Children in Detention
Human Rights Watch/Asia is very concerned about the treatment of children in detention centers and jails. Since the SLORC took power, torture and inhuman treatment of prisoners, particularly political prisoners, has been routine. There is no international monitoring of conditions in Burma's jails, and in June 1995 the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that it was closing down its offices in Burma following the failure of negotiations to gain access to all Burma's places of detention.
In the government's report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, it states that children will be tried by juvenile courts and, if convicted of any offense, they will be detained in juvenile detention centers. Human Rights Watch/Asia believes that there is only one, possibly two, detention centers for boys in the whole of Burma. One, outside Rangoon, houses 400 boys who have been convicted of serious criminal offenses, including murder, drug trafficking and violent theft. Access to this institution has been severely limited, and to Human Rights Watch/Asia's knowledge no foreign expert or individual has been given access in the past seven years. A consultant to UNICEF, Jo Boyden, wrote in a report in February 1992 that "this facility should be investigated at the earliest opportunity since conditions are reported to be particularly harsh there. One doctor who visited the center observed extremely high levels of sexual abuse."29 To our knowledge, this recommendation has not been taken up, although UNICEF and some international NGOs have raised the issue with the Burmese government.
Given the current lack of juvenile detention centers in Burma, many child offenders are believed to be held in adult facilities, despite the provisions of the Child Law. In the past five years the numbers of prisons and prison labor camps in Burma has increased substantially, and conditions in the labor camps particularly are known to be appalling. In September 1995, Human Rights Watch/Asia witnessed a group of over one hundred women and young girls marching in line from their prison labor camp just outside Mandalay to the quarry where they worked. Although it was not possible to talk to the women, locals reported that some of the girls were as young as fifteen, and most had been sentenced for petty crimes, such as stealing. It is not known how many children are held in similar camps across the country, but Human Rights Watch/Asia urges an immediate investigation into conditions in prison labor camps. The Special Rapporteur on Burma, in his 1996 report noted that "108 out of a total population of 503 prison inmates died from starvation, sickness and hard work during one year in Boke Pyin prison labor camp."30
As well as children detained for their actions, young children may also be detained along with their mothers. Section 53 of the Child Law allows the child of a female prisoner to stay together with his/her mother in prison until the age of four years or six years if the mother so desires. A former inmate of the women's section of Insein Jail, the main prison in Rangoon, told Human Rights Watch/Asia in 1992 that at any one time between fifty and sixty children were housed with their mothers. Human Rights Watch/Asia urges the government to consider non-custodial sentence in case of nursing mothers and mothers with young children as an alternative form of sentencing. In jail, the conditions in which these children have to live are cause for concern. They receive no supplementary foods, other than that given to all adult prisoners (which is poor quality rice, with a small amount of fish paste and liquid vegetable curry). There are no schooling provisions for them, and, like all prisoners, they are not permitted to have books or toys. In addition, Human Rights Watch/Asia is concerned by the fact that some children stay with their mothers for many years. In one particular case which was reported widely in the media at the time, a Karen girl who had been born in jail was released in September 1988 when the government emptied all of Burma's jails to make room for political prisoners. Her mother had died some years before, and, at the time of her release, the girl was twenty-four years old.
Section 17 of the Child Law permits adoption but fails to ensure that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration as required under the CRC. The provision that adoption "shall be in the interests of the child" is not sufficient. Orphans or children who have otherwise lost their parents or guardians are vulnerable to abuse and may become bonded as domestic servants or farm laborers. Burma's informal adoption practices, under which most adoptions take place, are based on Buddhist customary law and include no legal protection for these children. A consultant for UNICEF described the situation as one which "legitimates the exploitation of children from poor families by wealthier families. Parents surrender their children in good faith, expecting them to be treated as members of the adoptive family. Instead they become unpaid domestic laborers and may be subjected to many other abuses besides."31
Specialized centers and agencies should be established to provide information on parentless children available for adoption or placement with families. Further, the legislation does not provide for measures to protect children after placement. In order to protect children placed in care, periodic review of the placement is required.
29 Jo Boyden, "Myanmar: Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances" (Rangoon: UNICEF, February 1992).
30 Lallah, "Report on the Situation..." 1996, para.79
31 Jo Boyden, "Myanmar: Children..."