The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (United Nations). This means that people all over the world should live in peace and respect each other’s rights and freedoms no matter what race, color, ethnicity, and sex they represent. These universal rights became pillars of modern liberal society and spread rapidly across the globe. Article 4 of the Declaration states that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude, whereas Article 5 refers to subjection to inhuman or degrading treatment (United Nations). Another important document is Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which stresses upon main factors of child’s development, such as social security, love, peace, education, and protection (United Nations). At this point, the situation in Myanmar with child labor and child soldiers is beyond liberal mind’s understanding. The inhuman treatment of children, their severe exploitation and basic rights’ violation make Myanmar one of the most illiberal countries in the world and slow down its population’s development. The essay will analyze child labor and child soldiers as social phenomena of Myanmar and show negative effects this tendency has on the whole society.
Burma or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is located in Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Its neighbors are Bangladesh and Thailand. Country’s population is 55,7 million people, out of which 26.4% are 0-14 years old, 18.3% - 15-24 years old, and 43.1% - 25-54 years old. These statistics shows that young population makes significant labor force and can be used for country’s development if managed properly. Myanmar’s population is relatively young – the median age among both males and females is 27.9 years, however, low health expenditures, poor sanitation and insufficient water supply in some regions put Myanmar population at risk of catching infectious diseases. Another important factor that will be demonstrated later on is extremely low level of education expenditures. 0.2% of GDP is spent on education, which makes 172nd result in the world. Economic reforms, initiated in 2011 by the new government, resulted in economy’s growth (6.8% of GDP’s real growth is 24th result in the world), however, GDP per capita remains one of the worst in the world – $1,700 is the world’s 201st result. Such harsh conditions resulted in 32.7% of population’s living below the poverty line. Families have to use their children for construction works and military service, although Myanmar signed Convention on the rights of the Child in 1991, Joint Action Plan on prevention of child recruitment, and abolished conscription (CIA The World Factbook). All factors mentioned above will be considered when discussing Myanmar’s child labor and soldiers.
Child labor analysis
Child labor analysis would have been impossible without review of main violations of children rights. Myanmar is best represented in terms of patriarchal society. One can clearly see double standards imposed on children and women. Children are expected to work and study hard having no time for relaxation and recreation, whereas women are constrained by religious beliefs (Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development 14). UNICEF distinguishes between main problems that are key factors to understanding child labor: high mortality, malnutrition, health care system, and limited access to water (Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development 15-16). All these factors are crucial for understanding why young children work as slaves to earn a piece of bread instead of going to school and spending time on personal development. Education system, designed to develop a child’s mind, is poorly organized and has limited access to it. Poor families, mostly from rural areas, cannot afford their children’s education, which makes important factor of compulsory child labor. Almost 30% of children did not attend school due to its cost burden. Children are involved in a number of different forced labor projects, sponsored by the regime (Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development 18), or work hard after school in family business due to harsh living conditions and limited access to education. Usually young children work long hours in order to contribute something to family’s well being. Although the minimum age for working is 13, children work in the informal sector, where conditions may be much worse due to work’s illegality. Families with only one parent put extra burden on girls, who have to stay at home and take care for younger siblings, and boys, who fulfill forced labor duties. Much labor force is concentrated in a rural area, where the economic situation is the worst; therefore regime requires villages to provide forced laborers for a variety of works. Sending children as forced laborers became a widespread practice. According to Human Rights Watch observations, children at the age of 12 were spotted working on the Ye-Tavoy railroad; UNICEF found children aged 10-12 working on road construction. Labor quotas imposed on one person may be so big that cannot be fulfilled without children help. The United States Department of Labor (The US Department of Labor) reports woman who had to take 3 or 4 of her eldest children to fulfill forced labor norm – clearing 120 sq. ft. of bamboo. The village may send a number of children as forced laborers as well. Given that Myanmar is more agricultural country, most adult labor force is involved in the crop cycle, whereas children may be used as a substitute to adult labor force on different types of other works. Myanmar is also known for exploiting children in prostitution and pornography, however, there is very little information on this type of child labor since it belongs to well-hidden black market activities.
