Myanmar has gained attention from news outlets around the world since the February 1st coup. Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, seized control of the government after Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 397 of 476 parliamentary seats in elections last November. Although the situation in Myanmar has gained headline news across the world, the use of child soldiers in Myanmar has received minimal attention. The unfolding crisis is being fought between the Tatmadaw and opposing ethnic groups, yet none of the widespread news reports of this situation mentions that these forces often deploy child soldiers.
According to the United Nations, a child soldier is "any person below 18 years old who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes." Historically, children have been a significant source of manpower in conflicts. The children are often forcibly recruited or abducted from their families, but there are also coercive "push" factors at play that don’t leave the children any choice but fight. For example, instability, hunger, poverty and lack of access to education, all may push a child to join an armed group. Addressing both coercive and push factors is key to finding a solution to decrease child soldiering.
According to a 2019 report by Child Soldiers International, the number of children used in conflicts around the world has doubled between 2012 to 2017. Statistics on the use of child soldiers in Myanmar are also shocking. In 2002, it was estimated that the military employed 70,000 child soldiers--20% of its force. While this number decreased significantly after the passage of regulations on the use of child soldiers, the UN reported in June 2020 that the Tatmadaw used 197 children to do tasks including camp maintenance, brick carrying, and rice paddy harvesting in 2019. These verified cases may only be the tip of the iceberg, so, it is important to further examine this issue in the context of the current unrest in Myanmar.
In the last decade, Myanmar has attempted to put many regulations into place to limit and eventually eliminate the military's recruitment of children. This began in June 2012 when Myanmar signed the Joint Action Plan with the United Nations, a symbolic first step in abandoning the use of child soldiers. Since the signature of the Joint Action Plan in 2012, around 1,000 children have been let go from the Tatmadaw. Additionally, in 2015, the government signed the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC), which specifically barred the recruitment in conflict of anyone under the age of 18. Myanmar also enacted the Child Rights Law in July 2019, obligating the government to prevent physical or sexual violence against children and criminalizes the use of children in armed conflict. It also requires the government to provide proper education, rehabilitation and treatment to children who are victims of recruitment and abuse. Myanmar’s greater commitment to treaties and regulations in the last nine years led it to becoming delisted from the UN’s “list of shame” in June 2020.
While Myanmar can be commended for the progress it has made in ending the use of child soldiers, the government must take further measures to abolish the practice entirely. It is crucial to open up the conversation so that people become aware of the persistent use of child soldiers in Myanmar. Those abducting or recruiting children must be held accountable. The international community should get involved in the tackling the issue, and the public should demand updated information on the use of child soldiers. The current verified statistics are lacking and may only reveal the tip of the iceberg.