Children are being sold as conscripts into the Burmese military for as little as $40 and a bag of rice or a can of petrol. Despite assurances from Burma’s ruling junta that it is cleaning up its act in a bid to see Western sanctions lifted, recruitment of child soldiers remains rampant.
The Independent understands that 24 instances of children being forced to become soldiers have been verified by the UN in the first three months of 2012 alone – the equivalent of two a week. The International Labour Organisation is investigating a further 72 complaints for underage recruitment between January and April this year. The new details of child soldier recruitment have emerged at a time when Burma is desperately trying to attract foreign investors and persuade Western nations to lift sanctions against the country’s ruling military elite.
Some significant steps have been made, including recent parliamentary elections for a handful of seats and the release of prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who flew into Britain last night for her first visit in more than 20 years. The fact that Burma’s generals have allowed Ms Suu Kyi to embark on a European tour is an indication that it has changed some of its ways. Known as The Lady to her supporters, the 66-year-old’s release is part of a series of recent public shows by the junta to curry favour with the international community.
Many observers, particularly in the business community, have begun lobbying for an easing of sanctions. British businesses are keen to re-enter Burma, partly because so many Asian economies have already done so and it is seen as an untapped market. But human rights groups are concerned that reforms have been implemented very slowly. They point to the ongoing recruitment of child soldiers as an example of how little has really changed. Researchers for Child Soldiers International have just returned from a trip to Rangoon and the Thai border in which they interviewed child conscripts. They reported that military and civilian brokers scour the streets looking for vulnerable children whose identity documents are then forged to make them seem over 18. Soldiers who want to leave the army often have to find three to five replacements and young teenagers are often the first people they look to conscript.
“Children remain vulnerable to forced recruitment and use in hostilities by the Burmese military, due to the high rates of attrition in the army and the on-going conflict,” said Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, a London based advocacy organisation. “It is incumbent on the international community to put pressure on the Burmese government to stop this practice.”
Aung Myo Min, a Burmese exile who helps child soldiers from neighbouring Thailand, has concerns about sanctions being lifted without meaningful reform.
“Don’t be so quick to jump into Burma with business,” he warned. “It is still a country which has very little protection for its workforce, let alone the military. The government really wants these sanctions lifted but we still have repression.”
Case study: ‘No one checked our ID or age’
San Win Htut was 15 when he was drafted into the military. He left this year after human rights groups found documents proving he was a minor.
I met a sergeant on the road in June 2010. He said he was from the army and persuaded me to join. He said I could earn good money and buy a motorcycle. I didn’t have a job so I decided to go with him. He said I could leave the army after five years. I then went to a recruitment camp in Rangoon. Three other youths were taken with me and we were all under 18. Officials did not check our ID because the sergeant told them he knew us. Our days were filled with hard work. We were placed on sentry duty and ordered to work on farms. Everyone treated us badly because we were the youngest. They forced us to spend our salary on their drink and food. I was beaten up by a corporal because I did not buy oil for him. I eventually managed to run away.