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Myanmar’s army is forcing residents to join pro-junta militias

Myanmar’s military is pressuring residents in the southwestern Bago region to join pro-junta militias, offering them incentives such as money and rice, forcing them to pay fines if they refuse and even threatening to destroy their villages if they don’t comply, RFA Burmese has learned.

The conscription drive comes amid reports of heavy losses suffered by the military in clashes with anti-junta forces in recent months, particularly in northern Myanmar’s Shan state where an alliance of ethnic resistance groups have seized 15 out of 22 townships since launching an offensive in October.

Rebel gains since then have suggested that the country’s civil war, triggered by the military’s Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat, may be approaching a turning point.

The pressure tactics come after the junta announced on Jan. 9 that it plans to “increase public defense and security systems to enforce public and regional security.” Residents said junta-appointed ward and village administrators began summoning residents to meetings last week to inform them of the plan.

“Most people don’t want to join” the militias, said a resident of Thegon township who insisted on anonymity for personal safety, forcing villagers to scrape together cash to buy their way out of the conscription drive.

“Those who can afford to, give money in order not to join,” said the resident. “But others neither join nor give 200,000 kyats (US$95) [to defer]. They can’t afford it … Every village is facing this problem. No one wants to join.”

On Jan. 12, the junta ordered administrators in Thaegon to conscript 20 people per village, he said. They threatened to burn down villages that did not comply, saying they were siding with anti-junta People’s Defense Force, or PDF, paramilitary groups.

In nearby Nattalin township, residents said that the junta has been conscripting militiamen since Jan. 11 by offering various “incentives.”

“They force people to provide financial support for the ones who join,” said one resident. “In places where 50 people are conscripted, they plan to arm 10 of them and provide food as an incentive. They said the other 40 had to join as ‘reserves.’”

10 men from every 100 houses

The resident said that administrators have been tasked with drafting 10 men from every 100 houses, resulting in 30-90 conscripts per village, depending on the size of the village. Heads of households are made to draw lots, and those selected must be provided a monthly subsidy of 5,000-20,000 kyats (US$2-10) per month by those who are not.

Draftees are deployed as “community security,” the resident said, but must also serve in the military “if necessary.”

Other sources in the region said that similar drives were underway since early January in the townships of Hpayargyi, Daik-U, Taungoo, Thandaung, Padaung, Shwedaung, Paungde and Paukkhaung. 

Incentives included 120,000 kyats (US$57) and a sack of rice per month for those who join, while the cost of deferring ranged from 500,000-800,000 kyats (US$238-381).

Protecting against ‘terrorists’

When contacted by RFA for comment, Tin Oo, the junta’s economic minister and spokesman for Bago region, said that residents were “preparing to protect their communities from violence.”

“It depends on them [whether they want to join],” he said. “Some villages say that they do not allow these PDF ‘terrorists’ to enter their area at all. We know that many young people are joining the militias to protect their own community.”

Lu Aye, information officer of the Thayarwady district PDF, said that the conscription is being implemented to replenish the depleted strength of the military.

“The situation is always intense in Thayarwady district,” he said. “Mostly, we attack [the military] first. That’s why the junta needs to replenish the depleted strength of its soldiers with militiamen. And to be frank, they are forcing them to fight and die on behalf of the soldiers.”

Other reports suggest that the junta has also launched conscription campaigns in Yangon and Ayeyarwaddy regions. 

On Thursday, the No. 2 southern regional sub-command of the shadow National Unity Government’s Southern Command, issued a statement saying it will “take action” against anyone pressuring civilians to form militias for the junta.

Tin Oo, the deputy commander of the No. 2 sub-command – which operates in Yangon, Bago and Ayeyarwaddy (and a different person than the junta minister with the same name) – told RFA that anyone involved in militia conscription will be “prosecuted under military law.”

“We have urged the public to avoid [the drives] as much as possible,” said the deputy commander. “Our statement is aimed at stopping the forced recruitment immediately and, if it does not end, we will take effective action against those who are involved or supporting it. There is a war going on, so we will take action according to military law.”

Forming militias is part of a junta bid to shore up military troop shortages and “drive a wedge between the people,” he added.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.