VI. Child Soldiers in Non-State Armed Groups

I was watching the video, and he sat and talked to me. He said if I joined I’d be happy and get a salary and uniform. I don’t remember his name but he was from KNPLF. I agreed to join. He spoke to many people in the cinema, one by one, 20 or 25 people, adults, women, boys. About six people went with him. The older ones were 16 or 17, the younger ones 11, 12 or 13. I went home but didn’t tell my mother, then I went with him.

—Koo Reh, recruited by the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front in 2005 at age 13220

There are several dozen non-state armed groups in Burma, and each year sees the creation of one or two more. This report does not attempt to present the details of each such group, because of limited space and because any such attempt could not fairly give each group the same degree of attention. Instead, it will look at policy, practice, and trends using examples of various groups to give an indication of how some of these groups recruit, deploy, and treat child soldiers, and what (if any) initiatives they have undertaken to confront the issue. The examples are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive: there are probably at least 20 armed groups that are not mentioned below even if they have child soldiers. It is safe to say that most of Burma’s non-state armed groups have at least some child soldiers in their ranks, but they differ greatly in how these children are recruited and treated, and in their willingness and efforts to stop using child soldiers. All of them are much smaller in troop strength than the Tatmadaw, and even taken in combination their numbers of child soldiers do not begin to compare with the large numbers of child soldiers in the Tatmadaw. Different groups have been ignoring or confronting the issue in very different ways. Addressing the problem in any single group, however, would require a specific study of conditions within and surrounding that group to a degree that is beyond the depth of analysis possible in this report.

Burma’s non-state armed groups vary greatly in size, numbering from a few dozen soldiers to several thousand. Exact numbers are difficult to establish because some groups greatly exaggerate their size, while others treat the information as secret. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is widely believed to be the largest in fighting strength, with some analysts estimating their troop strength as 20,000 or more.221 No other group is generally believed to field over 10,000 troops; several are likely to fall in the 1,000 to 5,000 range, with many numbering under 1,000.

Prior to 1988 non-state groups controlled a large proportion of Burma’s land area, but this has since been greatly reduced by Tatmadaw inroads. Beginning in 1989 with the UWSA, the majority of armed groups have made ceasefire agreements with the state. Under these ceasefires, the non-state groups retain their arms and partial control over territory, but the agreements do not establish any new political structures and in some cases do not even exist in written form. Over 10 groups are still fighting against the Tatmadaw, but of these only the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and Karenni Army (KA) number over 1,000 troops. “Ceasefire groups” and “non-ceasefire groups” alike rely on local civilian populations to a large extent for resources, and most are engaged in business activities, so there are advantages in having more troops who can exert de facto influence over more villages—provided the group has the resources to arm and equip them. Even ceasefire groups want enough troops to defend themselves against rivals, and against the Tatmadaw should the ceasefire break down. Finally, greater troop strength is also used to claim greater legitimacy and rights to inclusion in political negotiations. All of these factors motivate some groups to seek expansion through forced or voluntary recruitment, while others recruit simply to maintain their present strength and position, particularly if prevented from expanding by lack of weapons, ammunition, and equipment.

Non-state groups differ from the Tatmadaw in that they recruit in far smaller numbers. Many child recruits tend to be volunteers, either because their families cannot support them, they want to participate in armed struggle, or because they are seeking to fight back against human rights abuses that have affected their families and villages. Some armed groups impose recruit quotas on villages, and families called upon to supply a recruit often send a child under 18—either to retain the older, more productive family members needed for family survival, or because they have no children over 18. The greatest test of the policy of a non-state group, and where policies against child recruitment often break down in practice, occurs when confronted with underage volunteers who may be homeless orphans, or child recruits sent by a village to fulfill its recruit quota.

After recruitment, it appears that most of these armies treat their soldiers more humanely than the Tatmadaw does, though they do not provide much in the way of salary, and living conditions are often difficult. Some groups deploy child soldiers in combat situations, while others restrict them to office or rear-area duty. Desertion does occur, and many groups say that they do not have the capacity nor the will to pursue or recapture deserters.

Each of the past 10 years has seen the creation of several new non-state armed groups, some by splitting off from existing groups and others newly created. In some cases these are factions breaking away in order to negotiate a ceasefire with the SPDC, while others have broken away from ceasefire groups in order to resume fighting. Either way, new factions or groups usually seek rapid expansion through recruitment in order to protect themselves and gain legitimacy. Without firm policies yet in place, newly established groups are particularly prone to recruiting children. Even long-existing non-state groups have only recently begun seeing child recruitment as an issue, or previously considered childhood to end at a younger age such as 15. Some, including the Karenni Army and the Karen National Liberation Army, have taken extensive measures to try to bring their practices into line with international standards. Others are wary of engaging the international community on this issue, including the Shan State Army-South, which appears to have taken some measures on its own but is reluctant to allow outside monitoring, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which considers accepting children into non-combat roles in the Army as a form of foster care for vulnerable children, and insists that it will continue to deal with the issue without outside involvement. Finally, some groups flatly deny having child soldiers despite clear evidence to the contrary, or demonstrate no concern over the recruitment of children, including the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Rebellion Resistance Force in Kachin State, and the United Wa State Army. These examples and others are discussed in more detail below.222

The first examples presented below are the three non-state armed groups that, along with the Tatmadaw, are currently included on the UN secretary-general’s list of groups using child soldiers: the United Wa State Army, Karenni Army, and the Karen National Liberation Army. These are followed by several other groups presented as examples, with the larger groups presented first.223 Based on the evidence gathered for this report, Human Rights Watch recommends that the Karenni Army (KA) be removed from the secretary-general’s list of parties to armed conflict in violation of international norms prohibiting the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and that the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) should be among groups considered for addition to the list.

