More than 100 youths held incommunicado after arrest en route to Rakhine state

They were returning home after the junta enacted a military conscription law.
By RFA Burmese
2024.02.26
More than 100 youths held incommunicado after arrest en route to Rakhine state Fourteen young people from Ywa Thar Yar village in Rakhine state were arrested at a military council’s checkpoint in Yangon on Feb. 20, 2024. From top left in the first row, they are: Aye Chan Tin, Aye Hsan Win, Aye Thidar, Bo Saw Hein and Chit Hsan Khin. Second row: Cho Cho Than, Hsu Lin Shwe, Khin Than Nwe, Moe Htet Thu and Oo Win Kyaw. Third row: Phyo Htoo San, Phyu Phyu Soe, Soe Myint Maw and Ye Win Hlaing.
Citizen journalist

More than 100 ethnic Rakhine youths detained by Myanmar’s junta as they returned by bus to Rakhine state from the commercial capital Yangon last week remained incommunicado on Monday, with relatives expressing concern that they were forcibly recruited to join the military amid a rollout of the country’s conscription law.

Junta troops arrested the youths on Feb. 20 at a checkpoint in Shwe Pyi Thar township, according to a monk who was a fellow passenger on one of the buses and who lobbied to authorities on their behalf.

“Of the three buses that were stopped, the two that I tried to intercede for carried between 90 and 100 passengers [in total],” said the monk who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA Burmese on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

“The last thing I knew, they were arrested,” he said. “The reason I know this is because they entered the military checkpoint and never came out.”

The youths, aged between 18 and 30, had been working in garment, shoe and other factories in Yangon, the monk said. They were returning to their homes in the Rakhine townships of Myepon, Minbya, Mrauk-U, and Kyauktaw because their wards in Yangon would no longer register them as guests and they feared arrest after the junta announced earlier this month it would activate the country’s military conscription law.

They departed the Aung Mingalar Bus Yard in two buses operated by the Aung Si Khaing bus service and a third operated by the Pwint Phyu bus service, the monk said. The buses typically carry up to 50 passengers.

The youths are currently being held at the junta troop unit in Yangon region’s Hlaing Tharyar township, he said, adding that he had been unable to contact them as of Monday.

No contact since arrest

The military has suffered heavy losses on the battlefield in recent months – most notably in western Rakhine state, where the ethnic Arakan Army, or AA, ended a ceasefire in November and has since gone on to capture six townships.

On Feb. 10, the junta announced the implementation of the People’s Military Service Law, sending draft-eligible civilians fleeing from Myanmar’s cities. They say 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.

RFA Burmese has since received reports of recruitment roundups and arrests of young people, despite pledges from authorities that the law will not be enforced until April.

ENG_BUR_RakhineMenArrested_02262024.2.jpg
Arakan Army troops pose in front of the junta’s Western Regional Headquarters in Kyauktaw after capturing it on Feb. 13, 2024. The Myanmar military has suffered heavy losses in western Rakhine state in recent months. (Arakan Army Information Desk)

A relative of one of the detained youths told RFA that 14 of them are from his home village of Ywa Thar Yar, in Myebon township’s Yaw Chaung district.

“Four are male and 10 are female,” he said. “We haven’t had any contact with them since their arrest. They were working in factories in Yangon.”

The relative urged the junta to “release them as soon as possible,” as they had committed no crimes and were supporting their families with their income.

Aid workers confirmed to RFA that more than 100 Rakhine youths were arrested at the checkpoint on Feb. 20, but were unable to provide the details of those in custody, such as their names, ages or hometowns.

Nowhere is safe

Residents said that in the past two weeks, authorities in Yangon and Mandalay have been strictly enforcing the Guest List Law, which mandates either seven days’ imprisonment or a fine of 10,000 kyats (about US$5) for those who fail to register.

And last week, junta troops arrested around 600 civilians after their flights from Yangon landed at two airports in Rakhine state, according to family members and sources with knowledge of the situation, who said the military is holding them on suspicion of attempting to join the armed resistance.

A young Rakhine man working in Yangon told RFA that the junta is arresting people from his state who are living in the city “even if they are registered on guest lists,” but said returning home isn’t safe either.

“Now, if you go back to Rakhine, you will be arrested at Sittwe Airport … [or] at Kyaukpyu Airport. But if you stay [in Yangon], there are difficulties with the military service law,” he said. “I fled here to avoid the fighting in Rakhine, but it’s not safe here either. That’s just the current situation."

Rakhine military commentators told RFA they believe that the junta is likely targeting youths returning to Rakhine state because they “fear they will join the AA.”

Attempts by RFA to contact junta spokesperson Maj. General Zaw Min Tun for comment on the detention of young people in Shwe Pyi Thar township went unanswered Monday.

On Feb. 20, the AA said in a statement that the junta is “unlawfully arresting Rakhine people” in cities such as Yangon and Mandalay to use as soldiers, in addition to subjecting them to daily discrimination, torture, extortion, and execution. The group called on Rakhines fleeing fighting in the state to move to territory under its control, instead of relocating to the cities.

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

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