Asia Crisis

In Myanmar, child soldiers bought and sold - report

NEW YORK, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Myanmar is filling the ranks of its depleted armed forces with children as young as 10 and may try to capture even more boys after the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

The former Burma is so desperate to replenish its army after desertions and attrition that children are bought and sold by military recruiters. They are beaten and held as virtual prisoners while the government denies it is happening, the report said.

Myanmar's military government, under international scrutiny for its brutal suppression of the biggest pro-democracy protests in 20 years, insists that its armed forces are made up of volunteers over 18, the 132-page report said.

However, out of 20 former soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, all but one estimated that at least 30 percent of their fellow trainees were under 18, the report said.

"The government's deployment of the army in September 2007 to attack Buddhist monks and other peaceful protesters may increase the vulnerability of children to recruitment even further," the report said.

"Even before the crackdown, young men were often reluctant to join the military ... The use of the army in the attacks, killings and detention of protesters may further discourage voluntary enlistment, and prompt recruiters to seek out even greater numbers of child recruits," the report said.

Many Western countries have economic and military sanctions in place against Myanmar. Human Rights Watch has called on the U.N. Security Council to strengthen the sanctions to include measure like an embargo on arms sales.

Protests led by monks gripped the country last month after an unpopular fuel price rise in August. The protests were seen as the biggest threat to the junta since a 1988 rebellion that was crushed by the military. About 3,000 people were killed.

Myanmar's armed forces were estimated at 375,500 in 2006, among Asia's largest after China and India. Human Rights Watch said one senior general last year called for the recruitment of 7,000 soldiers a month -- four times that of a year earlier.

In 2005, new recruits were bought and sold for 25,000 to 50,000 kyat, or less than $20 to $40, representing one and a half to over three times the monthly salary of an army private, the report said.

"One boy recruited at age 11 told Human Rights Watch that he failed his recruitment physical because he was only four feet three (1.3 metres) tall and weighed only 70 pounds (31 kg), but that his recruiter bribed the medical officer to ensure his recruitment regardless," the report said.