United Wa State Army

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is probably Burma’s largest non-state armed group, with troop numbers often estimated at 20,000.224 It has operated under a ceasefire with the government since 1989, and is based in two main areas in northeastern and southern Shan state. In 2002 Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses and a former UWSA soldier who testified that the UWSA requires each family in their areas of operation to provide one son to the army, and that they also conduct recruiting sweeps on villages in which they take boys as young as 12. Young boys are then put through military education and training and become soldiers at a very young age, leading to a high proportion of child soldiers within the UWSA.225 Since then, occasional witness reports suggest that the situation has changed little if at all, though Human Rights Watch was unable to gather detailed information on the current status of the UWSA for this report. People from southern Shan state recently reported that the SPDC has now ordered UWSA units in southern Shan state to withdraw to the UWSA headquarters area in northeastern Shan state. Instead of moving, the five UWSA bases affected are reportedly strengthening their defenses and reinforcing their troop numbers for a possible confrontation with the Tatmadaw. To support these efforts the UWSA is reportedly recruiting heavily in some areas, which could involve child recruitment. 226

Karenni Army

The Karenni Army (KA) is the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and operates in eastern Kayah (Karenni) state. Though a ceasefire was agreed in 1995, it was broken by the Tatmadaw in 1996 and armed conflict has continued since then. Gen. Aung Mya, second in command of the KA, told Human Rights Watch that their forces are divided into a full-time professional army now numbering about 600, and a part-time militia also numbering about 600. He noted that ongoing Tatmadaw campaigns are displacing villagers in the Mawchi area of southern Kayah state, causing many displaced villagers to approach the KA wanting to join the militia, which is expanding.227 According to KNPP spokesman Khu Oo Reh, since 1973 the state constitution as drafted by the KNPP prohibits the recruitment of anyone under age 18: “Our policy is that we don’t recruit anyone under 18, and we don’t conscript anyone. There are only volunteers in the KA. Even the child soldiers you found before were volunteers who joined because their families had suffered and they wanted to retaliate against the Tatmadaw.”228 “The child soldiers you found before” refers to Human Rights Watch research in 2002, which documented the presence of child soldiers in the KA.229 Since that time, Khu Oo Reh and Gen. Aung Mya state that the KA has demobilized the child soldiers it had and has taken steps to ensure no further recruitment of children will occur. Following discussions with UNICEF and UNHCR, in April 2007 KNPP and KA leaders jointly signed a Deed of Commitment condemning the recruitment and use of child soldiers and stating, inter alia,

  1. We will not recruit or use in any circumstances ‘voluntarily’ or by force, persons under the age of 18 years under any circumstances;
  2. We will undertake all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use of children as soldiers within the KNPP and KA;
  3. We will permit the monitoring, by independent third parties agreed upon, of our commitment and adherence to the principles of the Optional Protocol [on Children and Armed Conflict] and compliance with the provisions thereof; …230

When interviewed for this report in late July 2007, Gen. Aung Mya stated, “I just received a message from the front line near Shadaw that 15 children have been sent to the KA by their parents to join because their families couldn’t care for them, but I ordered them not to accept them and to send them back to their parents. We can no longer take children.”231 He reported that there are still two boys age 14 at one KA camp near the Thai border; these two boys attempted to volunteer and were rejected by the KA and sent to school, but have repeatedly run away and reappeared at the KA camp, where they sometimes stay for some time but are not allowed to engage in any military functions. Khu Oo Reh says children who try to join, if they have no other options, are sent to school with material support from the KNPP, but even then they are not pushed to join the KA when they finish school. “Some do, but few. Most end up working in the refugee camp—in the clinics, schools, CBOs [community-based organizations], or studying abroad.”232 In 1986 the KA first set up school boarding houses in Karenni refugee camps in Thailand to provide an alternative for boys who wanted to join the army. After 2002, resources were short for running these boarding houses and some organizations expressed suspicions that they could be used as recruiting grounds for the KA, so in 2006 responsibility for the one remaining boarding house was taken over by the Karenni Student Development Program (KSDP), a new and independent foundation with outside funding.

Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses including refugees, community and NGO workers, and health workers in areas where the KA operates, all of whom corroborated the group’s claims that there are no longer child soldiers in the KA. Some noted that the Karenni Army does not hold the attraction for Karenni adolescents in the way that other groups do, such as the SSA-S or the KNLA, because in the current context most Karenni youth are more interested in finding paid work or resettlement to another country. One witness reported that the KA has been shrinking in size and to his knowledge had not held a basic training course for the past two to three years.233 Other witnesses reported that most professional KA soldiers are now age 30 and above.

There remains some concern about recruitment to the Karenni militia, because as Gen. Aung Mya noted, villagers are coming forward to volunteer and are being screened only by local officials. The militia is controlled by the KNPP Interior Department “but operate under the same rules and under close watch of the army.”234 General Aung Mya explained, however,

We have informed them [the officers, about the minimum recruiting age], but there is no birth registration so we don’t always know. Some lie about their age and we can’t be sure. We ask them one by one whether they’re really over 18. If we don’t believe them we tell them to drop their underwear to check. We also listen to their voice to judge whether they’re lying, and look at how strong they are. If there was any doubt, even if we believe them, we keep them at the army camp a month or two and ask their families to come and take them back. We do our best to tell if they’re 18, but one problem in our communities is that most people don’t know exactly how old they are.235

The absence of adequate birth registration opens the possibility that even with a strict policy, children could be accepted to the militia or the KA. Moreover, the KNPP and KA have not defined specific disciplinary measures to be taken if their officers are found to have knowingly accepted child recruits. The KNPP and KA could partially remedy these weaknesses by defining such disciplinary measures, and imposing a requirement for volunteers to supply either proof of age or a support letter from parents or village leaders. Meanwhile, organizations such as UNICEF that are currently providing technical and material support to the SPDC to improve birth registration in Burma should extend similar assistance to groups such as the KNPP if their programs are to be balanced in line with the humanitarian principle of neutrality.

