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Child soldiers and Burma’s long road to reform

What does Burma’s hesitant peace process mean for its child soldiers? (Photo: Child Soldiers International)

The scene is now familiar to those who have keenly observed Burmese government action on the issue of child soldiers in recent years. On Friday, a group of 40 children and young people await their official discharge from the armed forces at an event to celebrate their release, attended by officials from the government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). They were all recruited to the armed forces as minors, and are among 600 children released by the military since the signing of a Joint Action Plan (JAP) in 2012.

The question of child soldiers has been one of the most enduring human rights issues that Burma’s President Thein Sein has had to acknowledge in the face of persistent international attention since taking power in 2011.

“an unprecedented opportunity”

As the new, civilian government replaces the generals and sweeping reforms are discussed, the issue of underage fighters is a pressing one. After decades of sustained violence, dialogue between Thein Sein’s government and armed groups has increased, but trepidation around the process remains. A nationwide ceasefire is elusive, and hostilities have recently intensified in Kachin and northern Shan states.

Child Soldiers International (CSI), who released their latest report on Friday, have characterised Burma’s crossroads as an “unprecedented opportunity” to solve the country’s child soldier crisis.

There has certainly been an increase in rhetorical commitment to the issue over the past decade. In 2004, in response to international pressure, President Than Shwe established the Committee for Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children. In 2012 the signing of the JAP between the government and the UN was celebrated. But how much has really changed, and what impact will the country’s transition have on the lives of those affected?

It is nearly impossible to get an accurate view of the scale of the problem in Burma. Low rates of birth registration, an inaccurate and decentralised military record system, and a lack of government forthcoming – factors that lend themselves to easily recruiting minors – make it hard for observers to gauge the numbers affected. Since the International Labour Organisation’s Complaints Mechanism on Forced Labour was established in 2007, it has received 1,293 complaints regarding child soldiers in Burma, but CSI say that this is not representative of the real numbers.

According to the laws that govern it, the Burmese army should be a purely voluntary organisation. Legislation dictates that recruits must be over 18 years of age and recruited without coercion, and further directives and clarifications were made under the JAP. Failing to uphold the minimum age requirement should, in theory, be met by sanctions of individuals involved, plus prosecution.

But in practice, powerful factors are at play that continue to drive the recruitment, use and holding of child soldiers by armed groups.

“My mother and I didn’t have any money between us, so I had to stay”

The prioritisation of military strength by the government is clear. Military spending is higher than that of education and health combined. The pressure on battalions to maintain high numbers of new enrolees is great. According to Friday’s CSI report, punishments and cash bonuses are amongst the incentives to get new recruits. The ILO have received complaints from soldiers who were granted leave but overstayed, and in order to return without being subjected to punishment had to bring back a recruit – or face imprisonment. The CSI said that this demand has created a “recruitment economy”, with civilian “brokers” receiving payment for supplying recruits.

CSI’s Charu Hogg told DVB that when meeting military representatives at the end of last year, they strongly denied that an unofficial system of incentives to reward recruiters and punishments for failure to meet recruitment targets continues to exist.

“However, we went back and conducted fresh research and have found that this practice continues and contributes to ongoing child recruitment,” she said on Friday.

This mandate not only encourages recruitment officers to ignore age restrictions, but sets the scene for the intimidation and coercion of youngsters into the army by interested parties. Many are tricked with the promise of a different job, often that of a driver. The close proximity of many rural children to Burmese army battalions and armed ethnic groups mean they are easily targeted. In urban areas, children are said to have been picked up at busy locations such as railway stations, bus terminals, markets, and outside temples.

Many children join armed groups voluntarily, often against a background of extreme poverty and a lack of livelihood options. Hogg says that “there are many cases where children from economically deprived or troubled backgrounds have volunteered for enlistment.” Some may have lost their parents, or want to join family members who are fighting.

When approached by a military recruiter, the promise of a chance to escape poverty with a good salary was appealing to the adolescent Kyaw Thu. He agreed to visit the cadet facilities in Rangoon with his mother when the recruiters suggested he see for himself what was on offer.

