Mainly covers the period June 1998 to April 2001 as well as including some earlier information.

  • Population:
    – total: 45,059,000
    – under-18s: 15,844,000
  • Government armed forces:
    – active: 393,750
    – paramilitary: 85,250
  • Compulsory recruitment age: 18
  • Voluntary recruitment age: unknown
  • Voting age (government elections): unknown
  • Child soldiers: indicated – more than 50,000 in government and opposition armed forces1249
  • CRC-OP-CAC: not signed
  • Other treaties ratified: GC; CRC
  • Myanmar is estimated to have one of the largest numbers of child soldiers of any country in the world, with up to 50,000 children serving in both government armed forces and armed opposition groups. The ILO has condemned the forced recruitment of children in Myanmar and has taken measures to address the government's use of forced labour. The activities of God's Army, a breakaway Karen group led by young twins, focused world attention on the use of child soldiers by ethnic armed groups. Armed groups in the Shan State have declared they will not recruit children below 18.


Fighting continues in many parts of Myanmar with armed opposition groups pitted against the military government or State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – some ethnic based, others political exiles. The Karen movement remains the strongest, although weakened in recent years.1250 A number of opposition forces in Myanmar have accepted cease-fires with the government. These have had the effect of fragmenting opposition groups even further, with some factions continuing to control their territory under arms, breakaway forces continuing their fight against the government, and internecine fighting between different armed groups. Tens of thousands of villagers in contested zones have been forcibly relocated or internally displaced within the region.1251


National Recruitment Legislation and Practice

All Myanmar nationals (males between the ages of 18 and 35, and females between 18 and 27) can be called up for full-time service in the armed forces for a period of not less than six months and not more than 24 months, in accordance with the National Service Law and People's Militia Act of 1959.1252 Doctors, engineers or persons having any other skill can be called up for military service for a period of 24 months in the case of women between the ages of 27 and 35 and for a period of 18 months in the case of men between the ages of 35 and 56. Under section 3(b), all men aged between 18 and 46, and all women between 18 and 35, can be called up for part-time service, i.e., for a total of not more than 30 days a year (though this may be increased by seven days in certain cases).

As no procedures were formulated to implement the national service scheme, little is known about its operation.1253 As the former constitution has been repudiated and not been replaced by a new one, the constitutional basis for conscription is unclear.1254

The Myanmar authorities claimed during a hearing before the Committee on the Rights of the Child that "[t]he military code specifically prohibited the enlistment of young men under the age of 18". Previously, the government had stated that: "[t]he minimum age for participation in military activities [is] 18 years of age, or 16 in the case of the Red Cross Brigade".1255

Child Recruitment

Children have been recruited, voluntarily and forcibly, by governmental armed forces and armed opposition groups alike. Although reliable and objective information is difficult to obtain in the case of Myanmar, it is clear that the country has one of the highest numbers of children within governmental armed forces in the world, including those under 15. Some are recruited voluntarily, attracted by the prestige or financial reward of a military career or hoping to protect their family from harassment by the SPDC, but many others are forced to join. Orphans and street children are particularly vulnerable to forced recruitment.1256 According to one 17-year-old who joined underage: "I knew people who were 11, 12, 13, and they all claimed they were 18. Anyone can become a soldier."1257

According to an ILO Commission of Inquiry on Myanmar, there is regular forced recruitment throughout Myanmar, including of children, into the Tatmadaw [Myanmar armed forces] and various militia groups. This recruitment does not appear pursuant to any compulsory military service laws, but is essentially arbitrary.1258 Each district and village in Myanmar is reportedly required to provide the armed forces with a certain number of recruits, with quotas being given to the local authorities. Local authorities who fail to achieve their quota may be fined, while a reward of a similar amount is provided for each recruit provided in excess of the quota. This procedure has resulted in many men and teenage boys either being forcibly recruited or fleeing to avoid conscription. Indeed village or ward authorities are known to hold lotteries to decide who should go and this commonly results in the forced conscription of children.1259 It has also been also used by armed groups allied with the government, including the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA).1260

