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German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle says "no" to child soldiers with a red handImage: AP

Tens of thousands of child soldiers in Myanmar

February 12, 2010

Feb. 12 is Red Hand Day. There are some 250,000 child soldiers according to the UN fighting in armed conflicts. The junta and rebel armies in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are notorious for recruiting child soldiers.

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They are sometimes as young as 10 and they fight not only in the official army but for various rebel groupings across the country.

NGOs such as Terre des Hommes and Human Rights Watch estimate that there are up to 80,000 of them. Although it is difficult to acquire exact figures, Human Rights Watch calculates that every fifth soldier is under 18.

Myanmar Birma Kindersoldaten
Child soldiers can be as young as 11 years old and often go through the same training as adultsImage: AP

Jo Becker, the Children’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, co-authored a report entitled “Sold to be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma.”

11 years old and only 1.3 meters tall

She said that children were recruited regardless of age or physical capability. “We interviewed one boy who was recruited when he was only 11 years old. He was only 1.3 meters tall and weighed only 31 kilograms yet the army still accepted him.

“They go through the same training as adults in most cases and they may be deployed into combat situations from the age of 12. They are used to fight against ethnic armed opposition groups in the country and they’re also used to commit human rights abuses such as burning villages or rounding up civilians for forced labor purposes.”

The conditions in the army are reportedly atrocious. One reason why children are used is that there is a lack of adult volunteers and high desertion rates. So despite Red Hand Day and countless other initiatives campaigning against the use of children in armed conflict, in Myanmar the number of child soldiers continues to rise.

Trapped by recruiters

Becker explained how easily boys were trapped into joining the army: “Recruiters will typically approach children who are on their own; boys who are in public places like the marketplace, train or bus stations.

“One of their typical tactics is to ask a boy to produce his identity card and if the boy can’t produce his card the recruiter will say ‘Well you have to go to jail or you can join the army.’ So in this way many boys are coerced.”

The recruiters themselves receive cash payments for each new recruit. The children’s records are then often falsified because the official minimum recruitment age is still 18.

Myanmar Birma Kindersoldaten
Young boys are coerced into giving up their childhoodImage: AP

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on the Myanmar junta to do more to ensure that children are not recruited into the army. He has also insisted that children should not be arrested and imprisoned for deserting. So far, his demands have fallen on deaf ears.

Author: Bernd Musch-Borowska/act
Thomas Baerthlein

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