The government of Burma, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been expanding its armed forces—the “Tatmadaw”—at an alarming rate; and this expansion is sustained by the recruitment of children.
In 1988 there were approximately 200,000 men serving in the Tatmadaw, in 2004 estimates were nearly 380,000 troops, and it is reported that the SPDC wants to increase that number to 500,000.
This report examines the ongoing recruitment and use of child soldiers in Burma. Most children interviewed for this report were forcibly recruited into army ranks; they were coerced and deceived. Other child recruits cited economic hardships and social pressures as their reasons for joining, the very conditions that make them easy targets for SPDC recruiters.
Recruiters also use intimidation tactics to convince children to join the armed forces. “Join the military or go to jail,” were the “options” that many children were offered. This fear-inducing strategy is effective, almost guaranteeing that the child will “choose” to join the military.
Once recruited, children are detained at local army posts, police stations or recruiting offices. They are instructed on how to fill out registration forms; including lying about their age, as officially children under the age of 18 years are not permitted to join the army. However authorities at all levels circumvent this rule by forcing every recruit to say they are at least 18 years old.
According to interviewees, children are then sent to complete military training programs and subsequently sent to the frontlines to fight “enemy” rebel groups or serve as porters, cooks, or servants for higher ranking officers. If sent to the frontlines they rarely know who they are fighting or why.
Children report that conditions in the detention centers and training camps are horrible; the barracks are overcrowded and they are bullied by older recruits. Moreover, children are routinely beaten if they make mistakes during training.
These conditions cause child soldiers to suffer from mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. Children, still in varying stages of development, are unable to accommodate the stress generated by military activities. As reported by many of the interviewees, child soldiers often cry themselves to sleep in quiet humiliation, scared any show of weakness could invite additional reproach from fellow soldiers and officers.
As soldiers, children are forced to perpetrate violence and commit human rights violations. They take part in destroying villages suspected of supporting ethnic insurgent movements; they also participate in extrajudicial killings. Children are not prepared for the physical, emotional or psychological experience of war. Therefore some run away from the army, some attempt suicide, while most attempt to rationalize their experiences, which distorts their fundamental sentiments of right and wrong.
The SPDC has promised action and in an effort to quell the recruitment and use of child soldiers, has created the ‘Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Under-age Children.’ However, rather than spending its time aggressively fighting against the recruitment and use of child soldiers, the committee focuses on contesting allegations from the UN and international and national human rights groups about the use of child soldiers in the country.
The SPDC must stop recruiting and using children in the military. The government’s official policies, which prohibit children from entering the military, must be implemented and those who violate such policies should be punished. The SPDC must play a central role in disarming, demobilizing, and rehabilitating (DDR) former child soldiers and invite assistance from international and local organizations willing to help with DDR programs.
The SPDC promises change; but despite promises, evidence continues to point to SPDC’s continued recruitment, training, and deployment of child soldiers.