Burma is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, lying strategically between India, China, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand. Over the past three millennia various peoples have migrated into what is now Burma from other parts of east Asia, leaving the country with a diverse ethnic mix. The present population is generally estimated to be approximately fifty million, though no reliable census data exists; this is made up of the dominant Burman group and approximately fifteen other major ethnicities, each of which has one or more subgroups. While the military junta presently ruling Burma claims that 67 or 70 percent of the population is ethnically Burman, this is based on skewed data from an old census in which anyone with a Burmese-language name was listed as Burman. By contrast, non-Burman groups set the figure at 70 percent non-Burman and 30 percent Burman. Other estimates range between these two extremes.9
Enmities between certain ethnic groups go back hundreds of years, dating from the times that Burman, Mon-Khmer, and Rakhine kingdoms fought each other, while more peaceable peoples were driven into remote areas. The end result was a central plain dominated by Burmans, encircled by various non-Burman populations who form the majority in the outlying and more rugged regions of the country. Most of the ethnic groups are concentrated within a particular region, which has been a central factor in the formation of ethnicity-based armed groups, each based in their home region and drawing support from the local population.
In the nineteenth century the British took over what is now Burma and formed it into a single entity under the Indian colonial administration. The Japanese occupied Burma during the Second World War but were driven out by British Empire forces as the war drew to an end. However, by that time Burmese nationalism was already too strong for the British, who negotiated with Burmese General Aung San and granted Burma independence in 1948. Though Aung San had negotiated agreements with some non-Burman groups, he was assassinated in 1947 and none of these agreements were ever honored. Instead, the new Burmese government refused any autonomy to non-Burman ethnic regions. Facing a communist insurgency from the beginning, the government soon found itself also facing an increasing number of armed ethnicity-based resistance groups all over the country, most of which were seeking their own independence.
In 1962 the head of the Burma army, General Ne Win, overthrew the civilian government and established the military rule that has continued to this day. He progressively stepped up the civil war against the dozen or more resistance and insurgent groups he was already facing, and his xenophobic economic policies and repression of the civilian population gradually dragged the country down into poverty. In 1988 civilian anger exploded into mass nationwide peaceful demonstrations led by students and Buddhist monks. The army responded by attacking the crowds with machine gun fire and bayonets, and as many as 3,000 are estimated to have been killed. The government reformed itself into a military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and imposed martial law, curfews and other restrictions, while thousands of dissidents fled to the large territories controlled by ethnic and communist armed groups, there to form their own additional political and armed groups. In 1990 the SLORC held an election in most parts of the country, but when the opposition National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, the junta refused to concede power.
Since that time restrictions on human rights and freedoms have intensified throughout the country, and human rights abuses have grown much worse especially in the non-Burman regions. In 1997 the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but this was not accompanied by any changes in policy. The army, which had fewer than 200,000 men before 1988, announced a program to expand its strength to 500,000, and began much more intensive attacks throughout the country. This was facilitated by a mutiny in 1989 which caused the dissolution of the Communist Party of Burma, the country's largest opposition armed group. The SLORC was quick to approach the United Wa State Army, which had been formed from the remnants of the communist soldiers, and negotiated a ceasefire with it that still stands. Through the 1990s ethnic resistance groups found that they could no longer withstand the intensified attacks of the greatly expanded Burma army, and one by one the majority of them also entered into ceasefire agreements. These agreements do not address any political aspirations or human rights concerns of the resistance groups, but allow them to retain arms and control over small parts of their former areas. They are given freedom to conduct business, which in some areas includes the narcotics trade, and many of these groups have now become primarily money-making armies using their arms to protect their business interests.
Some groups have continued to fight, though in a greatly weakened state. Since 1995 the Burma army has been successful in capturing most of the former territories of these armies and in creating splits and factionalism within them, to the point where none of the remaining groups without ceasefires any longer controls significant territories and they primarily operate in smaller guerrilla units. These units harass local Burma army columns but seldom leave their home areas. The main groups which are still fighting include the Shan State Army (South), the Karen National Liberation Army, and the Karenni Army, none of which has more than 5,000 or 6,000 troops. With the exception of the Karenni Army, most of these groups gave up the objective of independence after 1988 and have instead been pursuing the objective of a democratic federal union. At present they are not a military threat to the SPDC's hold on power, but they are hoping to hold out in their struggle until other factors in Burma lead to political change.
Burma army camps are in abundance throughout Burma, even in areas far from any armed conflict. Where there is no fighting, the troops work to restrict the activities and movements of the civilian population and make demands on them for forced labor and money. In areas where there is still armed conflict, the army attempts to undermine the opposition by destroying civilian villages and food supplies and retaliating against the local civilian population every time fighting occurs. Civilians in these areas are routinely forced to work as porters, guides, and unarmed sentries for Burma army units on military operations, and even walk in front of troops in areas suspected of landmine contamination (atrocity demining). Many of them are children, and many are wounded or killed in the process. This direct use of civilian children for military functions has been documented widely by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, and is not covered in detail in this report.
The Burma army's expansion is ongoing. Since 1988 there have been few willing volunteers, so the army has relied increasingly on forced conscription. Children aged twelve to seventeen are the most vulnerable targets, and more and more of them are being rounded up and forced into the Burma army. At present Burma also has more than thirty opposition armies, and most of these also recruit children. Though more than twenty of these groups presently have ceasefire agreements with the SPDC, they have retained their arms and their child soldiers. Overall, child recruitment by opposition armies has been greatly reduced during the 1990s by the ceasefire agreements and by the significant reduction in armed strength of those groups which are still fighting. While child recruitment and child soldiers are still a significant problem in many opposition armies, the Burma army is recruiting and using many times the total number of child soldiers in all of the opposition armies combined, and it is therefore the main focus of this report.
The next section of this report examines in detail the recruitment and treatment of child soldiers in the Burma army. Later in the report, several of the major opposition armies are also examined in detail regarding the same issues.
9 For further discussion of this issue see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London: Zed Books, 1999), p. 30. Smith states that the numbers published by the SPDC "appear deliberately to play down ethnic minority numbers."