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Burma’s Children in Arms

Child soldiers are alarmingly common in Burma. But a number of international programs are finding creative ways to dismantle the practice.

By Kyaw Kyaw for

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.”

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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.

In February 2007, the ILO began implementing a bilateral agreement with the Burmese government known as a “Supplementary Understanding”: a mechanism that allows Burmese citizens to file formal complaints about incidents of forced labor, including underage recruitment. In the first year, only 42 complaints were received, about ten of which were for child combatants. In some cases, complainants were harassed, arrested and even jailed.

Today, by contrast, the ILO receives an average of 60 complaints a month, about half of which concern child soldiers. Since 2007, around 520 child combatants have been released from the Burmese military, according to UNICEF – many as a result of complaints filed to the ILO. The Tatmadaw [Burmese military] is “committed to do our best for the children of Myanmar,” said a Burmese colonel during a rare public statement in August.

In the past 18 months, the Tatmadaw has also agreed to pardon and discharge child soldiers convicted of deserting. While the ILO maintains that it is “a legal mockery to have somebody who was illegally recruited charged with a crime for leaving that illegal recruitment”, it has also played on the generals’ pride to encourage the policy change. As a military officer, said Mr. Marshall, if you send a child deserter back “up to the frontline, are you confident that that person will be a good soldier? And the answer is pretty clear: no…. [Underage recruitment] is not something that a professional army wants to be seen as condoning in any way.”

Punishments for Tatmadaw officers who permit minors to enlist has also reduced the incidence of the problem, Mr Marshall noted, as he flicked through sheets of paper containing the details of confirmed cases. “This one, he was demoted from staff sergeant to sergeant. This one, he was demoted from lance corporal to private.” The Tatmadaw has issued cash fines and reprimands too, says Mr Marshall, as well as reducing the length of service for the purposes of promotion and pensions. “And we’ve had now a number of instances where the perpetrators were imprisoned. That sort of accountability is working very well to change the behavioral patterns on the ground and it shows the commitment of the senior Tatmadaw officials to make this work.”

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The push to end underage recruitment has taken a new direction under the reformist government of Burma’s President Thein Sein, who came to power in 2011 in a carefully choreographed transition following decades of military rule. In March, his government reached a separate agreement with the ILO to end forced labor, including underage recruitment, by 2015. The pact approved steps to identify child soldiers in prison and to inspect certain constitutionally-authorized local militias.

Then in June, Burma’s Ministry of Defense signed an 18-month ‘joint action plan’ with a multi-agency international task force spearheaded by the U.N. For armed forces like the Tatmadaw that make it onto the U.N. Secretary General’s so-called ‘list of shame’ – groups that recruit or use children – the signing of an action plan is a requirement for delisting.

“The negotiations sped up after the new government came to power, to the point where they were calling us to arrange our monthly meetings,” says Ramesh Shrestha, the head of the U.N. Children’s Fund (U.N.ICEF) in Burma, which leads the task force. “The government wants to clean up its image. It wants to be treated normally and wants to be recognized internationally. Issues like [underage recruitment] are very visible. It will also be chair of [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] in 2014 and knows this issue can’t be going on in the background at the same time.”

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The action plan will see the task force’s members work directly with the Tatmadaw to identify underage recruits. When one is found, he will be discharged and spend a few weeks in an interim facility, where children can receive post-discharge counseling. Interviews will also be conducted to understand the child’s experiences and identify accountability issues. The child will then be sent home but will enter a rehabilitation program, where he will receive vocational support. As with the ILO’s Supplementary Understanding process, soldiers over 18 who are found to have been recruited underage will be able to choose between discharging or continuing their military career. The task force will also work to strengthen the adult recruiting process, too, and raise awareness about child combatants in both the military and wider community. “If all goes well I think in the next six months the majority of underage recruits will be discharged,” Mr Shrestha says. “And I’m hopeful that by the end of the 18 month action plan most underage recruitment will have stopped.”

However, Mr Shrestha concedes that not everyone – even within the task force – is convinced of the government’s sincerity or its ability to tackle underage recruitment.

“Some [within the task force] feel it will be easy for the Tatmadaw to manipulate us,” Mr Shrestha admits. “They doubt both the military’s intent and ability to stop recruitment because of what they say are high rates of desertion.” When negotiating the joint action plan, the Tatmadaw and the task force struggled to agree on a provision that allows the task force’s members to inspect the military’s four main recruitment centers, where all new soldiers are sent for training. Spot checks were off limits: the Tatmadaw eventually agreed to allow visits with 72 hours notice, making the point that “no army in the world would allow surprise checks”, Mr Shrestha says.

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Moreover, neither the ILO Supplementary Understanding process, nor the activities of the U.N. task force, cover child combatants in 11 of Burma’s non-state armies, seven of which are on the Secretary General’s “list of shame.” The U.N. joint action plan covers only the Tatmadaw and Border Guard Force militias, groups that were formerly in armed opposition to the government but agreed to operate within the state in 2009. For the outstanding non-state armies, the ILO forwards complaints about underage recruitment directly to groups concerned, but it is normally impossible to verify whether any action is taken.

Mr. Smith of Human Rights Watch says that boys from these ethnic insurgency groups often enlist because of “fierce grievances” against the Tatmadaw, a result of decades-long conflicts with the official forces of the state. “I interviewed a 14-year-old Kachin child soldier who witnessed the Tatmadaw execute his father. He wants nothing other than to be a KIA soldier,” Mr. Smith said.

Yet there are promising signs that non-state armies may soon be brought under the umbrella of the  U.N. programs. Recently, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the New Mon State Party, two other militant minority groups, signed a “deed of commitment” with Geneva Call, an international NGO, pledging to stop the use of child combatants and to protect children in conflict zones. “Our policy is to respect international humanitarian law in a military operation,” New Mon State Party spokesman Hong Sa told a U.N. news agency. “We fully welcome international monitoring.”

Mr. Marshall said such agreements with separatists are a step in the right direction: towards a U.N. monitoring process. “There is an expectation that we will negotiate, with each of them, a similar joint action plan. … [Until recently] we have not been in a position to negotiate because of the difficulties in respect to access, verification, rehabilitation and issues of that nature. But the environment is now changing and that has become very much more feasible.”

One of the biggest questions hanging over Thein Sein’s government is its ability to broker peace with armed opposition groups. The fate of the long-running conflicts will define many issues central to the country’s future – not least the use and recruitment of child soldiers. But the progress made to date – with only one group, the Kachin, yet to agree a ceasefire – offers grounds for optimism that there will be fewer stories like Mg Tun Tun’s emerging from Burma in the years to come.

The author is a Burma-based writer. His real name has been withheld at his request.