Myanmar - Child Rights Coalition Asia
Burma has ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as well as its Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. As a member of the United Nations, the country is also supposed to follow the recommendations of the Security Council Resolution 1612 which bans the use of child soldiers and other grave violations against children such as killing, maiming, sexual violence and denial of humanitarian access.
In addition, Burma has some local laws which are supposed to protect children, especially those who are marginalized such as those who are living with disabilities and girls. For example, its Child Law provides for children’s equal access to education and health, regardless of ethnicity. It also has restrictions on children as part of the labor force. The law recognizes that children may be expected to help in the households to augment family income but bars them from being employed in heavy industries such as construction and certainly, the military.
In its 2003 report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the government asserted: “Children in Myanmar are regarded as jewels by Myanmar society and systematic child-rearing is practised, and thus it is one of the most child-caring countries among the developing countries.”
But the reality is not exactly a rosy picture. In the recent shadow report submitted by civil society organisations which include Burma Anti-Child Trafficking (Burma-ACT), Committee For Protection and Promote of Child Rights-Burma (CPPCR-Burma) and the Women and Child Rights Project (WCRP) showed the various forms of deprivation and oppression that are endured by children as they live in a highly militarized environment .
Lives for most communities have been ambulatory, with families constantly fleeing from one place to another to avoid being in close contact with the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, much less in conflict with them. The Tatmadaw has always been feared at, not only for its history of torturing and murdering civilians but in ravaging the livelihoods of communities and forcing both adults and able children into forced labour.
Produce and livestock are confiscated, whether or not families abandon their villages. In most cases, farms have been the only source of food and income, that when these are lost, families are thrown in extended hunger, greater vulnerability and deeper debt. Those who stay behind, including nursing mothers find themselves being dragged to work for the military. Sometimes, such work includes clearing of land mines. Meanwhile those who manage to flee face similar dangers in the forests or in places where the military may shoot and kill anyone they encounter.
In either case, children are deprived of their basic rights such as access to adequate health services and education. Burma has a very high child mortality rate. An NGO report indicated that infant mortality rate is pegged at 54 per 1,000 live births. Yet the primary causes of death could have been easily prevented: malaria, diarrhea and acute respiratory infections.
The Burmese government acknowledges its report that children are usually engaged in work even at an early age: “As in other societies, children in Myanmar usually take part in their family household business although the types of work and their roles may differ, such as cleaning, cooking, baby sitting, helping at farms and contributing in family businesses. By participating in family house-hold business, they learn various skills and sense of responsibility and dignity of work.”
But instead of performing these otherwise light household and family duties, several children, including under 13 years of age are employed in shops, construction and even used in the military. Often these children are conscripted against their will and are compensated less than adults.
The widespread poverty in the country has likewise prevented children from schooling. Although the Child Law provides for the compulsory primary education, parents still have to pay for their children’s schooling and even provide supplementary support for teachers who have very meager income of less than USD 100 a month. Children from minority ethnic and religious groups are excluded from primary education and other basic services.
Discrimination happens along gender lines. Many families have opted to keep their daughters out of school because of countless incidents of sexual abuse. Girls who ventured out to school or even to fetch water have been waylaid by soldiers and raped. There were those who never returned to their families alive. The impact of these incidents has been overwhelming, with some girls preferring to commit suicide because of a strong sense of shame.
This sense of shame has discouraged girls, women and their families from reporting these incidents. Since perpetrators are members of the authorities, families often fear grave repercussions. And in instances which are brought to commanding officers, families only get compensation and a condition that they would never discuss the harrowing experience of their daughters.
Trafficking of children is also an important concern, especially as Burma shares its borders with Thailand, Laos, China and India. Children, particularly from minority ethnic groups, are also the target of trafficking and sexual exploitation particularly in neighboring countries such as Thailand and China. Children are often lured by recruiters with job offers but once in Thailand, China and other destinations, they find themselves begging on the streets or in brothels, where they endure repeated sexual abuse until such time that they could pay off the “debts” they owe to their recruiters.
Burma is likewise known for its child soldiers, where young boys are taken away from their families and picked up on the streets to be conscripted in the military. As illustrated in one NGO report, a former child soldier in Shan state recounted, “They brought us to one police station, after that they sent us to a recruiting center and asked us ‘Do you want to go to jail or do you want to be soldiers?’ They explained that if we would serve in the army, we would just need to serve three years but if we chose jail we’d be imprisoned for five years.”
Boys not only endure hard labour but scenes of torture. Like those indentured in heavy industries, child soldiers are not compensated accordingly, as commanding officers make substantial deductions. Boys who unsuccessfully attempted to escape military camps are themselves subject to incarceration, torture and even execution.
Similarly, Burma’s burgeoning prisons include very young people who are supportive of the opposition. Some who supported the Saffron Revolution led by the monks were slapped with long-term prison sentences. But children in prisons not only consist of protesters. In fact, most children behind bars were born and have grown up there, with their parents. There is reason to believe that a significant number of child mortality happens within this context, as infants and children are made to share the punishment meant for their parents. Most of these undue suffering begin with the government’s deprivation of reproductive health services for pregnant inmates. Prisons usually have poor sanitation facilities. The water rationed to women is too little for bathing, much less washing of limited clothes which are sometimes used as nappies. Despite emergency cases, medical attention is not given to women who are about to give birth, resulting to deaths of babies and complications such as infertility. Meanwhile children who have managed to survive are malnourished and uneducated.
Certainly the plight of Burmese children is linked to the little resources allocated by the government to public services such as health and education. But what is even clearer is its link to the regime’s political insecurity and its resulting repressive and oppressive actions against the people throughout the country. It is important to note that when Burma accepted the CRC, it registered its reservation on provisions related to freedom of expression. Although this reservation was eventually withdrawn, much remains to be desired on Burma’s political tolerance.
The dire situation of children is just reflective of the government’s dismal appreciation of human rights.
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (OP-CRC-SC)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)