Jo Becker is the advocacy director in the Children’s Rights Division of New York-based Human Rights Watch
Question: How many child soldiers are there in the Burmese army?
Answer: We really are not sure. Many of the soldiers we interviewed said that their training units had large numbers of children, over 30 percent. In battalions, the numbers vary greatly, with some having less than 5 percent. Given that the practice is illegal and not something the SPDC keeps numbers on, it would be almost impossible to calculate how many soldiers there are less than 18 years of age. We are sure however that this is a very large problem, with hardly any official measures being taken to end it.
Q: Do you have any evidence that child soldiers were used against civilians and monks during the recent crackdown on peaceful protests in Burma?
A: We have seen some pictures and interviewed eyewitnesses who say they saw young soldiers who could have been 18 years or younger participate in the crackdown. However, child soldiers are deployed in ethnic areas where they are often forced to participate in human rights violations against civilians.
Q: The Burmese army is very large, some say more than 400,000. Why do they keep recruiting underage children?
A: The army continues to expand, but also suffers very high desertion rates. Because the army is not well respected in Burmese society anymore, rates of voluntary recruitment are very low. As a result, forced recruitment is widely practiced. Military recruiters have found that targeting vulnerable children is an easy way to meet their recruitment quotas.
Q: How are child soldiers recruited into the Burmese army?
A: It is not an official policy, and the Burmese defence services have very clear regulations prohibiting the recruitment of children under 18. They just don’t enforce the regulations. Children are recruited by other soldiers and recruiters who often lurk around public places; train stations, truck stations, outside video halls and movie cinemas. They are picked up walking home at night, or in raids on tea shops and public gatherings. The recruiters often approach young men and ask them for their ID and arrest or detain them on spurious charges, in many cases in collusion with corrupt police officers. They are then given the option of going to prison on these trumped up charges or joining the army.
Recruiters routinely receive money and sacks of rice for delivering children to recruitment centers. These incentives perpetuate the practice, particularly when there are no effective sanctions against recruiters who violate regulations by recruiting children.
Q: What is life like for child soldiers in the Burmese military?
A: Conditions are desperate. Children are often used to perform heavy labor to benefit their commanding officers. If they complain or can’t carry out their assignments, they are often beaten. Conditions in conflict areas are also deplorable. The food and shelter is very bad, and many soldiers often steal food and other supplies from villagers. They also face the danger from attacks by anti-government insurgents, landmines and diseases like malaria and TB. Another factor is that for children under 18, they have no access to schooling.
Q: What human rights abuses, if any, do child soldiers in Burma commit?
A: We know that child soldiers are involved in combat operations, and that they operate in ethnic conflict areas. There, as Human Rights Watch and many other groups have documented, human rights violations are perpetrated with impunity by the Burmese army, and child soldiers are involved. Former child soldiers have told us that they either observed or participated in burning of villages, forced displacement, the use of civilians for forced labor and even massacres.
Q: What about non-state armed groups such as the United Wa State Army and KNU? Don’t they also use child soldiers?
A: There are more than 30 non-state armed groups in Burma. In this category is the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) which we believe to have considerable numbers of child soldiers. The UWSA for sure has large numbers of underage soldiers in their ranks. Some groups, such as the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) don’t have large numbers of child soldiers and maintain strict regulations against recruitment of children under 18 years of age into their ranks, but we have concerns over their screening procedures. Other groups like the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) we believe have made commendable progress in ending the practice and recommend that they should be removed from the United Nations list of groups actively using child soldiers. There is a lot of work the international community should do on this issue of use of children by non-state armed groups, particularly the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), but also many smaller groups that are not so prominent such as some of the Karenni splinter groups that are aligned with the SPDC.
Q: What is the status of these groups under international humanitarian law?
A: The KNU, KNPP and the UWSA have consulted with the United Nations and other international agencies regarding the child soldiers issue, and both the KNU and KNPP have signed voluntary “deeds of commitment,” saying that they will not recruit or use children in their forces. Although these are non-state forces, they are still bound by international humanitarian law to protect children from participation in armed conflict. Their political status may be complex, but their responsibilities are not.
Q: Can you tell The Irrawaddy readers what the international conventions are on the use of children in armed conflict?
A: The nearly universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child states clearly that a child is anyone under the age of 18, and prohibits any recruitment or use of children as soldiers below age 15. The recruitment and use of children under age 15 is also considered a war crime. An optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by 120 states, and sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict, for any forced recruitment or conscription, and any recruitment or use of children by non-state armed groups. The rules are strict, but they are designed to protect children, and that is what armed groups and governments not just in Burma but throughout the world must realize. It’s about protecting children from harm and trauma.
Q: The SPDC has created a Committee for the Prevention of Recruitment of Minors since 2004, and claims that there are no child soldiers in its army. Has this committee been effective?
A: No, it really is a sham, and has been since it was created in 2004. It is a public relations exercise designed to mislead the international community. The committee claims to have demobilized some numbers of child soldiers but this has never been verified, and the SPDC refuses to permit truly independent monitoring. They also stage some visits to the su saun ye recruitment centers in Mandalay for international agencies, but these are carefully orchestrated and just for show. No one should be fooled by them.
Q: How effective are the United Nations agencies and the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Ms Coomeraswamy?
A: We respect the work that the Special Representative has done on this issue, and her office has managed to do commendable reporting on violations against children in armed conflict in countries all over the world. The visit by Radhika Coomeraswamy to Burma in June this year secured in principle agreement to a mechanism for reporting cases of child soldier recruitment and closer cooperation between the SPDC and UNICEF. However, the SPDC has to do a lot more to genuinely cooperate with the special representative and her office. In December, the Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict will meet to discuss Burma’s compliance with international laws related to child soldiers, and has the potential to seriously censure the SPDC on their use of children in the army.
Q: Is Human Rights Watch hopeful that the SPDC will do something to prevent the use of child soldiers?
A: We’re hopeful that something can be done, but we’re also skeptical over the SPDC’s sincerity on tackling this issue. We know that United Nation’s agencies inside Burma and in the UN system are doing good work on ending the practice of using child soldiers. We call on the SPDC to put in practice an effective system to identify and demobilize child soldiers. The government also needs to permit genuine and confidential investigation by United Nations and other international agencies on this issue. Also very important is a mechanism for the parents and family of children who have been recruited to approach authorities and secure their release without reprisals to themselves or their sons. This is crucial.