Burma’s child soldiers return home to face a fresh set of challenges

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
e-mail icon

Photo: The Asian American Trafficking Outreach Project

For boys released from the army after being illegally recruited, access to education, jobs and social protection will be difficult

Dressed in white shirts over their green sarongs, dozens of young men poured down the concrete step of the army barracks and across the compound. With parents in tow, they walked towards a line of buses parked beyond the barbed-wire perimeter. Once everyone was seated, the buses moved off. The young men stared out of darkened windows; some looked blank while others, smiling, waved at the grey slab buildings as they receded into the distance.

Recruited illegally as children, the 108 boys were returning home to their families after being formally discharged from the Burmese military. Some had come straight from active service, while others had emerged from hiding or been released from prison, where they were jailed for desertion.

“I am happy,” says Maung Maung, who was among those released. “Now I can live freely – I’ve got my freedom back.”

Forced into joining the army at 14, he spent five months in a training camp before he escaped and fled home. Following his late September release, Maung Maung received a small sum of money and his national identity card, meaning he can apply for a job. But uncertainty lies ahead.

Now 18, and the eldest of his siblings, he must support the household. With little training or education, it will be a struggle. “Career and education is the hardest – because [I am] too old, I cannot get [an] education,” says Maung Maung.

Nobody knows how many children are in the Burmese army, known as the Tatmadaw. However, according to Steve Marshall, liaison officer for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “all the evidence suggests that [the scale of the problem] is big”. For years, the UN has listed Burma as a persistent violator of children’s rights because of the army’s use of children to fight its wars, as well as their recruitment by ethnic minority armed groups in the country.

Since elections in 2010 replaced 50 years of military dictatorship with a quasi-democratic government, nascent reforms have brought wide-ranging social and political change. Keen to professionalise its armed forces and avoid international condemnation, Burma’s government signed an action plan with the UN in 2012 to demobilise all child soldiers and stop recruitment. So far, 472 children have been officially discharged under the plan. Teams of international inspectors have visited battalions to monitor compliance, while billboards explaining that child recruitment is illegal now adorn roadsides across the country.

Read the rest...

Source: The Guardian

Geographic terms: