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In June 2012, the Burmese government signed a joint action plan with the United Nations to end the use of child soldiers. Since then, 166 underage recruits have been released from the military, but reports suggest that children continue to be forcibly enlisted and sent into combat.
Charu Lata Hogg from Child Soldiers International (CSI) spoke to Colin Hinshelwood from DVB about the current situation of child soldiers in Burma and what the next steps towards ending child recruitment should be.
What kind of traditional methods have been used to recruit children into the army?
Any recruitment of children into a military force under the age of 18 is regarded as coerced, unless it happens at the age of 16 and there is an obligation on the side of the force not to deploy the child. So any deployment of anyone under the age of 18 would be coercive. In the Burmese military we’ve noticed civilian brokers have been used to pick up children and present them to battalion commanders who in turn receive falsified documentation of age and then recruit the children.
In other instances, we have had examples where military officials have gone out to public spaces, including railway stations and bus stops, to identify separated and unaccompanied children; especially children who’ve come from villages looking for work in the city.
Often the children are given two options, either to produce their national registration card or go to prison. Obviously the children who don’t have the card agree to go with the military official and that’s when recruitment takes place.
What would the daily life be like for a child who finds himself in a conflict zone?
The level of information about children who serve in various roles in the Burmese military continues to be scarce. One important issue is that most of these children suffer from high levels of trauma so their narratives are not very reliable. But we know for a fact that children are trained along with the other soldiers for four and a half months in training centres.
They are then expected to perform all the duties of an adult soldier. Often children, depending on their capabilities, may be used as porters, messengers, spies, and cooks. They are also trained in military equipment and in firearms and are therefore often deployed in active combat.
When you say children, you are referring to all recruits under the age of 18 but in many other countries, you can join the army at 16 or 17. What percentage of these cases would be children aged 12, 13, 14 years old and how young does it get?
There is evidence with the UN of children as young as 12 and 13 being recruited in recent years. But recent information gathered by international organisations like the ILO [International Labour Organization] and other UN actors, indicates that the recruiting age is going up. Increasingly there are 15 and 16 year olds being recruited by the Tadmadaw [Burmese armed forces]. The kind of information we had ten years back on seven year olds being used, those cases are not being reported any more.
Child Soldiers International does cover the ethnic armies as well, to what extent are they just as culpable as the Burmese army in the recruitment of children?
Like the state, the non-state armed groups also bear a responsibility to end underage recruitment and prevent underage recruitment into their ranks. However the state is a signatory to the convention on the rights of the child. The Burmese government has also signed the joint action plan on ending underage recruitment and use within its ranks. So therefore its commitments are far more reflected on paper than with the non-state armed groups.
That does not mean that the non-state armed groups have no obligation to prevent and end the recruitment of children. Certainly, in the joint action plan, there is a commitment on the part of the Burmese government to open up a dialogue with the groups and with the UN, especially the groups that are in the ceasefire fold.
Some of the non-state armed groups have made independent commitments to other organisations. We know that the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) have signed deeds of commitment with organisations like Geneva Call, which indicate at least their desire to end this practice. What is needed is full and unimpeded access by the UN to these groups, in order to encourage and develop dialogues, which would lead to action plans and end this practice for good.
You’ve mentioned the steps that are being taken but are you satisfied that the Burmese government is doing enough?
Certain steps that have been taken, particularly the signing of the action plan, the recent releases, the increased access the UN is getting, the increased receptiveness of the Burmese government to listen to this issue, are all very positive signs.
But our fear is that not enough is being done in terms of the prevention of the recruitment agenda – it is not sufficient just to identify and release children who are currently present. It is important to initiate steps that actually prevent the future recruitment of children and these would require immediate transformation and reform of the Burmese military.
The steps would be in terms of reduction in troop size and a modernisation of recruitment procedures and processes, oversight and monitoring of these processes, and most of all enough accountability to ensure that deterrents are created so that people are too fearful to recruit.
To what extent do you think the prevention of child recruitment lays hand in hand with the ceasefire agreements around the country with the various ethnic armies?
It has been proven the world over that child soldiers and child protection issues need to be embedded at the start of the peace talks and peace process, rather than be linked up to the issue of demobilisation at a later stage.
Children need immediate protection, and as we have seen in conflicts across the world and indeed in Burma, the level of trauma of children who have been living for decades in situations of armed conflicts, whether in the ethnic areas or within the Burmese military, is very high.
What visible and practical steps is the government taking to abide by its pledge to abolish child recruitment?
After five years of intense negotiations, the government agreed to sign the joint action plan with the UN in June last year. They have been liaising closely with the UN’s country task force in the implementation of this action plan and they are gradually opening up access to their military sites. The government is also opening up to the idea of the UN accessing the non-state armies. They are also releasing child soldiers – the number may be low but these are visible steps and a sign of commitment towards this issue.
Finally, what does the Burmese government need to do to fulfill its end of the bargain?
It needs to stop all recruitment of children, which is continuing to happen and is an ongoing problem. Though the numbers are far less than in the past, even one child recruited is a violation of the government’s commitment under the international convention and under the joint action plan.
Secondly the government needs to provide full and unimpeded access to the UN task force and to the military sites so the UN can verify that the government is taking all the adequate steps to end child recruitment.
Thirdly, the government has to ensure that underage recruitment and child protection is made an integral part of all peace agreements that are signed.
And finally, it needs to take effective steps to prevent underage recruitment in the future, it needs to reform the way it recruits, it needs to ensure that age verification is completed and conducted and ages of recruits are not falsified.
And lastly I would add that accountability is going to be the final deterrent to end underage recruitment.
Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia Program Manager for Child Soldiers International