Route home blocked for child soldiers

A full two years after the Burmese government pledged to release all children from military service, many young victims of underage recruitment remain trapped in the army’s ranks.

Under a 2012 agreement between Naypyidaw and the United Nations Children’s Fund, all underage recruits were to be sent home to their families.

Yet some soldiers say they were recruited as minors and that the Burmese military hasn’t done enough to tackle the problem. They say  bureaucratic processes are deliberately keeping young soldiers from returning to their families.

“I applied for discharge at the end of 2012, and the only development since that time was when my battalion received a fax indicating that I would be discharged soon,” said an under-aged recruit who wished to remain anonymous. “I have received no update for over a year.”

On the first of August, the Burmese government was widely praised for the release of 91 children and persons under the age of 18. The United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, congratulated the government, stating that the action indicated a real commitment to upholding international law.

While several such releases have granted freedom to some 360 children since the agreement was made in 2012, the piecemeal release of coerced under-aged recruits has done little to relieve the heartache of parents still longing for their lost boys.

“We just really want to have our son discharged,” a parent of one such boy told DVB. “It has been a long while, a very long while.”

The Burmese government’s pledge also guarantees freedom for those who were recruited as minors but have since come of age while serving in the military. For those young persons, bureaucratic stumbling blocks are often preventing them from being discharged.

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“There are usually delays when a [child soldier] seeking to discharge cannot provide all necessary paperwork,” said Thet Wai, an activist working with Facilitators Network, which is partnered with the International Labour Organization (ILO). He said that even when soldiers present all of the necessary paper, authorities are creating delays during processing measures, which he argues betrays “their lack of respect for the law”.

As the government stalls on the release of children already serving in the military, many say that even more are still being forced into the ranks. The ILO believes that about 50 youths have been forcibly recruited since 2013.

Charu Lata Hogg,  the Asia programme manager for Child Soldiers International, told DVB earlier this month that without reforms to recruitment procedures, accountability and monitoring, Burma’s children will remain at risk; some are kidnapped from temples or markets, others duped into enlisting with the promise of an education.

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