The State of Child Soldiers in Burma

Today, June 27, 2013, USCB released a joint statement signed by 33 organizations condemning the use of child soldiers in Burma. The statement marks the one-year anniversary of the Joint Action Plan on the use and recruitment of child soldiers signed by the Burmese government and the UN and highlights the Burmese government’s non-compliance in implementing the plan.

While western nations flock to do business and establish military-to-military relations with Burma – the self-proclaimed “rising star of Asia” – for their share of Burma’s untouched market, young children schlep assault weapons exceeding the size of their bodies into armed conflict in the outer regions of the country.

The use of child soldiers remains a glaring issue in Burma, but it is widely ignored by the international community. Despite nearly a decade of documentation of the use of child soldiers in the Burmese military, children continue to be recruited, trafficked, and forced into conflict. Burma is not a signatory of the Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to the May 2000 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The term “child soldier” does not solely refer to children directly involved in conflict. Child Soldiers International, a human rights research and advocacy organization, outlines its definition of a child soldier in the January 2013 report Chance for Change: Ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Myanmar:

A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking, or has taken, a direct part in hostilities.

Due to ongoing pressure to increase recruitment and make up for high desertion rates within the Tatmadaw Kyi (Burma’s army), the recruitment of children has increased dramatically over the past couple decades. Recruiters often have financial or professional incentives for surpassing recruitment goals. This has created a “recruitment economy”, where falsified age verification documents, intimidation, and violence are common practices.

After five years of negotiation, the Burmese government and UN signed a Joint Action Plan on June 27th, 2012 to identify and release children in the military while providing a plan to prevent future recruitment by December 2013.

Child Soldier International’s January report outlines the implementation details of this Joint Action Plan:

Measures to achieve this [policy goal of ending the use of child soldiers] include reform of recruitment practices (including age verification procedures) of the Tatmadaw Kyi and BGF; rigorous independent monitoring of implementation of safeguards against   recruitment of children; and effective accountability measures, including criminal prosecutions, where it is found that safeguards have not been implemented.

But now, almost a year later, the number of child soldiers released has been dismally low and recruitment of children remains high. The Burmese government has released a mere 66 out of the estimated 5,000 children currently serving in the Tatmadaw Kyi, not including those who were recruited as children but have since turned 18.

In a May 15th update on its January 2013 report, Child Soldiers International noted that “despite the signing of a Joint Action Plan…children continue to be present in the ranks of the Tatmadaw Kyi (Myanmar army) and the Border Guard Forces (BGFs), as well as armed opposition groups.”

The joint action plan is yet another example of the Burmese government signing international commitments to indulge western governments without following through on implementation.

The Burmese government’s failure to implement the action plan is also called out by the U.S. State Department in its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report.  Despite large-scale trafficking, forced labor, and child soldier violations, Burma has been given a “Tier 2 Watch List” status (after being a long-standing veteran of the lowest Tier 3 ranking until 2012); an extremely generous and politicized ranking geared toward perpetuating the myth that Burma is making leaps toward human rights reform and is a foreign policy success of the Obama Administration. The report includes the use of child soldiers in its assessment of Burma, reporting that “boys as young as 11 years old are forced through intimidation, coercion, threats, and violence to serve in the Burma Army.” It also calls to light the government’s “climate of impunity and repression” that continue to perpetuate the recruitment of child soldiers and restrict UN access to military bases.

But without mandating constitutional reform, the government is largely powerless to stop the military’s human rights violations, as the 2008 Constitution ensures that the military operates independently outside of civilian control. The very same leaders who now control Burma’s government as civilians, including President Thein Sein and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, were not only former military leaders but also the authors of the 2008 Constitution who embedded the military’s impunity into law before enacting Burma’s reform agenda in 2011.

“Reform” plans like the ILO Joint Action Plan look great on paper, but they are dead on arrival. Why? The Burmese government and military actively create obstacles for regulatory groups and organizations, preventing access to the military bases, recruitment centers, and camps. International agreements are “plans” in name only. It is not even possible for international agencies to assess the state of child soldiers in Burma, because there is no way of physically getting to them.

The Burmese military operates with absolute impunity and independence from the law. But the Obama Administration has already begun establishing military-to-military relations with the Burmese military – this is the same military that is responsible for committing egregious humans rights violations and currently uses 5,000 children as soldiers.

Note that the problem of child soldiers extends to other armed groups as well. Child Soldiers International has raised concerns over child recruitment in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).

Both groups use children more informally and transiently than the Burmese military, often using children for short periods of time in indirect support roles, making the use of children in the ethnic armed groups difficult to monitor. The groups have also not maintained proper age verification policies.

When USCB met with these ethnic armed groups in Burma, we found that the ethnic resistance armed groups including the KNLA and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) desperately seek to engage with the UN to establish recruitment protocol in line with international standards and sign action plans but have been blocked by the Burmese government. Since international agencies are restricted access to these groups, there is no standard by which ethnic armed groups can measure their protocols. These ethnic armed groups are working to implement age verification measures, but their pleas for engagement with the international community have been ignored as international governments quietly concede to restrictions placed on access by the Burmese government.

The nontransparent Burmese government severely lacks monitoring and accountability mechanisms, allowing the use of child soldiers to remain a thriving practice. With a blatant record of manipulation, human rights violations, and impunity, it is safe to assume that the government has no plans to change.

Child Soldiers International urges the international community to continue to apply pressure by including the issue of child soldiers in diplomatic dialogues. According to Child Soldiers International, the time is ripe to end the use and recruitment of child soldiers:

Strengthening the army and the BGFs’ recruitment procedures, introducing effective age verification mechanisms to remedy practices of age falsification, and more broadly, addressing the incentives that lead to underage recruitment require profound    reforms to Myanmar’s armed forces and need to be mainstreamed in the broader efforts to reform and professionalise Myanmar’s military. Similarly, child soldiers’ issues need to be fully incorporated throughout peace agreements being negotiated with non-state armed groups and in the mechanisms aimed at monitoring their implementation so that the recruitment and use of children is considered a violation of the ceasefire agreement.

The use of child soldiers is one of the most heinous human rights violations. The international community, including the International Labor Organization, which lifted all remaining restrictions on Burma on June 19, must recognize that over the past 2 years, despite a willingness to sign commitments like the action plan on child soldiers, the military has done nothing to rectify its human rights record and continues to operate with impunity.

By investing in Burma’s economy and rewarding the “reforms” the government has made while remaining silent on rights violations, the international community has essentially accepted the use of child soldiers in Burma. International governments have failed to hold Burma accountable for its breach of the Joint Action Plan, sexual violence, rape as a weapon of war, and extensive history of human rights violations.

Crimes against humanity cannot be regarded as a mere “bump in the road” to democracy by countries seeking to normalize relations with Burma. We must demand justice and integrity from the Burmese government and an end to the military’s impunity; it is a matter of life and death for the children of Burma.

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