forces and ethnic rebel armies has been conducted since the setting up of the government committee. But the envoy‘s visit may have helped put a mechanism into place that will be able to do that in the future.
However, the issue of the use of child soldiers by ethnic rebel armies remains more problematic. The envoy met representatives of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) who, apparently, promised to cooperate. But opposition sources believe this is highly unlikely as the induction and training of under-age recruits is a routine practice. Talks with three other groups mentioned by the U.N., the Karen, Karreni and Shan, have no even started because of government sensitivities, Coomaraswamy conceded.
This was the second visit of a senior U.N. official to Burma in under four months. The deputy emergency relief coordinator and assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs with the U.N. agency OCHA, Margareta Wahlstrom, visited Burma in early April and is expected to return by September, according to U.N. sources.
Diplomats see these visits as a hopeful sign that the junta is becoming more inclined now to engage the international community than it has been in the last few years. But it may also be the regime trying to split the international community’s concerns about Burma.
Just as the special envoy was relatively upbeat about the government’s offer to work with the U.N. on curtailing child recruitment, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) released a damning statement about the Burmese military regime for causing "immense suffering" to civilians and prisoners.
The government practice of making thousands of detainees serve as porters for the armed forces exposes them to the dangers of combat and other risks, said the ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger. ''The practice known as 'portering' persists today despite numerous representations made by the ICRC. It constitutes a major violation of various provisions of international humanitarian law," he said.
Civilians are also routinely used as porters, arbitrarily arrested and often summarily executed, the ICRC president added.
Burmese soldiers repeatedly commit abuses against men, women and children living in communities affected by armed conflict along the Thai-Burma border. These include large-scale destruction of food supplies and means of production. The armed forces severely restrict the population's freedom of movement in these areas, making it impossible for many villagers to work in their fields. This has significantly affected the local economy, aggravating an already precarious humanitarian situation, according to the ICRC.
"The behaviour and actions of the armed forces have helped create a climate of constant fear among the population and have forced thousands of people to join the ranks of the internally displaced or to flee abroad,’’ Kellenberger said. Aid workers monitoring and providing food and medical care to the internally displaced in eastern Burma estimate that there are already more than half-a-million refugees there.
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