Last month, two ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – the Karenni National Progressive Party and the New Mon State Party – signed a ‘deed of commitment’ with an international NGO, Geneva Call, pledging to end the practice of underage recruitment and protect children in armed conflict. The agreement with the two armed groups came close on the heels of the Joint Action Plan (JAP) agreed between the UN and the Government of Myanmar, which aims to bring an end to recruitment and use of child soldiers in Myanmar’s armed forces.
This JAP, which was the culmination of five years of negotiations between the UN and the Myanmar military, incorporates a wide range of specific measures to be implemented by the government to prevent underage recruitment and to ensure the recovery and reintegration of children in the ranks of the armed forces. It marks a significant step forward, though effective implementation will be the true test of its significance.
The signing of the JAP came about in part because of the listing of Myanmar’s armed forces and armed opposition groups in ten successive reports of the UN Secretary-General. Recruitment and use of children by all parties to armed conflict has been a recurrent feature in Myanmar’s post-independence history. As is the case in other countries where children have been recruited and used in conflict, a range of factors, including socio-economic inequalities, insecurity and culture, have made children in Myanmar vulnerable to involvement in armed conflict.
Many of these drivers of underage recruitment in Myanmar are still in place. For the armed forces these include the continued expansion of the army and the high rates of attrition; the existence of a widespread but unofficial system of incentives for military recruiters to achieve recruitment quotas and punishments for those who do not, which has spawned a system of unofficial civilian brokers; and practices by which an individual wishing to leave the armed forces must identify one to two new recruits to replace them. Unaccompanied children are especially vulnerable to the pressure of these forces because of the absence of effective age verification procedures and lack of independent monitoring and accountability.
Effective implementation of the JAP is crucial because the recruitment and use of children by the military and other armed actors in Myanmar continues to occur despite the dramatic and welcome pace of other changes in the country over the past year. Information available to Child Soldiers International and others shows that the Myanmar military and other armed groups have militarily recruited children in 2012.
The UN and other agencies have evidence that the Myanmar military routinely falsifies ages, and in some cases the identity, of recruits to hinder parents or guardians from locating them. Trickery and bribery, along with threats and force are widely used to recruit children into the Myanmar military. Most children are recruited by military personnel (ranging in rank from privates, corporals, sergeants) who pick up unaccompanied children and take them to recruitment centres, while in a few cases recruitment continues to be conducted by civilian brokers. Civilian or military brokers are paid around MMK30,000 [$35] and a bag of rice or a jerry can of kerosene for each recruit.
This all occurs in spite of the fact that underage recruitment is illegal in Myanmar. The Myanmar authorities have begun to make efforts to enforce the law, for instance by punishing military personnel for breaches of the forced labour and underage recruitment laws. But over the past five years, most of those punished have been non-commissioned officers (NCOs) – sergeants, corporals and some privates – rather than more senior officers who may sanction illegal practices.
However, most of the action taken has been disciplinary; criminal investigation and prosecutions of perpetrators are very exceptional, with only one civilian broker being referred to the criminal court. Limited measures such as these have clearly failed to act as a real deterrent to those pursuing underage recruitment. Indeed, Child Soldiers International has found that the consequences for failing to meet recruitment targets are usually more severe than the disciplinary penalties applied in instances of underage recruitment.
To translate the commitments contained in the JAP into tangible progress, there needs to be effective implementation coupled with independent monitoring. To achieve this, the UN and other independent humanitarian actors need access to military sites and conflict areas to monitor, verify and release children recruited by the military and armed opposition groups in Myanmar. The JAP is a real opportunity to end military recruitment and use of children in the country. But that will only happen if concrete legal, policy and practical measures are implemented and effectively monitored.
-Richard Clarke is the director at Child Soldiers International.
Editor’s note: At the author’s request, Myanmar has been used in this article rather than Burma.