The Asian Human Rights Commission recently received from human rights defenders in Burma detailed documentation on the cases of five children, four boys and one girl, whom a trafficker in July 2011 sold to the army. According to the information, the trafficker with various false promises of getting the children legitimate jobs and education took the children from their families and sold them to battalion 605, stationed near Pyay in the country’s centre, and to non-commissioned officers from a training battalion stationed at Thaton. The girl was subsequently brought to work at a shop in the north of Rangoon. Following the intervention of the International Labour Organization’s staff in the country, four out of the five children were returned to their families. At time of preparing the information, one boy, 14-year-old Ne Min Maung Maung, still had not been recovered.
After the trafficker was arrested, she reportedly admitted to having sold a total of 11 children in this manner. Although Burma has an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, which international agencies assisted in preparing, police charged the accused under section 363 of the Penal Code with abducting children from their guardians. The penalties under the anti-trafficking law are very high, and according to lawyers working in the country, police commonly threaten to lodge charges in cases of this sort under the law but then lodge them under the Penal Code, which carries lesser penalties, in exchange for payments from the accused.
Although police have charged the trafficker, according to human rights defenders, no criminal legal action has been taken against the soldiers or battalions involved in the trade in children. The absence of action against the soldiers is consistent with other cases of this sort. The International Labour Organization while acknowledging that it has received cooperation from the government for the return of children has expressed concern about the lack of prosecutions of soldiers known to have been involved in such cases. In a November 2010 report (GB.309/6) of its governing body, the group stated that, “There have been no reported cases of the use of the Penal Code [against soldiers accused of child recruitment] but three instances of military personnel being imprisoned for their part in under-age recruitment cases have been recorded” (paragraph 13). The report goes on to note that punitive action against soldiers typically involves reduction of rank, pay or pension. In a September 2010 report (A/65/368) the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar (Burma), wrote that,
“International partners have acknowledged the Government’s increased commitment to addressing the issue of recruitment of child soldiers through both the training of military personnel and the prosecution and disciplining of persons deemed responsible for permitting underage recruitment. The prospect of receiving a prison sentence for breaking the law will inevitably have an impact on behaviour. Unfortunately, however, the long-awaited joint action plan under Security Council resolution 1612 (2005) (on children in armed conflict) has not yet been signed. As a consequence, the Government is seen to be largely in a reactive position of responding to complaints rather than adopting a more systematic proactive stance in identifying and releasing serving minors” (paragraph 79).
Despite the introduction of various measures to prohibit the sale of children into the army in Burma, the practice continues in large part because of the absence of a systematic process for the prosecution of soldiers accused of working with agents to trade in children. Although the return of children following interventions from the ILO and other agencies in Burma is to be welcomed, the practice will continue until such a time as a policy is adopted to systematically prosecute and imprison army personnel who are known to have been involved.
The institutional arrangements for recruitment of soldiers in Burma are the other reason that the practice of selling children to the military continues largely unabated, despite the introduction of various measures to counter it. Because military battalions are responsible for raising personnel of their own accord, soldiers have incentives and pressures to work with traffickers to obtain new recruits. Because the process of recruitment is dispersed through units around the country, it is difficult to supervise and even more difficult for organizations working in the country to monitor so as to determine that children are not being sold to become soldiers, or work for military personnel. Until this antiquated system also is abandoned and a professional, centralized system of recruitment is established, incorporating measures for careful crosschecking of recruits’ identities and circumstances of recruitment, the practice again will continue.
The Asian Human Rights Commission therefore urges firstly that in the case of the five children in Pyay that the remaining boy be returned to his family as quickly as possible, that the accused trafficker be charged under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, and that the soldiers involved, who have been identified, also be charged under the same law. Secondly, it urges that a policy be introduced for the systematic criminal prosecution of all soldiers accused of involvement in the buying of children; and, that the system of recruitment in Burma be changed to enable effective, centralized monitoring of recruits such that the practice of under-aged forcible recruitment be eliminated as quickly as possible.