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has reiterated its grave concern about the "numerous reported cases of forced and under-age recruitment of child soldiers" and strongly recommended that the Myanmar armed forces "[s]hould absolutely refrain from recruiting under-age children, in the light of existing international human rights and humanitarian standards" and added that all forced recruitment of children should be abolished.1261 The government denied the allegations while admitting that: "[i]t did happen that, in order to be enlisted, young men pretended they were older than they really were, for example by falsifying their identity papers."1262

Child Deployment

Child soldiers are required to perform many functions in the conflict, ranging from preparing and serving meals for their seniors, to fighting in front-line encounters. Many children suffer physical abuse and other privations within the armed forces and, in extreme cases, have been driven to suicide or murder.1263 Girls are especially vulnerable to abuse for sexual purposes. Several testimonies made to the ILO Commission mentioned the cases of girls who had been raped by soldiers while they were working for the armed forces.1264

According to the ILO Commission of Inquiry, children, some as young as 10 are forced to do portering for the military. Men are preferred for this role but as they sometimes run away, the troops resort to women and children. A refusal to do portering is systematically met with physical punishment or fines.1265 According to local reports, in Northern Rakhine state nearly all of the men and boys of a village (between the ages of 7 and 35) perform up to 10 days per month of labour in the military, and are reportedly required to carry food and ammunition to the border. Forced labour also seems to be connected with ethnicity as Rohingyas claim that they are forced to serve as porters while nearby villages of Buddhist Burmans are exempt.1266 The ILO Commission of Inquiry also reported on other kinds of extremely hazardous work carried out by children for the armed forces. Civilians, including children, are used as human shields and minesweepers. In potential conflict areas, civilians, including women and children, were often forced to sweep roads with tree branches or brooms to detect or detonate mines.1267

Following its report, the ILO Commission of Inquiry asked the Government of Myanmar to remedy its law and practice in this area. By mid-2000, however, the government had not amended its legislation nor had it taken any action to put an end to the use of forced labour, and there were continued reports of children being used by the armed forces.1268 In June 2000, in an unprecedented resolution under the never-before invoked article 33 of the ILO Constitution, the International Labour Conference called upon Myanmar to "take concrete action" to amend its practices by November 2000.1269 The government did not take the required action and on 16 November 2000, the ILO Governing Body, voted to apply sanctions which included asking members to review their relations with Myanmar, advise international organisations working in the country to reconsider any cooperation they have with Myanmar and to cease any activity that could have the effect of abetting the practice of forced or compulsory labour.1270

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has criticised the use of children as porters by the military.1271 The government claims that this type of labour is permitted according to laws in force in Myanmar which date back to British times but would be amended. Committee members pointed out that Myanmar had ratified ILO Convention No. 29 concerning forced labour and should therefore have repealed the provisions of its domestic legislation authorising such forced labour, especially with regard to the army.1272

Other UN bodies have condemned Myanmar for its abuse of children's rights. During its session in 1999, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution which notably deplored the violation of child rights, inter alia, through conscription into the military.1273 The former Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Rajsooner Lallah, also condemned the use of child soldiers in the country, reporting killing, torture, trafficking and forced labour of children.1274 During an official visit to Thailand in February 2000, the UN Secretary-General lamented the plight of child soldiers such as those involved in the conflict in Myanmar.1275 Government reaction to these criticisms has varied, from assurances to the ILO in May 2000 that necessary measures would be taken, to angry denials of the use of children as soldiers or human shields.1276

Military Training and Military Schools

Children in Myanmar are subjected to other forms of militarisation in terms of Ye Nyunt Youth (Brave Sprouts) movement. Boys from the age of 14 are placed in training centres where they receive military style education. They are eventually assigned to serve in the army, in intelligence units or as security for high-ranking officers. Most of these children are street children, orphans, children captured from enemy positions or kidnapped from ethnic villages as a means of separating them from their families and communities.