“When I saw the training grounds and wanted to leave, they demanded that I had to stay, otherwise I would have to pay back the money they had spent to get my mother and I there.

“My mother and I didn’t have any money between us, so I had to stay.”

Inconsistent bureaucratic processes and birth registration facilitates a lack of age verification – in Chin State, Burma’s poorest region, less than a quarter of children are registered. Falsification of documents is also widespread. CSI has reported that in some cases, the families of children have been forced by military personnel to sign blank forms that have later been written up to express parental consent. Photographs of children with their parents in recruitment camps have also reportedly been used as proof of consent.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern at limited government spending on health and education. While nationally only 32 percent of children attend school, huge disparities still exist in the picture of health and education for children between rural and urban areas. Poverty is twice as common away from urban centres. Health is more inaccessible, and barriers to education and achievement in school are greater, meaning poverty and a lack of opportunity continue to set children up as victims of recruitment.

Day-to-day life for child soldiers is often harrowing. Their responsibilities can range from acting as porters for ethnic militias to being deployed on the front lines. Burma expert Benedict Rogers, who has met with and written about former child soldiers, differentiates between the treatment of young recruits in ethnic militias and the Burmese army.

Some child soldiers are tricked or coerced into joining the army, while many join voluntarily against a background of poverty and a lack of livelihood options (Photo: DVB)

He told DVB that, in his experience, the Burmese army are consistently more brutal: “Child soldiers in the Burma army have always been forcibly recruited, often abducted from bus stops and train stations in major cities. They are beaten, forced to carry heavy weaponry and equipment, and tortured for any perceived mistake or misdemeanour. They have no wish to be in the army, and their days are spent in fear and misery.”

CSI point out that child soldiers who have been deployed in hostilities have “often sustained serious or lethal injuries as a direct result of the fighting or landmines,” and that they face “greater risks of physical and mental trauma because of their lack of experience and relative immaturity”.

Those child soldiers who escape from the army are at risk of imprisonment and prosecution as deserters. CSI points out that based on current laws, penalties for desertion by a child soldier may be harsher than punishment for those who recruit child soldiers.

Attempts to simplify the discharge of those recruited as child soldiers have been impactful for some. Kyaw Thu’s release came about a month after he called a UN-sponsored hotline to inform them about his situation.

If children are released – often still struggling against the bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of paperwork that facilitated their recruitment in the first place – there is no easy answer to the proper rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers in society. A lack of resources and commitment to such programmes pervades, although the government is legally required to provide such assistance.

Nineteen- year-old Aung Thura, released from the army in 2012 after being enrolled as a minor, speaks of his desire to attend school despite the huge gap in his education. “It’s a bit embarrassing because I’m so much older now, but I do want to attend school so that I can do other things,” he said. “Also, I want to learn how to drive a car,” he added with a grin.

UNICEF’s Bertrand Bainvel told DVB of the work they do to counter the further dangers released children face: “UNICEF is committed to making sure that reintegration programmes promote the best interests of the child. They should seek to enhance children’s self-esteem, promote their capacity to protect their own integrity, to construct a positive life, and to avoid falling into similarly risky situations such as trafficking, sexual exploitation and drug abuse.”

“The full demobilisation of child soldiers is an essential component of any peace process”

The fates of those who have faced or are at risk of becoming child soldiers are directly impacted by Burma’s tentative peace process and political reforms. Activist groups say that the issue is integral to current developments, with Bainvel adding that, “The cessation of violations against children including the full demobilisation of child soldiers are essential components of any peace process.”

Those involved say international pressure must be made to bear on Burmese government pledges towards eradicating child soldiers, linking increased diplomatic and economic relations to progress. Indeed, there are calls from CSI to make international assistance contingent on the addressing of the issue.

While the country is arguably more peaceful than it has been in decades, the plurality of interests and pressure on groups – not least the Burmese army – to defend these interests with arms means that the transition to nationwide demobilisation is a long and uncertain road. As Bainvel expresses, the hope is that “with the improved security, economic and social environment, the root causes of child recruitment such as poverty can be addressed.”

The interviews with the former child soldiers referenced in this article were sourced from a 2014 UNICEF Myanmar article, with permission.