Freedom for child soldiers in Burma (Myanmar)

Siobhan Spiak, Peace and Conflict Transformation Intern
October 15, 2014
Burmese Bishop Francis Daw of the Diocese of Myitkyina celebrates Mass in the Kachin State.

Burmese Bishop Francis Daw of the Diocese of Myitkyina celebrates Mass in the Kachin State.

Columbans are celebrating some good news for children in Burma (Myanmar). On September 25, 109 child soldiers were released by the Myanmar Army in an attempt to reform its military ranks and reputation, as reported by Vatican Radio. Children are victims of human trafficking when they are sold or kidnapped into the military to serve as child soldiers. This is a modern-day form of slavery.

But children in Burma still need our help. While this is the largest discharge yet, Bertrand Bainvel, head of the U.N. Children’s Fund in Myanmar, reports that recruitment continues, though at a decreased rate, specifically in poor communities who depend on the income of sons who join the military. Currently, the Obama Administration provides funding for the military in Myanmar, despite the practice of child soldiers and other human rights abuses.

Columban missionaries first came to Burma in 1936. They lived with ethnic communities in the Kachin State until the government forced them to leave in 1979. The people of Kachin State continue to be greatly impacted by violence and political persecution. In the 2000s Columbans were allowed to return to Kachin State, to care for the sick and assist in formation of seminarians. By their presence, Columbans bear witness and stand in solidarity with the people of Kachin in the Diocese of Myitkyina.

Currently, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach is advocating for the U.S. government to address human rights abuses in Burma by passing the Burma Human Rights and Democracy Act (H.R. 4377), which would restrict U.S. military aid to Burma. We ask that you a contact your Congressional representatives to request their support and co-sponsorship of H.R. 4377.

Accounts from Forces Watch and Child Soldier International emphasize the vulnerability of youth who are exposed to exploitation once recruited as child soldiers. Younger recruits are considerably more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, to develop drinking habits harmful to their health, and to be more susceptible to violence when they return from war. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a greater risk of being recruited. Girls and boys are forced to serve on the frontline as fighters, and as porters, spies, guards, suicide bombers and human shields. They are also required to perform domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning as well as sexual acts for soldiers.

The military recruitment and targeting of young people and vulnerable groups has been criticized by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. In 2013, the Columbans signed a petition initiated by Pax Christi to end the enlistment of 15 and 16 year olds in the UK armed forces. In the U.S., the Conference of Catholic Bishops advocates for bringing child soldiers home and keeping other children from the grasp of military groups around the world. Please help us raise community awareness of the dangers inflicted on child combatants and hold governments to international human rights standards. Together we can restore human dignity to all of God’s people, especially these vulnerable children.