By Joseph Allchin
A Wikileak cable has revealed that an Burmese employee with the NGO, Save the Children (STC), was suspended without pay after they found out he had been trafficking young males, including minors, to be conscripted into the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
According to the cable, which is dated 26 January 2010, “The alleged perpetrator apparently acted out of political motivations rather than for financial gain.”
The then country director of Save the Children, Andrew Kirkwood, told the US embassy that the victims were from Nam Kham in Shan state, where the NGO was operational.
The employee’s activities seemingly came to light when one of his victims escaped after being conscripted into the Wa army.
“The victim who escaped reported that at least ten other young people from Nam Kham, and six from neighboring Nam Sam, were serving with him in the UWSA,” read the cable.
Steve Sidebottom from STC’s London office told DVB: ”It is our understanding that nine people were trafficked within our operational areas, of which two were believed to be children under 18 years old.”
The cable suggests that the employee was from the Palaung ethnic group and had a connection with the Palaung State Organisation, who have an alliance with the UWSA and therefore may have had to provide a manpower quota to the UWSA.
The UWSA are believed to be the largest armed ethnic group in Burma, with anywhere up to 30,000 fighting men. This news however points to the fact that dubious recruitment practices are not confined to the Burmese army.
The cable states that at the time of its composition, the author, US Charges d’Affaires Larry Dinger, believed Save the Children had “acted promptly and appropriately,” but the cable went on to state that the Burmese government would have limited ability to do anything about those trafficked into UWSA territory, “as UWSA-controlled areas are essentially off-limits.”
Sidebottom told DVB that the offending member of staff “was arrested by police after the matter was brought to the attention of the authorities in Myanmar [Burma] by Save the Children.”
However the cable states that at the time of writing: “STC management here is not inclined to press charges fearing that doing so will compromise efforts to locate the victims and return them to their families.” Some of the victims, the cable notes, had escaped to China.
Save the Children further claimed that the perpetrator had met the victims through “local contacts”, but refused to rule out that the victims were associated with the NGO. Both the cable and Sidebottom suggest that no action was taken by the authorities against the NGO as a result of the incident.
Dinger notes however in the cable that the employee’s “apparent political motivations and the results of the forthcoming investigation may provide insight into how trafficking occurs in one of the most difficult to access regions of Burma.”
The legal army recruitment age in Burma is 18, older than in many countries, but the problem is believed to be endemic. The country however is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of the child. Ironically the US, which wrote the cable, has not ratified the treaty.