12/15/2009, 00.00
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Child soldiers and opium cultivation, two faces of Burma’s dark pit

The authorities are recruiting children with money and food to fight rebels and use as security forces in next year’s elections. Surface used for opium cultivation increased by 50 per cent since 2006. With drug proceeds, rebels buy weapons.
Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The number of child soldiers and the surface devolved to opium cultivation have increased in Myanmar. Ostensibly different, the two issues are closely related because rebel groups among the country’s ethnic minorities rely on drug trafficking to buy weapons. In response, the Myanmar military is recruiting young soldiers to field against the rebels and maintain security ahead of next year’s elections.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently noted a worrying rise in the extent of opium cultivation in Myanmar; the amount of land used for growing the drug has increased by almost 50 per cent since 2006 (+ 11 per cent over last year).

Over 31,000 hectares of land are now devoted to opium. This is still a far cry from the 1990s, when Burma was the world's largest opium producer, part of the infamous Golden Triangle. However, “the trend is going in the wrong direction,” said Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN drugs agency, and will become a major problem in the future.

More than a million people are now involved in opium cultivation in Myanmar, most of them in Shan State. About 95 percent of Myanmar’s poppies are grown in this region located on the border with China, Laos and Thailand.

“Ceasefire groups—autonomous ethnic militias—are selling drugs to buy weapons, and moving stocks to avoid detection,” Costa said.

Despite the increase in cultivation, the potential value of opium production in Myanmar fell by 15 per cent from US$ 123 million in 2008 to 4 million in 2009.

In addition to the drug problem, the country is also confronted by the curse of child soldiers conscripted by the military.

Money and food are offered to the families of underage recruits, this according to Guiding Star, a legal advocacy group, which was quoted in the Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident online Burmese magazine.

Despite the difficulty in getting official information, boys aged 12 to 17 are known to have been inducted into the army, and this despite a law that requires soldiers to be at least 18 years of age.

Aye Myint, a Guiding Star member in Bago, said that his group could attest to 115 cases of child soldiers since last May, mostly in Mandalay, Bago and Irrawaddy.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has also raised the issue. Maung Maung Lay, from Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network, said his organisation is aware of 41 cases of child soldiers since April of this year.

Aye Myint said that trafficking in child soldiers is becoming a real business with the army paying 50 dollars and bag of rice for anyone supplying a new recruit (whatever the age) for the army.

Myanmar currently has the highest military to civilian ratio but is still eager to recruit more.

This might be due to next year’s elections, which are expected to lead to high tensions, following protests in 2007 when the people were loud and clear in their demand for democracy and human rights.

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