In the Deed of Commitment the KNPP and KA declared that they would “facilitate the provision of appropriate assistance by United Nations agencies, international development organizations and NGOs, for the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of demobilized or released children within the KNPP and KA.”236 However, despite their demonstrated willingness to engage Human Rights Watch and other organizations on this issue, no aid has been forthcoming apart from a small amount from local organizations. Just prior to signing the Deed of Commitment in April 2007, the KNPP was notified by the UNICEF Bangkok office that UNICEF would henceforth cease all contact with the KNPP by order of the Thai Government.237 Though negotiations have been ongoing to remove this restriction, at this writing contact had not resumed. On June 29, 2007, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy told journalists that she would be contacting the KA and the KNLA “within a month” once modalities for this contact were established; however, as of mid-September the KNPP and KA had received no contact from her office,238 although her office is responsible for preparing the list of parties recruiting and using child soldiers for the secretary-general’s report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict.

This situation had earlier led Gen. Aung Mya to comment,

People from outside view us the wrong way based only on secondhand information and we have suffered from their accusations for years, so now we welcome anyone to come and see the real situation. We’ve never had a conscription policy. Meanwhile the Tatmadaw does mass recruitment and nobody says anything, so we’re not happy with these UN mechanisms. If you lie they believe you and if you tell the truth they don’t.239

Based on the current absence of evidence of any ongoing recruitment or use of child soldiers by the Karenni Army, Human Rights Watch recommends that the KA be removed from the secretary-general’s list.

Karen National Liberation Army

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) continues to be in armed conflict with the SPDC, and has a very extensive area of operations extending from Karen state and Pegu (Bago) division in the north to Tenasserim (Taninthayi) division in the south. Major General Isaac, a senior KNLA officer, estimates its fighting strength to be 3,500 to 4,000 troops, though he says there are about 7,000 listed on the official KNLA register. Regarding recruitment policies, he explained to Human Rights Watch, “It was already decided at our Twelfth Congress in 2000 that the minimum age [for recruitment] should change from 15 to 18.” 240

In 2002, however, Human Rights Watch found that there were a significant number of child soldiers in the KNLA and probably in its militia wing, the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO).241 As a result of this and of the KNLA’s inclusion on the UN secretary-general’s list of groups using child soldiers, in 2003 the Karen National Union (KNU, the political organization controlling the KNLA) issued “very clear instructions” to the army not to accept any recruits under 18. Human Rights Watch has obtained Karen-language copies of two subsequent orders sent to brigade and special battalion commanders from KNLA general headquarters in July and December 2006 respectively, both clearly stating that no recruits under 18 should be accepted, with the July order adding that “anyone disobeying this order will face appropriate action in accordance with army regulations.”242 According to KNU General Secretary Pado Mahn Sha, “If any brigade has even one or two underage soldiers we will take action. We have ordered brigade commanders to watch their battalions and not to allow any underage soldiers, which means under 18.”243

On March 4, 2007, KNU President Saw Ba Thin Sein signed a Deed of Commitment condemning the recruitment and use of soldiers under 18 and declaring that the KNLA would not do so and would permit outside monitoring to verify compliance; the wording is identical to that quoted above from the Deed of Commitment signed by the Karenni Army.244 Though asserting that officers disobeying orders would be punished in accordance with “Army regulations,” Major General Isaac admits that there are no specific provisions yet in the regulations about disciplining those who accept child recruits. “We have the Army Act, but there is nothing in it about this yet. We just keep sending out reminders [to officers].”245 Recognizing this as a procedural weakness, Major General Isaac promised that at the next KNU congress in 2008 he would recommend adding to the Army Act provisions for punishing child recruiters and methodologies for demobilizing child soldiers.246

In practice the KNLA’s policies on child soldiers are undermined by its conscription policy, which allows one son from each family to be conscripted, provided they have several sons and are not heavily dependent on the son to be conscripted. In recent years this policy has only been sporadically implemented—and not at all in some regions—due to shortages of weapons, ammunition, and resources, but when enforced it often results in children being put forward by families to fill recruiting quotas. A Karen health worker from western Karen state explained that in his area, “In each house, if you have two sons then one has to go. If you only have one son they don’t take him. Starting in 2007 they said they’d do this once every three years. One goes for three years, then if he comes back his brother has to go.” If the boy required is under 18, “Then they’ll ask if he’s willing to go or not, but the parents must also be willing. The parents might negotiate to let him finish school first but promise to send him after that.” The interviewee said that the KNLA in his area has far fewer child soldiers than previously, and that officers are now more flexible about conscription: “Now if people say they want to keep going to school and they’re under 18, the KNLA doesn’t force them to join.”247

When children are brought forward to fill recruitment quotas, KNU General Secretary Pado Mahn Sha admits that “some officers still make mistakes.”248 Human Rights Watch learned of several cases of child volunteers being rejected by the KNLA and either returned to their families or sent to schools. However, several independent witnesses told Human Rights Watch that within the past two years they have seen KNLA child soldiers in camps, manning checkpoints, and on operations, particularly in remoter areas of operation far from headquarters, though generally in much smaller numbers than in the past. With such a widespread area of operations and a chain of command weakened by problems of communications and mobility, the KNLA appears to be having difficulty imposing its policies on distant officers, and may be hesitant to alienate those officers by threatening disciplinary procedures.

In the KNDO militia, child soldier policies are even more difficult to monitor. A KNU representative in northern Karen state told Human Rights Watch that there are no longer any child soldiers in the full-time KNLA in his region, but that there are still some children bearing arms in the KNDO because these people are put forward by the villages, recruited by local village tract officials, and rotated every few months or a year. Though his district leaders have warned the village tract officials not to accept children, it still occurs.249

Overall, evidence indicates that the KNU and KNLA have taken action to end the use of child soldiers, and as a result the number of child soldiers among their forces is declining, but the problem is likely to persist until field officers can be better educated and monitored.

