In late 1999, a pair of chain-smoking twin boys called Luther and Johnny Htoo captured headlines as the leaders of the God's Army, an armed opposition group in Burma. Media stories about the boys and their reported mystical powers reinforced a common notion that use of child soldiers is largely a rebel group phenomenon. Yet by far the largest user of child soldiers in Burma is the military government, which appears to have 10 times as many child soldiers in its army as all of Burma's opposition groups combined.
While conducting research along the border between Thailand and Burma this year, I interviewed Aung, who was forced into into the Burmese government army at age 11. He was sent into combat for the first time when he was 12. "I was too afraid to look," he said, "so I put my face in the ground and shot my gun up at the sky. I was afraid that if I didn't fire the section leader would punish me." By the time he was 14 he had been in more than 20 battles and fighting had become routine.
Last year, at age 13, Aung said he saw members of his unit massacre 15 Shan minority women and children. He told me that after blindfolding and machine-gunning the women, soldiers killed three babies by swinging them by their legs against rocks.
Other former child soldiers have been forced to carry out appalling acts against civilians, including burning homes and rounding up villagers, including children, for forced labor.
To be a boy in Burma today is to face the constant risk of being picked up off the street and forced to become a soldier, and never seeing your parents again. Former child soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being threatened with jail if they refused to join the government army, enduring repeated beatings during training, and risking brutal punishment if they tried to escape. Once deployed, they are often sent into combat against opposition armies with little idea of why they are fighting.
Child recruitment in Burma has increased in recent years as the government has expanded its armed forces. Since violently crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, it has doubled the size of the army to an estimated 350,000 soldiers.
Recruiters, offered financial incentives for producing new recruits, find that children are the most easily coerced or intimidated into joining. Accounts from former soldiers indicate that 20 percent or more of the army's active duty soldiers may be under the age of 18, suggesting a staggering 70,000 children under arms.
The practice of recruiting children to fight extends to the rebels fighting the government. The God's Army no longer exists, but more than 30 opposition groups still operate inside Burma. All but the smallest appear to have children in their ranks.
Burma's largest opposition army, the United Wa State Army, compels Wa families with more than one son to provide one for military training. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and Kachin Independence Army are also known to forcibly recruit children.
Other groups have policies against the recruitment of children, but accept those below 18 who have been displaced by fighting or who seek revenge against Burmese forces for abuses committed against their families or communities. Child recruitment among opposition groups is generally declining. Some groups have reached cease-fire agreements with the government, while those still fighting have lost strength and resources. Several opposition groups, including the Karen National Liberation Army and the Karenni Army, acknowledge the presence of child soldiers in their forces and express interest in complying with international standards prohibiting the recruitment and use of under-age soldiers.
In contrast, the government has flatly denied any recruitment of children and recently reported to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that in Burma "there are no children in armed conflict."
International pressure for reform in Burma has often focused on release of political prisoners, easing restrictions on the National League for Democracy and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ending forced labor. Pressure toward these goals should continue. But in addition the international community should demand an immediate end to child recruitment, and demobilization of children in all Burma's armed forces and groups as a condition for any lifting of sanctions or renewed financial investment in Burma.
Jo Becker is Advocacy Director of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.