Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, yet its political situation has been unstable and entangled in complex civil conflicts involving the six major ethnic groups in Myanmar; the Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon. Each of these groups have their share of grievances against Tatmadaw, the Myanmar National Army. Moreover, these groups also have their own states and armed groups.
As a result of a breach on the Panglong Agreement of 1947, these groups have been fighting against the military government since 1962. The agreement guaranteed regional autonomy under a federal governing structure, right to self-determination, religious freedom and ethnic minority rights for these groups. The major political players in Myanmar politics are Tatmadaw, Union Solidarity and Development Party and The National League for Democracy and the armed ethnic groups. These groups controlled the political scene for decades and the continuous quandary between them has been the origin of internal conflict in the country.
Tatmadaw and almost all of the Burmese ethic groups have recruited child soldiers. Apart from the government forces, ethnic militias like the Karen National Liberation Army, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in the Burmese states of Kachin, Kayin, and Shan are major recruiters of child soldier. According to Human Rights Watch report “My Gun Was as Tall as Me: Child Soldiers in Burma”, there were 70,000 child soldiers under the age of 18. Those 70,000 child soldiers comprised 20% of the total active-duty soldiers in the country. The biggest recruiter of child soldiers is The United Wa State Army which had approximately 2,000 soldiers under 18 and 600-800 of them under 15. Of the groups, the Kachin Independence Army is the only group that mostly forcefully recruits girl soldiers under 18.
The political instability is a cause to the country’s poverty, which is one of the key factors to children’s vulnerability to recruitment. Myanmar faces rapid inflation on basic commodity prices, decline of the national currency, extremely poor infrastructure, and lack of basic needs because of economic mismanagement, corruption, and diversions of the country’s finance and resources to the support of the military. All the while, very little is spent on social services and basic needs for the people. According to The World Food Program, 32% of Burmese children under 5 years old are malnourished and lists the main causes for this restriction as the movement of commodities, regional production disparities and weak infrastructure.
Moreover, school fees and expenses, even at primary level, are too high for families to afford. As a result of this social and economic environment, many children leave their families either because they feel like a burden on their parents or due to family fights or their involvement in petty crime activity. Children skip school and start work at a young age. In this situation, they are alone, easily exposed, and vulnerable to recruiters. Many of them are unable to resist recruits’ threats, coercion, and violence due to their lack of knowledge about the laws and rights not to be conscripted into the military as a child.
“I come from a very poor family. My father died when I was very young, and my mother is unemployed. I’m the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters…. I never went to school, and at age seven or nine I started working, tending herds of buffalos and cattle. I was born in 1989, and in 2000 I went to Rangoon to sell some garden produce like ginger. On the way I lost my travel pass from the Ward leader, and at Bago railway station some soldiers came on board and asked everyone for ID cards. I realized I’d lost my recommendation letter, and they took me. The same day they sent me to the Mingaladon Su Saun Yay in handcuffs.” – Myin Win, who was recruited twice as a child, described the first time he was taken into the army when he was 11.
In 2012, the UN Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting on Grave Violations against Children and the Tatmadaw signed a Join Action Plan to stop child soldiers, and since then 849 children and young soldiers have been released. In the beginning of 2019, Tatmadaw discharged 7 children and 25 youth under the age of 18 who were recruited as soldiers. In addition, the government has made more efforts such as signing the Paris Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, which is an important international framework for the reintegration of children into civilian life. The Paris Principles relaunched its national campaign to raise awareness amongst the public about its commitment to end the use and recruitment of children by Tatmadaw via radio and TV spots, newspaper inserts, the reinstallation of billboards across the country, and even opening hotline to report child recruitment.
However, there are a range of hinders to solve this problem. Firstly, there are problems with the identification of the recruited children, especially the ones at armed groups beyond the reach of authorities. There are armed groups, namely the Kachin Independence Army, the Karenni National Progressive Party/Karenni Army, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, the Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council and the Shan State Army, that have not taken part in the action plan. This makes it challenging for the UN to engage with them to end and prevent the use of children in the military. Secondly, the lack of safeguards and accountability are the loopholes which enables the continuity of child recruitment despite Tatmadaw and some armed groups having official policies to forbid underage recruitment.
As a result, children are still unlawfully recruited by Tatmadaw and armed groups, according to the report from Child Soldiers International. Additionally, there are unclear procedures for investigation and prosecution of military officials who uses and abet recruitment of child soldiers. This points to a failure to address accountability, and the continued falsification of age document and coercing children in Myanmar, and in turn the persisting problem of child soldiers in Myanmar to this day and age.
Trang Nguyen Ha Linh