Burma has more child soldiers than any other country in the world. They account for approximately one-fourth of the 300,000 children currently believed to be participating in armed conflicts around the globe. Forced recruitment of children by government forces is so widespread that the United Nations secretary-general recently placed Burma on an international list of violators that flout international laws prohibiting the recruitment and use of children as soldiers. As a result, today Burma will come under U.N. Security Council scrutiny for the first time, and the Council will debate what steps to take against such violators.
A 2002 investigation by Human Rights Watch found that as many as 70,000 children under the age of eighteen may be serving in Burma's national armed forces. Another 6,000-7,000 serve in Burma's myriad armed ethnic opposition groups. Army recruiters apprehend boys as young as 11 at train stations, markets and other places, and use threats and coercion to force them into the army.
One boy was recruited at age 13 while attending a festival with friends. He told Human Rights Watch that army recruiters threatened him and his friends with jail if they refused to join. He said, "We were all students so we showed our student cards, but they tore them up. Then he [a corporal] threatened us and showed us his gun. We were afraid, so we agreed. We didn't dare try to run away." 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. Boys as young as 12 are sent into combat against ethnic opposition groups.
Child soldiers are forced to commit human-rights abuses against civilians, including rounding up villagers for forced labor, burning villages, and carrying out executions. One 14-year-old boy described witnessing his unit massacre a group of 15 women and children during operations in Shan State. He said that the soldiers blindfolded the women, "then six of the corporals loaded their guns and shot them. They fired on auto. The women had no time to shout. I felt very bad because there were all these people in front of me, and they killed them all. After the mothers were killed they killed the babies. They swung them by their legs and smashed them against a rock."
Many child soldiers eventually find life in the army unbearable. Despite fears that they will be killed or imprisoned if caught, they try to flee. But even those who succeed have few options. Afraid to return home, many end up working illegally in neighboring countries, or join opposition groups to fight against their former captors.
Children are also present in Burma's armed opposition groups, although child recruitment has declined in recent years as many opposition groups have shrunk in size and resources. Meanwhile, the number of children in government forces has grown. Since 1988, Burma has doubled the size of its army, and recruiters have found children to be most easily coerced or intimidated into joining.
A year ago, the Security Council asked the secretary-general for a progress report on governments and groups known to recruit and use child soldiers. It indicated its willingness to engage in dialogue with such parties to develop action plans to end child-soldier use. The Council also stated its intention to consider additional steps -- which could include sanctions -- in cases where there is no progress. In other countries where child-soldier use is also widespread, programs have been put in place to demobilize child soldiers and help them reintegrate into their communities. But in Burma, no such program exists, and the secretary-general has reported that child recruitment continues unabated. The government flatly denies any recruitment of children into its forces.
In the past, Burma and its political allies have persuaded the Security Council that Burma's armed conflict is an internal matter that should not concern the Council. Now the Council has begun to reject such arguments in the case of egregious violations against children in conflict. The secretary-general has recommended a range of targeted sanctions against parties that persist in recruiting and using child soldiers. These include travel restrictions on the leaders responsible for the practice, bans on military assistance and the export or supply of small arms, and restrictions on the flow of financial resources to those who continue to engage in this horrifying practice.
Burma should take concrete steps to end child recruitment and demobilize the children from its forces. Until this happens, other governments, including Burma's Asian allies, who have the most leverage with the Burmese government, should make clear that they will withhold military and other support. Forcing children to fight and carry out atrocities should not be tolerated.
--- Jo Becker is advocacy director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and the author of "My Gun Was as Tall as Me: Child Soldiers in Burma" (Human Rights Watch, 2002). The report can be found at: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/burma/
The United Nations Security Council's fourth open debate on children and armed conflict is taking place today. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers released a new report on child soldiers last week that include recommendations to the U.N. Security Council members. To read the report, please see: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/childsoldiers0104/