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RIGHTS-BURMA: “You Are 18,” Child Soldiers Told

Abra Pollock

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 2007 (IPS) - Burma’s military government will face another round of international scrutiny next week when the U.N. Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict meets to consider evidence on the country’s ongoing forced recruitment of child soldiers, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The brutality of Burma’s military government goes beyond its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Military recruiters are literally buying and selling children to fill the ranks of the Burmese armed forces.”

The 135-page report, titled, “Sold to be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma”, used an investigation throughout Burma, Thailand and China to illustrate the widespread coercion and forced military enlistment of children who are sometimes as young as 10 or 11 years old.

Officers in Burma’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, often kidnap adolescent boys as they work, play or shop in the market in order to meet recruiting goals, the report says. In addition, the Tadmadaw has recently faced a military staffing crisis due to plans for an expansion in the midst of high desertion rates, declining morale, and a lack of willing volunteers for its “all-volunteer army”.

Officers – or the civilian brokers who have now gotten involved – are often rewarded with incentives such as food or cash payments. Many children who try to escape from the battalions to which they are sold are recaptured once they return home, according to the report.

While no exact figure is known, HRW estimates that there are thousands of children in the army’s ranks, and in some newly formed battalions, children reportedly constitute a large percentage of privates.

“The battalions bribe the recruiting officers to get recruits for them,” said Than Myint Oo, who was forcibly recruited twice as a child.

Another named Maung Zaw Oo, recruited in for the second time in 2005, told HRW: “They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16, I was slapped and he said, ‘You are 18. Answer 18.’ He asked me again and I said, ‘But that’s my true age.’ The sergeant asked, ‘Then why did you enlist in the army?’ I said, ‘Against my will. I was captured.’ He said, ‘Okay, keep your mouth shut then,’ and he filled in the form.”

The policies and practices of non-state armed groups such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, United Wa State Army, and the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front were also examined in the HRW report. These groups and others among Burma’s 30 or so non-state militias continue to recruit child solders, but in smaller numbers. Other such groups, including the Karenni Army and the Karen National Liberation Army, have made significant progress in reducing the numbers of children in their forces, the report said.

Yet the Tatmadaw and Burma’s military government, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), have not made significant progress.

After a series of U.N. reports by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Security Council listed Burma as one of 23 countries in violation of international law for recruiting child soldiers, Burma’s government established a “Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children” in 2004.

Among other initiatives, the Committee pledged to launch a public awareness campaign on the problem of child soldier recruitment, but there has been little evidence of any government-led initiatives either for the public or within the military, the report said. Instead, the SPDC Committee seems to have primarily focused its attentions on denouncing outside information about Burma’s child soldiers.

“It is necessary for us to always refute the accusations systematically,” said Adjutant General Thein Sein in his 2005 concluding speech to the Committee, and “always project before the international community the correct efforts made by the committee and refute baseless accusations.”

Human rights activists are now concerned that since the government’s use of military force last month to crack down on Buddhist monks and civilian protestors, the situation of recruiting child solders will only worsen.

But the current moment of global attention fixed on Burma may also be a window of opportunity.

“This is a chance to broaden international understanding of the real situation within Burma. Human rights violations are multi-level, widespread, and almost systemic throughout the country,” said David Mathieson, who contributed to the report from Thailand. “Now is the time to look at Burma in its entirety, and to look at the complexity of the human rights violations within this country.”

Although the secretary-general has raised the issue of child soldiers serving in Burma’s military before, next week’s meeting will be the first time that the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict will look at Burma’s violations.

In the past, the Security Council has said that it would consider targeted sanctions against parties on the secretary-general’s list of countries using child soldiers, including embargoes of arms and other military assistance. Other actions such as travel restrictions on SPDC leaders and restrictions on the flow of financial resources to the SPDC may be needed, according to the report.

“The Security Council should fulfill its pledge to hold violators to account for recruiting and using child soldiers,” said Becker. “Given Burma’s abysmal record on child soldiers, sanctions against the Burmese military government are clearly warranted.”

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