The UN Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict is in Burma this week to review efforts by the government to eradicate the practice of conscripting child soldiers, and to encourage further reform. Burma is among some 20 countries that the UN says bolsters its military ranks through underage recruitment, but recent reforms leave room for hope that the practice can be stamped out once and for all. The signing of a Joint Action Plan in June 2012 marked a promising commitment by the government to address the issue, in a country where civil war has for decades fueled child soldier recruitment by the government and ethnic armed rebels.
Charu Lata Hogg, Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International, an NGO working to end the practice of underage recruitment across the globe, spoke to The Irrawaddy about the issue as the Working Group visited Burma this week. Though the situation in Burma has improved, children continue to be used in conflict, Hogg said, urging all responsible parties to do their part to eliminate the scourge.
Q: What progress has been made since the government signed a UN Action Plan to eliminate the use of child soldiers?
A: Certainly important steps have been taken to end underage recruitment since the signing of the Joint Action Plan. UN figures show that 176 children have been released from the ranks of the Tatmadaw [Burma’s military]; access to military sites by the UN Country Task Force has improved; the number of soldiers held accountable for underage recruitment has increased; and important procedures have been introduced by the government to ensure that recruitment processes are improved at least in the four main recruitment centers.
However, almost 18 months since the signing of the Action Plan, children continue to be present in the ranks of the Tatmadaw Kyi[Burma Army] and the Border Guard Forces [BGFs] as well as armed opposition groups. Access to military sites remains constricted by a 72-hour notice period and children who escape from the Tatmadaw Kyi continue to be detained and treated as adult deserters. While some form of disciplinary action by the military is taken in cases brought to their attention, the majority of those punished are of lower ranks.
Q: How many people have been charged with child soldier recruitment?
A: According to the International Labor Organization, in response to their complaints, 241 perpetrators have received either judicial or administrative punishment. Of these, 15 have received prison sentences.
Q: Can you explain a bit more about the 72-hour notice policy you mentioned?
A: The terms of independent access to recruitment and training centers, and other places where child soldiers are present, are the subject of intense negotiations in every country where such plans have been signed. We understand that in Myanmar, advanced notice of 72 hours is required. Child Soldiers International believes that these conditions fall short of the regular and unimpeded access that is an essential prerequisite to effective verification of the Action Plan’s implementation.
Q: And what kind of penalties do these children face for desertion?
A: Children who attempt to escape or do escape from the army are arrested and tried on charges of desertion. For those who ran away for a year or more, our research shows that they would be tried in military courts for being absent from duty without permission and sentenced for a period proportionate to the length of time they had escaped for and, on release, would be required to continue serving in the army.
Q: I’ve seen the number of child soldiers in Burma estimated at 5,000. Is that a fair guess?
A: In the absence of independent monitoring, it is impossible to estimate the number of child soldiers present in the ranks of the Myanmar military, the BGF and armed groups. We would not like to estimate numbers.
Q: But there seems to be widespread agreement that the number of child soldiers still conscripted is many times larger than the 176 children released so far. What is holding back a larger release of child soldiers?
A: Our research shows that a persistent emphasis on increasing troop numbers—accompanied by corruption, weak oversight and impunity—has historically led to high rates of child recruitment in the Tatmadaw Kyi. An incentive-based quota system in the Myanmar military continues to drive demand for fresh recruits and works against the quick release of children. The practice of falsification of age documents, including National Registration Cards and family lists, continues unchecked and no measures have been taken to establish accountability for this practice.
Q: How should the issue of child soldiers be handled in the context of the government’s hoped-for ‘nationwide ceasefire agreement’ with Burma’s ethnic armed groups?
A: The Security Council Working Group has urged the Myanmar government to ensure that the issue of child protection, including the release and reintegration of children, is integrated into ceasefire and/or peace talks and agreements. In our view, recruitment and use of children should be considered a violation of the ceasefire agreement. The monitoring ceasefire committee should have an explicit mandate to monitor such violations and to report them to the UN.
We have seen in other contexts, such as the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], where the issue of child soldiers being overlooked in peace agreements has contributed to instability and violence. A number of ethnic armies have also made a commitment to end underage recruitment and use. The Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party and the New Mon State Party have signed deeds of commitment to end underage recruitment. Some of these groups, notably the KNLA and KNPP, have expressed an interest in entering into a dialogue with the UN to verify and demobilize children. This expression of intent by armed groups should be turned into tangible commitments in the peace process.
Q: To your knowledge, are child soldiers a part of the current ceasefire discussions?
A: The Myanmar Peace Center has certainly voiced support for the inclusion of issues concerning protection of children in the nationwide ceasefire agreement. However, the Myanmar government and armed groups need to agree to child soldiers’ issues being fully incorporated throughout the peace process. We are not aware whether the government and armed groups have agreed to implement this key recommendation by the Working Group.
Q: Your organization says ‘most of the cases of underage recruitment in 2013 have been coerced, with children being tricked or lured into the army through false promises.’ Can you offer some specific examples of what form this takes?
A: Our information shows that recruitment 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. A common tactic practiced is to demand to see the individual’s National Registration Card knowing that children generally do not carry them. If the child presents a student identity card, he is often told that it is an unacceptable form of identification and the recruiter then offers him a choice of joining the army, or facing a long prison term for failing to carry a card.
In other cases, children have been offered jobs but not told that the job is with the military. It is only when the child arrives at the battalion or recruitment center that they realize they are being recruited in the military. Poverty is a key factor here.
Q: What are the priority areas that the government and ethnic armed groups should focus on to facilitate the release of remaining child soldiers and end further recruitment?
A: Firstly, the government needs to fully implement commitments made in the Action Plan by identifying, registering and discharging all children present in the ranks of the Tatmadaw Kyi and the BGFs. For this, unimpeded access to all its military sites, and other areas where children may be present, needs to be provided to the UN Country Task Force.
On the prevention side, the government needs to strengthen recruitment procedures and oversight across all recruitment sites in the country; establish a central database with personal information of individual Tatmadaw Kyiand BGF recruits; and reform the civil registration system to ensure that all children are registered at birth free of charge and without discrimination.
Ethnic armed groups need to ensure that the issue of protection of children is incorporated into the framework of the nationwide ceasefire agreement and other peace and ceasefire agreements in the future.