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In Myanmar, Young Men Face A Stark Choice: Join the Army Or Face Heavy Fines

In Myanmar, Young Men Face A Stark Choice: Join the Army Or Face Heavy Fines
The soft chimes of the traditional Shan gongs emanating from a Burmese temple in northern Thailand is a reminder of the thousands of Myanmar migrants who have fled conflict in their homeland in past decades, seeking a better life. For ethnic Shan mother Nang Horm, the musical performance is a brief respite from the onslaught by Myanmar troops on their own people, that has left family and friends under a blanket of fear, since the February 2021 military coup. And now, the Burmese army is targeting new recruits. “If someone had a son in their house, he would have to become a soldier, [it] doesn’t matter if you have more than one, all of them will have to become soldiers,” the 32-year-old explains, as she clings to her 5-year-old daughter, her parents standing nearby. “But if you won’t allow it, you’ll have to pay them money and give them free rice,” the mother adds, providing information that she has received first-hand, from her relatives still living in Myanmar. Horm is referring to the recent forced enlistment of young men in Myanmar’s southern Shan state by a regional militia, operating under the Pa-O National Organization, whose leaders are seen to be aligned with the Burmese forces. But the problem is nationwide. In the past 18 months, since the coup, the Burmese army has faced increased resistance and casualties from the opposition people’s defense forces or PDF, the armed wing of the National Unity Government, Myanmar’s elected ministry in exile. Many pro-junta militia groups are forcing male villagers of fighting age, usually between 18 and 45 years old, to enlist or face heavy fines and donate rice and other food supplies. Those actions have added to an already difficult harvest season, for farmers and their families affected by labor shortages connected to the ongoing conflict and the COVID pandemic. “People are scared that they’ll be forced to join the army and the war that’s been going on,” explains Saengmuang Mangkorn, a board secretary at the Migrant Assistance Program, a grassroots organization providing humanitarian assistance to stranded and vulnerable migrants. “All of these issues have affected the farmers, and ultimately forces them to leave their home,” Mangkorn added from his office in the Chiang Mai province, an area where many of the migrants reside. Myanmar’s agriculture sector normally employs about 70% of the labor force but the increased internal displacement that now stands at nearly a million people includes many working-age males who are risking arrest crossing the border rather than serve under the despised Junta. For some migrant farm laborers, like Kham Duan, who has been based in Thailand since 2019, plans of returning home to see his family have been put on hold due to the risk of forced army enlistment. “My friend who is living south of Taunggyi [the capital of Shan state] said that he was forced to join the Burmese army earlier this year but he managed to escape,” says the 32-year-old, speaking at a work camp near Chiang Mai. Duan is keeping busy between his job as a rice planter, construction worker and a new added task of helping his relatives and friends from Myanmar relocate to Thailand. It’s not difficult to understand the growing resentment and fear for the Burmese army if one has access to the internet. Online images, showing the atrocities committed by the army and seen by many as a tool to instill fear, have only added to the outrage of the civilians toward the junta. No one is safe. “We sometimes hear the news that the Burmese soldiers are coming in to kidnap people and force them to be the soldiers,” explains a young male arrival from Sagaing region, who spoke to VOA at a safe house near the Thai-Myanmar border. “All the boys in our village are gone, they all left,” adds the 27-year-old exile. Sagaing region is one of the most heavily hit areas of the country and he says that “a lot of villages get burned down and some villages have bomb attacks from the planes.” Satellite images from the San Francisco-based earth-imaging company Planet Labs and the U.S space agency NASA, confirm reports that the military is using widespread arson in attacks in central Sagaing region where there is armed opposition to the junta, according to Reuters. Before arriving in Thailand, the village chief in this exile’s home community warned residents that the young, strong men were most at risk of being recruited. The chief recommended that those who were concerned, should leave the area, adding that those who choose to stay, must abide by an 8:00 curfew to preserve their safety, he explained. With estimates earlier this year, of more than 16,000 Burmese security officers who have already defected, there are traces of hope in the crowd of mostly Shan migrants attending the recent Buddhist ceremony in Thailand, including Nang Horm. “I pray for all the families to be happy and pray that my country will come back to normal and become peaceful again like the other countries,” she said.

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