Human Rights

More Work to Be Done on Child Soldiers in Myanmar

By Charu Lata Hogg 1 August 2014

Friday’s release of 91 children and young people by the Myanmar military, all of whom had served as underage soldiers, is a welcome step: It demonstrates the Myanmar military’s commitment to release child soldiers present in its ranks. But at the same time, it shows that the problem of child recruitment remains ongoing and persistent. Children continue to be unlawfully recruited into the ranks of the Tatmadaw Kyi (Myanmar Army), with 340 cases of underage recruitment reported to the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2013 and 2014. Of these, 48 cases were actually recruited in 2013 and 2014.

Two years back, the Myanmar government made a commitment to the international community and its own citizens. Through a Joint Action Plan signed with the United Nations, it pledged to end the recruitment and use of children into its armed forces and the Border Guard Forces (BGFs). It also promised to take steps to ensure that children would be protected from recruitment in the future.

Since then, there have been some positive changes on the ground. Access by the UN Country Task Force to military sites has improved; release of some children from the army, though slow and still a small number, has taken place; a massive awareness raising campaign has been initiated; and some measures are being taken to improve recruitment practices.

However, there is no process yet to verify and release children from the BGFs, which are under the remit of the Joint Action Plan; children who escape from the Tatmadaw Kyi continue to be detained and treated as adult deserters; and accountability measures have so far failed to deter ongoing underage recruitment despite the fact that it is against the law.

Particularly concerning is the fact that the reasons which drove underage recruitment in the past have not been addressed: Continued pressure on the Myanmar military to increase troop numbers within an informal, incentive-based quota system drives demand for fresh recruitment. Battalion commanders, particularly in infantry battalions, are under constant pressure to recruit and failure to meet recruitment targets invites censure and penalties against battalion commanders. Recruitment processes lack effective monitoring and oversight, allowing underage recruits to “slip through the net” despite military directives to end this practice.

All this puts children at grave risk of unlawful recruitment. A majority of the cases of underage recruitment in 2014 have been coerced, with children being tricked or lured into the army through false promises. The practice of falsification of age documents, including Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (CSC) and household lists, by recruiters and civilian “brokers” continues unchecked and no measures have been adopted to establish accountability for this illegal practice.

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

Friday’s releases, which bring the total number of children released by the military under the Joint Action Plan to 364, are to be commended. But there is also a need for a renewed and demonstrable commitment to end and prevent child soldiers in Myanmar. For instance, ensuring that all children are registered at birth and all children possess an identity document that lays out clearly their ages, is a tangible way of providing protection to children against unlawful recruitment. Similarly, support by the international community to the Myanmar authorities to ensure that it strengthens recruitment procedures—implementing effective age verification measures that are monitored and hold violators accountable—is yet another way to bring in long-term prevention.

The responsibility to protect children from grave violations in conflict lies not just with the Myanmar military. Armed opposition groups active in various regions of Myanmar have also been known to recruit children and use them in hostilities, a practice which has seen them “listed” for several years in the UN secretary-general’s annual reports on children and armed conflict.

Current peace efforts in Myanmar offer a remarkable opportunity to prioritize the protection of children. The Myanmar government and all parties negotiating the nationwide ceasefire agreement need to ensure that child soldiers issues are not only fully incorporated in the peace process, but that mechanisms are established to verify and release children. The recruitment and use of children must be considered a violation of ceasefire agreements. All these steps are essential to fulfil the Myanmar government’s commitment to fully protecting children.

Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International, an NGO working to end underage recruitment across the globe.