There are at present several dozen armies in Burma, and almost all of them have child soldiers within their ranks. Most of them are also continuing to accept or are even actively recruiting children, including some children under fifteen years old. Almost all of these recruits are boys; Human Rights Watch did not obtain any evidence or receive any reports of the ongoing recruitment of girls except in the case of the Kachin Independence Army, which reportedly still forcibly recruits both boys and girls.
The Burma army is by far the worst offender in the recruitment of child soldiers; the evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates that there may be 70,000 or more child soldiers in the Burma army, with several thousand of these being boys under fifteen years old. Such numbers make the Burma army the single largest user of child soldiers in the world. The several dozen opposition groups and independent armies operating throughout Burma probably have a combined total of approximately 6,000 to 7,000 child soldiers.
Several of Burma's armed opposition groups appear to be responding to internal and international pressures by reducing their recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, and the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karen National Union in particular (and to a lesser extent the Shan State Army (South)), have shown a willingness to engage the international community on the issue of child soldiers. This opportunity should be used to advocate an end to all child recruitment and the demobilization of child soldiers within these armies. At the same time, the international community needs to seek ways, whether through Rangoon or through contacts via countries neighboring Burma, to influence groups less open to engagement on the issue of child soldiers. This particularly applies to the United Wa State Army, which is probably the largest user of child soldiers among the non-state armed groups.
Responsiveness on the issue is completely absent when it comes to the SPDC regime and the Burma army, however. The Burmese government continues to flatly deny that any children are being recruited or deployed in its armed forces, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. The testimony gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates that, rather than admitting and addressing the problem, the Burma army is clearly targeting children throughout Burma as easy to recruit, particularly preying on their greater susceptibility to threats and intimidation.
The international community, including the United Nations and its agencies, foreign governments, and international non-governmental organizations, should do more to press the SPDC and the Burma army to cease recruiting child soldiers and to demobilize those already in the armed forces. Moreover, very little has been done to assist child soldiers who manage to escape from military service either in the Burma army or in non-state armies. There is an urgent and growing need for services to be provided to former child soldiers, including protection, education, psychological counseling, and reunification with their families. Children who desert from the Burma army or from non-state armies and flee to neighboring countries should be protected from forcible return to Burma and be assured access to refugee status determination procedures.
The international community often makes the mistake of viewing the recruitment of child soldiers globally as a problem of non-state groups rather than government forces. This misperception has been magnified in the case of Burma by the excessive and often distorted media coverage of the young twins who led God's Army, a small group which never had more than two or three hundred soldiers and which no longer exists. Though the SPDC regime is very difficult to engage on this issue, the international community should never lose sight of the fact that the Burma army has by far the most child soldiers, is still recruiting thousands of child soldiers, and is consistently the most brutal in its treatment of child soldiers. The leading priority in the case of Burma therefore has to be using all means available to press the SPDC regime to put a stop to all recruitment of children and to release the tens of thousands of child soldiers it is presently forcibly detaining in its army.