Burma (Myanmar) currently has the largest number of child soldiers in the world. This number is expected to increase exponentially, given the most recent unrest in that part of the world due to religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims. This fighting arose between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists in June 2012, and erupted once more after the reelection of the President on the 21st of October. Many of the rebel groups put to use child labor and child soldiers in carrying out their illegal activities.
For many societies, child labor was part of life. Many families viewed their children as extra pairs of hands to help in getting work done around the home. As the children grew older, their responsibilities around the home increased. Children participated in bringing food to their tables and those who did not work were expected not to eat. Some children were denied educational opportunities as they were expected to spend their days fending for their families. Over the years, many countries passed laws that forbade the use of child labor. In many countries today, child labor is illegal. Although there are laws against child labor, they are not enforced in some of the developing countries. People who violate these laws are also not punished.
One of the main causes of child labor is poverty. Many parents who cannot afford to educate their children send them to work so as to improve their economic situations back at home. Education becomes secondary to the survival of the family. Many employers who use child labor prefer to do so because children are often paid less for the same work compared to adults. Myanmar, being one of the poorest countries in the world, does not enforce it child labor laws. One of the reasons why child labor is common in Burma is because people in this region do not value education and they choose not to invest in it. Widespread poverty forces people to choose between survival and education.
Myanmar has a compulsory education law, but in spite of this, more than 40% of Burmese children never receive formal education. Only 30% complete their primary education. Labor laws are not enforced and compulsory education is not taken seriously. Many children of school going age spend their days working in blue collar jobs for minimum wage. The rebel groups in Burma take advantage of these children and offer them jobs as informants or enroll them in their armies as soldiers.
Rohingya children are the worst affected. This is because of government impositions on the Rohingya people, which prevent them from getting more than two children. Any extra child is not registered, and this implies that they cannot receive identification card, get married, receive higher education, own property, travel, receive government employment, receive public services such as healthcare, and are subject to curfews. This makes them easy prey for the rebel groups.
The use of child soldiers is one of the many forms of child labor taking place in Myanmar. According to Child reports, both the Burmese army and the insurgents use child soldiers, some of them being conscripts. According to Right Group Reports, there are more than 70,000 child soldiers in Myanmar. The leakage of these reports has prompted human rights groups to put pressure on the Myanmar government to act on this issue. The Myanmar government has denied the allegations and it claims that it does not recruit underage soldiers. Myanmar officials are, however, still accused of recruiting underage and child soldiers.
The Myanmar armies prey on uneducated children where they use threats, violence and intimidation to force underage boys to become child soldiers. In the army they are subjected to harsh conditions and much cruelty. Some of the boys escape these cruel and harsh conditions by fleeing to Thailand, although many of them are not safe there either. Many of these children are forced into these conditions by unfair rights to Myanmar civilians and extreme poverty. These boys are usually less than fourteen years of age and at this stage of their lives, their minds are quite impressionable in comparison to their recruitment agents who are usually middle aged men, and well aware of government policies on child labor and abuses in the army.
These children usually have an added disadvantage. In times of crisis, the older soldiers who were responsible for their recruitment have the means to escape while the child soldiers do not. Many of them are not adequately prepared for life in the army and may not have received proper training. They are often unable to defend themselves or protect their fellow child soldiers. This leaves them at the mercy of their enemies and the insurgents who subject them to torture and many other forms of inhuman treatments.
The ethical rebel groups also contribute to this vice by recruiting child soldiers. Some of these children are recruited and deployed in the battle frontlines in the ongoing and escalating conflict in the region of Northern Burma. This is the riskiest part of the battle and it has led to the death of many children. Efforts to stop this practice have not borne any fruits as of yet. By October 2013, the International Labor Organization was seeking to secure the release of eight child soldiers who had been captured by the Kachin rebels.
One of these children had been deployed on the battle frontline where he engaged in active combat together with other members of the Kachin Independence Army. He admitted to being very scared, being forced to kill at the young age of sixteen. The other two were expected to perform sentry duties and carry water and firewood for the soldiers. None of these were being paid for their duties. This is an example of modern day slavery.
Child soldiers were at a much higher risk of being injured, captured or killed in combat situations. This risk was increased by their poor training and being psychologically unprepared for war. They did not have the necessary experience yet many of them were put in the frontlines and used as human shields by the experienced soldiers. Since July 2011, the KIA and the Burmese Army have been recruiting children and underage soldiers to help in their fights. This fight broke out when the ceasefire broke down and the violence has since intensified.