Shan State Army – South

The Shan State Army – South (SSA-S) is one of the largest armed groups still fighting the Tatmadaw, under the umbrella of an organization called the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). RCSS/SSA-S officials declare that their regular military strength is 5,000 soldiers, with approximately 5,000 local militia under the control of village heads. The SSA-S previously informed Human Rights Watch that prior to 2001 the group had a policy allowing conscription of able-bodied males ages 16 to 45, but in February 2001 this policy was changed to establish a minimum recruitment age of 18.250 At the RCSS fifth Annual Conference in December 2004, the group released four policy directives, number four of which stated, “The practice of recruiting ‘Child Soldiers’ is not only abusing children rights, but also damaging the future generation and the RCSS policy is against and will do the utmost to stop this practice.”251 Since that decision, the SSA-S continued to practice conscription of able-bodied men between 18 and 45.252 Under their “wartime constitution,” which is distributed widely to monks, community leaders, and village heads throughout their area of operations in Shan state, recruiting children is expressly forbidden.

RCSS/SSA-S officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed that background checks are required for all recruits, with affidavits from their village heads and parents. Recruits are instructed to sign a form stating their date of birth, and affirming that they voluntarily join the army (which is oxymoronic in a system of forced recruitment). Rules of war and SSA-S regulations are issued to every recruit, with illiterate men being made to memorize them. These rules include prohibitions on the recruitment of child soldiers.253 Punishment for recruiting child soldiers can include demotion for NCOs and officers.

In literature and video footage seen by Human Rights Watch, teenage girls and young women are seen wearing SSA-S uniforms and carrying assault weapons during ceremonies. Officials contend that this is just “fashion,” but admit that a program called nang harn (“brave girls”) does exist to give basic military training (including rudimentary weapons training) for teenage girls. They claim these girls are never used in a combat role, and this program is an adjunct to regular schooling. Likewise, male orphans are not permitted into the regular forces until they turn 18.254

In January 2006 a report appeared in Burma’s state-run media alleging that a group of SSA-S soldiers had surrendered to the Tatmadaw, and provided details including names of several underage soldiers who stated in the report that they had been forcibly conscripted to the SSA-S.255 In September 2006 the SPDC made further allegations of the forced recruitment by the SSA-S of three boys ages 17, 16, and 15 in southern Shan state. RCSS/SSA-S officials interviewed in September 2007 claim that in response to a list of questions provided to them by Human Rights Watch in August they had initiated an inquiry with the chief of staff of the SSA-S, the headman of the village where the incident had allegedly occurred, and the head of the orphanage of the Loi Tai Leng base area. None of those contacted reportedly had heard of the incident, and Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify these cases.

Witnesses with recent experience in SSA-S areas in various capacities told Human Rights Watch in July and August 2007 that the SSA-S still practices conscription, but that if the SSA-S still has any soldiers under 18 they are probably kept in rear areas away from fighting. They went on to tell of specific cases where boys under 18 had volunteered but were sent to school by the SSA-S at Loi Tai Leng or Loi Kaw Wan base areas instead of being recruited. After completing school at Loi Tai Leng and Loi Kaw Wan, students usually choose between civilian service (such as teaching or health work) and soldiering in the SSA-S. It appears that the SSA-S does not use child soldiers widely, and that it appears serious about its 2004 policy to end the practice. However, given the increased pace of recruitment in its area of operations in southern and eastern Shan state, Human Rights Watch believes that closer monitoring and investigation of the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the SSA-S is warranted.

RCSS/SSA-S officials we interviewed expressed a desire to cooperate with UN agencies and the office of the special representative of the secretary-general on children and armed conflict. The officials told Human Rights Watch they had never had discussions with international actors on this issue before, and while arguing that their army had no soldier under the age of 18, also agreed to explore the possibility of signing a Deed of Commitment formalizing an agreement not to recruit or use child soldiers.256

Kachin Independence Army

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) does not give out information on its troop strength, but is thought to have several thousand soldiers under its command. It has observed a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw since 1994, but has continued to recruit since that time. A senior KIA officer told Human Rights Watch that the KIA and its political movement the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) have no formal policy on child soldiers:

Frankly speaking, in the past the KIO was not aware of international regulations restricting child soldiers so we recruited children. In Kachin culture there are no special rights for children so they didn’t know it was wrong to do so. But now since the world is saying that child soldier recruitment and forced labor are human rights violations we have come to realize that it is not right to mobilize child soldiers. But we still have not decided on how to respond to the issue.257

He added, “We have child soldiers but not intentionally. We do not purposely mobilize children. In many cases child soldiers come and ask to join the KIA because they are from poor families. There is no minimum age in the KIA.” However, the KIA view of what constitutes a “soldier” differs somewhat from that of other groups. Though accepting children into the army, the KIA apparently sees this as a form of caring for vulnerable children, and does not see anything wrong in this: “In the KIA the child soldiers issue is not considered a serious problem. We have never regarded using child soldiers as a human rights violation. We house child soldiers in the army compound and they are allowed to stay with the officers. They stay as if they are the dependents of the officers and the officers become like a parent to them.”258 Some of these children, while already registered as soldiers, continue to attend school, while others work around base camps. The KIA admits that even in their officer training program there are candidates who are under 18; graduates of Tenth Standard (high school) can enter officer training regardless of age.

According to a KIA soldier who enlisted a long time ago at age 15, the KIA previously operated under a 1972 directive forbidding it from conscripting anyone under age 16, but allowing it to accept volunteers younger than that. However, since 2005 he reports that the KIA has “restricted the mobilization of youth” and created a program to support those who volunteer for the army to continue their education. He estimated that there are about 50 soldiers in the entire KIA who are under 16. He was unsure how many 16- and 17-year-old soldiers there are, but estimated that their number is probably around 250. This does not include children in officer training, and may not include children attending school while registered as KIA soldiers.

