The International Labour Organization (ILO) says that the government discharging 42 underage Burmese soldiers on Monday was a positive step towards outlawing their use completely.
The Burmese military hosted a public ceremony in Rangoon for the underage troops which was the first time such a large number has been allowed to resign since the government and UN signed agreements in June aimed at tackling the issue.
Steve Marshall, ILO liaison officer in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that, “each individual discharge of a boy and their reuniting with their families is a victory. It is even better when you are able to see it is no longer simply one every now and then but that we have got a committed position for everybody, and it is obviously very emotional.
“But it is the beginning of a longer process and we are very hopeful that we will be able to meet the needs of all the young people who are child soldiers—not only with the Tamadaw [Burmese armed forces] but we also need to be having similar discussions with the non-state armed groups as well to ensure that children are not placed in this situation now or in the future.”
The military officials handed the child soldiers to their parents, issued them with ID cards and will provide formal education for them to study for a new life. UN representatives also joined the ceremony along with Burmese military representatives including Maj-Gen Tin Maung Win, from the office of the commander-in-chief (army).
The ILO has been working with the Burmese government on a joint UN taskforce—headed by the UN Children’s Fund and including international NGOs World Vision and Save the Children—for the release and reintegration of child soldiers and the prevention of further recruitment.
Marshall said that the number of complaints recently received has been less than previous years, although fresh accusations do continue to arrive. The Burmese government is responding positively to new complaints, he added.
“We are now seeing the majority of cases related to last year and the year before,” said Marshall. “The number of new recruits has been low this year.”
Aye Myint, a rights activist who works with child soldiers in Pegu Division, said that Monday’s release was just a show for the international community and the military should officially announce exactly how many children are currently enlisted.
“They even need to release the list of who they have already discharged and hand this to their families in order to let them clearly know where their children are,” he said.
Maung Maung Lay, a member of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters network, said that there are current soldiers who have served from the age of 14 or 15 but are now 19 or 20 years old.
“We do not know what their condition is and the government should release all of them,” he said.
The ILO said that they will continue to work with the government to monitor the situation for discharged underage soldiers and to prevent further recruitment. The government is also taking a very constructive line and meets regularly to discuss working procedures, added the UN body.
Many child soldiers in Burma are kidnapped on their way home from school. They are then brutalized and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s border areas. Human Right Watch has also accused some ethnic rebel groups of using underage troops.
A total of 93 child soldiers were discharged from the Burmese armed forces through government mechanisms from January to December 2010, according to a statement of the UN Secretary-General to the bloc’s Security Council on April 23, 2011.
The UN taskforce said that 40 had been recruited during 2010 with the remaining 53 recruited the year before.
However, this is not likely the total number of child soldiers in Burma given that the ILO received 201 complaints of underage recruitment in 2010—a significant increase on the 86 complaints received in 2009—and a steady stream of related incidents are reported to the taskforce.
In 2010, the taskforce regularly followed up on alleged cases but access restrictions continue to limit the number it is able to verify.
Most incidences were of children from 15 to 17 years of age with the majority from Rangoon Division. Children continue to be persuaded or duped by relatives working in the Tatmadaw, soldiers trying to earn a promotion or employment brokers.
There are eight groups mentioned by the UN Secretary-General as using child soldiers—the Burmese Army, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Liberation Army, Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, Karenni Army, Shan State Army-South and the United Wa State Army.