BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Myanmar army has released 96 more former child soldiers as part of its effort to prevent and end underage military recruitment, the United Nations said, while news emerged of a former child soldier being sentenced to one year in prison for desertion.
The soldiers’ release on Saturday was the largest since the Myanmar military signed an action plan in June 2012 with a U.N.-led task force under which a total of 272 former child soldiers have now been freed.
However, the Irrawaddy Burmese news website reported on Wednesday that one former child soldier - recruited in 2009 at age 17 - was arrested in December and sentenced on Jan. 7 to one year in prison for deserting his unit.
Critics say the army’s efforts under the accord, reached with the task force comprising U.N. agencies and the NGOs World Vision and Save the Children, have been insufficient.
Human Rights Watch child rights expert Jo Becker said last May that a year into the action plan, “the Burmese military has failed to meet even the basic indicators of progress.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a report also issued last May that while underage recruitment continued, there appeared to be a steady decrease, with 172 verified cases in 2009, 134 in 2010, 123 in 2011, and 32 in 2012. Most recruits were 14 to 17 years old, but some were as young as 10.
“Recruiters continued to target working and unaccompanied children at workplaces, bus and train stations, ferry terminals and markets and in the streets, and orphans and non-working children in home villages and wards,” the report said.
Non-state armed groups similarly recruit and use children, the United Nations said, and it urged the seven listed non-state armed groups also to sign up to their own action plan with the task force.
In an email interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Bertrand Bainvel, the UNICEF representative in Yangon and co-chair of the task force, responded to questions about the child soldiers released. Here are excerpts of his responses.
Q: How were these child soldiers discovered?
A: Some of the discharged children have been identified by the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) themselves, by the battalions and training schools, through the review of their own records and through the self-identification of children in the army.
Some children have also been reported by families and communities to the ILO (U.N. International Labour Organization) complaints mechanism.
Other children have been identified through a CTFMR (Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting on grave child rights violations).
Q: How were they forced or lured into soldiering?
A: Some children joined the armed forces while others have been forced or deceived into joining.
Some children have been deceived into joining the armed forces, indicating they were enticed by individual soldiers or by civilian brokers with the promise of jobs and a good salary, and then forced to enlist. In some cases, underage recruits indicated they only became aware of their official recruitment after receiving uniforms or being sent to training school.
Families are sometimes unaware that there are restrictions on children serving in the armed forces. In response to this, the joint action plan also focuses on prevention of recruitment and awareness-raising across the public at large.
Q: How many children are still being used by the Tatmadaw? Are children still being recruited, and is this a problem from the central government level, or more in the provinces, where perhaps policies have yet to reach?
A: No verifiable data exists on the number of children recruited by the Tatmadaw. However, we know that from 2004 to December 2013, 760 children have been demobilised from the Tatmadaw and over 400 provided with reintegration support back into their communities.
Instructions and directives have been given from central level to stop the recruitment of children in the Tatmadaw but challenges may still occasionally arise on the implementation level.
The public can report the recruitment of children through a CTFMR-operated hotline, 09421166701 or 09421166702, from 7 am to 10 pm. A call back service is provided for broken calls and missed calls outside these hours.