The senior KIA officer stated that KIA policy changed four to five years ago, ending conscription and allowing only voluntary recruiting; he qualified this by stating that “in some areas the brigades may still recruit by force in violation of the KIC’s [Kachin Independence Council] policy.” A community leader interviewed by Human Rights Watch said he used to be furious when the KIA would come to his village and recruit children as young as 12, then lead the recruits away with hands tied behind their backs. He noted that things were different this year: “In June … the KIA second brigade recruited about 80 soldiers. No children were included because they want strong recruits. This year the recruiters did not tie their hands behind their backs.”259 He said some children are still recruited, though in training they are not pressed as hard as the adults, and they are not trained in combat. He thought there were about 10 soldiers ages 13 or 14 in his area, some working at the KIA battalion bases and some attending school.

Even if one accepts the KIA’s custodial attitude toward many of its child soldiers, caring for them and sending them to schools should be possible without registering them as soldiers and putting them through military training. Other groups such as the KA, KNLA, and SSA-S are known to do so without registering the children involved as soldiers. Regarding those not attending school and working at battalion camps, they are unlikely to see any possible future for themselves outside soldiering, so this treatment denies them their right to choose their own future. Human Rights Watch therefore strongly recommends that all of these children should be demobilized and given the option of continuing in school, with support continued as at present. The senior KIA officer pointed out, however, “When the KIA declared an opium-free state it just created problems. It created a big responsibility for the KIO, hardship for many poor villagers, and no international aid was forthcoming. This was a big lesson for us. So, the KIA will handle the child soldiers issue on our own.” This expresses a perception common among non-state groups that the international community demands that they adhere to the same standards expected of states, but refuses them access to any of the necessary material support to do so.

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) operates in central Karen state, sharing power with the SPDC in some areas and regularly engaging in combat with the KNLA. Official troop strength figures are not available, though it is thought to have several thousand soldiers. The group relies on both voluntary recruitment and local conscription programs to maintain its troop numbers. Though their written orders notifying villages of recruit quotas sometimes specify that recruits should not be children, the group does not reject children if they are sent in fulfillment of those quotas. A junior DKBA officer from the Dawna mountain region told Human Rights Watch,

Some really want to join, but others are conscripted. Each village tract [local administrative group of five to 20 villages] has to send 10 people each time—this can be once a year or more often. People have to go for a year, then they can go home and the DKBA conscripts more. 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.… This policy began in 2006.260

He stated that even if some of the conscripts decide after a year to remain in the DKBA, the village tract must provide 10 more the next year, regardless; because of this, “annual conscription is very hard on the villagers.”  The officer estimated that 10 percent of DKBA forces are children if all regions are considered, but doubts that there are many under age 15. He believes that the DKBA is gradually increasing in numbers.

A health worker based further west in Karen state told Human Rights Watch, “Last year DKBA soldiers came into my village and I saw many young soldiers about 14 or 15 carrying weapons—[DKBA Colonel] Chit Thu’s men, based at Ko Taw Law near Myawaddy.” He reported that they recruit in Baw Kyo Leh area of southern Papun district, and that families who do not send a recruit when their turn comes have to pay 200,000 kyat. “They come and say, ‘For each person you give the KNU [political organization controlling the KNLA—see above], you must give us one person. The villagers didn’t give the recruits, though some probably volunteered and some may have given money.”261

The DKBA officer explained that a one-year tour of duty for a conscript begins with a month of training, followed by frontline duty, and the year ends with a brief refresher training, possibly with the idea that the person can be called back if needed. Child soldiers receive the “same treatment. There’s no differentiation between those under 18 and those over 18, they’re treated the same. For one year.” The officer continued, “If you’re lucky you survive, if not you’re shot dead.… Most of the conscripts leave after one year, because it’s very hard. Then the village tract has to send 10 people again, even if some of the previous conscripts decided to stay. The demand is always the same.”262 Given the prevalence of child soldiers within the DKBA and the group’s apparent disregard for the right of children not to be recruited, the DKBA should be considered for inclusion on the UN secretary-general’s list of groups using child soldiers.

Kachin Defense Army

The Kachin Defense Army (KDA) a former breakaway faction of the KIA, has formally surrendered to the SPDC, and is nominally under the government’s control as border police. It operates in northern Shan state, and is known to have engaged in active combat against the KNLA and the SSA. Human Rights Watch was only able to interview two witnesses with specific information on the KDA, both independent community workers in the KDA’s area of operation.263 One witness estimated that the KDA has approximately 2,000 troops, divided into two brigades and seven battalions. The group’s operating area covers about 200 villages where the majority of the population is Kachin. He stated that the KDA has a recruiting quota requiring each household to provide one member of the family, and that if a household refuses, the soldiers come to the house and collect a recruit by force. If people try to hide, the soldiers threaten the household and conscript someone else from the house. Unlike nearly every other armed force in Burma, the KDA recruits girls in addition to boys. The source was not aware of any age limitations, but believed that child soldiers in the KDA were not normally under age 16.

The KDA also brings in recruits by offering places at a boarding school it operates in Kaung Kha for students from Fifth to Tenth Standard (roughly ages 10 to 17). There are approximately 100 students at this school, all of whom are supported financially by the KDA and must serve the KDA when they graduate or leave school.

One of the community workers said it was difficult to determine the number of child soldiers but he estimated that the numbers may be around 6-7 percent of KDA forces. The other estimated that child soldiers make up about 10 percent of KDA forces.264 These testimonies indicate a need for greater scrutiny of this group, and the group’s history of conflict with other armed groups raises concern about the possible use of children in combat roles.

