Growing up under militarisation: Abuse and agency of children in Karen State

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Published date:
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

As the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta currently ruling Burma, works to extend and consolidate its control over all areas of Karen State, local children, their families and communities confront regular, often violent, abuses at the hands of the regime's officers, soldiers and civilian officials. While the increasing international media attention on the human rights situation in Burma has occasionally addressed the plight of children, such reporting has been almost entirely incident-based, and focused on specific, particularly emotive issues, such as child soldiers. Although incident-based reporting is relevant, it misses the far greater problems of structural violence, caused by the oppressive social, economic and political systems commensurate with militarisation, and the combined effects of a variety of abuses, which negatively affect a far larger number of children in Karen State. Furthermore, focusing on specific, emotive issues sensationalises the abuses committed against children and masks the complexities of the situation. In reports on children and armed conflict in Karen State and elsewhere, individual children's agency, efforts to resist abuse and capacity to deal with the situations they live in, as well as the efforts made by their families and communities to provide for and protect them, tend to be marginalised and ignored. Drawing on over 160 interviews with local children, their families and communities, this report seeks to provide a forum for these people to explain in their own words the wider context of abuse and their own responses to attempts at denying children their rights. With additional background provided by official SPDC press statements and order documents, international media sources, reports by international aid agencies, as well as academic studies, this report argues that only by listening to local voices regarding the situation of abuse in which they live and taking as a starting point for advocacy and action local conceptions of rights and violations can external actors avoid the further marginalisation of children living in these areas and begin to build on villagers' own strategies for resisting abuse and claiming their rights.

Introduction and Executive Summary

"I wish to reaffirm Myanmar's commitment to making every effort for the promotion and protection of the rights of the children. I assure you that we will work together towards that goal with added momentum."

- SPDC Statement to UN General Assembly (May 2002) [1]

"The SPDC soldiers often came to our village and whenever they came they burnt down the houses and killed the animals that the villagers owned and when they left they placed landmines in the village. Whenever the SPDC came we always ran to escape into the jungle. At that time I looked after my siblings and collected firewood. We always worried that the SPDC would burn down our rice stores and our houses."

- Naw D--- (female, 14), L--- village, Papun District (Feb 2007)

Increasing focus on the plight of children in situations of armed conflict has led to greater international attention being paid to the effects on children of the protracted conflict occurring in Burma. Such attention has been almost entirely incident-based, however, and focuses on specific, particularly emotive issues, such as child soldiers. While incident-based reporting is relevant, it misses the far greater problems of structural violence, caused by the oppressive social, economic and political systems commensurate with militarisation, and the combined effects of a variety of abuses, which negatively affect the vast majority of children in Karen State. Furthermore, focusing on specific, emotive issues sensationalises the abuses committed against children and masks the complexities of the situation. In almost all discussions on children and armed conflict, individual children's agency, efforts to resist abuse and capacity to deal with the situations they live in, as well as the efforts made by their families and communities to provide for and protect them, tend to be marginalised and ignored. 

By drawing first and foremost on personal testimonies, this report allows the children who actually live in Karen State, as well as their families and communities, to explain in their own words the wider context of abuse and their own responses to attempts at denying children their rights. This perspective is crucial for the protection of children from abuse in Karen State. By listening to the voices of local people regarding the situation of abuse in which they live and taking as their starting point for advocacy and action local conceptions of rights and violations, external actors can avoid the further victimisation and marginalisation of children and instead build on the villagers' own strategies for resisting abuse and claiming their rights.

As an expression of local voices, children and other villagers living in Karen State have described in depth, during thousands of interviews with the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) over the past 16 years, their own experiences of persistent military abuse and the measures which they have taken to resist and respond. What becomes clear from these testimonies is that the character of abuse in Karen State is largely shaped by the extent of SPDC military control over a given community. For those living under consolidated SPDC rule the character of abuse is overwhelmingly that of exploitation and the imposition of mechanisms used to facilitate civilian control. While such exploitation may not always target children as such, demands are typically indiscriminate and children are often required to comply. In this context, children have taken part in forced labour on road construction and repair; portering of military supplies; fabrication and delivery of building materials; construction of fences, schools and army buildings; obligatory participation in rallies and other ceremonies; and agricultural schemes. Restrictions on movement which SPDC personnel have imposed on civilians confine children along with the rest of their community in military-controlled villages and relocation sites where forced labour and other demands are more easily enforced. Children and their families in areas controlled by the SPDC or its proxies face arbitrary detention, torture and killing and the ongoing, though often implicit, threat of violence as a means to enforce compliance with demands or as an arbitrary expression of army personnel flaunting the climate of impunity so intimately tied to the SPDC's system of militarisation.

