The Burmese army and ethnic rebel groups continue to forcibly recruit child soldiers and some children are being deployed in frontline battles in the escalating Kachin conflict in northern Burma, where they are at great risk, a new report warns. It says that recent efforts to reduce the practice are only slowly making an impact.
The International Labor Organization added further weight to the findings by revealing that it was securing the release of eight Burmese child soldiers, who had been captured by Kachin rebels on the frontline.
A report by Child soldiers International released on Thursday said that it interviewed three child soldiers in May 2012 who had been forcibly recruited by the Burmese army and deployed on the Kachin front line.
“Two had been used to carry firewood and water and perform sentry duty, while one 16-year-old was asked to engage in active combat in ongoing fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA),” the report said, adding that the latter boy was captured by the KIA in late 2011.
He told the researchers, “I was firing guns at the KIA soldiers [but] I just fired the gun pointing in the air because I was very scared”.
The report stressed that child soldiers in combat situations were at a heightened risk of getting killed, injured or captured due to their lack of experience.
The Burmese army and the KIA have been fighting since June 2011 when a ceasefire broke down and since late December the violence has intensified.
Following recent reforms under Burma’s President Thein Sein, the UN reached an agreement with the government in June that includes an action plan to end child recruitment by the Burmese army and Border Guard Forces (ethnic armed units that have agreed to come under Burmese army command).
Child Soldiers International said the plan has only made a limited impact so far, as structural changes were not being implemented by the Burmese army. Underage recruitment among Border Guard Forces and independent ethnic rebel groups simply continued unchecked, it said.
“An absence of genuine political will has, to date, obstructed the effective implementation of the government’s laws and policies intended to protect children from recruitment,” the UK-based group said.
“Recruitment of children by the Tatmadaw Kyi [Burmese army] is ongoing, albeit on a reduced scale,” it said, adding that Border Guard Forces “have no program to verify the presence of children in their ranks, let alone plans to demobilize and rehabilitate them.”
The number of recorded complaints of underage recruitment—which stood at 243 in 2011 and in late 2012 at 237—“reflects only a fraction of the real number” of child soldiers, the report said adding that there are no reliable estimates of the number of child soldiers in Burma.
Since adopting the action plan the Burmese army has released 42 children from service, Child Soldiers International said, adding that only nine officers had been imprisoned in recent years for underage recruitment.
Some ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen National Union and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, have issued instructions to end child recruitment, but they lacked effective procedures to verify the age of soldiers, the report said.
Attempts at UN cooperation with rebel groups on the issue had failed as the Burmese government opposed these communications.
Steve Marshall, liason officer of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Burma, said the ILO had recently received eight Burmese child soldiers from the KIA, who were prisoners of war in northern Kachin State.
“Five of them have already been reunited with their families,” he said on Tuesday, adding that the ILO was making special arrangements to bring all boys back to central Burma.
“They are 16, 17, some are over 18, but they were recruited underage. So their recruitment was illegal,” Marshall said, adding that the KIA and the Burmese government and army had adopted “very positive approaches” to allow for the return of the boys.
Marshall said however, that there was “a real concern” that both the KIA and the army were deploying children in battle in the escalating Kachin conflict.
“The reality is that there are child soldiers in the Burmese military,” he said, adding, “We get reports that the KIA is recruiting quite extensively and within that recruiting drive there are children.”
But Marshall said the ILO did not know of any further cases of child soldiers being used in the conflict.
He said that in recent years the attitudes towards child soldiers among the Burmese government and army, as well as among ethnic armed groups, had improved and all parties were making strides in reducing underage recruitment.
“It’s a very different environment now, compared to two, three years ago. There is a much more positive response,” he said. “This issue is not fixed, but it is being addressed.”
Widespread recruitment and use of child soldiers among the Burmese army and ethnic armed groups has long been documented by the UN and human rights groups.
The Burmese army, which stands at around 400,000 soldiers, has a constant need for recruits and provides unofficial incentives for recruiters.
Because military service is unpopular army officers and brokers target poor, urban children and persuade them when they are by themselves, for example when they are on their way to school or play in public spaces, according to Child Soldiers International.
“[R]ecruitment is achieved mostly among poor and uneducated children, the overwhelming majority of whom have not finished eighth grade at school and are particularly vulnerable to false threats of legal action, persuasive language and promises of salaries. Recruiters are also known to threaten children and use force,” the group said.
Often children are also tricked if they are unable to show their identity card to officers on the street, who then threaten to lock them up unless they join the army, according to the group.