Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Child soldiers 'bought and sold' in Myanmar


Yesterday's International Herald Tribune story on the selling and forced recruitment of child soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, while the junta is renewing efforts to recruit child soldiers, one of the main insurgent groups, the Karen National Liberation Army, has improved its record of child recruits. KNLA officers who use child soldiers are punished. The AP article HERE. Today's Reuters' article on Burma's child soldiers HERE. Irrawaddy's HERE.

BANGKOK: Add to the many hardships in Myanmar today one more danger: being a boy. According to a report that was to be released Wednesday, the military, struggling to meet recruiting quotas, is buying, kidnapping and terrorizing boys as young as 10 to join its ranks.

The report by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights group, says military recruiters and civilian brokers scour train stations, bus stations, markets and other public places for boys and coerce them to volunteer. Some may simply disappear without their families' knowledge and spend years on the front lines of a brutal war against ethnic insurgencies.

"Clearly the military is preying upon children and using children to form a substantial proportion of its forces," said a co-author of the report, Jo Becker, the children's rights advocate for Human Rights Watch.

"In recent years the military has continued to expand while at the same time losing large numbers of soldiers to desertion," she said in an interview. "Recruiters and civilian agents are sweeping boys as young as 11 and 12 off the streets. Children are literally being bought and sold by recruiters."

These recruiters and agents receive cash payments and other incentives for new recruits even if the recruit fails to meet basic health and age requirements, said the report, which was based on interviews in Myanmar, Thailand and China.

The large number of child soldiers in Myanmar's army - and in the ranks of some 30 armed ethnic groups - has been known for years, and Human Rights Watch has published reports on it before.

The new report, coming at a moment of crisis in Myanmar, illustrates the kind of broad abuses that gave rise, along with economic hardships, to the huge anti-government protests in August and September that were crushed by the military junta a month ago.

"Even before the recent crackdown, many young adults rejected military service because of grueling conditions, low pay and mistreatment by superior officers," Becker said in the report. "After deploying its soldiers against Buddhist monks and other peaceful demonstrators, the government may find it even harder to find willing volunteers."

In response to criticism, the government formed a high-level committee in 2004 ostensibly to prevent recruitment of underage soldiers. "In fact the committee is a sham," Becker said. She said the committee has been active in denouncing outside reports of the recruitment of children.

Becker said it was impossible to say how many child soldiers are recruited in Myanmar, or even to be certain of the full strength of the armed forces, which is generally estimated at about 400,000.

But the report said that in interviews with 20 former soldiers, all but one estimated that at least 30 percent of their fellow trainees were boys under the age of 18. In some cases, particularly in newly formed units, as many as half were under age.

The legal age for military service is 18, and the report said recruiters and unit commanders often falsify the ages of their new recruits.

The report told of one boy who was recruited at the age of 11, even though he was only 1.3 meters, or 4 feet 3 inches, tall and weighed 31 kilograms, or 70 pounds. That former soldier told Human Rights Watch that his recruiter had bribed the medical officer to certify his eligibility.

The report quoted some former child soldiers as saying they and others had been detained in cells, handcuffed, beaten and sold by one recruiter or battalion to another.

Once in the ranks, the report said, child soldiers are subject to mistreatment by officers and are sometimes forced to participate in the human rights abuses that have been widely documented among the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. These include battlefield atrocities, the burning of villages, forcible recruitment of porters and sexual abuse of women.

Although in some cases the children are sheltered from combat, it said, others may be sent to fight within a few days of their arrival.

"One thing that is interesting is that many child soldiers say their first experience in combat is terrifying, they are scared of being shot and often would hide or shoot their gun in the air," Becker said. "But they acclimatized very quickly, so often by the second or third encounter they were no longer afraid."

Some of those interviewed went on to serve 12 or 13 years in the army, she said.

Desertion is punished with arrests and beatings, according to the report. It told the story of one boy, Maung Zaw Oo, who by the time he was 16 had been forcibly recruited into the army twice. He escaped after his first recruitment at age 14, only to be forced to join again soon afterward, the report said.

He told researchers that the corporal who brought him in received a large sum of money, a sack of rice and a big can of cooking oil as bounty. When his relatives tracked him down, they were told he would be released if they brought in five new recruits, the report said.

"I told my aunt, 'Don't do this,' " Maung Zaw Oo was quoted as saying. " 'I don't want others to face this, it's very bad here. I'll just stay and face it myself.' "

After that, he said, he volunteered for the most dangerous assignments, walking either first or last in a patrol.

"In the army my life was worthless," he was quoted as saying, "so I chose it that way."