Fri 12 Sep 2008
Filed under: News,Opinion,Other
Myin Win was 11 years old when he was first recruited into Burma’s national army. He was picked up by soldiers while selling vegetables at a railway station and sent to a military training camp. He weighed only 70 pounds, or about 32 kilograms, and said that the guns were so heavy he could hardly lift them.
He was able to escape, but was recruited a second time at the age of 14. This time he tried to negotiate. “I’ll give you money,” he said to the lance corporal. The recruiter replied, “I don’t want your money.” Myin Win said, “I’ll call my mother and she can vouch for me.” The soldier told him, “I don’t want to see your mother or father and I don’t want money. I want you to join the army.”
Myin Win was sent to training again and, while still only 14, deployed into ethnic minority areas where he was ordered to burn down houses and capture civilians. “We were ordered that if we see anyone, including women and children, then we must approach and catch them and take them to our officers for interrogation,” he said. “If they try to run, shoot them.”
Burma’s military regime may have the largest number of child soldiers in the world. Thousands of children serve in Burma’s national army, swept up in massive recruitment drives to offset high rates of desertion and a lack of willing volunteers. The United Nations Secretary General has identified the regime as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of child recruitment, citing it in six separate reports to the UN Security Council since 2002.
Two years ago, the Security Council created a special working group specifically to address abuses against children in armed conflict. The group is empowered to recommend arms embargoes and other targeted sanctions against violators, like Burma, that repeatedly recruit and use child soldiers.
But in Burma’s case, the Security Council has shamefully squandered its responsibility. After a formal review of Burma’s violations, the working group’s recent report fails even to acknowledge that Burma’s army recruits children. Far from considering well-justified sanctions, the working group repeatedly welcomed the regime’s “cooperation” with the UN.
The approach to Burma is in stark contrast to the Security Council working group’s tough – and effective – approach to other perpetrators like Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Last year the Security Council threatened sanctions against the Tamil Tigers for the group’s use of child soldiers during Sri Lanka’s two-decade-long civil war, and gave a six-month deadline for action. It worked. Reports of child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers dropped from 1,090 in 2004 to 26 in the first six months of this year.
In other cases, the Security Council has also obtained results. In Ivory Coast, it pushed government and rebel forces to adopt action plans to end child recruitment; the practice has now been abandoned in that country. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it referred information on violations to sanctions committees and urged the arrest and prosecution of commanders responsible for child recruitment. Although some child recruitment continues in the country, an estimated 30,000 child soldiers have been released or demobilized since 2003.
So why is the Security Council giving Burma a free pass? In a word, China. A stalwart ally of Burma’s military regime, China tried to prevent the Security Council from discussing Burma’s record of violations against children. According to diplomats, China’s representatives (often backed by Russia and Indonesia) have consistently rejected all efforts to pressure Burma to address its use of child soldiers – including proposals for a more detailed action plan on the issue from Burma’s government, access by UN personnel to Burma’s territory to verify Burma’s claims that it has no child soldiers, or even a follow-up report on progress.
Despite all eyes being on China during the recent Olympic Games, this obstructionist behavior provides another sad illustration of China’s failure to uphold basic human rights standards, including protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable children.
One diplomat said, “China’s position was that we must build a relationship of trust with Burma, and to do that, we must accept whatever they say.” Including, apparently, the fiction that Burma has no child soldiers.
Without credible pressure from the Security Council, UN officials in Burma – already doing little to engage the military regime on its use of child soldiers – are unlikely to demand concrete action. And unfortunately for Myin Win and thousands like him, the regime has even less incentive to end the routine recruitment of children into its military ranks.
It’s hard to decide whose actions are more shameful – Burma’s exploitation of children as soldiers or the Security Council’s failure to condemn the practice.
Jo Becker is the Children’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch and co-author of “Sold to be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma.”