The Burmese Junta's Persistent Use of Child Soldiers

By:  Mitch McConnell
Date: March 4, 2003
Location: Washington, DC

THE BURMESE JUNTA'S PERSISTENT USE OF CHILD SOLDIERS

Mr. MCCONNELL. Madam President, I recently read an article that appeared in the Washington Post on February 10, 2003 by Ellen Nakashima that details particularly repulsive human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military junta, whose brutal totalitarian misrule has shattered the lives of its citizens and ruined Burma's economy. I am grateful for Ms. Nakashima's excellent reporting, and am pleased to draw attention to this important issue. I will ask that Ms. Nakashima's article, entitled "Burma's Child Soldiers Tell of Army Atrocities," be printed in the RECORD following my remarks.

Reports of widespread use of child soldiers, forced labor, and human rights abuse come as no surprise to anyone with even casual knowledge of recent Burmese history. Tragically, these recent reports are not "news," but rather business as usual in one of the world's most repressive countries.

While the corrupt military junta has recently been conducting a propagandistic offensive to convince naive Western diplomats that Burma can be a responsible member of the international community, the continual flow of evidence regarding Burma's gross abuses of human rights illustrates how hollow recent Burmese "reform" has been. Anyone duped into believing that the junta's decision to loosen the shackles that bind Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma who has spent nearly a decade under house arrest, represents a liberalization of the junta should think again. Proof that the Burmese junta continues its repression of democracy came yesterday when the Defense Ministry announced that it had detained seven members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party, NLDP, members. Their treasonous crime appears to be distributing anti-government leaflets.

The Burmese junta maintains power through its gratuitous use of military force against ethnic minorities and political dissidents. Now, the evidence is overwhelming that the junta exploits children as young as 11 years old in pursuit of greater coercive military power. Human Rights Watch reports that Burma's army of 350,000 includes nearly 70,000 boys under the age of 18.

If these children are fortunate enough to survive the physical and emotional abuse heaped on them by their military superiors during their "training," they are then forced into combat, often against domestic Karenni and Shan minorities. As part of the ethnic cleansing and intimidation campaigns the Burmese junta has conducted against these ethnic minorities for decades, these children soldiers are often encouraged to torture, rape, and kill innocent villagers. In one instance, Burmese military commanders ordered some of these child soldiers to force Karenni villagers to clear a minefield by walking through it. The children were subsequently ordered to shoot villagers who refused to walk through the minefield.

Recently, the Burmese junta has sought to improve its standing in the international community by touting its supposedly more intense efforts to curb the production and trafficking of heroin. Mr. President, this claim is laughable. American State Department officials should not be deluded into believing that Burma has become a partner in the war against drugs. Burmese child defectors from the army who now live in refugee camps in Thailand have corroborated reports that the Burmese military has fueled its soldiers by making them take amphetamines, washed down with whiskey, before going into combat. Countries that force drugged children into deadly combat should not be considered allies by the United States in any war.

In response to Human Rights Watch's report, a Burmese military spokesman denied that Burma "recruits" underage soldiers and incredulously asserted that Burma's military is an all-volunteer army. Such brazen lies should convince no one that the Burmese government has changed its repressive ways.

If Than Swe, as head of the Burmese government, is committed to upholding international standards of human rights, it can begin by enacting meaningful and verifiable economic, political, and judicial reforms. It should release the seven NLDP members it has unjustly arrested and all other political prisoners, and it should allow Aung San Suu Kyi to meet and communicate freely with Burmese citizens throughout the country, as well as with international representatives. Until the Burmese junta agrees to hold free and fair elections to allow the Burmese people the opportunity to choose their own leaders, it must be aware that American sanctions will continue.

I ask that the article to which I referred be printed in the RECORD.