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Child Soldiers in Myanmar's front line


By Marianne Bray

June 15, 2001

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Myanmar has the world's highest number of child soldiers, with children as young as seven years old working as human shields, sex slaves and fighters.

The southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, has 50,000 child soldiers working for both government and opposition armies, according to a report released Tuesday by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

"In Burma the situation is unique because the desire for more independence from the government goes along with armed ethnic groups struggling to identify themselves in various locations," Judit Arenas, spokesperson for the Coalition told CNN.

"This makes it one of the worst and most complicated situations around the world."

Myanmar won independence from Britain in 1948 and has been ruled by the military in various guises since 1962.

In 1988 the military crushed a pro-democracy uprising and in 1990 refused to recognize elections that gave the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, a landslide victory.

The political stalemate has continued for over a decade. NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi has lived under house arrest on and off for several years and the military often detains opposition members.

While Myanmar's army has a compulsory recruitment age of 18 years old, many young children are being enlisted to fight in battles raging across the country.

The "God's Army", a breakaway Karen group led by two 12-year-old twins, focused world attention on the plight of child soldiers fighting for ethnic armed groups when they took over 700 hostages in a Thailand hospital in 2000.

Human shields

While some children are recruited voluntarily for Myanmar's armed forces, others, especially orphans and street children are vulnerable to what is called "forced recruitment."

Under this scheme, local authorities in Myanmar are required to provide the government with a certain quota of recruits, the report says, and are fined if they fail.

"A lot of these children are street children, they won't stand up and complain," said Arenas.

"Children are scared so easily, they are very obedient, and they are very good for this type of guerrilla warfare as they are small, very agile on feet, and can get into places, grown-up soldiers can't."

The ILO Commission has reported that children act as human shields and minesweepers. They also carry ammunition and fight on the front lines. Girls are being raped by soldiers, the ILO adds.

The former U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, Rajsooner Lallah, has slammed the country's torturing, trafficking and forced labor of children.

Ethnic battles

Children are also used as soldiers outside the army, for opposition groups such as the Mong Tai Army and the Karen National Union (KNU).

While many opposition forces have accepted ceasefires with the government, others control their territory with arms and breakaway forces continue to fight against the government.

"There is the tribal struggle, with some ethnic groups having the right to patrol territories and carry arms," Arenas told CNN.

The Mong Tai Army is believed to have the largest number of child soldiers, with one son required from each family. Children in Shan State receive education in exchange for military service later.

The KNU guerrillas led by young twins, Johnny and Luther Htoo, is believed to recruit many children, although the twins themselves surrendered and returned to live with their parents.

Myanmar's record comes despite the U.N. General Assembly adopting a protocol in May 2000 calling on governments to prevent anyone under 18 from taking part in combat.

But the UN says while 79 countries have signed the protocol, only six have ratified it.

Forced labor

The child soldier report comes one day after U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned Myanmar for still using forced labor, despite an official ban on the practice imposed eight months ago.

The group has urged foreign companies to stop investing in the country until the practice is stopped -- and independent monitors can verify that.

The U.S. State Department in February criticized Myanmar for harshly repressing its citizens by denying them the most basic social and political freedoms.

But Myanmar on Tuesday criticized the Human Right Watch report, saying its "constant negative attitude, irresponsible actions and unrealistic expectations are in fact hampering and depriving the people of Myanmar of their rights to development and prosperity."

Myanmar's military has presided over a steadily weakening economy, as international investment has plunged and economic sanctions appear to have hurt the government and people alike.

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