U.N. Blocked on Burma Child Soldiers

Political obstruction and lack of access to affected areas have blocked U.N. efforts to end recruitment of child soldiers in Burma.

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child-soldier Burmese child soldiers in Tak, near the border with Thailand, Jan. 31, 2000.

WASHINGTON—A U.N. panel charged with fighting the recruitment of child soldiers has notably failed to make progress in Burma, where school-age children are conscripted by both the ruling junta and ethnic rebel armies, experts say.

“The United Nations team in Burma is severely restricted in what it can do, where it can go, and what kind of information it can collect,” Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview.

“And so it’s been very hampered in coming up with any documentation about the recruitment and use of child soldiers by Burma’s military.”

The military is the single most powerful institution in Burma, having run the country without interruption since seizing control in a 1962 coup. Military generals have crushed political dissent and battled ethnic separatist movements ever since. Officers and their families enjoy privileges unknown to civilians.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, the Burmese regime may have the largest number of child soldiers in the world—with thousands swept up in massive recruitment drives.

Some are as young as 10, Human Rights Watch says, their enlistment papers routinely falsified to indicate their ages as 18 or older.

...They go to marketplaces, train stations, public places, and basically threaten and coerce children, saying, ‘If you don’t join the army, you’re going to go to jail.'"

Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch

The United Nations Secretary General has cited Burma six times since 2002 in reports to the Security Council as among the world’s worst perpetrators of child recruitment.

Some armed ethnic groups fighting against the junta also recruit children, experts said. These include the United Wa State Army, Kachin Independence Army, Karenni National People's Liberation Front, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Shan State Army-South, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Karen National Union Peace Council.

Working Group

The U.N. Security Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, created in July 2005, monitors and reports on child recruitment in countries of concern around the world. It can also recommend sanctions, including arms embargoes, against governments and armed groups that continue to recruit.

The Working Group maintains a “country task force” in Burma’s former capital, Rangoon.

But lack of access to conflict zones has hindered U.N. efforts to locate and help child soldiers in Burma, according to a high-level U.N. report released in November 2007.

“Access to conflict-affected areas is severely restricted by the Government, a situation that impacts greatly on monitoring and possible responses to child rights violations,” the report said.

And though Working Group efforts have achieved “concrete results” in Sri Lanka, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other countries, Becker said, “Burma is very politicized within the Security Council.”

China’s role

China, a permanent member of the Security Council, has for many years blocked discussion of Burma in the U.N., Becker said.

“Once [Burma] came onto the agenda of the Security Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, China basically obstructed every constructive proposal that was put forward to try and address the problem of ongoing child recruitment in Burma.”

“That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing such inaction,” Becker said.

Calls seeking comment from China’s delegation to the United Nations went unreturned.

“The Security Council Working Group is a political body, and in that sense is susceptible to some of the political positions of the [larger] Security Council,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, speaking in September at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

“In certain countries, especially when we deal with governments, they are much less likely to move as fast,” Coomaraswamy said. “They will move faster on a non-state actor.”

Coomaraswamy noted that Burma’s junta has recently sought to “engage” the United Nations on the issue by forming its own monitoring group, called the Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children.

“Recruitment continues,” though, Coomaraswamy said.

Coomaraswamy has reported that Burmese children have been lured into joining the army with promises of food and shelter—with brokers sometimes receiving as much as U.S. $32 (40,000 kyat) per child recruited from the streets.

Replacement recruits

Burma’s recruitment of child soldiers is now driven largely by desertions from the Burmese army, Becker said.

“Recruiters are under enormous pressure to bring in new soldiers, and they find that children are the most vulnerable targets,” Becker said.

“And so they go to marketplaces, train stations, public places, and basically threaten and coerce children, saying, ‘If you don’t join the army, you’re going to go to jail,’” she said.

“The fact that, after six years of reporting from the Secretary General, the [Security] Council has still done so little is clearly at great cost to the children of Burma.”

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney. Produced and edited for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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