A bag of rice and $60 in local currency: that is what it cost one unscrupulous military officer to entice Mg Tun Tun, a fifteen year-old boy from the rural Bago region of Burma, to join the army. According to an interview with the child’s mother in a local newspaper, Mg Tun Tun was cutting wood near his home when he was run down by a motorcycle and spirited away to a nearby military base. He was released in September along with 41 other fresh-faced boys of about the same age, at a ceremony presided over by officials from the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known. Mg Tun Tun was bribed, but some of the other children said they had joined willingly and would even re-enlist after turning 18.
The causes and extent of the phenomenon of child combatants in Burma is a complex issue. While there are no exact figures – many question whether the Burmese military even knows how many adult soldiers it has, let alone minors – the research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch estimated in 2002 that the country had the highest number of child soldiers in the world. Recruitment occurs despite an official policy, introduced in 1974, that the Tatmadaw will neither seek nor accept children under eighteen into its ranks.
Yet the army continues to put pressure on officers to maintain numbers, and sometimes requires soldiers who want to retire to find a replacement. Unaccompanied children can be enlisted by brokers who are paid a “finder’s fee.” Parents who feel their children need to learn some “discipline” are known to enroll them with a wink and a nod to a recruiter. While there are reports of abductions, anecdotal evidence suggests it is more common for children to join the Tatmadaw for economic reasons, either voluntarily or at the behest of their parents.
“We know it’s still a problem, both the recruitment and use of child soldiers,” says Matthew Smith, the Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. Referring to an insurgency near the Chinese border that broke out in June 2011, he continued: “We [have] documented a number of child soldiers on the front lines of the Kachin conflict in the past year alone.”
The Shangri-La Traders Hotel in downtown Yangon, where businessmen in suits hold quiet meetings in a plush, teal-carpeted lobby, is the last place you’d expect to be the frontline in the fight against the exploitation of child soldiers. But in a small office on the 12th floor, that is precisely what the International Labor Organization (ILO) has been doing for the last five years. “These 12 letters – all dated August 30, all the same day – all releases of kids through [our] complaints mechanism,” ILO liaison officer Steve Marshall said proudly, as he leafed through papers during a recent interview. Appointed to the post in July 2007, Mr. Marshall is a straight-talking New Zealander who joined the ILO a decade ago after working in the private sector. Under his stewardship, the small ILO mission – it got its second expatriate staff member in 2007 – has become one of the most effective U.N. agencies in Burma.