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Burma released 53 children and underage recruits from its armed forces this morning.
Including the 53 discharged today, the Burmese military has now released from service 146 persons under the age of 18 this year. In total, 699 youngsters have officially been discharged from the army since President Thein Sein’s administration signed a Joint Action Plan with the United Nations in June 2012.
No estimates were offered as to how many under-18s remain in Burma’s armed forces.
In a statement on Monday, the UN Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR) on Grave Violations against Children welcomed the latest release, but emphasised the need for continued efforts to end the practise.
“Today’s release is the result of continued efforts of the Government of Myanmar and the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] to put an end to the harmful practice of recruiting and using children. I am delighted to see these children and young people returning to their homes and families,” says Renata Lok-Dessallien, the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Burma and co-chair of the CTFMR. “We are hopeful that institutional checks that have been put in place and continued efforts will ensure that recruitment of children will exist no more.”
Speaking to DVB on Monday, Charu Lata Hogg, the Asia Program Manager for Child Soldiers International, welcomed the move, but noted that “more needs to be done”.
“There is no denying that important steps have been taken,” she said. “But the Myanmar military is yet to fully implement oversight and monitoring mechanisms over its recruitment process, take action against and hold to account all those responsible for child recruitment, and address more fully the issue of underage recruitment and use by Border Guard Forces, a group listed in the UN Secretary General’s annual report on children and armed conflict and subsequently included in the remit of the Action Plan. Access to some armed groups by the UN to verify and release children and negotiate comprehensive action plans remains patchy. Clearly, more needs to be done.”
David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for US-based Human Rights Watch, expressed skepticism.
“Today’s release is great news for the individuals released from military service and their families, but like all the ceremonies that preceded it has the air of a half-hearted PR stunt,” he told DVB on Monday. “Any observer to these staged events has to balance recognition of official progress on addressing use of child soldiers with the persistent illegal recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, which is still a significant problem nearly four years into the action plan. If the Tatmadaw was truly serious about ending its abuse of child soldiers they’d all be free now and continued recruitment would be appropriately punished to curtail the practice. We must remember that using child soldiers breaches Burmese law, and more must be done to stem continued forced or faked recruitment at a ground level.
“Any congratulations to the government must also factor in escalated armed conflict with ethnic armed groups, many of whom continue to recruit and use child soldiers. Estimating how many under-aged children are deployed to Burma’s front lines is almost impossible however, but these groups must commit to ending the use of child soldiers.”
In addition to the Tatmadaw, seven ethnic armed groups in Burma – Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Liberation Army, Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, Karenni Army, Shan State Army- South, and United Wa State Army – were accused by the UN in 2007 of recruiting children and under-18s to fight for them.
In Monday’s statement, the UN said it has started dialogue with several of these ethnic militias to discuss the possibility of signing action plans to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children under 18.
“We call on all those listed in the Secretary-General’s report to commit to end the recruitment and use of children and welcome the opportunity to work with them to bring lasting peace in Myanmar”, said Renata Lok-Dessallien.
“Children don’t belong in the military, and all parties have the duty to end children’s suffering from ongoing conflicts in Myanmar”, added Bertrand Bainvel, spokesperson for UNICEF in Burma, and co-chair of the CTFMR.
In an interview with DVB in 2013, Child Soldiers International’s Charu Lata Hogg explained the common methods used to lure children into the armed services.
“In the Burmese military, we’ve noticed civilian brokers have been used to pick up children and present them to battalion commanders who in turn receive falsified documentation of age and then recruit the children,” she said. “In other instances, we have had examples where military officials have gone out to public spaces, including railway stations and bus stops, to identify separated and unaccompanied children – especially children who’ve come from villages looking for work in the city.”
Hogg said that underage recruits may be used as porters, messengers, spies and cooks in the army. She added: “They are also trained in military equipment and in firearms and are therefore often deployed in active combat.”
The recruitment of children in a time of war is by no means a Burma-only issue; the policy has existed in almost all cultures for centuries. It was estimated that in World War I, Britain conscripted some 250,000 boys under the age of 18 into the army, most of whom saw active combat.
In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, proclaimed: “State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.”
An “optional protocol” was added to the convention in 2002, obliging signatory states to ensure that “persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.”
Burma signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Child in September this year, but has yet to ratify the accord.
WATCH FULL DVB INTERVIEW with Charu Lata Hogg, Asia Program Manager for Child Soldiers International.