Action against Child Labor and Child Soldiers
After the recent reforms by the President of Burma Thein Sein, the United Nations and the government reached an agreement that included a plan of action through which they would end the recruitment of child soldiers in the army of Burma and also in the Border Guard Forces who work under the Burmese army.
According to reports by Child Soldiers International, the plan has had limited impact so far. This is because the Burmese army has not yet implemented the agreed upon structural changes which were to make this action plan possible. Many of the underage recruitments continue to go on unchecked among independent ethnic rebel groups and the Border Guard Forces. These ethnic groups were formed during the early years of Burma for the protection of the people.
Another challenge facing the implementation of this action plan is the lack of a genuine political will to implement it. This has contributed to the obstruction of effective implementation of policies and laws meant to protect children from slavery, child labor and forceful recruitment. Although the scale has reduced by a small margin, recruitment of children and underage soldiers by the Burmese army (also known as Tatmadaw Kyi) still goes on. Many of these children are unregistered and this makes it hard to prove their disappearance. The Border Guard Forces do not have proper programs for the verification of the presence or absence of child soldiers within their ranks. They also lack the right programs to demobilize their recruitment or rehabilitate existing child soldiers.
In 2011, the number of complaints of child soldier recruitments recorded was 243 and by 2012 the number had reduced to 237. This is a very small fraction of the actual number. The fact that many of these children are unregistered makes it hard for the government to come up with accurate estimates. Since the action plan was adopted, the Burmese army has released only forty two children from service. Only nine soldiers have been punished or imprisoned for their role in the recruitment of underage soldiers.
Over the past year, ethnic armed groups such as the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Karen National Union have issued orders demanding the release of child soldiers and the end to child recruitment. Unfortunately, these groups do not have the right procedures which could be effective in verifying the ages of the soldiers as some of the children appear mature enough to qualify for the army. Some of them are also willing to remain in the army to escape harsh realities and poverty back at home.
The United Nations made several attempts to communicate with the rebel groups on the issue of child soldiers but these efforts were frustrated by the Burmese government which was very opposed to this communication. According to Steve Marshall, a liaison officer for the International Labor Organization in Burma, the ILO had in recent times rescued eight Burmese underage soldiers from the KIA. They had been captured as prisoners of war in northern region of Kachin State. Five of these boys had already been taken back to their families. The ILO was making arrangements to rescue more of these boys and reunite them with their families in Central Burma.
Many of the child soldiers who were recruited by the KIA were aged between sixteen and seventeen. The army also had soldiers who were above the age of eighteen but their recruitment was illegal since they were underage at the time of their recruitment. According to Marshall, the army and the government had adopted certain very positive measures that would ensure the safe return of these boys.
One of the biggest concerns for the ILO was that both the army and the KIA were still recruiting underage soldiers to fight in the escalating conflict in Kachin. Although many of these children are unregistered, the ILO has received reports that the KIA is carrying out extensive recruitments and among these are underage children. The ILO, however, did not have exact details on the children being recruited or children being used in the battles in these conflict zones.
The widespread use and recruitment of child soldiers among the ethnic armed groups and in the army has been documented by human rights groups and the United Nations over the past few years. The Burmese army has about four hundred thousand soldiers and is constantly in need of new recruits. For this reason, the recruiters are given unofficial incentives for them to bring in large a number of recruits. This increases the chances of recruiting underage soldiers in trying to meet their quotas.
These army officials get their recruits from uneducated and poor children, most of who were unable to complete their primary education. These children tend to be very vulnerable empty promises of large salaries and a better life. These children are usually desperate to come out of poverty and the officials’ promises easily appeal to them. Where diplomacy and persuasive language fails, these officials often resort to threats and force. Many of these children are unregistered and do not possess any documentation that could identify them.
Recruiting officers take advantage of this and threaten to lock them up for not producing their identification cards. They are, however, given the option of joining the army to escape serving time in prison. Organizations such as Child Soldiers International have taken it upon themselves to stop the recruitment of child soldiers. They do this by identifying the legal and practical measures they can undertake in ending the recruitment of children in the army. They also seek to ensure that ethnic armed groups comply with existing international laws and standards on child labor and child soldiers.
The issue of child soldiers and child labor is still under investigation in Myanmar. It requires the cooperation of the military and the government if laws on human rights are to be enforced and put into practice. Over the past few months, however, the Burmese government, the army and the ethnic armed groups have improved their attitudes towards the use of child soldiers in their armies. This has led to a reduction in the number of child soldiers currently participating in active combat.
Many of these groups have responded very positively to government policies and are taking the necessary strides in reducing the number of children in their armies. This is very different from how the situation was three years ago when these groups were very closed- minded and unwilling to co-operate with the human rights groups.
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