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Burma: The truth behind the Suu Kyi photocalls

Before she flew to Washington to collect a deserved accolade, Burma's leader told Justin Forsyth what still worries her most: children used as soldiers, prostitutes and cheap labour

Burma's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is in the US this week to receive America's highest honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, for enduring more than 20 years of personal suffering and 15 years under house arrest.

Her freedom and participation in the political process, along with the subsequent release of other political prisoners, several peace agreements with ethnic rebel groups, the lifting of media restrictions, and a flood of international visitors and investment, is a sign that Burma is a country undergoing massive change.

When I met Ms Suu Kyi a few weeks ago at her house in the country's new capital, Naypyidaw, she was cautiously optimistic about the political changes sweeping Burma and the chance for her country to turn a corner.

Yet while the world's attention seems focused on the political reforms, Ms Suu Kyi, who met the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, yesterday, told me that one of her greatest concerns was also with the social and development problems facing her people, as such changes have also revealed very stark problems, hidden by years of authoritarian rule.

According to the 2012 World Report from Human Rights Watch, children are still recruited as soldiers. Elsewhere, gangs entice poor parents to sell their children unwittingly into sexual slavery and child mortality remains high, with many children dying before their fifth birthday.

The reality of these problems really struck home a few days later as I sat on the floor of a small wooden stilted house in a small township slum on the outskirts of Rangoon, meeting children from a local youth group.

The eldest, a boy of 17 who did not wish to be named, told how he was taken and forced to fight. Three years ago, while selling balloons on a street to earn money to help his family with school being a distant dream, two men approached him offering a better future with a car and house. After deciding to go with them, he ended up being taken to Mandalay and locked in a warehouse for 10 days by himself.

When he was eventually brought out, he realised he was one of 250 young people forcibly recruited into the army. He was made, along with a group of 10 other young people, to clear landmines in the "no man's land" between the army and rebels.

Constantly under fire, some of his friends were killed and two were blown up by a mine. The youngest in his group was just 10. They tried to escape but were caught and brutally punished. During one break from the front, he managed to phone his parents, who came to get him. But it was to be one more year before he was released by the army. He was one of thousands of children caught up in the conflict.

The good news is the government has now agreed to release all child soldiers, and with the support of the international community, including Save the Children, a programme started last week to help thousands of former child soldiers return home and start a new life. But this will be a long hard and road, and there is evidence that, despite the commitment of senior army officers to end child recruitment, it continues.

Child mortality, meanwhile, remains high, with 46 children under five dying for every 1,000 births. In Naypyidaw, a five-hour drive from Rangoon, we met the dynamic young Health Minister, Dr Pe Thet Khin, who sketched out an impressive plan to reduce child and maternal mortality and rebuild the health system. As Ms Suu Kyi told us later, he is part of a new breed of non-military cabinet members. But, looking more widely, we should not get carried away with our optimism. Despite a recent reshuffle, the government is still dominated by generals and there is little transparency about where the money goes.

Child trafficking is another major problem. The small township where I met the former child soldier is one of the places where gangs entice poor parents to sell their children into sexual slavery. Challenging them is dangerous, as the trade is big money. Yet people want to challenge them. I was struck by how open people were to talking about the problems of the past and the present, in a way they never could have done a few years ago.

Such openness, combined with how desperate people are to be involved in their country's return from isolation, will help build on the momentum that brought about such political change to help tackle social and development problems. But Burma cannot do this alone, and as Ms Suu Kyi said in a recent speech in London, "so many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be breached".

As the Congressional Medal will recognise Ms Suu Kyi's past struggles, the international community should also offer a plan of support that will recognise the future challenges and help support the work to tackle Burma's social and developmental problems. We cannot allow Burma to become the child-trafficking centre of Asia or the sweatshop of the region.

That is why international aid and engagement has to be focused on giving children – the future of Burma – a decent chance in life. We need to help reduce child and maternal mortality along with growing hunger. NGO's such as Save the Children need to work closely with the government to help protect children from being recruited as soldiers or exploited as cheap labour. Education has to be improved to keep children in the classroom rather than at risk on the streets.

And we, the international community, have to demand transparency and accountability on the use of aid to ensure that people benefit from the changes, even in the remotest areas of the country. Such change is new and fragile. The government and opposition will need to be focused and determined and move quickly to chart a new way forward, and the world should be there to help.

Justin Forsyth is the chief executive of Save The Children