Village heads quit in anger over military recruitment in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

Authorities are arresting Rohingya youths and restricting the movement of residents, sources say.
By RFA Burmese
2024.03.19
Village heads quit in anger over military recruitment in Myanmar’s Rakhine state Soldiers who appear to be Rohingya Muslims ride in the back of a military vehicle, March 9, 2024.
Image from citizen journalist video

More than 20 administrators of villages in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have resigned after the junta ordered them to choose residents for military service and to form militias amid preparations for nationwide conscription, sources with knowledge of the situation said Tuesday.

Following a number of devastating defeats at the hands of ethnic armies in recent months – most notably the Arakan Army in Rakhine state – the junta announced in February that it would implement Myanmar’s military service law. That prompted an exodus of young people to rebel-controlled territories and abroad to avoid the draft.

While the junta has said conscription won’t begin until April, RFA Burmese has received reports over the past four weeks of forced recruitment and efforts by authorities to document draft eligibility.

The resignation of the 21 administrators in Rakhine’s Thandwe township on Monday followed a junta directive ordering them to select two residents from each large village and one each small one for military service, with a focus on those who had failed the country’s matriculation exam, a source close to one of the administrators told RFA Burmese.

The junta had also ordered administrators to forcibly recruit 20 residents from large villages and five from small ones to form a local militia, said the source who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

“Yesterday, villagers refused to join the military,” he said. “[The administrators] argued with the villagers and then submitted their resignations [after they couldn’t convince them to join].”

The 21 administrators account for more than one-third of the heads of Thandwe’s 62 village-tracts.

One of the administrators noted that all of the resignations came from the heads of villages in northern Thandwe, where the junta “forced them to recruit youths by drawing lots.”

“The administrators worried that they could not recruit enough people for military service and it would put pressure on them, so they submitted their resignations,” he said.

RFA spoke with several of the administrators who said they had been invited to a meeting by township-level authorities on Tuesday to discuss the situation. They refused to provide further details, noting that their resignations were still in process.

Pe Than, a veteran Rakhine politician and former lawmaker said that the administrators made the right decision by resigning, saying "no one wants to be under this kind of pressure.”

Rohingya youths arrested

The resignations came amid a series of raids, beginning Monday, by authorities on multiple villages in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, during which they detained several ethnic Rohingya youths, residents told RFA.

Some 20 Rohingyas were arrested in Ka Nyin Tan village and more than 10 others in Maung Ni village, said a Rohingya resident of the township, who also declined to be named.

“They were forcefully taken by junta troops,” he said. “Residents from neighboring villages are fleeing, uncertain of the reason behind the arrests."

Another Rohingya from the area told RFA that it was unclear where the detainees had been taken.

“The captured people were loaded into vehicles and their destination remains undisclosed,” he said.

A third resident of Maungdaw suggested that the detainees were “being conscripted into the military.”

“Such incidents are not isolated to Ka Nyin Tan, but are occurring in other villages as well," he noted.

Rohingya youths and children sell coconut juice in Maungdaw in October 2023. (RFA)
Rohingya youths and children sell coconut juice in Maungdaw in October 2023. (RFA)

RFA was unable to independently verify the reported arrests of Rohingya youths or the number of those allegedly detained. Attempts by RFA to contact Attorney General Hla Thein, the junta’s spokesperson for Rakhine state, for comment on the resignation of the 21 administrators and arrests of Rohingyas, went unanswered Tuesday.

The junta has reportedly recruited about 1,000 Rohingyas in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, as well as Buthedaung, Maungdaw and Kyaukphyu townships, according to aid workers.

Travel ban on Rakhine residents

Meanwhile, junta authorities in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon have implemented restrictions on domestic travel for people holding National Registration Cards, or NRCs, with the prefix No. 11, which signifies residency in Rakhine state, employees of passenger bus lines told RFA on Tuesday.

The junta issued a notification letter “outlining a complete ban on travel between townships” for Rakhine cardholders on Monday, according to one employee, who said the edict had been circulated to all of the city’s bus companies.

Furthermore, cardholders registered outside of Rakhine state will be required to provide recommendation letters from their respective ward administrative office, police station, or employer in support of travel plans when purchasing tickets, the employee said.

The bus company employees RFA spoke with said they were unaware of the reason behind the travel restrictions.

A Rakhine state NRC holder who has resided in Yangon for more than a decade described the travel ban as a “deprivation of our fundamental rights.”

“It’s akin to being fenced in,” he said, adding that the ban would likely impact employment opportunities.

A representative from an airline ticket sales department in Yangon confirmed to RFA that Rakhine cardholders had been barred from domestic road travel, but said air travel remained unrestricted as of Tuesday.

Reports have surfaced of arrests and interrogations of residents of Sittwe returning home from Yangon via a Myanmar Airlines flight on Feb. 26.

And on Feb. 20, authorities reportedly arrested more than 100 youths returning to Rakhine state from Yangon by highway at a checkpoint in the city’s Shwe Pyi Thar township.

Sources suggested to RFA that the junta is afraid that, when faced with the likelihood of being drafted, youths are returning to Rakhine and other regions to join the rebellion.

Htay Aung, the junta’s attorney general and spokesperson for Yangon region, did not respond to requests for comment on the travel restrictions on Tuesday.

Families threatened

RFA also learned Tuesday that junta authorities in southwestern Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region have threatened to “take action” against families of anyone who flees after being selected for military service.

On Monday, four men aged 24-35 were selected in a draft lottery in Pyapon township’s Aung Tharyar village.

One of the men fled Aung Tharyar shortly after the lottery, prompting authorities to threaten all of his family members with unspecified punishment if he failed to return by Wednesday, said a resident of the village, who declined to be named.

“The family members are terrified,” said the resident.

The junta began a lottery system for military service in Ayeyarwady’s Myaungmya, Pyapon, Kangyidaunt, Leputta and Hinthada townships in the third week of March, residents said.

RFA was unable to reach the junta’s Ayeyarwady spokesperson and Social Affairs Minister Khin Maung Kyi for comment on Tuesday.

A young man who is facing a lottery drawing in Hinthada told RFA that he has considered fleeing if selected.

“I don’t want to serve in the military,” he said, “but the junta has threatened to arrest the remaining family members of anyone who runs away.”

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

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