UNICEF has identified at least one residential SLORC military camp, near Kengtung in Shan State, where children aged 7 and above were being trained for a future life in the armed forces. One former pupil stated that students must wear military uniforms two days a week and practice parade drills on Saturdays. After graduating these children are likely to join the armed forces.1277 In 1997, the Ambassador of Myanmar to Thailand confirmed the existence of special military schools, but claimed that pupils were not compelled to join the army on graduation.1278 This claim is contested by one former pupil who claimed that most students are sent to the army after their graduation – those who escape from the school are arrested and forced to go.1279

In October 1999, the head of the Northeastern Command issued a directive for training boys between 12 and 18 in Lashio, Tangyan, Kuthai and Kunlong to prepare them for mobilisation. Those who continue their education must join the army when they reach 18 years of age, or may enter the Nationalities Development Institute in Sagaing (Northern Burma) after necessary bonds had been signed. Those who refuse to join either the army or this institute can be expelled.1280


Child Recruitment and Deployment

There have been reports of child soldiers in each of the armed opposition groups active in Myanmar, but detailed information on recruitment practices is not available. According to one source, recruitment by these groups mostly takes place on a voluntary basis, although forced recruitment has also been reported.1281 Some groups draw on the tribal base of their ethnic communities, others involve students and young political refugees from Myanmar. None of the ceasefires appears to have made specific provision for the demobilisation of child soldiers. More often, "the agreements have provided ethnic groups with the authority to hold onto their arms, police their own territory and to use their former rebel armies as private security forces to protect both legal and illegal business operations."1282

Mong Tai Army: The Mong Tai Army is believed to have had the largest number of child soldiers, with one son required from each family.1283 The Mong Tai Army is believed to have had camps in Shan State where children received a basic education in exchange for military service later on.1284 The Mong Tai surrendered to the Tatmadaw in 1996. Little information is available on the fate of former child soldiers, but some were reportedly used by militia still known as the Mong Tai army and based at the same headquarters in Ho Mong. Others returned to their homes or joined the new Shan State Army which claims to have over 2,000 fighters, many of them children. The rival United Wa State Army is also known to recruit children.

Karen National Union (KNU): The Karen National Liberation Army (armed wing of the KNU) is believed to recruit many child soldiers. One battalion commander estimated that there were perhaps 2,000 boy soldiers in the KNLA when it was at full strength, although KNU forces are now much depleted.1285 As the KNU has declined, some of its fighters have broken away to form new groups including the Christian Karen militia "God's Army". This guerrilla force was led by 12-year-old twins, Johnny and Luther Htoo, who had already been fighting for three years. In January 2000, the "God's Army", became internationally known when some of its members took over a hospital at Ratchaburi, Thailand, taking 700 people hostage.1286 After a 22 hour stand-off, Thai security forces stormed the hospital and killed the ten suspected fighters.1287 The base of God's Army at Kamaplaw was subsequently overrun by the armed forces.1288 The group includes other children as young as 13 who have been seen wearing uniforms and rifles. One of them, "Black Tongue", a sort of junior partner to the twins, appeared to be 9 or 10.1289 In January 2001, the twins surrendered and returned to live with their parents in Ban Don Yang camp, reportedly having received refugee status. Observers say the God's Army will be a spent force without the twins at their helm.1290

The Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors: The strength of this group is not known. Most are breakaway members of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) who believe more drastic measures were needed to bring down the government. Some members were among those who participated in the seizure of a hospital in Ratchaburi, Thailand.1291

Chin National Front (CNF): The Zomi National Front and later Chin National Front (c. 600) were bolstered when hundreds of Chin youth fled the 1988 uprisings, mostly young students from universities and high schools in Chin State and Rangoon. Their numbers have decreased with splits and with SPDC expansion into Chin state.1292

Karenni National Progressive Party Army (armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party): Formed in 1957 out of a loose alliance of village militia and armed volunteer groups, the KNPP aims to reestablish the right of secession which had been written into the 1947 Constitution but was abolished in the 1962 military coup.

