RANGOON — The Burmese military, notorious over the past five decades for its use of child soldiers, erected an eye-catching billboard in downtown Rangoon this week indicating a desire to clean up its image—and perhaps its practices.
In a first for Burma’s armed forces, a billboard promoting a “No Child Soldiers” campaign has drawn attention in the country’s biggest city, as the quasi-civilian government increasingly cooperates with UN agencies to solve the problem of underage recruitment, although new cases of child soldiers continue to be reported.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), which has long campaigned for an end to child soldiers, said the new billboard campaign was a step in the right direction by the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw.
“The recent ‘No Child Soldiers’ billboard and poster campaign is extremely positive and acts to further reconfirm the commitment of the government and the Tatmadaw to addressing the problem of child soldiers,” Steve Marshall, the ILO’s liaison officer in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy on Friday.
“The campaign will work in several ways, but in particular it demonstrates to the people of Myanmar [Burma], at all levels, that the Tatmadaw as a professional force wants the right type of recruits with which to provide its important defense services. In so doing, it will also play a useful additional role in educating the community that Myanmar Law is clear that the recruitment of children under the age of 18 years is illegal.”
The billboard comes as two families in the city publicly alleged at a press conference in Rangoon on Thursday that the military had recruited two of their children.
Khaing Saw Lin, a 15-year-old boy, was allegedly recruited in June and has been training at a military center in Thabeikkyin Township, Mandalay Division, according to Myint Win, who has been assisting the families and is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
He said the 15-year-old had been a high school student in South Dagon Township.
“We found that he was registered under a different name at the military center, after we talked with some military officers,” the NLD member said. “His name is Zaw Htet Oo now, and they even made a fake ID, which said he’s 23 years old.”
Despite the family’s requests, the military has not released the boy, the NLD member added.
“We are waiting for his release,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, we will talk to organizations that are helping with cases of child soldiers.”
The ILO has worked for years in cooperation with the government and the Burmese military to raise awareness about the issue of underage recruitment, as part of a greater project to eliminate forced labor.
Marshall said the goal was to discharge child soldiers and to stop the practice of underage recruiting. He urged families who had lost children to the military to contact a local military branch representative to initiate their discharge. “If this is for some reason not possible, they should have no hesitation in contacting the ILO liaison office,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The ILO office in Rangoon would then have the recruitment addressed through a forced labor complaints mechanism with the Burmese government.
Rights groups have accused the Burmese military as well as armed rebel groups in the country of using child soldiers for decades—accusations which the military long denied under the former regime.
Burma’s quasi-civilian government, which came to power in 2011, signed an agreement with the United Nations to end the practice of child soldiers in the country.
The military discharged 68 underage child soldiers earlier this month, according to the United Nations. A month earlier, it released 42 children and young adults who had been recruited for soldiering and other duties.
The latest report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Burma’s government had made progress in reducing the recruitment of children to serve as fighters but still needed to stamp out the practice.
The report said seven ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), also recruit and use child soldiers.
The KNLA in July signed an agreement to protect children from armed conflict and prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.