Although most children are forced to work in rural areas, which are poorer, child forced labor takes place in urban areas. Boys usually work as waiters, in masonry and construction works (The US Department of Labor). Sometimes they manage to get hired as apprentices in small workshops. In most cases, children do not get paid. Instead, they receive meals since many children suffer from malnutrition and cannot get fed at home (Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development 15). The most depressed households use children as a reliable source of income. According to US DoL, children contribute up to 50% of household’s income. DoL’s research also found out that children worked more than 8 hours a day, and usually 7 days a week, which was prohibited by the Burmese labor law (The US Department of Labor). Big companies usually hire children to decrease costs of manufacturing since they could not fear law enforcement from state’s side. Sometimes such companies substituted adult labor force, which required more payment and used children to run the whole process of production.
Another type of child forced labor is trafficking. DoL reports on using children in beggaring and hawking. Young women are being trafficked from Myanmar to Thailand. Out of 60,000 illegal workers in this industry most women are from Myanmar (The US Department of Labor). Most young women were trafficked from poor villages, where finding a job was almost impossible. They were promised well-paid job, which they gladly accepted in order to help their families. After young women crossed the border brokers made payments to their families in Myanmar, which women had to pay back as debt in addition to 100% interest. Basically, women remained slaves with no right to escape. Human Rights Watch/Asia reports hundreds of young women being killed, died of HIV, or shot by the army (The US Department of Labor). The UNICEF interviews with some of the prostitutes showed that some of them were forced to work at the age of 12.
As one can see, poor education, low wages, lack of law enforcement structures, and agricultural economy were the main factors that made young children work since early childhood in inhuman conditions. Government, although signed up to the Millennium Development Goals, does not take any measures to simplify those children’s life. These structural barriers do not let children develop their true potential and expect any improvement of the situation.
Economic conditions that limit children’s life chances make them seek food and payment in the army. From this perspective, I consider child soldiers to be another type of child forced labor, which not only makes young children work hard, but endangers their lives. This type of forced labor is the most inhuman a liberal can imagine since no one has right to force children solve adult problems by sacrificing their lives. UNICEF conducted a thorough research on child soldiers in Myanmar titled “Adult Wars, Child Soldiers” (United Nations Children’s Fund). The research clearly states that most children were recruited forcibly while other joined troops for economic reasons (United Nations Children’s Fund 8). Soldiering also fulfills important option of getting some sort of education, because most schools are closed for such deprived children. Overall, army did not aim at the child’s moral or physical training during the years of service. Many children here threatened and harassed before being recruited. Currently, Myanmar has the largest number of children serving in the army and non-governmental paramilitary organizations. The estimated number of child soldiers in Myanmar army is 70,000, which is the worst result in the world. This figure does not include children from Myanmar-Thailand border and those hiding in forests. Interviews conducted with Myanmar child soldiers showed that most children recruited did not attend school, came from poor farmers’ families, and had their parent aware of their serving in the military units (United Nations Children’s Fund 19). Despite all norms of morality and international law, recruitment was based on the assumption that 11+ year children were old enough for military service. According to one interviewee, armed men knocked at people’s doors and simply dragged children out of the house despite all efforts to stay with family (United Nations Children’s Fund 25). Some children joined the army voluntarily. Another interviewee recalls that he joined the army to protect his village oppressed by enemies. Children were fascinated with soldiers and military uniform due to their being immature. Poor living conditions, lack of critical thinking and youth maximalism made them want to join the troops (United Nations Children’s Fund 29). Children had to pass trainings to get real weapons after being recruited. Another child soldier recalls multiple cases of suicide of those, who could not adapt to harsh conditions. Leaving the military unit to see family was strongly forbidden and children could not cope with moral trauma. According to the interviewee, 3 out of 4 children from his unit shot themselves dead right after they were given AK-47 (United Nations Children’s Fund 38). These evidences clearly show the true nature of such recruitment. Officers allured young children with fake promises and sheer force, but not all could cope with pressure imposed. Although some child soldiers in the interviews do not show negative attitude to being recruited at the age of 10-12 years, at is obvious that the army was not the best place for bringing up character and will.
