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ASEAN Addresses Child Soldiers

July 24, 2000

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ The use of children as soldiers in armed conflicts appears to be increasing in Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos, a group opposed to the practice said Monday.

Appealing to countries attending meetings this week of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers urged the nations to declare the region a ``child soldier free zone.″

The non-governmental group also said in a report that military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, has one of the highest numbers of child soldiers of any country in the world, both within the army and in the ethnic and other armed groups pitted against it.

``ASEAN and its dialogue partners have come to recognize that these armed conflicts have an impact on the security of the entire region and require a concerted response,″ the group said.

Such a response is unlikely since ASEAN members are reluctant to criticize the affairs of other countries in the group. That may be changing, however, as Thai officials are pushing for a new attitude that would allow more involvement in other nations’ affairs.

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, also known as Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

According to the coalition, there are about 300,000 children fighting as soldiers in more than 30 countries worldwide. In recent years in the Asia-Pacific region, tens of thousands have been recruited, sometimes forcibly, into government and insurgent groups.

The coalition says the problem is most serious in Cambodia and Myanmar, but that ``there are clear signs of escalating problems in Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos.″

In Myanmar, it claimed, children often under 15 years of age are sometimes attracted by the prestige and power of becoming soldiers, but many _ especially orphans and street children _ are forced to join. The military regime has denied such practices.

The presence of child soldiers is well-established among ethnic insurgent groups. Many are orphans whose parents were killed by the Myanmar security forces.

There are fears a similar situation could arise in Laos, where a small insurgency by members of the Hmong highland minority has grown more active, the report said.

In Indonesia, there have been alarming signs of the recruitment of children by armed groups, both aligned with and opposed to the government, in restive regions such as Aceh, West Papua and Maluku.

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