According to UNICEF in the mid-1990s, about 900 of the 5,000 Karenni Army members were under the age of 15.1293 In early 1999, Major Soe Myint Aung of the KNPP acknowledged that "recently, several recruits weren't much bigger than their M-16 rifles." In mid-March 1999, 46 young men from the Karenni ethnic group, some as young as 14, were reported in a press article to have joined armed groups. They had to complete combat training from a camp deep inside Burma's thickly forested hills along the Thai border before being sent to the frontline.1294

A number of other armed groups in the Karenni area are known to have used child soldiers: the Karenni National People's Liberation Front (c. 150), the Karenni National Defence Army (c 150, in ceasefire since 1996), other breakaway factions of the KNPP (c. 200) and other smaller groups that have agreed ceasefires with the SPDC.1295

Other Armed Groups

Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO); Arakan Rohingya Front (ARIF); Other Arakanese armed groups (NUFA – National Unity Front of Arakan which is composed of the Arakan Independence Organisation (AIO), Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Arakan National Liberation Party (ANLP), Communist Party of Arakan (CPA) and a faction of the Tribal National Party (TNP); Kachin Independence Army; Council and Naga National Socialist Council.


National Standards

In the Shan State, armed groups of the Shan ethnic minority have also used children as soldiers. In February 2001, a gathering of representatives of the Restoration Council of Shan State and Shan State Army at Loi Taileng unanimously passed a resolution that the draft age would henceforth be 18-45 in place of 16-40 as practised earlier.1296

International Appeals

The UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution in April 2001 deploring "The continuing violations of the rights of children, in particular through the lack of conformity of the existing legal framework with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, through conscription of children into forced labour programmes, through their sexual exploitation and through recruitment and all other exploitation by the military, through discrimination against children belonging to ethnic and religious minority groups and elevated rates of infant and maternal mortality and malnutrition."

1249 www.globalmarch.org quoting Brett and MacCallin op. cit.; MTA/UWSA: based on minimum figure of 10% quoted for other opposition groups known to use child soldiers.

1250 Balencie, and de La Grange op. cit.; RB database quoting the Far Eastern Economic Review, 13/2/97, http://www.rb.se.

1251 HRW Report 2001.

1252 3(a), sub-para.1 and 2, National Service Law and People's Militia Act of 1959.

1253 It is not certain that this legislation has entered into force since under section 1(2) it is provided that the Act "shall come into force on a day to be notified by the Government,. and it is not known if the necessary notification has been made. See Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under Article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Official Bulletin, Vol. LXXXI, Serial B, Geneva, 2/7/98, para. 255. This report is also available on the Internet: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/gb/docs/gb273/myanmar…. The Commission specified that the translation of this text is not an official one. See also US Army's Area Handbook.

1254 Articles 170 and 171 of the 1974 Constitution provided for compulsory military service, but this constitution was repudiated by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1988. A new constitution has not yet been agreed. In November 1997, the SLORC reconstituted itself as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

1255 Summary Records of the 358th meeting, UN Doc. CRC/C/SR.358, 21/1/97, para. 23, Summary Records of the 359th meeting, UN Doc. CRC/C/SR.359, 21/3/97, para.

1256 See for instance Horeman and Stolwijk op. cit.; No Childhood At All: a Report About Child Soldiers In Burma, Images Asia, Bangkok, 6/97; US Department of State Human Rights Report 1998.

1257 Images Asia op. cit.

1258 Report of the ILO Commission of Inquiry, 2/7/98, op. cit. It should, however, be noted that the Commission did not find direct first-hand evidence to substantiate the widespread allegations of forced recruitment of minors.

1259 Ibid., para. 390.

1260 Ibid., paras. 391-392.

1261 Concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/15/Add. 69, 24/1/97. See also Vichniac, I., "L'ONU condamne la Birmanie pour violations du droit des enfants", Le Monde, 22/1/97.

1262 Summary Records of the 359th meeting, UN Doc. CRC/C/SR.359, 21 March 1997, para. 35.

1263 Images Asia op. cit.

1264 Report of the Director General to the members of the Governing Body on Measures taken by the Government of Myanmar following the recommendations of the Commission of inquiry established to examine its observance of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), International Labour Organisation, 21/5/99, see testimonies No. 157, 176.

1265 Report of the ILO Commission of Inquiry, op. cit., paras 342-343.

1266 US State department Report 2001.

1267 Report of ILO Commission of Inquiry op. cit., para. 375.

1268 Report of the Director General to the members of the Governing Body on Measures taken by the Government of Myanmar following the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry established to examine its observance of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), International Labour Organisation, 21 May 1999. For example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has "received information that in order to reduce disruptions in adults' income-earning activities, families have resorted to sending children to perform labour in place of adult members of the families". Ibid., paras.21 and 24.

