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Myanmar’s Child Soldiers
Myanmar is on the brink of an exciting new era. The Government has facilitated a number of reforms within the past two years and has developed a new willingness to sign commitments such as the ‘Joint Action Plan’ on child soldiers. This July, more than one year on from signing the Joint Action Plan with the United Nations (UN), we witnessed the release of another 42 child soldiers from Myanmar’s military ranks. However, it is evident that Naypyidaw is yet to acknowledge the importance of its commitments, reform its military, or develop effective safeguarding systems and processes to prevent the future recruitment of child soldiers or to aid the responsible demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of those currently in active service. It needs to work with the international community to address the issue as part of its wider transformation.
Since coming into power in 2011 and releasing the heroic democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, President Thein Sein’s Myanmar has been likened to South Africa under de Klerk and Mandela in the early 1990s[i]. No other political transformation has taken place so quickly and peacefully. Ceasefire agreements have been signed with 11 ethnic groups, there has been reconciliation with rival political party the National League for Democracy (NLD), a National Human Rights Commission has been established, press censorship has been relaxed, and currency practises have been regulated. It has even been claimed by international watchdog Freedom House that Myanmar has now surpassed China in terms of its civil liberties and political rights[ii]. However, there are a number of key social, political, and economic challenges that need to be addressed in the early stages of the country’s transformation, and this can only be done with support from the international community. Perhaps most notably, although the country has been applauded for the release of 42 child soldiers from the ranks of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) this July, it is evident that there is still a long way to go before the practice of child recruitment into the armed forces is fully eradicated from the country.
It is important to remember that despite recent progress and ceasefire agreements, Myanmar is still a country at war. It has witnessed fighting for over 50 years and during this time the Tatmadaw has been involved in armed conflict with over 35 armed groups. Whilst President U Thein Sein was awarded the ‘In pursuit of peace’ International Crisis Group Peacekeeping award, earlier this year, the fighting has worsened in some areas and a number of related human rights concerns continue to plague the country. The UN has documented the widespread use of child soldiers in Myanmar for over a decade. The problem is particularly prevalent within Myanmar due to the sustained conflict which perpetuates the cycle of child soldiering. Poor economic and social conditions in Myanmar create vulnerabilities amongst certain groups to recruitment into the armed forces. The high numbers of internally displaced persons within the country lack sufficient support and are especially susceptible to recruitment. Similarly, some civilians from ethnic minority groups are forced to rely on non-state armed groups for protection and provision, and the consequential positive relationships that these armed groups hold with some of the civilian population has meant that children are often more willing to join these groups voluntarily.
However, now the UN Secretary General has named Myanmar as one of 14 countries with armed groups committing grave child rights violations who are working together with the UN system to end violations against children in situations of armed conflict[iii]. As part of a string of recent reforms introduced following U Thein Sein’s inauguration, the UN and the Government of Myanmar signed a ‘Joint Action Plan’ in June 2012 to measurably work towards the identification, release and reintegration of children in both the Tatmadaw and the Border Guard Forces. The Government has also agreed to facilitate processes that seek to end child recruitment by non-state armed groups. Whilst this is undoubtedly significant progress, considerable problems still remain.
Since signing the agreement, a total of 108 child soldiers have been released from the ranks of the Tatmadaw. Of the 42 child soldiers that were released in July, 34 were still under 18, whilst the remaining eight were young adults who had been recruited as children[iv]. They were released to their families in the presence of representatives from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), representatives from the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar, and senior officials from the Government of Myanmar. This was the third in a series of releases. Prior to this only 66 other child soldiers have been officially released from the ranks of the Tatmadaw; including 42 in September 2012 and 24 in February 2013. Whilst the release of any single child soldier is clearly cause for celebration, these 108 soldiers comprise only a fraction of those believed to be recruited by the Tatmadaw since the UN started actively monitoring the issue.
The Government of Myanmar needs to place more emphasis on combating the problem. Although Myanmar ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, it has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which entered into force in 2012. Additionally, it has still not endorsed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which requires states to treat the conscription or enlisting of Under 15s as a war crime. Since the enforcement of the Joint Action Plan, the situation has not improved as quickly as one would hope, and the recruitment of children by the Tatmadaw is ongoing, albeit on a reduced scale. This is in part due to the persistent nature of the conflict, which makes it difficult to discourage the recruitment of child soldiers. However it is also partly due to problems which are perhaps more easily rectified.
There is a distinct lack of effective safeguards to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in the Tatmadaw, Border Guard Forces and all other armed groups. In particular, the Border Guard Forces do not appear to actively seek to verify children within their ranks, let alone develop plans for reintegration or prevent the recruitment of children in future. Similarly, groups such as the Karen National Union/the Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) have such informal recruitment processes that the lack of proper age verification procedures continues to place children at risk. Age verification is particularly problematic for all armed groups in Myanmar as not all children have birth certificates or official documents stating their date of birth, particularly those from remote rural areas. Children lacking these documents are more easily recruited into all groups, and age verification documents are also easily counterfeited. Where children are already present in armed groups, age verification documents can still be falsified to prevent demobilisation. The government needs to respond to this issue by making age verification documents more easily accessible and less falsifiable, and by implementing a central database containing information regarding every Tatmadaw and Border Guard Force recruit, including their date of birth, supported by a copy of their birth certificate or alternative official identification document. The name and rank of the recruiting officer should also be included as a preventative measure and so that they can be held accountable for any underage recruitment if necessary. It is imperative that the government provide thorough training to those involved in the recruitment processes and ensure that they are aware of the age verification processes, the prohibition on child recruitment, and that disciplinary and criminal sanctions will be imposed if they fail to adhere to these laws.
