President Thein Sein of Myanmar (Burma) has signed a ceasefire deal with eight armed rebel groups earlier today, including the Karen National Union, which has been battling the Myanmar government for sixty years. This is a step toward regional peace for Myanmar, which has been engaged in conflict with different ethnic groups since it achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948.
The Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement is the result of two years of negotiations, but unfortunately is a bit if a misnomer as it does not include the two largest rebel groups, the Kachin and the Wa. The ceasefire does not address major issues, such as how power will be balanced between the central government and the ethnic regions and only covers ethnic groups along the Thai border, ignoring the ethnic groups who live along the Chinese border.
The government itself, which straddles a fine line between democracy and military governance, could be a potential threat to this ceasefire, as they have been involved in skirmishes as recently as Wednesday. Regardless, leaders of rebel groups have hailed this as a new page in history, exchanging hugs with army officers, their former enemies. Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu was not present at the signing ceremony, having stated last month she was a bit skeptic of the ceasefire.
General elections will be held November 8 in Myanmar (Burma) with the hopes that this ceasefire will lead to a large, democratic turnout. These elections will be the first time since 1990 that parties will freely challenge the military’s dominance.
The disheartening practice of using children as child soldiers is widely practiced in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Asia and South America. Currently, there are about 300,000 children involved in conflicts around the world. Most of these boys and girls are forced while others join to escape poverty and abuse or to seek revenge. Those that are forced are often stolen, maimed, drugged, raped, and used as sex slaves.
Child soldiers are often used to serve government forces and opposition groups. Not only do these children work in the front lines but they also work as messengers and spies. Some even participate in suicide missions. UNICEF defines a child soldier as “any child-boy or girl- under 18 years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including, but not limited to: cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members. It includes girls and boys recruited for forced sexual purposes and/or forced marriage. The definition, therefore, does not only refer to a child who is carrying, or has carried, weapons.”
To try to put an end to the recruitment of child soldiers, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict entered and was put into force in 2002. This convention “outlaws the involvement of children under age 18 in hostilities” and requires States “to raise the minimum age for voluntary recruitment beyond the current minimum of 15.” Other efforts include those made by the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which makes it a war crime to enlist children under the age of 15 in hostilities by national armed forces or armed groups.
Many other efforts have been made by organizations such as UNICEF and The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative to help put an end to this appalling practice. UNICEF, for example, partners with other NGOS to provide care, technical guidance, and financial support for the implementation of programs for DDR (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration). UNICEF works in places such as the Great Lakes region of Africa, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, to name a few. The Romeo Daillaire Initiative, on the other hand, provides research, advocacy, and security sector training. It works directly with military, police, and peacekeeping forces to break the recruitment of child soldiers.
Ending the use of child soldiers is not an easy task but with such efforts it can eventually be eliminated. Want to learn more about child soldiers? We were inspired to write this blog after hearing a former child solider, Ishmael Beah speak about his experiences. We encourage everyone to read his book “A long way gone: Memoirs of a boy solider” and to check out this website to see how you can get involved: http://www.child-soldiers.org