In areas outside of SPDC control where the regime's capacity to enforce exploitative demands is weaker, children and their communities face an aggressive campaign to relocate them into military-controlled areas. In response, villagers typically adopt flight and displacement into hiding as a means to avoid forced relocation. SPDC forces, therefore, conduct armed attacks on internally displaced people (IDPs) in hiding in order to flush them out of the hills and forests and force them into military-controlled villages and relocation sites. By shelling civilian communities, burning homes, farm fields and food stores, deploying landmines and applying a shoot-on-sight policy, SPDC soldiers operating in Karen State have directly killed and injured children, their parents and other community members. Furthermore, restrictions on the movement of people and supplies to and from non-SPDC-controlled areas obstruct civilian access to food and medical provisions for children and their families which leads to further death and ill health under the regime's relentless campaign of attrition.

Notwithstanding the difference in types of abuse which civilians confront across Karen State, the impact of these acts on children greatly differs from that of adults due to their different roles in the household and community, their greater physical and emotional vulnerability and the smaller degree of control that they are able to exert over their own lives. Children's health is much more likely than that of adults to fail under harsh conditions; their education can easily be disrupted with lasting effects; and their dependency on other family members makes them more vulnerable to the impacts of abuses upon others. While individual incidents of violence and other abuse against children have had severe impacts on the individual(s) targeted, the persistence of military abuse against both children and adults has had compounding consequences at the individual, household and community level over the medium and long terms which go beyond the immediate cost to the individual. Relentless forced labour, for example, means children are frequently required to compensate for their parents' loss of work on their own livelihoods or take their parents' place in forced labour duties to ensure that the more productive adults are able to work on their own farms. Regular forced labour, theft of livestock, arbitrary 'taxes' and other extortion combined with restrictions on movement and trade cut into family labour time, financial savings and other resources, thereby exacerbating poverty.

Severe and widespread poverty creates a situation where many parents cannot afford the required fees to send their children to school. Large numbers of children must take on labour themselves, either in their homes, on family farms, at urban centres or abroad in order to support themselves and their relatives. The restrictions on, and impoverishment of, those living under SPDC control and the resulting burdens which children bear to support themselves and their families not only cuts into education but also play time and other social activities and makes them more susceptible to other forms of abuse, including sexual violence and underage recruitment into military service. Acute poverty also means parents face severe difficulties in paying costly medical fees or otherwise travelling to access medical supplies and services often restricted to towns and other urban centres; so many children suffer and die from otherwise treatable illnesses. In non-SPDC-controlled areas, whether at IDP hiding sites or at villages yet to be displaced, the Army's campaign of crop destruction, attacks on civilian communities and stringent restrictions on travel and trade have similarly exacerbated poverty and undermined villagers' efforts to provide nutrition, education, medical care, parental supervision and other services for their children. Persistent military attacks on displaced villagers in hiding have also disrupted education, health care and other social programmes within communities that would otherwise have had the means to provide such services themselves; whether through independent village-level responses or with the support of local organisations.

Despite the persistence of military abuse, many children and their families are already finding the strength to resist such violations and shape their lives according to their own desires. Civilian resistance to military abuse in Karen State is contextually varied and includes a broad range of measures from the subtle to the overt. Children, furthermore, are not innocent bystanders as the quest for military domination envelops the country. Rather, they have become active participants in their family's survival, evasion of military forces and resistance to abuse. On flight from SPDC forces, for example, children have been involved in carrying family supplies, young siblings and even elderly relatives on their backs, helping to set up temporary shelters at displaced hiding sites and foraging for food or firewood for family and community subsistence. In support of their children, displaced parents and other community members quickly organise schooling at new hiding sites and seek out alternative medical provisions, such as locally available herbal remedies or the supplies and services of local organisations providing aid cross border. Furthermore, children in Karen State, whether in situations of military control or displacement in hiding, have found occasion and means to play and develop despite the context of abuse within which they live. Expressing their personal agency, children have also made political statements about the legitimacy of contending authorities and forms of local governance. In some cases children have even expressed desires to take up arms against the State; and while not encouraging violent responses, such statements nonetheless reflect underlying personal sentiment which must be taken into account.

While the effects of armed conflict and violent abuse against children are serious concerns in Karen areas, there are far more children suffering and dying from, as well as surviving, the structural violence committed against them by the State than there are being directly killed as a result of armed conflict or other violent abuse. Despite the best efforts of families and communities to shield their children from harm, the scale of abuse in their lives deeply and sometimes permanently affects them and the effects of the human rights crisis among children in Karen State will be felt for years to come. Nevertheless, external assistance for local people, whether through international advocacy, direct humanitarian aid or support for local organisations, can serve to bolster indigenous efforts to resist abuse and protect children's rights. However, in order to avoid further marginalising the voices of local children and their families, any external assistance must begin from local conceptions of rights, violations and appropriate responses; using international frameworks and laws as means to support local resistance strategies, rather than ends in themselves.

 

Table of Contents

 

I.

Introduction and Executive Summary

3

 

Notes on the Text

7

 

Terms and Abbreviations

8

 

Map 1: Karen Districts

9

 

Map 2: Burma

10

II.

Background

11

III.

Education

14

IV.

Work

60

V.

Health

85

VI.

Violent abuses

118

VII.

Child soldiers

140

VIII.

Play

159

IX.

Legal framework

165

X.

Conclusion

173