Mon National Liberation Army

The Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) is the armed wing of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and has operated under a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw since 1995. It is confined to several non-contiguous areas within Mon state and northern Tenasserim (Taninthayi) division. Senior MNLA officers declined to give information on troop strength, but told Human Rights Watch that since 1971 the MNLA has had written rules restricting the age of soldiers to between 18 and 60. They stated that the MNLA and NMSP still receive some children because they have been orphaned or sent to join by their parents, but insisted that these boys are sent to schools or employed in their offices and cannot become NMSP members until they reach 18. They noted that since the ceasefire the MNLA has seen no need to expand so it has not accepted child volunteers.265

Three health workers from NMSP areas told Human Rights Watch that the MNLA normally accepts recruits and conducts military training twice a year, and that schoolteachers and medics also attend this training. The interviewees had all attended this training within the last four years: one stated that in her session there were 200 trainees including 30 women, all of whom went to the health department, while another reported that of 200 trainees in his session, 170 had been recruited as soldiers. Trainees wear uniforms and use dummy wooden “guns.” It remains unclear whether children working with non-military departments are allowed to take part in this military training. The medics, however, insisted that children are not allowed to become soldiers.266

Though insisting that the MNLA has no child soldiers, one of the senior MNLA officers interviewed admitted that “if you were to visit an MNLA base you would probably see children in MNLA uniforms.” He claimed that boys do this out of pride, but are not soldiers. He offered various explanations for children sighted in uniform on bases or manning MNLA checkpoints, including that boys borrow their fathers’ uniforms, that it is easy to buy a military uniform in the market, and that some orphans being cared for by the NMSP are given military uniforms because no other clothing is available.267

It would be unusual for boys’-sized military uniforms to be more easily available than basic civilian clothing, particularly in light of the statements of several other armed groups that they were in fact short of uniforms and could only provide civilian clothing to their soldiers.268 Moreover, if a child is wearing a uniform, manning a checkpoint or performing other military roles, and in some cases bearing arms, he can reasonably be considered a soldier by opposing forces and subject to attack. The concern therefore remains that the MNLA may be allowing children to take on military roles even if not formally registering them as soldiers; if so, this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front

The Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) controls much of northern Kayah state near the border with Shan state. No reliable figures are presently available on its troop strength. According to a witness from the area who is affiliated to the KNPLF, the group has an official policy prohibiting soldiers under age 18, and does not accept children because “children are too small, they can’t carry military equipment. Some really want to join so they’re accepted but kept in rear areas and don’t go to the frontline.”269 In practice this policy is clearly not observed, because in the first half of 2007 six KNPLF soldiers deserted to the KA, some of them children.

Among these six, Human Rights Watch interviewed Koo Reh, a 15-year-old who was recruited in 2005 at age 13 when he was attending Third Standard at a school in Shadaw. His father was dead, and he was living with his 11-year-old brother and his mother, who supported the family by farming rice. A KNPLF recruiter approached him in a video cinema one evening and convinced him and five other children to join:

Four were kept at the KNPLF camp at Shadaw, and two of us went to Loikaw together with the recruiter, by car to the KNPLF office there. The other boy was 11 or 12. They registered us. They asked, “Did your mother allow you to come here?” and I answered, “You called me to come here.” They asked how old I was and I said 13—they didn’t say anything, just said, “You have to stay here.” There was also another recruit there who was about 13.”270

For the next month the boys were ordered by KNPLF Major Kyaw Soe to work hoeing earth and clearing farmland at his mustard-seed farm near Loikaw, where they were supervised by a KNPLF soldier. Koo Reh was then deployed as a sentry at Shadaw camp and spent time at “frontline” camps at the Shan state border, where he had to patrol as a guide for Tatmadaw columns (he usually had to do this with two other KNPLF soldiers ages 16 to 18). He never received military training.

Another recruit, Eh Reh, joined in 2003 when he was 22; he joined because the recruiters promised to support him to continue his education, a promise that was never kept. “They had other recruits in Shadaw because some young people had been persuaded to join. None of these recruits were forced. There were about 10 recruits. Some were very young and didn’t know anything. Two were 12 years old, seven others were 15 to 17.” He said that later some parents tried to buy back their sons who had been recruited, including his own parents, but that they were refused by the KNPLF.

Three months after joining he received three weeks of military training. He said there were 30 trainees from the KNPLF and the Karenni National Democratic Army (KNDA, also known as “Naga” (“Dragon”) group, another Karenni ceasefire group), and that seven of them were under 18, of whom two were ages 12 or 13—“They were so young they couldn’t even march properly.” Afterwards he was deployed and rotated between the KNPLF base camp at Shadaw and “frontline” camps on the border with Shan state, where they stayed together with Tatmadaw troops. He commanded a KNPLF section with seven soldiers, including two 15-year-olds, and one age 17. He says other KNPLF sections also had child soldiers, but claims that the children were left at camps if any combat was likely to occur.271 Both Koo Reh and Eh Reh reported that about five of the 25 soldiers based at the KNPLF’s Shadaw camp are under 18, some of them very young.

When confronted with some of the above information, a KNPLF member interviewed by Human Rights Watch insisted that the group does not recruit children but suggested that Maj. Kyaw Soe is known to act as a rogue commander; the interviewee noted that the major had previously been questioned by the leadership because some of his soldiers had deserted. Both of the former soldiers interviewed were indirectly under Kyaw Soe’s command and their testimonies suggest that he uses recruitment of young boys to obtain free laborers for his personal farms. However, these two soldiers were deployed to several different KNPLF bases and one underwent a training course, and saw child soldiers making up a significant proportion of the troops in each of these contexts, making it highly unlikely that the KNPLF leadership could be unaware of the significant presence of child soldiers within their forces.

Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Army

The Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Army (SNPLA) is the armed wing of the Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization (SNPLO), a small multi-ethnic resistance group based in southern Shan state that entered a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw in 1994. In June 2007 the SNPLO split into three factions, with one small group of approximately 100 members led by Chairman Tee Sawng breaking the ceasefire and marching to the Burma-Thailand border, arriving on June 28. A second faction was forced to surrender its weapons to the SPDC on July 26, while the third faction led by former chairman Tha Kalay remained at their base near Taunggyi in southern Shan state. SNPLO leaders interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied that the group had child soldiers in its ranks even before the breakup. Col. Hkun Thu Rein, secretary of the SNPLO splinter group that reached the Burma-Thai border, stated that the SNPLO did not expand much during the ceasefire period due to restrictions on recruitment under the ceasefire arrangement. The assertion that the SNPLO did not have child soldiers was corroborated by two SNPLO soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, both of whom had been members for three to four years, had been recruited when they were in their twenties, and said that there were no children among the approximately 250 soldiers in the pre-breakup SNPLA.272 A 16-year-old with the splinter group claimed to have joined the SNPLA at 14, but under further questioning admitted that he is actually a camp follower who wants to be a soldier but has not been accepted or registered as such, and that he has not engaged in military activities. Other soldiers in the group confirmed that this boy was not a soldier.273

Rebellion Resistance Force

The SPDC has reportedly been forming and supplying a new paramilitary group  based in Putao in Kachin state, referred to variously as the Rebellion Resistance Force, Taung Kyan (“Anti-subversive”), or Adang’s Group (after one of its leaders). It reportedly had 100 troops in 2006, grew to approximately 200 by mid-2007, 274 and plans to expand further to 400.275 It is nominally led by Hukwi Pung and Tanggu Dang (a.k.a. Adang), who were formerly with the New Democratic Army-Kachinland, but they report to a Tatmadaw major.

According to a community leader interviewed by Human Rights Watch, this group has many children in its ranks. In each company there are 20 to 30 soldiers including seven to eight enlisted men, and in each platoon there are typically seven soldiers, including three NCOs and three or four privates. He estimated that in the units with which he was familiar, 90 percent of the privates and 20 percent of the NCOs are under age 18. Some companies have been accused of sexual abuse and stealing from nearby villages. Further detailed information on the group’s recruitment and treatment of its child soldiers was not immediately available, but this group is clearly of concern.

KNU-KNLA Peace Council

The KNU-KNLA Peace Council is a small group that broke away from the KNLA’s Seventh Brigade in central Karen State in January 2007 and made peace with the SPDC. The group soon began recruiting to increase its numbers in order to establish control over the Toh Kaw Ko area near the Salween river, where it had established its headquarters. Initially, recruiting concentrated on villages in the Toh Kaw Ko area and on Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, but the group has now reportedly sent recruiting teams as far afield as Toungoo, the Irrawaddy delta, and Karen-populated Insein township on the outskirts of Rangoon.276 KNLA sources claim the group is trying to form eight battalions, and that in Toh Kaw Ko area each village has been ordered to provide three to five recruits or pay the extremely high sum of 20,000 Thai baht in lieu of each recruit.277

According to the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), an independent human rights monitoring organization, they were told on May 21 by KNU-KNLA Peace Council (PC) officer Bah Soh Gay that children under 18 were welcome to join the armed group but could leave whenever they wished.278 However, KHRG gathered evidence claiming that nine boys under 18 had been forcibly or coercively recruited and were not allowed to leave afterwards. Human Rights Watch was able to confirm the stories of two of these boys by interviewing them after they escaped.

Thirteen-year-old Saw Toh Say, a refugee at Mae La camp, crossed the border to visit Tee Nuh Hta village a few times after the KNU-KNLA PC controlled it, and was eventually conscripted.

The third time [late February] I went with Saw L. [age 14, full name withheld] and when I arrived there people asked me to stay there. Then they told me to put on a military uniform and forced us to stand sentry. The two of us had to stand sentry every night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. They told us to take a gun so I took an AR [a small assault rifle] and Saw L. also took an AR. At the end of sentry duty we gave them to the people who replaced us. They said two truckloads of guns were coming for us. Each of us got two Cambodian camouflage uniforms and 500 baht. My uniform was too big. I had to use a belt. I had to stay there two-and-a-half months. After one night Chit Kwin told me to register my name. Commander Ler Mu registered us. When I registered, I was 12 years old. T. registered as 15 years old, and H. registered his age as eight or nine.279

At Tee Nuh Hta “there were many children, over 30. Some were younger than me and some were older than me.… People ordered them to stand sentry and sometimes gave them training.” He had to stand sentry each night for two to four hours; five soldiers shared three guns. His only training consisted of being given a loaded assault rifle and sent down behind the latrine to fire off practice rounds. He says the AK47 rifle was too heavy for him so he chose an AR (a smaller, lighter weapon) and 120 cartridges. No one told him what battalion he was in. They were warned not to go outside the village because of landmines, but one adult did and hit a tripwire; he was killed and the person with him was wounded. Saw Toh Say says later he asked to go home and commander Ler Mu wouldn’t let him go if his parents didn’t come; later, however, other lower-ranking officers allowed him to leave when his relatives came.

Saw Wah, age 16, says he saw “about 10 or 20” boys younger than himself at KNU-KNLA PC leader Htay Maung’s camp on the Moei riverbank awaiting transfer to Toh Kaw Ko when he was coerced into joining in March. After two or three days there he says he was given a gun and uniform. When he got to Toh Kaw Ko, he saw 40 to 50 recruits under 18, of whom he thought 10 or 20 were under 15. In his “battalion” of 50 troops there were 10 to 20 under 18 and three under 15, some of them volunteers and some forcibly recruited. At Toh Kaw Ko the recruits weren’t doing any fighting, just hanging around, doing sentry duty, and the youngest were put to work making charcoal. A sergeant threatened them that if they went back to the refugee camp, the refugees would “slit their throats” as traitors, so most didn’t dare leave.280

Like many newly formed armed groups, the KNU-KNLA PC appears to want to keep these soldiers to create an appearance of high numbers, in order to obtain more resources from the SPDC and political leverage. With its ongoing attempts to expand its recruiting to other regions, the number of child soldiers is likely to increase, and if the group is deployed to actively fight the KNLA these child soldiers may be deployed in combat roles. Developments in this group should therefore be closely monitored.

