Wed 31 Oct 2007
Filed under: International,News
Add to the many hardships in Myanmar today one more danger: being a boy. According to a report to be released Wednesday, the military, struggling to meet recruiting quotas, is buying, kidnapping and terrorizing boys as young as 10 to fill its ranks.
The report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, says military recruiters and civilian brokers scour train and bus stations, markets and other public places for boys and coerce them to serve.
Some may simply disappear without their families’ knowledge and spend years on the front lines of a brutal war against ethnic insurgencies.
”In recent years the military has continued to expand while at the same time losing large numbers of soldiers to desertion,” a co-author of the report, Jo Becker, said in an interview. ”Recruiters and civilian agents are sweeping boys as young as 11 and 12 off the streets. Children are literally being bought and sold by recruiters.” Ms. Becker is the director of children’s rights advocacy for Human Rights Watch.
The recruiters and agents receive cash payments and other incentives for recruits, even those who fail to meet basic health and age requirements, said the report, which was based on interviews in Myanmar, Thailand and China.
The large number of child soldiers in Myanmar’s army — and in the ranks of some 30 armed ethnic groups — has been known for years, and Human Rights Watch has published earlier reports on it. The new report, coming at a moment of crisis in Myanmar, illustrates the kind of abuses that gave rise, along with economic hardships, to the huge anti-government protests in August and September that were crushed by the military junta a month ago.
”Even before the recent crackdown, many young adults rejected military service because of grueling conditions, low pay and mistreatment by superior officers,” the report said.
In response to criticism, the government formed a high-level committee in 2004 to prevent the impressment of under-age soldiers. ”In fact, the committee is a sham,” Ms. Becker said.
She said it was impossible to say how many child soldiers serve in Myanmar, or to be certain of the full strength of the armed forces, which is generally put at roughly 400,000.
But the report said that in interviews with 20 former soldiers, all but one estimated that at least 30 percent of their fellow trainees were boys under 18. Particularly in newly formed units, as many as half were under age.
The legal age for military service is 18, but the report said recruiters and unit commanders often falsified new soldiers’ ages.
One of the report’s case studies was of a boy who was made a soldier at age 11, even though he was only 4 feet 3 inches tall and weighed less than 70 pounds. The boy, no longer a soldier, told Human Rights Watch that his recruiter bribed the medical officer to certify his eligibility.
The report quoted some former child soldiers as saying they and others had been detained in cells, handcuffed, beaten, and bought and sold from one recruiter or battalion to another.
Once in the ranks, the report said, child soldiers are subject to mistreatment by officers and are sometimes forced to participate in the human rights abuses that have been widely documented among the Tatmadaw, or armed forces. They include battlefield atrocities, the burning down of villages and the sexual abuse of women.
”One thing that is interesting is that many child soldiers say their first experience in combat is terrifying,” Ms. Becker said. ”They are scared of being shot and often would hide or shoot their gun in the air. But they acclimatized very quickly, so often by the second or third encounter they were no longer afraid.”
Some of those interviewed went on to serve 12 or 13 years in the army, she said.
Desertion is punished harshly, according to the report, with arrests and beatings.
The report told of a 16-year-old boy, Maung Zaw Oo, who had been forcibly mustered into the army at age 14, escaped and forced to join again soon afterward.
He told researchers that the corporal who had brought him in received some money, a sack of rice and a big tin of cooking oil. When his relatives tracked him down, they were told he would be released only if they brought in five new recruits.