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In June 2012, the government of Myanmar took a historic step by signing an action plan with the UN to end the recruitment and use of children as soldiers in the country. The signature on the dotted line of this document, which had been under negotiation for five years, marked both an acknowledgement of a longstanding problem and a willingness to correct the practice.
Recent reporting on the ground by Child Soldiers International has revealed that the conclusion of this agreement, hugely welcome as it is, has not resulted in actions that will lead to a complete and irreversible end to child soldiering in the country. For while the process to verify and release children from the military ranks have begun, effective safeguards to prevent future recruitment have not been implemented.
Age verification procedures have been used to identify 42 underage recruits and secure their release; however, these measures have not been implemented in the recruitment process. The Border Guard Forces (BGFs) which function under the command of the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] and are under the purview of last year’s action plan, have no programme to verify the presence of children in their ranks, let alone plans to demobilise and rehabilitate them. As a result, children continue to be recruited and used as soldiers by the Tatmadaw and the BGFs.“Armed conflict can never be an excuse for the unlawful recruitment of children or their use in hostilities”
Similarly, research conducted by Child Soldiers International suggests that while the leadership of armed opposition groups like the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) have issued instructions not to recruit children, these commitments have not been backed up by practical age verification measures to ensure that only those above 18 can be recruited to participate in hostilities. The KNLA’s positive step in offering to work with the UN and other actors towards ending child recruitment has been thwarted by unwillingness on the part of the Myanmar government to allow UN bodies’ access to them.
The reasons why children end up recruited as soldiers in state and state-allied forces and armed opposition groups are complex, a result not just of militarised societies or the stimulus of socio-economic pull and push factors. As demonstrated in research conducted by Child Soldiers International and other organisations, children in Myanmar are recruited by the military to meet recruitment targets both in fighting and support roles.
Armed conflict can never be an excuse for the unlawful recruitment of children or their use in hostilities. But the recent ceasefire agreements between the government and some armed groups could offer a new opportunity for the safe release of children, as well as opening up the prospect of protecting children from any future military association with these groups. Any peace processes should therefore incorporate and address the protection of children in line with the UN operational guidelines on addressing children’s issues in peace agreements.
Long term prevention of underage recruitment will take place only when the issue is mainstreamed in international assistance provided to Myanmar. This includes technical assistance to strengthen recruitment processes in the Myanmar army with age verification measures, monitoring and accountability mechanisms. This will only be possible if the Myanmar government demonstrates genuine political will to end underage recruitment, and it is supported in taking the necessary steps to achieve this by the international community.
Richard Clarke is the director at Child Soldiers International
-Editor’s note: At the author’s request, Myanmar has been used in this article rather than Burma.