The government also need to investigate every credible allegation of child recruitment within the Tatmadaw and Border Guard Force and ensure perpetrators are prosecuted according to international standards for fair trial. This should be linked to an overall reform of the Tatmadaw, improving pay and conditions and combatting corruption. At present there are high desertion rates from the Tatmadaw, which means that there is more pressure to meet recruitment targets and consequently there is more child recruitment. Child demobilisation should not only be included as part of peace processes, but also as part of this separate military restructuring and reform. The international community can also help with the training and reform by providing child rights education to recruiting officers and combatants during the reform process, and by expanding awareness of child rights within the general community through advocacy work using a range of media. Thankfully, we have recently begun to see an increase in military cooperation between Myanmar and the West. Following on from Thein Sein’s visit to London in June, the UK has agreed to post a Defence Attaché to Rangoon, and also to offer the Tatmadaw training courses in human rights, the laws of armed conflict, and accountability of the armed forces in democracies. Thirty senior officers will attend courses on these topics in the United Kingdom next year.[v] The United States is also due to follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, having recently announced that it will begin a process of military engagement with Myanmar later this month, largely focusing on humanitarian issues, officer professionalisation and human rights.[vi] This bodes very well for the reform process of the Tatmadaw, and for the development of a culture of human rights in Myanmar. Nevertheless, significant advances will need to be made beyond this new engagement, and it may also prove useful to work, where possible, with community leaders, religious leaders and national networks in order to encourage them to advocate against child recruitment and help to promote an understanding of child rights within the wider environment. It is extremely important to change the common perception in Myanmar that child soldier recruitment is acceptable.
More emphasis also needs to be placed on the reintegration process. Child soldiers often undergo a process of asocialisation, where they are deprived of normal cultural, moral and values socialisation. Therefore, effective reintegration is crucial to assist former child soldiers in re-engaging positive social relations and productive civilian lives. They should not, therefore, just be released to their families. However, it is important to concentrate on reintegration into family and community life – rather than into specialised reintegration centres where they can be segregated and alienated, although these can be beneficial for short-term placements and whilst family tracing is in taking place. There should be an emphasis on assisting with the formation of trusting and consistent relationships, and hence it is important that those involved in the reintegration process are well trained and carefully selected. A number of willing former child soldiers could also be trained to help support their peers during the transition stages of their reintegration. Alongside this there should also be strong income generating projects and flexible educational opportunities to allow former child soldiers to continue their education around any work commitments if necessary. It is also important to provide specific provisions for certain groups within the reintegration process, including youths (as opposed to children), girls, and the disabled. Those who were active in support roles should also be taken into consideration; weapons possession should not be a criterion for the eligibility in reintegration programmes. There should also be specific provisions for child soldiers who married or had children whilst in service, and hence may need extra support and may be more likely to need assistance in being re-homed.
In order to provide a strong and unified approach to reintegration, the international community, the UN and the government of Myanmar will need to work together. The government should seek technical assistance where necessary to enable it to develop a strengthened recruitment procedure, with age verification measures and independent monitoring and oversight of the Tatmadaw, the Border Guard Forces and other security forces within Myanmar. The involvement of the UN may also be particularly beneficial for teaching and developing family tracing and reunification techniques. However, at present there are a number of restrictions which hinder the development of strong working relationships between these parties. The UN is currently prevented by the government of Myanmar from entering certain areas, on the grounds of national security. This has obstructed essential independent monitoring. Similarly, the government have stopped the UN from engaging with groups such as the KNU/KNLA and the DKBA, and therefore hindered the safe release of children from these groups. If the government continues to act in this way then the international community will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to these severe human rights issues and crimes against humanity in relation to other areas of their foreign policy engagements with Myanmar. They will need to demand justice and integrity from the government, an end to the military’s impunity and an acceptable level of commitment to support the Joint Action Plan on child soldiers.
If the government of Myanmar wants to be considered as a reputable player on the world stage then it needs to begin addressing such concerns, cooperating more with other international actors and taking issues such as the disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration, and prevention of child soldiers more seriously. With the magnitude of the reforms that the government has already implemented and with the recent ceasefires that the Tatmadaw has signed with eleven different armed ethnic groups, there has never been a better time to help support the implementation of reforms to the Tatmadaw and to help end the recruitment and continued use of child soldiers within Myanmar. Hopefully the newfound military engagement with both the United Kingdom and the United States will prove to be the much needed catalyst to encourage this transformation.
[i] Yuriko Koike, ‘Comparing Myanmar to South Africa’, CNN.com, 30 November 2011, <http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/30/comparing-myanmar-to-south-africa/> [accessed 03 August 2013]
[ii] Arch Puddington, ‘Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance’, Freedom House, p8, <http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FIW%202013%20Booklet.pdf> [accessed 03 August 2013]
[iii] United Nations News Centre, ‘Myanmar: UN welcomes release of child soldiers by national armed forces’, UN.org, 18 February 2013, <http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44164#.Uf1Jk6xCqy4> [accessed 03 August 2013]
[iv] AFP, ‘Tatmadaw Releases 42 children and young people’, Myanmar Times, 08 July 2013, <http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/7425-tatmadaw-releases-42-children-and-young-people.html> [accessed 03 August 2013]
[v] Andrew Selth, ‘West reaches out to Burma’s security sector’, The Interpreter, Lowy Institute for International Policy, 26 July 2013, <www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2013/7/26/West-reaches-out-to-Burmas-security-sector.aspx> [accessed 03 August 2013]
[vi] Tim McLaughlin, ‘US and Myanmar up military engagement’, Myanmar Times, 01 August 2013, <www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/7656-us-and-myanmar-to-commence-military-cooperation.html>