BANGKOK, Thailand Myanmar's military government, already under criticism for abuses, is recruiting children as young as 10 into its armed forces, a U.S. rights group charged in a report released Wednesday.
Government recruiters target children because of "continued army expansion, high desertion rates and a lack of willing volunteers," the 135-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
"Military recruiters and civilian brokers receive cash payments and other incentives for each new recruit, even if the recruit clearly violates minimum age or health standards," it said.
Ye Htut, deputy director general of Myanmar's Information Ministry, said the charges were "another example of biased reporting by this organization, which based its report on the baseless accusations and exaggerated lies of insurgent groups on the border."
Allegations against both the government and the ethnic groups for using child soldiers are long-standing, and have been acknowledged by both sides in recent years as the United Nations has highlighted the issue.
The newest accusations come as Myanmar's ruling junta faces international criticism for its violent crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations last month. Thousands were arrested, and the government acknowledges 10 deaths among the protesters, though critics say the real number might be closer to 200.
The junta has long been accused of other abuses, including brutal treatment of ethnic minority villagers caught up in counterinsurgency campaigns, and the use of forced labor in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The report "Sold to Be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma," also charged that ethnic guerrilla groups in Myanmar use child soldiers, though on a much smaller scale than the government. Ethnic minorities along the country's borders have been fighting for autonomy for decades.
Human Rights Watch said recruiters routinely falsify enlistment records to list children as 18, the minimum legal age for service. It cited the case of a boy who said he was forcibly recruited at age 11, though he was only 4 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed less than 70 pounds.
According to the report, child soldiers are typically given 18 weeks of military training and some are then sent to combat zones.
"Child soldiers are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses, such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labor," said Human Rights Watch. "Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited or imprisoned."
Myanmar's armed forces have had regulations in place since 1973 forbidding the recruitment of minors as well as others forced to enlist against their will, said the Information Ministry's Ye Htut, responding to a summary of the new report.
Enforcement of the regulations was strengthened in 2004 with the establishment of a Committee for the Prevention of Recruiting Underaged Children from Military Recruitment, he wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
"If the authorities find out that a recruit was recruited against his will or he is under 18 years, the responsible personnel will be tried according to the military law," he said.
Between 2004 and August 2007, some 141 minors were dismissed from the military and returned to their parents, and disciplinary action was taken against nearly 30 military personnel for violating recruitment rules, Ye Htut added.
Human Rights Watch said the government committee has failed to effectively address the problem, and devoted most of its efforts to denouncing outside reports of child recruitment.
The report agreed with U.N. assessments that ethnic guerrilla armies, both allied with and against the government, also use child soldiers, though several have taken measures to curb the practice.The Karen National Union, whose military arm, the Karen National Liberation Army, was cited by Human Rights Watch for improving its record, said it punishes officers who use child soldiers.
On the Net: "Sold to Be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma:" hrw.org/reports/2007/burma1007/