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Myanmar's former child soldiers come forward to share stories

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 7th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

There have been inroads made in the Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma in regards to human rights and Democratic reform. Myanmar still has a shameful history of child soldiers, where boys as young as 15 are abducted and forced to serve in the military. The experiences of these forcibly conscripted young people have begun to come to light, in an effort to redress previous injustices.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to several human rights organizations, many Myanmar teenagers may have lost either their futures or their lives upon being drafted into the state armed forces. An unknown number of child soldiers continue to serve in non-state armed groups, continuing the cycle of violence.

Many of these combatants manage to escape their army commanders by crossing through the porous border to Thailand. Seeking refuge in "safe houses," these displaced teens face too few choices. They find themselves caught between Thai authorities and risk being sent back to succumb to the will of their troop leaders, or living in secrecy without identity or recourse.

While the 2010 elections may have brought little solace to the majority's democratic will in Myanmar, the new administration has surprised many by making unprecedented promises in relation to child soldiers. A joint action plan signed between the ministry of defense and a U.N. Task Force vowed to "halt child soldier recruitment and discharge existing recruits under age 18."

It was the first instance Myanmar not only acknowledged the presence of child soldiers within their armed forces, but also promised to "repatriate" them to their families and communities.

The gesture has led many to say that Myanmar has entered a new era in its political history.

These developments have been fascinating for civil society actors, the U.N., experts and journalists to witness a situation that was stagnant for decades to quickly transform into a positive start for "reform initiatives." Cooperating with humanitarian agencies has been part of the administration's attempts to convince the international community that they intend to rectify the country's appalling human rights record.

According to Human Rights Watch, however, a total eradication of under-age recruitment will be a long process. "The Burmese army still forcibly recruits children from public places, often through civilian recruiters, and coerces them to join the army," Matthew Smith, a researcher at HRW says.

"Abducted kids are typically offered an option to go to prison or enlist, and they usually choose the latter, at which point their documents are falsified."

The International Labor Organization has engaged in negotiations with the Myanmar government to formulate a plan of action under Security Council Resolution 1612. The resolution, adopted by the Security Council in 2005, established a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the use of child soldiers.

"With the holding of the elections and the establishment of the new government, the situation has been markedly different with government representatives, military and civilian, prepared to address all elements of the issue culminating in the signing of an agreed plan of action in June of this year," explained Steve Marshall, information officer at the ILO.

The signing of a memorandum pledges to work towards elimination of all forced labor, including under-age recruitment, by 2015.

Marshall is confident that the cycle of recruitment can be broken through "extensive educational/awareness raising programs targeted at military personnel, civilian government personnel and the general public."

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