The gay, pomp and colour that celebrities bring to the locations they visit serve a useful purpose. The issues that fail to hit the media headlines, in spite of the attempts of well meaning NGOs, grassroots activists and politicians, instantly become the topic of international brouhaha. Hollywood star Jackie Chan's three day-long Myanmar visit, starting 5 July, did just that. Being the UNICEF's goodwill ambassador, Chan attended projects set up by the UN agency to support trafficked, traumatized and distressed children, thereby bringing back international attention to this mammoth problem children of Myanmar have faced for decades. Although, his visit marked a beginning, sustained efforts are required to make a difference.
There are two major dimensions to the festering problem of child trafficking in Myanmar: the flow of children beyond the borders of the country, and victimisation of children within the country. Thousands of women and children are trafficked every year to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Japan, the Middle East and so on. They are used in a range of illegal and immoral activities, including factory and domestic labour, and prostitution. While the traffickers till some years ago remained predominantly freelance and small-scale operators who used village contacts to transfer the victims to more established and organised brokers, reports now indicate a firming up of the network into more methodical patterns, under the obvious blessings of the high and influential.
Within the country, children are used as soldiers of war, pitted against one another in the fights between the military and the ethnic insurgents. Estimates by Human Rights Watch indicate that the number of child soldiers in the Myanmar Army could be as high as 70,000. Children, as young as ten years, have often been abducted on their way to school or are lured with promises of food and shelter and forced to join the military, under an unofficial forced conscription programme that enjoyed the patronage of mid-ranking and high officials. In 2008, the Myanmar army reportedly took action against 43 officials for recruiting child soldiers. These child soldiers, all below the legal conscription age of 18, double up as porters for the military and, also as a matter of practice, are made to walk in front of the Army contingents as a protective shield against enemy fire and anti-personnel mines.
Similarly, the ethnic insurgencies consider recruitment of children within their own ethnic constituency as their prerogative. Protecting the ethnic interests from the onslaughts of the Army is a forced privilege that is bestowed upon the children. All the ethnic militias in Myanmar have a large number of child soldiers within their ranks. Such children mostly serve as couriers, spies, cooks and servants within the insurgent ranks; on many occasions they have been involved as actual combatants as well. Many of these outfits claim that they have stopped recruiting child soldiers. However, media reports regularly cite the presence of children among the insurgents.
This complex problem needs to be dealt with both short-term and long-term measures. While long-term measures at addressing issues of poverty and underdevelopment that feed the network are required, on an immediate basis both the army and the ethnic insurgencies need to stop recruitment of children. This is easier said than done. While in 2008, Myanmar military declared to have released 792 children between 2002 and 2007, how many of the remaining child soldiers have been killed in regular clashes with the insurgent outfits or have matured within the military during their stay is not known. Further, human rights organisations point at a continuing trend of such recruitment, both by the army and the insurgents.
The treaties that countries enter into with the UN agencies have their enforcement limitations. The lack of Myanmar’s progress in ending child trafficking is an example of that trend. In October 2004, ministers from China, Cambodia, Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Myanmar signed a UNICEF Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) setting forth a framework of action to fight human trafficking. In 2005, a sub-Regional Plan of Action on trafficking was adopted by the same countries.
While achievements under these multilateral commitments remained mired in bureaucracy and not-so-good bilateral relations, recent developments arouse hope. In June 2012, Myanmar signed an agreement with the UN to ban the recruitment of child soldiers and demobilize those already serving. In recent years, Myanmar and Thailand have cooperated to deal with the problem. Myanmar has set up anti-human trafficking centres along the Thai border towns, such as Myawaddy and Koh Song.
Moreover, declining violence following the ceasefire agreements with the insurgent outfits has created an opportunity for the demobilisation of children away from war. Even though none of these agreements include a clause addressing the issue, the absence of fighting, barring in the Kachin state, creates the necessary conditions for not using children in armed confrontations.
What lies ahead is a mammoth task. While Jackie Chan's visit has raised awareness on the issue, it is really up to the Myanmar government to take it forward. A reforming Myanmar can not close its eyes on a practice that reminds everyone of its old and forgettable ways.