Saturday, November 24, 2007

UN: Myanmar must free all child soldiers

By ALEXANDRA OLSON, Associated Press Writer
Fri Nov 23, 9:44 PM ET

UNITED NATIONS - Myanmar should release all its child soldiers and allow U.N. officials to verify government claims that officers have been punished for recruiting minors into the army, the U.N. chief said in a report released Friday.

There are credible reports that Myanmar's army continues to recruit children under 18despite an official prohibition of the practice, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his report to the U.N. Security Council.

Recruiters often lure poor children with promises of shelter and food, while others are picked up for not having identification cards and threatened with arrest unless they join the army, Ban said. Army commanders sometimes pay "brokers" $30 and a bag of rice for each recruit.

The army is under "enormous pressure" to increase recruitment rates, and reportedly makes soldiers who want to leave the army recruit as many as four replacements.

The U.N. has also received credible reports that a number of children have been arrested and sentenced to prison for up to five years for desertion, Ban said.

The report covered the period between July 2005 and September 2007 — just before Mynamar's government drew international condemnation for brutally crushing pro-democracy protests. The U.N. has since intensified efforts to nudge the ruling junta and the opposition into a reconciliation process.

Both Myanmar's government and ethnic guerrilla groups have long been accused of using child soldiers, and both sides have acknowledged the allegations in recent years amid UN efforts to highlight the issue.

Responding to a report last month by New York-based Human Rights Watch, Myanmar's government said it had strengthened regulations forbidding the recruitment of minors since establishing a committee to oversee the problem in 2004.

Some 141 minors were dismissed from the military and returned to their parents between 2004 and August 2007, said Ye Htut, deputy director general of Myanmar's Information Ministry. Disciplinary action was taken against nearly 30 military personnel for violating recruitment rules, he said.

Ban acknowledged that "the government has shown increasing interest in addressing underage recruitment and has engaged the United Nations on the issue." He said the U.N. has received periodic updates since 2005 from Mynamar's Committee for the Prevention of Recruiting Underaged Children from Military Recruitment.

But he said the U.N. has been largely unable to verify government claims that those responsible for underage recruitment have been disciplined or that any children have been released. The U.N. team has not been given access to any minors the government claims to have freed, he said.

Ban also criticized the government for denying U.N. official access to areas where guerrilla groups operate, leaving investigators unable to verify the most recent reports of children in their ranks.

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