Democracy Lab

Burma's Lost Boys

The government in Burma is promising to clean up its act. But the army is still recruiting child soldiers.

Tucked away in a walled patch of dirt on the outskirts of Laiza -- a small town in northern Burma under the control of rebel fighters from the Kachin ethnic group -- eight children sit in olive fatigues and football shirts, chain-smoking cigarettes. Their hacking coughs, slow movements, and blank stares camouflage their real ages.

The group of boys, all between 13 and 16 years old, come from the most recent wave of child soldiers to defect from the Burmese army, fleeing from their own outposts and emerging from the land-mined jungle to surrender to rebel fighters from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The war has continued despite a series of government peace overtures to other rebel groups.

Despite assurances this year from the ruling junta that it is cleaning up its act in a bid to see Western sanctions lifted, recruitment of child soldiers remains rampant. This month, the British newspaper The Independent revealed that in the first three months of 2012 alone, the U.N. verified 24 instances of children being coerced to enlist -- the equivalent of two a week.

In return for cigarettes, the boys in Laiza share stories of how they were duped by army recruiters into signing up for service. Along the way they were forced to forge their own birth certificates, thereby erasing their identities and falsifying their ages to buffer the numbers in Burma's struggling military.

"We were on our way back from the cinema when soldiers saw us and followed," said Nay Myo Oo, a 14-year-old who was living in the south of the country. "They asked us why we weren't at school. Later, they came with trucks and picked us up. They said we would be paid, took us to a building, and forced us to sign a statement saying we were older than 18."

Overnight, Nay Myo Oo went from schoolboy to soldier, finding himself caught in a dusty, hot camp where boys suffered routine beatings and fought each other for food. Of the thirty boys he trained with, some, he says, were just eleven years old.

"They had mostly been abandoned by their parents," he said, "but others were just picked up from the streets. Talking at the camp was forbidden. If we made a mistake while cleaning our guns or during physical training, they would beat us with a bamboo stick or slap our faces."

For nine consecutive years, Burma has been on the U.N.'s so-called "List of Shame," a report published by the office of the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, which exposes countries that use child soldiers. In Burma's case, the agency notes that both the government and rebel groups have recruited tens of thousands of children between them. As early as 2002, Human Rights Watch released a paper saying that Burma had more child soldiers than any other country in the world. The group estimated the number at around 70,000.

Declining morale in Burma's national army, high desertion rates, and a shortage of volunteers have created such high demand for new recruits that many boys, some as young as ten, are targeted in massive recruitment drives and forced to become soldiers.

A new action plan on child soldiers, signed on June 27 this year between the U.N. and the Burmese government, has given hope that the trend can be reversed. If it works, some of the tens of thousands of children who have been pushed into military service may be able to return to their homes.

The confidential agreement pledges the government to stop recruiting child soldiers, and crucially allows underage recruits to return home without risk of prosecution. The agreement hopes to ensure that illegal recruiters will be held accountable under Burmese law for picking up children. In a huge shift in government policy, the military has also agreed to allow the U.N. and other organizations access to camps to check for underage recruits.

Critics of the deal, including some humanitarian aid workers who have been involved in the negotiations, say that the military is engaging with the international community as a tactic for ensuring the survival of the military-dominated regime.

They say that the government's refusal to negotiate on certain aspects of the agreement -- most crucially an enforced 72-hour notice period before monitors can be granted entry to military compounds -- reveals a lack of political will to reach a genuine solution to the problem.

"It's shocking that the U.N. even agreed to this plan," says Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "It should have been a non-starter. Child recruitment in Burma is a longstanding and chronic issue, and the government should not be given any benefit of the doubt on this." He notes that providing advance notice of inspections gives the military more than enough time to conceal anything it wants.

Maung Zarni, of the London School of Economics, argues that the persistence of the problem of child soldiers is intimately connected with the political system in Burma, which has been built primarily to serve the needs of the reigning military.

"Burma's military units are best and most accurately understood as a web of nationwide criminal organizations," says Zarni. "They will do the bare minimum in terms of political liberalization and observing international norms. On child soldiers -- or, for that matter, any other issues -- the Burmese consider human rights, NGOs, the U.N., human rights conventions, or any of those things nothing more than a nuisance." He says that the military is so reliant on the use of child soldiers that it will probably take years to wean it of the practice.

Until the nominally civilian government was formed in 2010, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) consistently denied the presence of any child soldiers in the Burmese army. The state-run media dismissed reports of child soldiers as "slanderous accusations," and declared that the government was cooperating with U.N. agencies in order to prove that the allegations were untrue.

Now, a year after he was taken away by the Burmese armed forces on his way to the movies, Nay Myo Oo is a prisoner of war with the Kachin Independence Army. His decision to desert was, he says, prompted by a bad beating at the hands of his commander. Jumping 20 meters from the top of a nearby dam, he swam across a lake, dumped his uniform, and ran half-naked through a jungle filled with land mines until he reached an enemy position. When the KIA found him they beat him again. Eventually, though, they took him to their intelligence headquarters in Laiza.

Nay Myo Oo has no way of contacting his family, and lives in fear that he will never be able to return home. "If they caught me they would have killed me, or put me in prison for many years," he says. "Here we have three meals a day and free time to play. I'll stay here."

In Burma, children like Nay Myo Oo have become a commodity, bought and sold by military recruiters who are desperate to meet recruitment quotas imposed by their superiors.

The government insists that the armed forces consist entirely of volunteers and that the minimum age for recruitment is 18. Soldiers and other witnesses interviewed by monitors, by contrast, have repeatedly testified that most new recruits are conscripted, and that the majority of them are under 18 years old.

Army officers face considerable pressure to fill recruitment quotas. Battalion commanders who fail to meet their targets are subject to a range of disciplinary action, including loss of command. As a result, battalions and recruiting centers offer cash to their own soldiers to bring in recruits, and sometimes even "buy" recruits from civilian brokers and the police.

Recruiters stake out train stations, bus stations, markets, and other public places, always on the watch for young adolescent boys on their own. The boys are threatened with arrest for loitering or the failure to produce identification, and are then intimidated, coerced, or if necessary beaten into "volunteering" for the army.

Dire conditions and regular beatings, along with the fact that many children never see any pay because of rampant corruption among their officers, lead many of the young soldiers to defect.

Some, like the boys in Laiza, run through the front lines to rebel territory, or take shelter in refugee camps. Some join up with rebel forces to fight back against the government. Others cross borders and remain stranded in Thailand or China. Many of those who try to escape are caught, imprisoned for desertion, or simply killed.

Despite repeated attempts by the UN to calculate the number of children involved in conflicts in Burma, the secretive nature of the military and lack of access to areas controlled by the country's myriad armed ethnic groups means a figure has been impossible to estimate. The simple issue of access -- getting independent advisors permission to enter military sites for research -- has been a constant problem.

"The real test of the Burmese government's political commitment to this issue will lie in the measures they take to effectively end this practice," says Richard Clark from the humanitarian organization Child Soldiers International. "A concrete sign of this commitment would be to allow the U.N. timely access to all its military sites." So far, though, Burma's rulers appear unwilling to comply.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

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