Yangon (AFP) - Myanmar's military released 67 child soldiers on Friday, its first discharge this year as part of a slow process to end decades of forced recruitment of underage fighters that began under the former junta.
There are no concrete figures on how many children are still among the estimated 500,000 troops that serve in Myanmar's military or the ethnic rebel armies it battles in the country's border regions.
The state's army has released almost 850 children and young people from its ranks since signing a pact with the United Nations in 2012, the year after the former junta ceded power ending a brutal 50-year reign.
Recruitment of underage fighters has also slowed while Myanmar's young civilian government is working to help underage recruits reintegrate into society.
"It is much more difficult to recruit a child today than it was four years ago," said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF's Myanmar representative, citing the military's efforts to strengthen age checks and centralise recruitment.
But experts say children remain at risk as new underage recruits continue to trickle into the military and ethnic armed groups waging insurgencies against the state.
Recruiters from the army and their middlemen still scour public spaces like parks and stations in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay looking for vulnerable boys they can tempt or force into service.
Many are sent to conflict areas such as the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan, where the army is fighting several rebel groups who also use child soldiers.
UNICEF has been stepping up efforts to negotiate with those groups but none have officially started releasing underage fighters.