With scores of children killed and maimed each year in Myanmar’s long-running ethnic wars, and hundreds conscripted as laborers, the government is setting up a national complaint mechanism for reporting violence and sexual crimes against minors in regions under conflict, officials said.
Myanmar, whose military has been at war with ethnic armies fighting for autonomy since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, has struggled to shed a reputation for the use of child soldiers. It signed an action plan with the U.N. in 2012 to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers.
In 2019, Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement set up a Committee on the Prevention of Grave Violations against Children in Armed Conflict and enacted a Child Rights Law to align its national policies and regulations with those of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The committee submitted a national action plan for protecting children in armed conflicts from injury, death, and sexual violence to President Win Myint's office on June 3, said Win Naing Tun, director general of the ministry’s Rehabilitation Department.
“We are waiting for approval,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “If it is approved, we will start accepting complaints. Then, we will make assessments along with relevant organizations.”
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, will oversee the process, which will include officials from the Home Affairs and Defense ministries, who will take action against the perpetrators of violence against children, Win Naing Tun said.
They also will work with U.N. groups or the Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR), co-chaired by UNICEF and the highest U.N. representative in-country, on the implementation phase and awareness-raising campaigns, he added.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Myanmar ratified in 1991, prohibits all forms of violence against children under the age of 18. It also criminalizes six grave violations against children and grants them legal protections.
CSOs weigh in
Civil society groups from ethnic regions of Myanmar welcomed the creation of a national complaint mechanism, noting the growing numbers of children killed or wounded by shelling, artillery fire, and aerial attacks, and of young adults arrested and detained by soldiers on suspicion of aiding the enemy.
Rights groups, meanwhile, have urged authorities to ensure the process will be effective and will not serve only to whitewash government’s image in order to save its reputation on the international stage.
“We have a lot of sex-based violence cases around here,” said Lway Ku Ku, a spokesperson for the Ta’ang Women’s Organization. “There are many rapes or sexual assaults.”
In rural areas, there are more statutory rape cases in which adults have sex with minors, she added.
Khaing Kaung San, director of the Wun Lark Foundation, a civil society group based in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe, said the complaint mechanism should ensure that hotline numbers and an address for filing complaints are posted in Buddhist monasteries and internally displaced persons camps where many potential victims of child abuse reside.
“Complaints may be against the military or ethnic armed groups, so the mechanism should be able to guarantee the safety of the families of those making the complaints,” he said.
Several cases in UN report
The U.N. secretary-general’s June 2020 report on children and armed conflict, covering the 2019 calendar year, said investigators had verified that Myanmar had 432 grave violations against 420 children and 67 cases of the military recruitment and use of children aged 12-17, mainly in Kachin and Shan states. Of these, 50 were attributed to armed ethnic groups and 17 to the Myanmar military.
It also noted the use of nearly 200 children by Myanmar forces for camp maintenance, brick carrying, and rice paddy harvesting in Rakhine state, mostly at the end of 2019.
The report said that 18 boys, between the ages of 15 and 17, were detained by the Myanmar Police Force for alleged association with the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine state and with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Shan state.
In addition, 41 children were killed, and 120 were maimed, primarily in Rakhine and Shan states, resulting mainly from crossfire, anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants of war, shootings, and artillery shellings. The Myanmar military was deemed responsible for 25 of the incidents, the report said.
The report also said that the Myanmar military would continue to be listed in the report’s annex for the violations of sexual violence and killing and maiming, but would be delisted for the violation of child recruitment and use following a continued significant decrease in recruitment, ongoing prosecutions, and an agreement to continue to trace and release cases identified in previous years.
After the Myanmar military was removed from the list of armed groups that recruit child soldiers, Win Myat Aye said that the government would work to make sure it does not reappear on the list.
“Children in Myanmar have suffered tremendously from the impact of hostilities, especially in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states,” said Virginia Gamba, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for children and armed conflict.
“It is crucial for all parties, including the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and other government security forces, to continue their engagement with the United Nations to end and prevent violations against children,” she said following a five-day mission to Myanmar in January.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.