One question still remains unanswered: why were the children recruited if army could have easily recruited more adults for service in the army? High unemployment rate could be a strong argument in favor of this suggestion; however recruiting child soldiers was beneficial for officers who saw children as cheap, obedient, and effective fighters (Landau1). A soldier in Myanmar recalls that child soldiers in the battle were fearless and overexcited; sometimes officers used them as a tool to scare foes. Children were given alcohol or drugs to make children lose any sense of fear. At this point, adult soldiers are more rational and cool-headed, which makes impossible to make them sacrifice their lives as easily as children do. Although there are fewer girls in the army, they share the same responsibilities with male soldiers. Amnesty International reports of female soldiers sexually exploited by the troops. In addition to the traditional role of housewife young women took part in suicide bombings and engaged in hostilities as combatants (Landau 2). This clearly shows how cynical Myanmar government was when signed an agreement with the United Nations in which promised to demobilize child soldiers. Children are being actively involved in armed conflicts even without joining the army. The US DoL reports multiple cases when children were forced to carry military supplies and serve as porters. Many child porters travelled with armed forces to fulfill the most dangerous duties. Often they were forced to go to frontlines of combat. Officers used children to detonate bombs and to spring ambushes. Basically, children were used as a shield for military troops because they could easily be forced to do the most dangerous operations. Another rapporteur multiple cases of beatings of child porters in case they were not able to carry heavy weights (The US Department of Labor). Those who were not directly involved in combats worked on the construction of military barracks, trenches, bunkers, and roads. Obviously, the armed forces are very much dependent on child soldiers and child forced labor. The whole system is built in such way those weakest and poorest serve interests of the army and state. The concepts of morality and human rights are not considered as viable.
The paper examined child labor and child soldiers in Burma (Myanmar) and showed a direct correlation between child exploitation and country’s well being. Myanmar is considered to be one of the poorest world countries, which uses human resources to satisfy the demands of regime and army. Since early childhood children’s opportunities are limited by complete refutation of basic rights. Bad schooling, low wages, army’s pressure, and weak law enforcement result in severe exploitation of children since early childhood. Patriarchal society and traditions make children dependent of their families’ needs and make them work to sustain family. Various forms of exploitation are not limited by field works, construction works, and sexual slavery. Children are forced to sacrifice their lives by participating in military conflicts and serving as a shield for regular armed forces. Although some children are willing to escape poverty and go to army voluntarily, they do not know about all hazards awaiting them. The social and political systems of Myanmar require total revision of their core values to escape this vicious circle called “forced child labor”. Myanmar has no future without reconsidering its principles of child treatment.
CIA The World Factbook. Burma. Central Intelligence Agency, 2013. Print. 26 Mar. 2014. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html>.
Landau, Dana. The Use of Child Soldiers. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Print. <http://www.isn.ethz.ch/content/download/8067/80345/file/01 Use of Children.pdf>.
Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. Situation Analysis of Children in Myanmar. Myanmar: UNICEF, 2012. Print. 23 Mar. 2014. <http://www.unicef.org/eapro/Myanmar_Situation_Analysis.pdf>.
United Nations Children's Fund. Adult wars, child soldiers. Thailand: UNICEF, 2002. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <http://www.unicef.org/eapro/AdultWarsChildSoldiers.pdf>.
United Nations. Declaration of the Rights of the Child. N.p., 1959. Print. 26 Mar. 2014. <https://www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/humanrights/resources/child.asp>.
United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. N.p., 1948. Print. 26 Mar. 2014. <http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/history.shtml>.
The US Department of Labor. REPORT ON LABOR PRACTICES IN BURMA. ILAB, 1998. Print. 26 Mar. 2014. <http://www.dol.gov/ILAB/media/reports/ofr/burma1998/main.htm#CH2>.