1269 Resolution of International Labour Conference, 6/00.

1270 US State department Report 2001.

1271 UN Doc. CRC/C/SR.359, op. cit. para. 17. See also Interim report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar prepared by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights in accordance with Economic and Social Council decision 1999/231 of 27/7/99, UN Doc. A/54/440, Annex, 4/10/99, para. 30.

1272 Ibid., paras 19 and 27.

1273 Resolution 1999/17 of 23/4/99.

1274 AFP 16/10/00. "Torture widespread and systematic in Myanmar: UN.

1275 "Annan laments plight of child rebels", Associated Press, 10/2/00.

1276 AFP Myanmar slams US reports of abusive labour. 17/3/00.

1277 Images Asia op. cit.

1278 Sawatsawang, N., "Slorc forcing children into army", Bangkok Post, 20/9/97.

1279 Images Asia op. cit.

1280 RB Newsletter Children of War, No 3, 10/99, quoting BBC News, 31/7/99. See http://www.rb.se.

1281 Horeman, and Stolwijk op. cit.

1282 Mary P. Callahan, Democracy in Burma: The Lessons of History , National Bureau of Asian Research, 1998, p. 17.

1283 Horeman and Stolwijk, M. op. cit.

1284 Images Asia op. cit.

1285 RB Newsletter Children of War, No. 1/99 quoting an AP press release, see http://www.rb.se.

1286 "Youthful crusaders", The Nation, 17/5/98; Lockwood, C., "Army led by twins bullets cannot hit", The Daily Telegraph, 25/1/00. Another source said that there are no more than 100 or 200 fighters within this armed group. See also Weerawong, A. ,"Twins lead God's army in Myanmar", Associated Press, 15/12/99; Khaikaew, T., "12-year-old twins lead God's Army", Associated Press, 24/1/00; Migault, Ph., "Le coup de folie des enfants Karen. Le Figaro, 25/1/00; Kestenholz, D., "Kindersoldaten als Heilsbringer: zwolfjahrige Zwillinge als Symbolfigurer einer Gottesarmee in Birma., Die Welt, 29/1/00.

1287 "Thailandische Armee sturmt besetztes Spital", Neue Zurcher Zeitung, 25/1/00; Pennington, M., "Standoff in Thai hospital ends", Associated Press, 25/1/00.

1288 Spillius, A., "Twins missing as troops raid God's Army HQ", The Daily Telegraph, 27/1/00; "Children's crusade of God's Army under siege in Myanmar., Associated Press, 31/1/00.

1289 "Youthful crusaders", The Nation, 17/5/98. The twin's followers believe that God gave them supernatural powers to help the Karen fight the enemy (they are said to offer divine protection and their followers believe they are immune to gunfire). The legend of the twins dates back to March 1997, a period during which the Myanmar army launched a new offensive against the KNLA. When guerrilla fighters fled, the twins reportedly rallied men and directed a successful counterattack. Through their record in battle and alleged powers, morale in God's Army is high and has managed to attract experienced fighters.

1290 The Times, 18/1/01, "Terrible twins surrender with a smile.

1291 "Children's crusade of God's Army under siege in Myanmar", Associated Press, 31/1/00. According various sources, the group is composed not only of many children as young as 13 but also KNU veterans or members of the dissident student group that carried out the embassy take over in which 38 hostages were seized. "Youthful crusaders", The Nation, 17/5/98; Weerawong, A. "Twins lead God's army in Myanmar., Associated Press, 15/12/99; Peck, G., "Myanmar hospital takeover a failure., Associated Press, 26/1/00.

1292 Information supplied by Images Asia and Burma Ethnic Research Group to the Asia-Pacific Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, Kathmandu, May 2000.

1293 RB database quoting The State Of the World's Children 1996, see http://www.rb.se.

1294 Pathan, D., "New rebel recruits train to face Burmese Army", The Asian Age, 3/2/99.

1295 Images Asia op. cit.

1296 BurmaNet, 6/2/01.


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