No More Child Soldiers?
Story by Steve Sandford
KACHIN STATE – A captured government soldier in a military compound in Kachin, Myanmar’s most northerly state, recalls the night his “tuk-tuk” three-wheeler taxi ran out of fuel, but rather than being given the assistance he expected, he was forced to join the army. He was 15 at the time.
“I was walking into town to get petrol and a man on the road offered to help me out and give me a meal.” Instead, Thet Naing* was guided to a military office in the government-controlled city of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin. He was served a plate of beans and rice, issued with a fake birth certificate and ordered to enlist in the army. “The soldiers threatened to kill me if I tried to escape – so I signed up,” he said.
After four months of training, Thet Naing became a member of Myanmar Battalion 121 and was sent to the front lines to fight against the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) until his capture in 2011.
The KIA is the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization, which wants greater autonomy and improved recognition for the ethnic group it represents. The KIA plans to release Thet Naing.
A new plan
Cases of forced enlistment and falsifying ID records are well documented in Myanmar, which is why a government plan to halt the recruitment of child soldiers, while discharging those under the age of 18, is being welcomed.
A UN task force – headed by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and including international NGOs World Vision and Save the Children – signed a joint Action Plan with Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence on 27 June.
The 18-month plan sets a timetable and measurable actions for the release and reintegration of children associated with government armed forces, and the prevention of further recruitment.
“This is an ambitious plan agreed by the Government and the United Nations to deal with this long-standing issue, and the international community must support it. This is a testament – but also a test – of Myanmar’s engagement for children, and I hope to see it through,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.
“Little is yet known, in terms of concrete numbers, of [people aged] under 18 working in the armed forces, therefore the scale of discharge, release and reintegration (DRR) will only become clear after the initial identification and registration process takes place,” Ramesh Shrestha, the UNICEF country representative in Myanmar, said.
In 2011, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported to Human Rights Watch (HRW) that it had received 236 complaints of underage forced recruitment, and that 57 child soldiers had been released or discharged in response to ILO complaints.
|Thet Naing’s future remains uncertain|
But with an army of 400,000 soldiers and hundreds of bases across a country larger than France, the task of obtaining accurate numbers is daunting. Shrestha stressed the need for UN access to monitor the identification, registration and release of child soldiers in order to draw up a more specific record.
“There are concerns about the government’s commitment to providing unfettered access to all military facilities, including detention centres where child soldier deserters await trial, and [also] to ethnic areas… [so as] to monitor the use of child soldiers by non-state armies,” said Matthew Smith, a HRW researcher in Myanmar.
The UN also recognizes that besides the Burmese military, seven ethnic armies in Myanmar are also using child soldiers – the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army, the Karen National Liberation Army, the Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council the Karenni army, and the KIA. Some of these have signed ceasefire agreements with the government.
“In ethnic areas it is common to find child soldiers who volunteer for a variety of nationalistic reasons, or families who hand over troubled children to the ethnic army in hopes the child will gain discipline,” said HRW’s Smith. “Neither type of recruitment is excusable or defensible, and both are violations of international law.”
Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 18 is the minimum age set for the participation of children in armed conflict.
“The government of Myanmar has agreed in their joint action plan that they will facilitate access to ceasefire groups, and we are hopeful that in the near future that we will be able to start the parallel processes with the ceasefire groups,” said Steve Marshall, Liaison Officer for ILO in Myanmar.
UNICEF hopes that added safeguards will help. “The CTFMR [ Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting ] will also receive ‘alerts’ on continuing underage recruitment, which it will share with the government and army to better enable… [them] to address anything that may slip through the cracks, and ensure that the procedures under the plan are indeed working as they should,” Shrestha said.
A committed effort lies ahead if Myanmar’s armed forces are to be delisted from the UN Secretary-General’s Report on parties to conflict committing grave violations against children by 2014.
HRW’s Smith said, “The real test will be if the army is willing to give full access to the UN and hold soldiers and officers accountable for falsifying documents, and for other crimes related to the recruitment of child soldiers.