My gun is as tall as me – Burma’s child soldiers, the highest in the world

News reports recently have drawn attention to the Burmese military’s continued use of child soldiers, despite its promises to the international community to end the practice. It is impossible to know how many child soldiers the military has recruited, though Human Rights Watch put the number at 70,000 in 2002. Though the recruitment of child soldiers is illegal under Burmese law, the practice continues with impunity on a regimental level.

The military preys on vulnerable young boys such as homeless street children. One such boy, Win Sein, told AFP that he was threatened with jail if he refused to join the army. “They said if you don’t want to go to jail, you must join the army. I said I didn’t want to join but whenever I said it they beat me again and again. When I agreed to join they stopped beating me,” he said. Other homeless children are lured into the army with promise of food and shelter. DVB reported that the Burmese military recently recruited a mentally ill 17-year-old into the army in the Mandalay division, promising money and food for his family if he joined.

Conditions for child soldiers are harsh and grueling, and the children are sent to the front lines of combat against ethnic minorities armies. Win Sein told AFP that he and other child soldiers were often beaten, and this drove his decision to run away despite the fear of reprisal. The group Social Action for Women (SAW), based in Mae Sot, Thailand, now caring for Win Sein, said that like other child soldiers, he displayed signs of psychological damage after running away.

“After he arrived, he would lose control. He broke bottles and used the glass to cut his arm,” said SAW’s director Aye Aye Mar. “He didn’t talk. He didn’t answer any questions we asked. He didn’t trust anyone.”

Steve Marshall, International Labor Organization (ILO) liason in Burma, told the Irrawaddy that “Whilst a lot more still needs to be done, the [Burmese] army has taken positive steps toward enforcing the minimum age for recruitment and discharging children found to have been illegally recruited.” The regime has allowed the ILO has a process in place to allow families to complain about underage recruitment, and over 100 child soldiers have been discharged since 2007.

However, though this has introduced some level of accountability, Marshall says that it is difficult to gauge the effect of the complaint mechanism. If the recommendation of is carried out and a, a forum will be created to prosecute child soldier recruiters and create accountability for these crimes.

The recommendation of UN Human Rights Envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana that a Commission of Inquiry be set up to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, if followed, may force child soldier recruiters to face prosecution at the hands of the International Criminal Court and face accountability for these crimes.

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