'Most serious penalties' for child solider case

Feb 24, 2010 (DVB)-Three army officials in Burma have been imprisoned in what the International Labour Organisation hail as an unprecedented reprimand of child soldier recruiters by the ruling junta.

The three men received prison sentences of one year, three months and one month respectively, all with hard labour, for their role in forcibly recruiting a 13-year-old boy into the Burmese army. Two other low-ranking officials were given a one-year suspension.

Steve Marshall, liaison officer for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Rangoon, said the prosecutions were "significant" and "positive", and were the first case of imprisonment of child solider recruiters brought to the organisation’s attention.

The ILO is the only international body in Burma with a mandate to tackle the problem. It said last month that it had received a total of 120 complaints of underage recruitment since it began its programme in February 2007.

Although Burma became a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991 – thereby making underage recruitment illegal under both domestic and international law – human rights groups have said that up to 20 percent of the country’s estimated 500,000 troops could be underage, making it one of the world’s leading child soldier recruiters.

A report last year by the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict claimed that children as young as nine were serving in the military.

Marshall added that despite the imprisonment of the officials, "the objective of all of the activity is not to necessarily get all of the people arrested and imprisoned, but to stop the practice of recruitment and the use of children [in the army]".

The ruling junta’s aggressive expansion of its army has been seen as a leading cause for the continuing recruitment of juniors, with senior personnel often forced to fulfill government-directed quotas for troop numbers.

The ILO last month announced that it would begin circulating leaflets around Burma carrying information about child soldier recruitment and forced labour in an attempt to educate the population on the problem. A number of Burma’s ethnic armies are also believed to recruit child soldiers.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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