Burma: Children being sold to military

By Jerome Taylor

Aung San Suu Kyi with Bono after accepting her Ambassador of Conscience Award. Photo / AP
Aung San Suu Kyi with Bono after accepting her Ambassador of Conscience Award. Photo / AP

Children are being sold as conscripts into the Burmese military for as little as the equivalent of NZ $50 and a bag of rice or a can of petrol.

Despite assurances from Burma's ruling junta that it is cleaning up its act in a bid to have Western sanctions lifted, recruitment of child soldiers remains rampant.

The Independent newspaper understands that 24 instances of children being forced to become soldiers have been verified by the United Nations in the first three months of 2012 alone - the equivalent of two a week.

The International Labour Organisation is investigating a further 72 complaints for underage recruitment between January and April this year.

The new details of child soldier recruitment have emerged at a time when Burma is desperately trying to attract foreign investors and persuade Western nations to lift sanctions against the ruling military elite.

Significant steps have been made, including parliamentary elections for a handful of seats and the release of prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in Britain for her first visit in more than 20 years.

Suu Kyi's release is part of a series of recent public shows by the junta to curry favour with the international community.

Many observers, particularly in the business community, have begun lobbying for an easing of sanctions. British businesses are keen to re-enter Burma, partly because so many Asian economies have already done so and it is seen as an untapped market.

But human rights groups are concerned that reforms have been implemented very slowly. They point to the ongoing recruitment of child soldiers as an example of how little has really changed.

Researchers for Child Soldiers International have just returned from a trip to Rangoon and the Thai border in which they interviewed child conscripts. They reported that military and civilian brokers scour the streets looking for vulnerable children whose identity documents are then forged to make them seem over 18. Soldiers who want to leave the army often have to find three to five replacements and young teenagers are often the first people they look to conscript.

"Children remain vulnerable to forced recruitment and use in hostilities by the Burmese military, due to the high rates of attrition in the army and the on-going conflict," said Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, a London based advocacy organisation. "It is incumbent on the international community to put pressure on the Burmese Government to stop this practice."

Aung Myo Min, a Burmese exile who helps child soldiers from neighbouring Thailand, has concerns about sanctions being lifted without meaningful reform.

"Don't be so quick to jump into Burma with business," he warned. "The Government really wants these sanctions lifted but we still have repression."

Yesterday Suu Kyi said her visit to Ireland will be one of the most unforgettable days of her life.

As thousands of supporters sang Happy Birthday to the former political prisoner at Dublin's Grand Canal Square, Suu Kyi finally received a Freedom of the City - 12 years after being given the accolade.

U2 frontman Bono also presented Suu Kyi, who turns 67 today, with Amnesty International's prestigious Ambassador of Conscience Award during a star-studded concert in her honour.

"This will be one of the unforgettable days of my life," said Suu Kyi told supporters. "I've been welcomed to Ireland as though I belong to you and I thank you with all my heart."

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was earlier greeted with thunderous applause by about 2000 human rights campaigners, celebrities and music fans at the Electric Burma concert.

Suu Kyi sat next to Bono, who helped organise the gig and thanked her for choosing to visit Ireland during her first trip away from Burma as a free woman.

- Independent

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