Myanmar Ethnic Armed Groups Draw Allegations of Forced Recruitment

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Myanmar Ethnic Armed Groups Draw Allegations of Forced Recruitment

There are many undercurrents to Myanmar’s civil war, and more inconvenient truths will emerge as the fighting escalates.

Myanmar Ethnic Armed Groups Draw Allegations of Forced Recruitment

Troops from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) pose during the Operation 1027 offensive in northern Shan State, Myanmar, November 26, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/The Kokang

On October 27, the same day as the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) launched their Operation 1027 offensive, Myanmar’s military junta relaxed its curfew across major cities. Citing “improved security,” the regime shortened the curfew in Yangon and completely removed it in Mandalay and a handful of other cities.

Such relaxations were probably intended to revive the moribund economy and to project a facade of normalcy after nearly three years of conflict. Yet the cities saw a sudden drop in the re-emerging post-coup nightlife as rumors spread that the embattled regime was nabbing men off the streets to serve as “porters” (human mules) or to be pressganged into the ranks of the overstretched military. Family members linked reports of missing teens and men to allegations of forced recruitment by the junta’s nighttime patrols. The regime denied the rumors, which only drew more ridicule.

Regardless, there has been a string of allegations and reports stretching back decades of the Myanmar military forcibly recruiting civilians from both urban and rural communities as well as convicts and children. Given the location of most pre-coup conflicts in the country’s peripheries, ethnic minority communities have long been targeted to serve as porters, guides, human shields, and human mine detectors whenever the Tatmadaw went on the offensive or conducted its ruthless “clearance operations.” People subjected to portering often meet tragic ends, executed, left for dead, or killed in battle.

In the face of mounting casualties and defections since the coup, it was almost a given that the overstretched Tatmadaw would ramp up such tactics. With growing armed opposition across the country, the Myanmar military is already scraping the barrel with proxy or allied militias, and increasingly relying on the long-established practice of using soldiers’ wives and children to defend bases. Some Tatmadaw defectors fleeing into EAO territories have also claimed that they were the victims of forced recruitment.

Pro-resistance media outlets have reported practices such as the military requiring students from schools and universities controlled by the military-run Ministry of Border Affairs to undergo mandatory military training, and pressuring local supporters and soldiers’ families with recruitment quotas. Families with young boys and men also fear that the junta might enforce the 2010 conscription law, though it appears unlikely as the move would only serve to train and arm the populace in areas that are already in open armed revolt.

Et tu, Brute?

Operation 1027 has also prompted fresh allegations against Three Brotherhood Alliance members of conducting forced recruitment and portering. Since the offensive, a number of accusations have been made against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the ethnic Kokang EAO spearheading attacks in northern Shan State. The group has been documented of dragging away men from refugee camps and fleeing convoys, and demanding manpower quotas from various local communities. Ethnic Bamars are reportedly excluded from the MNDAA’s force recruitment for unclear reasons. Similar accusations were made in 2022 of the group grabbing boys as young as ten, with residents complaining that the MNDAA was also targeting people who reported the incidents or those who fled from forceful recruitments.

When confronted with the cases, the MNDAA’s spokesperson stated that the practice was in line with its laws.

Forced recruitment through abductions, portering, and the conscription of child soldiers is a tragic fact of life in Myanmar’s conflict-plagued and highly militarized regions, such as Kachin, Karen and Shan states. The accusation has been leveled at every armed actor, with some groups going to the extent of banning contraceptives and family planning in order to ensure future generations of recruits. The EAOs insist their fighters are voluntary or that their “recruitment campaigns” are fair, but decades of reporting by local and external rights organizations suggests otherwise. Local independent media also used to periodically cover the issue before the coup, and accusations at times tend to fall along ethnic lines.

Tens of thousands of Ta’ang, Pa-O, Shan, and Wa children have enlisted as novices, junior nuns, or boarding students in Buddhist temples and religious schools in Mandalay, Yangon, and Lashio in order to avoid being conscripted into their own ethnic group or others’ EAOs. Others remain as domestic helpers or au pairs. Ethnic minority communities have resorted to methods such as holding fake funerals or sending men of fighting age to China and Thailand to escape being conscripted, though some EAOs have responded by demanding girls or “monetary contributions” should a family be unable to supply able-bodied males.

Another Three Brotherhood Alliance member, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), has a feared reputation for forced recruitment, targeting its own communities as well as ethnic Kachin and Shan villages across northern Shan State. It too is accused of pressganging children, abducting men, executing or ransoming those who fail to comply, and forcing their own soldiers to contribute family members. Other major EAOs and Tatmadaw-allied militias active in Shan State have also been accused of similar practices over the years.

Meanwhile in parts of Chin and Rakhine states, ethnic Chin villagers have recently complained that the Arakan Army (AA), the third member of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, is forcing locals to serve as porters, apparently through a lottery system in which victims are allowed to find stand-ins. The group is also accused of forcing Chin communities to undergo military training, as well as to foot the bill. Chin communities have long reported being forced to porter for the Tatmadaw and the AA, as well as to contribute their meager food stocks to the opposing groups.

In line with their transition into de facto propaganda channels, most pro-resistance news pages have refrained from covering forced recruitment or other allegations against Three Brotherhood Alliance members and groups opposing the regime. Ethnic platforms have kept the focus on the issues, albeit mainly when their specific communities are targeted.

As such, netizens living comfortably far from conflict zones are rejecting the latest allegations against the MNDAA as junta disinformation tactics or as insignificant developments. Others are unsympathetic, urging local communities to consider it a privilege for their men to be pressganged into fighting the junta, or saying that news unfavorable to the resistance should not be covered.

The recent allegations do not change the fact that the industrial scale of the regime’s abuses eclipses all the incidents alleged against its various opponents. However, the reports against the EAOs should serve as a sobering wake-up call that there are many undercurrents in Myanmar’s spiraling civil war, and that more inconvenient truths will emerge as fighting escalates. While most people cheer at the regime’s losses due to Operation 1027, a very different tune is emerging from local communities in northern Shan State as the MNDAA and TNLA consolidate their gains. Progressive segments of the resistance are also realizing the painful fact that sharing the same enemy with the anti-regime EAOs does not mean sharing the same values, and that Myanmar’s long-term fight for federal democracy faces various obstacles beyond the defeat of the military.