(New York) - Facing a military staffing crisis, the Burmese government is forcibly recruiting many children, some as young as age 10, into its armed forces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Burmese military recruiters target children in order to meet unrelenting demands for new recruits due to continued army expansion, high desertion rates and a lack of willing volunteers. Non-state armed groups, including ethnic-based insurgent groups, also recruit and use child soldiers, though in far smaller numbers.
“The brutality of Burma’s military government goes beyond its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. “Military recruiters are literally buying and selling children to fill the ranks of the Burmese armed forces.”
Based on an investigation in Burma, Thailand and China, the 135-page report, “Sold to Be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma,” found that military recruiters and civilian brokers receive cash payments and other incentives for each new recruit, even if the recruit clearly violates minimum age or health standards.
One boy told Human Rights Watch that he was forcibly recruited at age 11, despite being only 1.3 meters tall (4’3”) and weighing less than 31 kilograms (70 pounds). Officers at recruitment centers routinely falsify enlistment records to list children as 18, the minimum legal age for recruitment.
Recruiters target children at train and bus stations, markets and other public places, and often threaten them with arrest if they refuse to join the army. Some children are beaten until they agree to “volunteer.”
“The government’s senior generals tolerate the blatant recruitment of children and fail to punish perpetrators,” said Becker. “In this environment, army recruiters traffic children at will.”
Child soldiers typically receive 18 weeks of military training. Some are sent into combat situations within days of their deployment to battalions. Child soldiers are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses, such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labor. Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited or imprisoned.
All of the former soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported the presence of children in their training units. Thousands of children are present in the army’s ranks, although their prevalence varies considerably by battalion. Particularly in some newly formed battalions, children reportedly constitute a large percentage of privates.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the military’s recent crackdown on monks and civilian demonstrators may make children even more vulnerable to recruitment.
“Even before the recent crackdown, many young adults rejected military service because of grueling conditions, low pay and mistreatment by superior officers,” said Becker. “After deploying its soldiers against Buddhist monks and other peaceful demonstrators, the government may find it even harder to find willing volunteers.”
In 2004, the military government, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), created a high-level committee to prevent the recruitment of children into the military. However, Human Rights Watch found that in practice the committee has failed to effectively address the issue and devoted most of its efforts to denouncing outside reports of child recruitment. As recently as September, the state-run media announced that the government was working to reveal that accusations of child soldier use were “totally untrue.”
“The government’s committee to address child recruitment is a sham,” said Becker. “Instead of denouncing credible reports of child recruitment, the government must address the issue head-on. It needs to demobilize all of the children in its forces, and end all recruitment of children.”
The majority of Burma’s 30 or more non-state armed groups reportedly also recruit and use child soldiers, though in far smaller numbers. Human Rights Watch examined the policies and practices of 12 armed groups and found that some, like the Karenni Army and Karen National Liberation Army, have taken measures to reduce the numbers of children in their forces. But others, including the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, United Wa State Army and Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front, continue to recruit and use children, sometimes by imposing recruitment quotas on local villages. Child soldiers in the armed forces of these groups may be as young as 11 or 12. While some armed groups restrict child soldiers to duties in their camps, others deploy child soldiers into combat situations.
In the coming weeks, the United Nations Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict will consider violations against children in Burma, including the use and recruitment of child soldiers. The UN secretary-general has already identified Burma’s national armed forces in four consecutive reports to the Security Council for violating international laws prohibiting the use of child soldiers. The secretary-general has also listed several armed opposition groups as violators.
The Security Council has stated repeatedly that it will consider targeted sanctions, including embargoes of arms and other military assistance, against parties on the secretary-general’s list that refuse to end their use of children as soldiers. So far, it has taken no action in the case of Burma.
Human Rights Watch recommended that the Security Council consider imposing measures including bans on the supply of arms and military assistance, travel restrictions on SPDC leaders, and restrictions on the flow of financial resources to the SPDC.
“The Security Council should fulfill its pledge to hold violators to account for recruiting and using child soldiers,” said Becker. “Given Burma’s abysmal record on child soldiers, sanctions against the Burmese military government are clearly warranted.”
Testimony from the report
“They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16, I was slapped and he said, ‘You are 18. Answer 18.’ He asked me again and I said, ‘But that’s my true age.’ The sergeant asked, ‘Then why did you enlist in the army?’ I said, ‘Against my will. I was captured.’ He said, ‘Okay, keep your mouth shut then,’ and he filled in the form. I just wanted to go back home and I told them, but they refused. I said, ‘Then please just let me make one phone call,’ but they refused that too.”
—Maung Zaw Oo, describing the second time he was forced into the army, in 2005
“The officers are corrupt and the battalions have to get recruits, so there’s a business. The battalions bribe the recruiting officers to get recruits for them. These are mostly underage recruits, but the recruiting officers fill out the forms for them and say they’re 18.”
—Than Myint Oo, forcibly recruited twice as a child
“I can’t remember how old I was the first time in fighting. About 13. That time we walked into a Karenni ambush, and four of our soldiers died. I was afraid because I was very young so I tried to run back, but [the] captain shouted, ‘Don’t run back! If you run back I’ll shoot you myself!’”
—Aung Zaw, describing his first exposure to combat
“Some really want to join, but others are conscripted. Each village tract has to send 10 people each time. … People have to take turns sending a recruit, so some parents send boys under 18. They need to fulfill this obligation. If they don’t fulfill it, the DKBA can make lots of trouble for them. They don’t accept crazy or sick people, but if you’re normal you have to go whether you’re under 18 or over 18. They don’t care how old you are.”
—Junior officer with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
“It is necessary for us to always refute the accusations [about the forcible recruitment of child soldiers] systematically … [and] always project before the international community the correct efforts being made by the committee and refute baseless accusations.”
—Adjutant General Thein Sein, in his concluding speech to the Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children, 2005