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ILO aids child soldier but many march on

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Young Thu Zin Oo made his daily trip across the Pun Hlaing River from his village in North Okkalapa Township to the Sinmalite dock in Rangoon on December 15 last year. He and his family sold pork rinds for a living and needed to replenish their supply.

He never arrived at Sinmalite and failed to make the trip home that day either. Instead, he ended up in the Burmese army at the age of 17.

Thu Zin Oo’s story is all too common in Burma, which the UN has repeatedly cited as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of child recruitment to its army. Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that Burma had “enlisted” 70,000 child soldiers in 2002. The rights watchdog has yet to report a drop in this figure, despite the regime’s purported attempts to curb underage recruitment. On that ominous day in December, Thu Zin Oo became another statistic.

His bus trip required a transfer at Bayintnaung Junction. As Thu Zin Oo waited for his connection he noticed a man beckoning him from a distance. Curious, he went to him.

The man asked how he was earning his wage and Thu Zin Oo told him he made 1,500 Kyats a day selling pork rinds. The mystery man suggested he could make more as a mechanic and that he would help him get a job.

“I was really interested in what he’d said and agreed to follow him,” Thu Zin Oo said. “At that time I was thinking I would be able to make a better life for my parents.”

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma’s self-styled ruling clique of generals, has repeatedly stated that its policy prohibits recruitment of anyone under the age of 18 but the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers names Burma as the only Asian country where government armed forces forcibly recruit and use children as young as 12 years old.

The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report released this month, also listed Burma as a top offender. The report said: “The regime’s widespread use of and lack of accountability in forced labour and recruitment of child soldiers is particularly worrying and represents the top causal factor for Burma’s significant trafficking problem.” 

It also chided Burma’s leaders for failing to not making significant efforts to eliminate the problem.

Under international pressure, Burma’s government officials agreed to comply with international standards and publicly vowed to crack down on the recruitment of children to the army, especially after the Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1612 in 2005 to monitor the use of child soldiers. Working with the UN workers’ right body, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the government created a complaint system in 2007 to provide a way for victims to seek redress.

Yet reports of forced child recruitment, mostly of boys aged between 14 and 16, remain.

“The army at the senior level has passed military orders saying that no child under the age of 18 should be recruited,” ILO liaison officer in Rangoon, Steve Marshall, said. “I think the problem exists at a lower level where there are some conflicting pressures placed on personnel in the military.”

Marshall said senior level commanders had required battalion commanders to meet ambitious recruitment quotas amid high-desertion and low-enlistment rates.

There is also a disparity between the penalties for failing to meet the quota and the crime of underage recruitment. The UN reported in 2008 that punishments for recruiting a child included official reprimands and monetary fines, whereas battalion commanders faced loss of rank if they failed to meet recruitment quotas.

The quota in turn made recruitment a profitable business in which brokers or police are compensated for new recruits. Marshall estimates that recruiters pay around 30,000 Kyats (about US$4,700) for each boy.

According to HRW, unaccompanied and poor children are often targeted because they are easily lured with the promise of compensation, food or shelter. The ILO estimates that roughly one-third of child soldiers are recruited in this manner. If they refuse, recruiters use force or threaten to arrest them on some frivolous charge. One-third volunteer for the army and another third are simply abducted.

“Often a broker will say to a kid, ‘Hey, I can find you a job that pays money’,” said Marshall. “They think they’ll get a job in a tea shop or something and the next thing they know they’re in the army.”

With the promise of a good job, Thu Zin Oo went with the man from the train station but realised his grave mistake when they arrived the Danyingone Soldier Collection Centre. It all happened so quickly, he said, and before he could process what was going on, he  was branded “Soldier Number TA/427438”. Later that night he was loaded into a locked train car with other boys in the same situation.

“In that carriage I saw about 100 young guys like me,” Thu Zin Oo said. “We were never allowed to use the toilet so the guy next to me urinated on the floor. As punishment he was badly beaten by some sergeants.”

Through the night the train transported the boys north to Pegu (Bago) Division. The camp was in the Yaytashay Township of Taungoo District.

During his 18 weeks of basic training, Thu Zin Oo was forced to cut and carry sugar cane while bullied by superiors. He recalled one instance of a group of trainees being beaten about the head with wooden poles for singing the national anthem too softly.

The Coalition reports that child soldiers are forced required to perform tasks that include combat, portering, scouting, spying, guarding camps and cooking. Escape attempts are punishable with up to five years in prison for “desertion”.

Near the end of his basic training, Thu Zin Oo was allowed to call his parents. “I told them I wanted to go home as I wasn’t happy,” he said.

His parents, relieved to find their son, contacted the ILO for help. The ILO investigated Thu Zin Oo’s case and compiled proof-of-age documentation. He was discharged from the army on June 8.

The ILO received 128 child soldier complaints between last April last and this April – a dramatic increase on previous years, with 50 complaints between 2007 and last year.

“The number of complaints that we have received has definitely increased,” Marshall said. “However, we believe it is a reflection of people’s understanding of the law and awareness of their right to lodge a complaint.”

Marshall said the government and the ILO had been working to increase awareness in Burma. The government has undertaken awareness workshops for military personnel, and the ILO with the Ministry of Labour have started conducting awareness-raising programmes targeted at local authorities. The former started distributing government-approved flyers this month that detail people’s legal rights and how to file a complaint.

“Progressively, we have been in a position where we’re in agreement with the government and an increased number of children have been discharged from the military,” he said.

The ILO had been able to aid in the release of all but three children whose parents had filed complaints. One has yet to be found and two claimed they wanted to stay in the military, Marshall said.

“The reality is that if the parents lodge a complaint and we’re able to obtain their proof of age, the success rate is extremely high,” he said. “The government, I must say, is very co-operative when the evidence is placed in front of them.”

On the other hand, obtaining the evidence can be difficult. It is a process that can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. To prove that the person was recruited at an age below 18, the ILO must find official proof-of-age documentation.

“In Myanmar [Burma] that is not always easy. A lot of families do not have birth certificates and in many poorer families the kids are not in the formal schooling system,” Marshall said.

Before the ILO, Marshall said a lot of citizens thought child recruitment was a fact of life and did nothing. Others knew it was wrong but were too scared to raise the issue.

Advocacy group Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) director Aung Myo Min said that this fear of reprisal was still deeply rooted, which was why the number of cases reported to the ILO failed to reflect the true extent of the problem. He recalled instances in which individuals were arrested, harassed or intimidated by officials for reporting the existence of child soldiers in the past.

“The ILO’s rate is successful but think about the hundreds of cases that are never reported to the ILO,” Aung Myo Min said.

He added his concern that the military regime’s newfound enlightenment on the issue may be disingenuous.

“They just want to save face because of international attention on the use of child soldiers by the army,” he said. “If they really wanted to change it, blaming their own army is not enough. They have the power and the responsibility to actually stop the use of child soldiers, prevent the children from entering into the camps and take legal action against those who recruit the children into the army.”

Last Updated ( Friday, 02 July 2010 20:14 )  

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