Ethnic Issues

In Burma’s Conflicts, Both Sides Betray Children

By Charu Lata Hogg 1 July 2015

For more than ten years, Child Soldiers International has documented the widespread recruitment and use of children as soldiers in Burma, officially known as Myanmar. We have conducted three in-depth investigations on the drivers and patterns of recruitment and use of child soldiers by both the Burmese military and non-state armed groups, which were published in “Chance for Change: Ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Myanmar” in January 2013, “Under the Radar: Ongoing recruitment and use of children by the Burma” in January 2015 and “A Dangerous Refuge: Ongoing child recruitment by the Kachin Independence Army” in June 2015.

Ongoing Recruitment and Use of Children in the Burmese Military

In May 2015, we found that children continue to be unlawfully recruited into the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw Kyi: in 2014 a total of 357 cases of child recruitment and use by the armed forces were reported through the UN Country Task Force, out of which at least 27 were recruited last year, some as young as 14. Information received by Child Soldiers International shows that owing to on-going conflicts new recruits, both adults and children, continue to be deployed in the front lines, more recently in southern Shan State. In addition, use of underage children by the military other than on frontlines has been reported in Shan, Chin and Mon states. Patterns of use of children have been reported from Arakan State since 2013, where members of the Rohingya community are specifically targeted. Although, as “non-citizens,” they cannot be recruited into the army, the use of members of the Rohingya community as forced labor by Burmese security forces, including the Border Guard Police, has been documented.

While representatives from the Burmese military have strongly denied the prevalence of this practice, our research found that an unofficial system of incentives to reward recruiters and punishments for failure to meet recruitment targets still exists at the battalion level. Bonuses in cash or in kind are also known to be provided to recruiters for exceeding recruitment targets and, in some cases, serving soldiers who want to leave the army are told that they will only be discharged if they find new recruits.

This “recruitment economy” has contributed to the creation of an informal network of civilian brokers, who receive payments for delivering new recruits. It has also generated pressure on recruiting officers to ignore the minimum recruitment age restrictions, which exist under Burmese law, in a context where adults are unwilling to volunteer and where recruitment procedures designed to prevent underage recruitment have not been strictly enforced.

This is not to say there has been no positive change. The Burmese government has taken many welcome measures: 646 children have been released since it signed the Joint Action Plan with the UN in 2012; recruitment procedures have been centralized and some measures have been taken to hold those responsible for child recruitment accountable. But the fact remains that children continue to be among those forcibly recruited by the Tatmadaw Kyi as they are easier to trick and more susceptible to pressure to enlist. Our research shows that military officers and civilian brokers continue to use deliberate misrepresentation, intimidation, coercion and enticement to obtain new recruits, including under-18s. Civilian brokers are known to frequently recruit boys under false pretenses, often offering them a different job such as a driver.

Then there are other violations: Children who escape from the Tatmadaw Kyi continue to be detained and treated like adult deserters. While the Burmese military has made commitments to end this practice, these are not supported at the level of battalions and regiments where such arrests continue to take place. In 2014, the International Labour Organization (ILO) via its Complaint Mechanism on forced labor received 52 cases of children who fled the Tatmadaw Kyi and were declared “deserters”. Out of these, at least 13 were arrested, charged with desertion and imprisoned.

Ongoing Child Recruitment by Non-State Armed Group

Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International.
Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International.

In June 2014, Child Soldiers International conducted research on child recruitment by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and found that this violation, documented by the United Nations since 2007, is ongoing. While much of the underage recruitment is formally voluntary, ongoing coercive recruitment also takes place. Soldiers and civilian administrators in charge of recruitment routinely overlook evidence that recruits are underage.

While the KIA denies the practice, in confidential interviews KIA officers told us that the KIA has recruited according to an unofficial but customary rule of a “one-recruit-per-family” quota since the 1960s. KIA soldiers have access to a “list” containing data on household members and their ages, maintained by Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) administrators at the township and village level as part of an ongoing data collection effort. A Kachin aid worker told us:

“The KIA has a list with information concerning every household and their members and ages. In the [IDP] camps, this is also true. The KIA can call whomever they want at anytime and they know where to find them. No family is exempt from this kind of recruitment because the KIA has the list of every person in their territory. If you are called but not ready to join then you can try to explain your circumstances but they may not choose to release you … Once the KIA has the list with your name on it, you will have to join sooner or later when they call you.”

Children who volunteer with the KIA are, in some cases, encouraged to continue their studies, but they are almost always eventually accepted into the KIA’s ranks. Children involved in drugs or criminality or those who skip school are also sent to the KIA as a form of “correction” by their parents or guardians. Our research found that the most common ages of children in the KIA are between 15 and 17 years old, although there have been a few reports of children aged 13 and 14.

Once in the KIA, children are treated like adults and not allowed direct communication with the outside world during training. They receive a soldier identification number and a weapon upon graduation, and both girls and boys are deployed to KIA posts to fulfill non-combat duties, until their physical and mental abilities are deemed mature enough to fight. Children in the KIA are explicitly told by officers during recruitment and training that they will not be assigned to combat duties and in practice they are used by the KIA in “support” roles for duties such as cooking, cleaning, errand running, and portering. Child Soldiers International found no evidence of children being deployed in the front lines by the KIA.

A Kachin-state aid worker told us that:

“There are no jobs available, even to those who graduate 10th Standard. This is one reason why so many join the KIA. The KIA also wants them to join because this is wartime. In my opinion, there is no hope for the youth. After completing 10th Standard, you can become a teacher but these positions pay very little and many cannot even support themselves. The only other option is to become a soldier. There is no hope anymore for these youth who graduate school. They face so few choices outside of soldiering.”

It is undeniable that children living in this belt are subject to severe social and economic disadvantage with education and employment opportunities severely limited and fraught with risk. The quality of education delivered by schools in KIA territory is severely strained by conflict and displacement and schools in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps confront the greatest challenges. Voluntary recruitment can be triggered by this socio-economic disadvantage, in addition to a sense of public service, revenge and justice.

Despite stating its commitment to comply with international law and stop the recruitment and use of children in hostilities, the KIA has not implemented this in practice. The KIA does not have a written and enforceable policy prohibiting underage recruitment and use. The guidelines developed by the KIA on this issue have thus far not been effectively implemented.

Both Sides Need to Commit to Protecting Children

The Burmese government continues to block access by international organizations to areas in Kachin state where training and awareness on children’s rights is urgently needed. Ongoing conflict between the two sides has increased economic injustice and endangered all the rights of children; children are exposed to violence and displacement and do not have adequate access to health care, nutrition and adequate housing.

The preamble to the 1959 Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the government of Burma has ratified says, “Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.” All sides in Burma need to try harder.

Charu Lata Hogg is the Policy and Advocacy Director for Child Soldiers International, a London-based NGO working to end underage recruitment across the globe.

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