On January 11, Burma's Mergui Islands were featured as one of the "The 46 Places to Go in 2013" in The New York Times. A few days later, three civilians were killed after the Burmese army indiscriminately shelled the town of Laiza as part of an offensive against the non-state armed group Kachin Independent Army (KIA). Laiza, the de facto headquarters of the KIA, sits on the border of China almost 2,000 miles north of the Mergui archipelago. Yet the juxtaposition of these two narratives underscores Burma's schizophrenic transition to nascent democracy and the challenges remaining for those committed to building upon the country's fragile reforms. Central to these challenges is addressing the ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese military and non-state armed groups, in particular the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
A recent by report by Child Soldiers International documents the use of child soldiers by the Burmese army (Tatmadaw), Border Guard Forces (under the command of the Tatmadaw and made up of former members of armed groups), and two armed opposition groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).
While the Tatmadaw and many non-state armed groups have official policies of non-enlistment of children, insufficient recruitment safeguards and accountability measures have limited the efficacy of such policies. Due to high desertion rates, the Tatmadaw are constantly in need of new recruits. According to the report, military officers and informal recruiting agents continue to use intimidation, coercion, and physical violence to obtain new recruits, including children. Similarly, armed opposition groups lack a proper age verification procedure and maintain informal associations with under-18s, placing children at considerable risk of participation in hostilities, the report said.
Documentation of the ongoing use of child soldiers comes just seven months after the government signed an agreement with the U.N. to end the practice. The Joint Action Plan establishes a procedure to identify and release children in the Tatmadaw and Border Guard Forces. The plan incorporates the International Labour Organization (ILO) complaint mechanism -- in place since 2007 -- that allows individuals to report cases of forced labor, including underage recruitment. Since signing the agreement, 42 children have been released from the army. The plan also provides a framework for prevention, including measures to reform recruitment practices and ensure accountability for those that illegally conscript children.
While the plan is a step in the right direction, the report's findings highlight the limitations of the agreement. The government has denied the U.N. access to ethnic conflict areas and requires 24-hour notice before visiting military facilities. The capacity or willingness of the justice system to investigate and try officers implicated in the recruitment and use of child soldiers remains a serious concern.
"The Joint Action Plan is a milestone to bring to an end the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Myanmar. However, it marks the beginning of the process and not the end," said Charu Hogg, Asia Program Manager at Child Soldiers International. "The Myanmar government needs to ensure that it provides timely and unimpeded access for monitoring, implement effective accountability measures, and finally provide the U.N. access to non-state armed groups to ensure verification and release of children present in their ranks."
The Burmese military has been engaged in armed conflict with various non-state armed groups since the mid-1960s. In recent years, the government has signed ceasefire agreements and begun peace negotiations with many of these groups, included the KNU and DKBA.
Kachin remains an exception. In June 2011, the Burmese army and the KIA renewed hostilities, breaking a 17-year ceasefire.
In May 2012, Child Soldiers International received testimonies of three child soldiers who had been forcibly recruited by the Tatmadaw and subsequently deployed to the Kachin front line. Two had served as sentries and porters, while one 16-year-old was deployed in active combat in ongoing fighting with the KIA.
In the past year, Human Rights Watch has also documented the use of child soldiers by the Burmese army in Kachin State.
"It is common to find children who were coerced or forced to join the army, taken from their families or apprehended in public places. These kids often explain harsh mistreatment during their basic training," said Matt Smith, researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Tatmadaw child soldiers have been sent to the front lines in Kachin State."
Smith conducted research in Kachin for the Human Rights Watch report, "Untold Miseries," which documents abuses by all sides to the conflict and forced displacement in Kachin State. According to Smith, the KIA also enlists children.
"It is typical to find KIA child soldiers who have volunteered out of ethnic nationalism or a desire to avenge abuses by the Burmese army, and their use is no less a violation of international law," Smith said.
On January 14, the KIA released eight prisoners of war. The soldiers -- who are all now over the age of 18 -- were recruited and deployed by the Burmese army as children. According to the ILO, the boys are all currently receiving rehabilitation support, including vocational training and job placement assistance, through UNICEF, assisted by the Ministry of Social Welfare and partner NGOs. The ILO is working with the Tatmadaw towards obtaining their formal discharge papers.
While the case reflects positive engagement by the government and the KIA, isolated releases are insufficient, particularly as the Tatmadaw and non-state armed groups have failed to implement effective safeguards to prevent the ongoing recruitment of children.
The ILO estimates there are still some 5,000 child soldiers in Burma.