RANGOON — The Burmese military on Thursday formally discharged 108 underage recruits from its ranks, the largest release of child soldiers in Burma to date.
The United Nations welcomed the move and praised the “efforts of the Government of Myanmar … to put an end to the harmful practice of recruiting and using children.”
“I think since last year we are witnessing an acceleration … more children [are] now being released,” said Bertrand Bainvel, country representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), at a press conference on Thursday.
Half of those released had already fled the military and were living in hiding, considered “deserters” and liable to arrest. This is the first time such a significant number have been granted official release by the military.
Recruitment of children to fight in the state army and by ethnic minority armed groups has led to Burma being listed by the United Nations as a persistent violator of children’s rights and internationally sanctioned—a stain that the present government appears keen to remove.
“To prevent from wrongly recruitment of underage children, Tatmadaw has initiated the establishment of the Committee for Prevention of Military Recruited of underage children in 2004,” said Lt-Gen Wai Lwin, Burma’s defense minister, in an opening speech at Thursday’s discharge ceremony.
The Burmese government signed a Joint Action Plan with the United Nations in June 2012, pledging to remove all children from the army’s ranks and end any further underage recruitment. This agreement expired in December 2013 without all the conditions being met, and representatives will meet on Friday to discuss future steps.
“We have a hope, which is zero new recruits and zero use of children … so it’s a double zero hope,” Bainvel said.
Burmese armed forces face longstanding accusations of human rights abuses, including recruitment of children, use of rape as a weapon of war and forcing civilians to work as porters. Reports by international rights groups suggest that children as young as 12 are still being forced into the army, with many sent to fight in frontline and combat positions.
“Because they are deployed as adults, they are used to carry weapons, detonate landmines, and work as porters,” said Charu Lata Hogg, Asia program manager at Child Soldiers International.
Since its installation in 2011, the present quasi-civilian government has introduced a host of economic and political reforms.
Five other formal discharges have been held over the past two years and a total of 472 underage recruits have been released from service. Despite this progress, forced recruitment of children continues and it is unknown exactly how many children remain in the army’s ranks.
“Our primary concern is that recruitment and use of children by the Tatmadaw continues till date, despite the signing of the Action Plan. The numbers have reduced but the practice has not been eliminated,” Hogg said.
To report a case of underage recruitment, call Unicef’s hotline at 09421166701 or 09421166702.