The Burmese junta is making more and more use of child soldiers, some as young as 10, according to a Human Rights Watch report published today. Finding it increasingly hard to recruit adult soldiers, and trying to cope with high desertion rates and a constantly expanding demand for fighters, army recruiters pick on children at bus and train stations and force them to join up.
The brutal military regime has long been accused of using children to fight the insurgencies and liberation movements challenging the regime on Burma's borders. Last month it drew the condemnation of practically the whole world after its vicious suppression of peaceful protests by tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and ordinary citizens. Soldiers were forced to beat and abuse Burma's highly revered monks and at least one senior officer deserted, fleeing to Thailand because he refused to carry out those orders.
Although the junta set up a high-level committee in 2004, ostensibly to prevent the recruitment of children into the military, Human Rights Watch says it has failed in its aims. "In practice the committee has failed to effectively address the issue," the new report states. Instead it has "devoted most of its efforts to denouncing outside reports of child recruitment". As recently as September, the state-run media announced that the government was working to reveal that accusations of child soldier use were "totally untrue".
But in an investigation conducted in Thailand and China as well as inside Burma, Human Rights Watch not only found that children were routinely inducted into the army, with details of age falsified on the forms, but that children had become an item of trade between recruiters and the battalions, especially newly formed ones crying out for cannon fodder.
The report, Sold to be Soldiers: the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma, found that military recruiters and civilian brokers received cash payments and other incentives for each new recruit, even if he was clearly too young, too light or unwell. One boy told the investigators that he was forcibly recruited at the age of 11, despite being only 4ft 3in and weighing less than 5 stone.
A former soldier called Maung Zaw Ooo described the second time he was forced into the army. "They filled in the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16, I was slapped and the man said, 'You are 18'. He asked me again and I said, 'But that's my true age'. The sergeant asked, 'Then why did you enlist in the army?' I said, 'Against my will. I was captured'. He said, 'OK, keep your mouth shut then', and he filled in the form. I just wanted to go back home and I told them, but they refused. I said, 'Then please just let me make one phone call', but they refused me that, too."
Jo Becker, children's rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, said: "Recruiters target children at train and bus stations, markets and other public places, and often threaten them with arrest if they refuse to join the army. Some children are beaten until they agree to 'volunteer'."
The children typically receive 18 weeks' military training and some are sent into combat within days of being deployed. One former child recruit said he was "about 13" when he first went into combat. "We walked into a Karenni ambush, and four of our soldiers died. I was afraid because I was very young so I tried to run back, but [the] captain shouted, 'Don't run back! If you run back I will shoot you myself!'"
The report says that the majority of Burma's 30 or more non-state armed groups also recruit and deploy child soldiers, "though in far smaller numbers".