220 Human Rights Watch interview with Koo Reh, July 2007.

221 See, for example, “Tension mounts between Wa and Naypyidaw,” The Irrawaddy, August 14, 2007.

222 More background on these and other groups can be found in Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was as Tall as Me.”

223 Not in strictly decreasing order of size, as definite staffing numbers are not available.

224 See, for example, ”Tension mounts between Wa and Naypyidaw,” The Irrawaddy.

225 Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was as Tall as Me,” pp 112-117.

226 Accounts to Human Rights Watch by nongovernmental organisation workers with contacts in the Shan and Wa communities, August 2007. See also “Tension mounts between Wa and Naypyidaw,” The Irrawaddy.

227 Human Rights Watch interview with KA Gen. Aung Mya, July 2007.

228 Human Rights Watch interview with Khu Oo Reh, July 2007.

229 See Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was as Tall as Me,” pp. 136-143.

230 Deed of Commitment signed on April 13, 2007, by the chairman of the KNPP and the commander-in-chief of the KA. See Appendix D.

231 Human Rights Watch interview with KA Gen. Aung Mya, July 2007.

232 Human Rights Watch interview with Khu Oo Reh, July 2007.

233 Human Rights Watch interview with Karenni health worker, July 2007.

234 Human Rights Watch interview with Khu Oo Reh, July 2007.

235 Human Rights Watch interview with KA Gen. Aung Mya, July 2007.

236 Deed of Commitment, April 13, 2007.

237 Human Rights Watch interview with KNPP official, July 2007. A UNICEF representative in Bangkok confirmed to Human Rights Watch in August that they had been forced to cut off contact, but would not state for the record where this order had originated.

238 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with KNPP spokesman Khu Oo Reh, September 16, 2007.

239 Human Rights Watch interview with KA Gen. Aung Mya, July 2007.

240 Human Rights Watch interview with KNLA Major General Isaac, July 2007.

241 See Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was as Tall as Me,” pp. 122-131.

242 KNLA General Headquarters written order #GHQ-SEC/DEPT 12/130 to four battalion commanders, July 7, 2006; and KNLA General Headquarters written order # GHQ-SEC/DEPT 12/264 sent to all Brigade and Special Battalion Commanders, December 27, 2006. Both signed by Adjutant General Hla Sein. Translation by Human Rights Watch.

243 Human Rights Watch interview with Pado Mahn Sha, July 2007.

244 Deed of Commitment signed on March 4, 2007, by the President of the KNU. See Appendix E.

245 Human Rights Watch interview with KNLA Major General Isaac, July 2007.

246 Ibid.

247 Human Rights Watch interview with Karen health worker in western Karen state, August 2007.

248 Human Rights Watch interview with Pado Mahn Sha, July 2007.

249 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with KNU district official, August 2007.

250 “Shans bow to CRC”, Shan Herald Agency for News, February 4, 2001, and Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was as Tall as Me,” p. 118.

251 Central Executive Committee RCSS, Statement 1/5, 2004, December 17, 2004.

252 Human Rights Watch interview with SSA-S Maj. Lao Hseng and Maj. Aung Teun, September 2007.

253 RCSS/SSA-S Soldier Regulation Booklet (in Shan), on file with Human Rights Watch.

254 Human Rights Watch interview with SSA-S Maj. Lao Hseng and Maj. Aung Teun, September 2007.

255 At a January 2006 press conference, an SPDC representative stated, “In mobilizing new recruits, SSA charged 500,000 kyats or 600,000 kyats per person for failing to join as new recruits. It mobilized two new recruits from each small village and three new recruits from each big village. They had to mobilize recruits young or old. Thus some recruits of SSA were as young as 15 years.”

256 Human Rights Watch interview with SSA-S Maj. Lao Hseng and Maj. Aung Teun, September 2007.

257 Human Rights Watch interview with senior KIA officer, August 2007.

258 Ibid.

259 Human Rights Watch interview with Kachin community leader, August 2007.

260 Human Rights Watch interview with DKBA officer, July 2007.

261 Human Rights Watch interview with Karen medic in western Karen state, August 2007.

262 Human Rights Watch interview with DKBA officer, July 2007.

263 Human Rights Watch interviews with community workers from northern Shan state, September 2007, July and August 2007.

264 Ibid.

265 Human Rights Watch interview with two senior MNLA officers, July 2007.

266 Human Rights Watch interview with three Mon health workers, August 2007.

267 Human Rights Watch interview with two senior MNLA officers, July 2007.

268 Statements by KNLA and KNPP. For example, Khu Oo Reh of the KNPP stated, “We have no extra uniforms for any person who isn’t a soldier. Even for KA men we don’t have enough uniforms to give out.”

269 Human Rights Watch interview with KNPLF member, August 2007.

270 Human Rights Watch interview with Koo Reh, July 2007.

271 Human Rights Watch interview with Eh Reh, July 2007.

272 Human Rights Watch interview with two soldiers from SNPLO, Thailand-Burma border, July 28, 2007.

273 Human Rights Watch interviews with SNPLA officer and a 16-year-old accompanying the splinter group, August 2007.

274 “Manpower and armaments for RRF in northern Burma,” Kachin News Group, August 27, 2007.

275 Human Rights Watch interview with Kachin community leader, July 2007.

276 Human Rights Watch interviews with independent activists in Karen state and with KNU General Secretary Pado Mahn Sha, July 2007.

277 Human Rights Watch interview with KNLA Major General Isaac, July 2007.

278 Karen Human Rights Group, “Child soldiers recruited to support expansion of the KNU-KNLA Peace Council,” May 28, 2007.

279 Human Rights Watch interview with Saw Toh Say, July 2007.

280 Human Rights Watch interview with Saw Wah, July 2007.