YANGON – Myanmar is still recruiting and using child soldiers, despite embracing democratic reforms and a U.N. agreement to end the practice, a human rights group said Wednesday.
Child Soldiers International reports levels of child recruitment have declined, and 42 children have been released from Myanmar’s army since the government signed the agreement last June, but the outlawed practice continues, due to a lack of political will to implement safeguards.
Myanmar is one of about two dozen countries worldwide found by the U.N. to violate international law on the rights of children in armed conflicts. Ending the use of child soldiers has been among the litany of reforms sought by the U.S. and other Western nations that have restored diplomatic ties with the Southeast Asian nation as it has begun to shift from five decades of oppressive military rule.
The government of President Thein Sein has shown willingness to reform by signing a joint action plan with the U.N., but the London-based rights group says authorities have failed so far to monitor army recruitment systematically, and recruitment patterns appear unchanged from the past decade.
“Military officers and informal recruiting agents continue to use intimidation, coercion, and physical violence to obtain new recruits, including under-18s,” says the report, which is based on three research missions in Myanmar and along its border with Thailand, the latest in December.
The report says children are also in the ranks of army-controlled border guard forces and ethnic armed opposition groups that for the most part have reached cease-fires with the government after decades of fighting for more autonomy. It criticizes the government for refusing the U.N. and child protection agencies access to the ethnic groups to help end child recruitment.
The army, which is still waging a major offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north of the country, has a constant demand for new recruits because of high desertion rates, the report says.
Children are targeted as they are easier to trick and more susceptible to pressure to enlist, it says. They are being recruited on their way into schools and when they leave home in search of work, or in railway stations, bus terminals and markets. A common tactic is to threaten children with prison for failing to produce a national identity card unless they sign up for the army.
The group said it received testimony from three child soldiers in May 2012 who had been forcibly recruited and deployed on the front line of fighting against the Kachin. One 16-year-old said he was made to fight but was very scared and just fired his gun in the air. He was later caught by the rebels. It also cites a case of a 13-year-old recruited into an ethnic Karen border guard force.
Myanmar officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the report Wednesday. Child Soldiers International said it spoke to some Myanmar officials for its research, but defense officials and others declined to be interviewed.
According to the report, the government has told the U.N. that the army rejected more than 400 army recruits as underage during the first nine months of 2011. It has disciplined more than 200 military personnel for involvement in underage recruitment since 2007 and nine have gone to prison.
The army is estimated to number between 350,000 and 400,000. There is no reliable estimate on the number of child soldiers.