Fighting for Myanmar’s Child Soldiers

A group of captured child soldiers in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state (credit: IRIN).

Efforts to release some 70,000 child soldiers in Myanmar face multiple challenges.

Memo #324

By Kai Chen – chenkai [at] zju.edu.cn

Kai CHENSince Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the nation’s interest groups—in particular its ethnic minorities and the national military—have been at odds on how to rule Myanmar. The result has been a long simmering armed conflict in which child soldiers play a key role.

The armed ethnic conflicts in Myanmar are particularly violent, with prisoners rarely taken. In addition, in the past decade, a severe HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country has also reduced available manpower. As a result, the conflicting political factions have turned to the recruitment of children as soldiers. In contrast to their adult counterparts, child soldiers that survive combat are both more unpredictable and in many ways more skillful in battle. They are adept at marksmanship and making decisions without a commander’s order.

By the early twenty-first century, there were reportedly 70,000 child soldiers in Myanmar, many of these active along the Myanmar-China or Myanmar-Thai frontiers. Though the Myanmar government has been working with the United Nations since 2011 to remove child soldiers from the conflict, to date only around 400 have been released. Thus, there is good reason to believe that the majority of those child soldiers are still in service. Moreover, the United Nations believes that both the Myanmar Army and ethnic-based militias continue to recruit, arm, and deploy child soldiers.

Child soldiers pose a dilemma for any security governance. If armed conflict continues, the total number of child soldiers will certainly increase. And even if the conflicting parties ultimately sign a peace agreement, it will be critically difficult to disband and re-settle the country’s many child soldiers. The limited budget of the Myanmar government is currently unable to make proper arrangements for former child soldiers, let alone to care for the handicapped and sick (e.g., those with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis) among them. Compounding the challenge, for social and economic reasons many child soldiers feel more compelled to military than civilian life. In order to effectively bring an end to child soldiering, it will be critical to establish a public-private partnership that can not only attract outside financial and professional resources, but make effective use of all actors—NGOs, government, and civil society.

Kai Chen, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Non-Traditional Security and Peaceful Development Studies, College of Public Administration, Zhejiang University, China. He is the author of Comparative Study of Child Soldiering on Myanmar-China Border: Evolutions, Challenges and Countermeasures (2014).

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Child Karen soldiers march near Myanmar’s border with Thailand (credit: AFP).
Child Karen soldiers march near Myanmar’s border with Thailand (credit: AFP).
A group of captured child soldiers in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state (credit: IRIN).
A group of captured child soldiers in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state (credit: IRIN).

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