"Burma has a poor human rights record, but its record on child soldiers is the worst in the world," said Jo Becker, advocacy director of the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.
Burma's army has doubled in size since 1988, and with an estimated 350,000 soldiers is now one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia. According to the accounts of former soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 20 percent or more of its active duty soldiers may be children under the age of 18.
The 220-page report, "My Gun was as Tall as Me: Child Soldiers in Burma," is the most comprehensive study of child soldiers in Burma to date. Drawing on interviews with more than three dozen current and former child soldiers, the report examines child recruitment by 19 different armed opposition groups in addition to Burma's national army.
Recruiters for Burma's army frequently apprehend boys at train and bus stations, markets and other public places, threatening them with jail if they refuse to join the army. The boys are given no opportunity to contact their families, and are sent to camps where they undergo weapons training, are routinely beaten, and brutally punished if they try to escape. Human Rights Watch received several accounts of boys who were beaten to death after trying to run away.
Once deployed, boys as young as 12 engage in combat against opposition groups, and are forced to commit human rights abuses against civilians, including rounding up villagers for forced labor, burning villages, and carrying out executions. Human Rights Watch interviewed two boys, ages 13 and 15 at the time, who belonged to units that massacred a group of 15 women and children in Shan State in early 2001.
"Burma's army preys on children, using threats, intimidation and often violence to force young boys to become soldiers," said Becker. "To be a boy in Burma today means facing the constant risk of being picked up off the street, forced to commit atrocities against villagers, and never seeing your family again."
Human Rights Watch noted that there is no way to precisely estimate the number of children in Burma's army, but it appears that the vast majority of new recruits are forcibly conscripted, and there may be as many as 70,000 soldiers under the age of 18.
Children are also present in Burma's myriad armed opposition groups, although child recruitment is generally decreasing as many opposition groups have shrunk in size and resources in recent years. The United Wa State Army, the largest of the opposition forces, forcibly conscripts children and has the largest number of child soldiers of the opposition groups. The Kachin Independence Army also forcibly recruits children, and according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, is the only armed group in Burma to recruit girls. Other opposition forces, including the Shan State Army (South), Karen National Liberation Army and the Karenni Army, have stated policies against recruiting children under the age of 18, but appear to accept children who actively seek to join their forces. Although many armed opposition groups have ceasefire agreements with the government, children in opposition forces may also participate in combat, sometimes with little training.
"The international community has increasingly recognized the use of child soldiers as unacceptable," said Becker. "Burma's armed forces and groups must immediately stop recruiting children, and demobilize all children in their ranks."
International law prohibits government forces or armed groups from recruiting children under the age of fifteen. Such recruitment has been recognized as a war crime under the statute for the International Criminal Court. In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that raised the minimum age for participation in armed conflict to 18, and prohibits all forced recruitment of children below age 18. Burma is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but has not yet signed and ratified the optional protocol.
The International Labour Organization convention on the worst forms of child labor, adopted in 1999, also recognizes the forced recruitment of children under age 18 for use in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labor.
Human Rights Watch called on Burma's army and all armed opposition groups to immediately end all recruitment of children under the age of 18, and to demobilize all children currently serving as soldiers. It urged the government and armed groups to cooperate with international agencies such as UNICEF to reunify former child soldiers with their families and facilitate their rehabilitation and social reintegration.
Human Rights Watch also appealed to other governments to strongly condemn the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the Burma government and other armed groups, and to use diplomatic and other appropriate means to end the use of child soldiers in Burma.
Around the world, an estimated 300,000 children under the age of 18 are currently participating in armed conflicts in approximately 30 countries.