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Myanmar’s military recruiting Rohingya at displaced camps

Myanmar’s junta is offering freedom of movement to Rohingya Muslims restricted to camps for the displaced in Rakhine state as part of a bid to entice them into military service amid the nationwide rollout of a conscription law, according to sources in the region.

The enactment of the People’s Military Service Law on Feb. 10 has sent draft-eligible civilians fleeing from Myanmar’s cities, saying they would rather leave the country or join anti-junta forces in remote border areas than fight for the military, which seized power in a 2021 coup d’etat.

Myanmar’s military is desperate for new recruits after suffering devastating losses on the battlefield to the ethnic Arakan Army, or AA, in Rakhine state. Since November, when the AA ended a ceasefire that had been in place since the coup, the military has surrendered Pauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Myay Pon and Taung Pyo townships in the state, as well as Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state.

But rights campaigners say the junta is drafting Rohingya into military service to stoke ethnic tensions in Rakhine state, while legal experts say the drive is unlawful, given that Myanmar has refused to recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic groups and denied them citizenship for decades.

Some 1 million ethnic Rohingya refugees have been living in Bangladesh since 2017, when they were driven out of Myanmar by a military clearance operation. Another 630,000 living within the country are designated stateless by the United Nations, including those who languish in camps for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, and are restricted from moving freely in Rakhine state.

Residents of the Kyauk Ta Lone IDP camp in Rakhine’s Kyaukphyu township told RFA Burmese that junta forces, including the township administration officer and the operations commander of the military’s Light Infantry Battalion 542, took a census of the camp’s Muslims for the purpose of military service on Monday.

Junta personnel compiled a list of more than 160 people deemed eligible for conscription and informed them they would have to take part in a two-week military training program, according to one camp resident who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

“The township administration officer came … and told us that Muslims must also serve in the military, but we refused to follow his order,” the resident said. “Then, the military operations commander arrived here along with his soldiers, and forced us to do so under the military service law. They collected the names of more than 160 people.”

Freedom of movement

Some 1,500 Rohingyas from around 300 families have been living at Kyauk Ta Lone since ethnic violence forced them to flee their homes in Kyaukphyu 12 years ago. 

Since taking the census on Monday, junta officers have repeatedly visited the camp, trying to persuade Rohingya residents to serve in the military with an offer of free movement within Kyaukphyu township, said another camp resident. 

“They won’t guarantee us citizenship,” he said. “But if we serve in the military, we will be allowed to go freely in Kyaukphyu.”

Other camp residents told RFA they “would rather die” than serve in the military, and suggested the recruitment drive was part of a bid by the military to create a rift between them and ethnic Rakhines – the predominant minority in Rakhine state and the ethnicity of the AA.

No date was given for when the training program would begin, they said. After receiving training, the recruits would be assigned to a security detail along with junta troops guarding routes in and out of Kyaukphyu, and dispatched to the battlefield “if necessary.”

Rohingya IDPs are afraid to serve in the military, but are unable to flee the camp because it is surrounded by junta troops, residents added.

Other recruitment efforts

The military service census at the Kyauk Ta Lone IDP camp came as Rohingyas in the Rakhine capital Sittwe, the Rakhine townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, and other parts of Kyaukphyu reported that junta troops have been arresting and collecting data from members of their ethnic group as part of a bid to force them into military training.

On Monday and Tuesday evening, military personnel arrested around 100 Rohingyas of eligible service age from the Buthidaung villages of Nga/Kyin Tauk, Tat Chaung, Pu Zun Chaung and Kyauk Hpyu Taung, said a resident who also declined to be named.

“People doing business in the village were arrested. Village elders were also arrested,” said the resident, who is also a Rohingya. “At least one young person from every house was arrested and taken to the army. The parents of those who were arrested are quite worried now.”

Junta troops said that the AA had established camps near the Rohingya villages and residents would have to undergo military training to defend the area, he added. They said the residents would be equipped with weapons and returned to their villages after the training was complete.

Rohingyas in Sittwe and Maungdaw, where an AA offensive is now underway, also reported junta census efforts and pressure to join military training. They said that larger villages are expected to provide 100 people for training, while smaller ones should send 50 residents.

Law does not apply

A lawyer who is representing Rohingyas in several legal cases told RFA that the People’s Military Service Law “does not apply” to members of the ethnic group because they do not have citizenship status in Myanmar.

He added that the junta’s attempt to recruit Rohingyas is part of a bid to drive a wedge between them and the people of Myanmar, many of whom oppose the military regime.

Nay San Lwin, an activist on the Rohingya issue, said that the junta hopes to divert attention from its losses to the AA in Rakhine state by igniting tensions between ethnic Rakhines and Rohingyas.

“If the Rohingyas are forced into their army, there could be a lot of problems between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas,” he said. “That’s what they want. Once that happens, they’ll drop all support for the Rohingyas as usual. But the main reason is to use the Rohingyas as human shields.”

Nay San Lwin noted that as successive governments in Myanmar have denied the Rohingya citizenship, there should be no pressure to force them to serve in the military.

The junta has released no information on efforts to recruit Rohingyas in Rakhine state and attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun and Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein, who is the junta’s spokesman in the region, went unanswered Thursday.

The AA issued a statement on Wednesday calling on ethnic Rakhines to take refuge from junta oppression – which it said includes unlawful arrests, extortion, forced military recruitment, and extrajudicial killings – in AA-controlled territory, instead of fleeing to other areas of the country.

Conscription eligibility

According to Myanmar’s compulsory military service law, men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 face up to five years in prison if they refuse to serve for two years, while highly skilled professionals aged 18-45 must also serve, but up to five years. More than 13 million of the country’s 54 million people are eligible for service.

Conscription is slated to be implemented at the end of April 2024, with a goal of recruiting up to 60,000 service members each year, in batches of around 5,000 people.

Translated by Aung Naing and Kalyar Lwin. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.