The Kachin Independence Army earlier this month released eight underage recruits from the Tatmadaw captured during the fighting in Kachin State, the International Labour Organisation has confirmed.
The eight soldiers, who were recruited as minors but are now aged over 18, were released on January 14. The ILO acted as an intermediary between the government and the Kachin, and is working with the government to have them formally discharged.
“I am pleased to confirm that the ILO has received from the KIA eight Tatmadaw underage recruits who had been held by the KIA as prisoners of war,” Mr Steve Marshall, the ILO’s liaison officer in Yangon, told The Myanmar Times by email on January 20.
“Both the Tatmadaw and the government of Myanmar have cooperated positively in respect of their return with the Ministry of Social Welfare providing direct support.
“The ILO is currently working with the government towards the boys receiving formal discharge documentation. UNICEF and their operating civil society partners will be providing them with rehabilitation support.
“It is very gratifying to see the safe return of these boys and to know that they now have the opportunity to resume normal life – the very positive approaches adopted by the KIA, the government of Myanmar and the Tatmadaw, without which this could never have happened, should be recognised and appreciated.”
Due to the sensitive nature of the case, Mr Marshall said he could not comment on how long or where the boys had been held while in KIA custody.
La Nan, a spokesperson for the KIA, said that the prisoners had been held at Muse on the Myanmar-China border until ILO officials arrived from Yangon.
“The child soldiers confessed to us when they first arrived that they could not bear the persecution of their officers. We did not catch them during battle. When they reached to our camps they said they had gotten got lost or they came to us to be arrested,” La Nan said by phone from Laiza.
The KIA is the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Headquartered in Laiza, on the China border, the group has been fighting the Tatmadaw since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire broke down.
Mr Marshall said in a recent interview with ILO News that the ILO believes there are about 5000 child soldiers in Myanmar. He said the process to release them is continuing to gain momentum.
“We started the complaints mechanism in 2007, and between 2007 and 2011 we had approximately 260 boys discharged from the army. Since 2012 so far, it would be close to 60, so it’s increasing,” he said in November.
In late June, the government and the UN signed an action plan that is designed to prevent the recruitment and use of children by the Tatmadaw and allow for the release of underage recruits.
By signing the plan, the Tatmadaw and government have committed to preventing underage recruitment, as well as identifying, discharging and reintegrating underage recruits.
But the Tatmadaw is not alone in using child soldiers in Myanmar. In 2011, the UN said in a report that it believed seven other armed groups were also actively recruiting and using underage soldiers, including the KIA.
Other listed groups were the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karen National Liberation Army, Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, Karenni Army, Shan State Army-South and United Wa State Army.