Burma ethnic army claim end to use of child soldiers

July 8, 2009 (DVB), A deal has been signed between a rights group and one of Burma's main armed ethnic groups that will allegedly put an end to the armed group recruiting child soldiers, a British newspaper reported yesterday.

The issue of child soldiers in Burma has been placed under scrutiny ever since Human Rights Watch in 2002 accused the government of being the world's leading recruiter of children into the army.

A report released in May by a global network of non-governmental organizations known as Watchlist said that tens of thousands of children in Burma are recruited as child soldiers, with the ruling State Peace and Development Council the biggest culprit.

However, a number of Burma's armed opposition group are also known to be guilty of what many prominent rights activists, politicians and lawyers have said could constitute a war crime.

A commander of the Shan State Army (SSA) North, one of Burma's main armed ethnic groups, signed an agreement with the International Operations Centre for Children (IOCC) that would see them end use of child soldiers in return for economic aid, the Guardian newspaper reported. Shan state is geographically Burma's biggest state, and the main source of the country's booming opium trade.

Last month the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said that Burma is the world's second largest opium producer, and both the North and South factions of the SSA are known to have historically played a key role in it.

The deal signed between the IOCC's Christian Elliot and Lieutenant Colonel Kon Jern will see the SSA-N receive education aid in exchange for the guarantee.

Some members of the SSA-N remain dubious about the agreement however, given the somewhat polarised nature of the Shan State Army.

"Lieutenant Colonel Kon Jern signed the agreement individually as a commander of the Shan State Army [North], but not as in representing the whole group because we were never acknowledged or offered to sign such an agreement," said SSA deputy spokesperson Hseng Murng.

The exact number of child soldiers currently in the SSA is unknown, although officials in the group often deny that any are used at all.

Hseng Murng said that the agreement was unnecessary because the SSA "already don't recruit any person under age of 18".

"We provide shelter for orphanage kids alongside of the border and we fund and educate them. We were already doing this without any agreement," he said.

Incidences of child soldier recruitment often surface, with many being abducted by army officials, both government and non-government, and forced into the army.

Not all child soldiers are recruited to fight, with many used as porters to carry army equipment or, in some cases, to walk in front of army patrols acting as minesweepers.

The International Labour Organisation is the only external body inside Burma with a mandate that includes tackling the issue of child soldiers, which comes under the rubric of forced labour.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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