Young men trapped between war and conscription in Myanmar’s Rakhine

Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine see dreams of education and work disappear as conflict escalates in the long-troubled state.

People rebuilding their homes after they were destroyed in fighting between the military and Arakha Army. There are lots of damaged trees.
The renewed fighting is the latest crisis to hit Rakhine which endured waves of communal violence in the years before the coup [AFP]

Since war resumed in his native Rakhine State last November, Thura Maung has seen his options narrow.

The 18-year-old, from the state’s ethnic Rakhine majority, first fled his home in the coastal town of Myebon in December, when clashes between the military and autonomy-seeking Arakha Army – formerly known as the Arakan Army – seemed imminent.

He and his family escaped by boat, travelling along river inlets at night to avoid being seen by the military. They returned a few days later, but fled twice more over the following months as the fighting escalated.

By February, the military and AA were battling for control over Myebon, and Thura Maung could hear shelling from the village where he had taken shelter. The military had also blocked the movement of goods and shut down the internet in areas affected by the conflict, leaving his family struggling to make ends meet.

With his university effectively closed due to the fighting, he felt his dreams slipping away. “There were no opportunities for my life to develop, and I saw no future,” he said.

It’s a feeling shared by Zubair, an ethnic Rohingya from Rakhine State’s northern Maungdaw township. The 24-year-old was doing an internship with a civil society organisation focused on peacebuilding when the fighting broke out and his office closed.

Soon, he was running from the war as well as a military conscription drive targeting Rohingya men. “We weren’t able to stay at home, go to work or even sleep on time,” he said. “Time that we could’ve spent working on our futures was wasted.”

Zubair and Thura Maung are part of a new generation of young people across Myanmar whose lives have been turned upside down by the 2021 military coup. In Rakhine State, people had already lived through years of communal conflict and a brutal 2017 military crackdown on the mostly Muslim Rohingya. The escalating violence between the military and AA has only made matters worse, according to Karen Simbulan, a human rights lawyer specialising in conflict sensitivity in Rakhine.

“With the most recent renewed fighting and the looming threat of forced conscription, many who had persisted and stayed in Rakhine despite everything are seeing their futures taken away from them,” she said. “Many are taking significant risks to flee to safety, often putting themselves in highly vulnerable situations just to survive.”

Al Jazeera spoke with four young men from Rakhine State about the effects of the conflict on their lives. They have all been given pseudonyms to protect their safety.

‘Stirring up communal tensions’

The renewed fighting is the latest crisis to hit Rakhine State, home to Daingnet, Mro, Khami, Kaman, Maramagyi, Chin and Hindu minorities as well as the Rohingya, and the mostly Buddhist Rakhine majority. A category four cyclone hit the region last May, following successive waves of violence in the decade leading up to the coup.

In 2012, mobs of ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya people attacked each other with sticks and knives and burned each other’s homes, leaving dozens dead and some 140,000 forced from their homes. Afterwards, the military imposed tough restrictions on Rohingyas’ movement and access to services, while continuing to deny them citizenship under a discriminatory 1982 law.

The situation deteriorated dramatically in 2016 and 2017 when the military killed thousands of Rohingya civilians and committed widespread sexual violence and arson following attacks on military outposts by a Rohingya armed group. Its “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine State drove more than 750,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, and the crackdown is the subject of continuing genocide proceedings at the International Court of Justice.

The AA stepped up its fight for autonomy in late 2018; over the next two years, Rakhine State endured some of the most intense armed clashes seen in Myanmar in decades. The military also indiscriminately bombed and shelled civilian areas, committing what Amnesty International identified as war crimes.

The military and AA reached an informal ceasefire in November 2020, just three months before the generals seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Weeks later, the military cracked down on peaceful protests across Myanmar with gunfire and arrests. An armed uprising soon followed; by mid-2021, all-out war had erupted across the country.

Existing ethnic armed organisations trained and fought alongside anti-coup People’s Defence Forces (PDF), but the AA mostly stayed out of the fray, instead focusing on establishing governance mechanisms in its territory through its administrative wing, the United League of Arakan.

That changed last October, when the AA joined ethnic armed groups fighting on Myanmar’s eastern border with China to launch Operation 1027 declaring their intent to eradicate “oppressive military dictatorship”.  Within weeks, they had seized strategic territory and other resistance groups were launching new offensives across the country. On November 13, the AA brought the war to Rakhine soil with coordinated attacks on military positions.

A woman walks past her temporary shelter in Minbya. The shelter is made from metal sheets and tarpaulin. The trees have been damaged and burned.
Thousands have been forced from their homes in escalating violence since November [AFP]

The AA and its allies have since driven out the military from most of central and northern Rakhine State as well as Paletwa township in neighbouring Chin State. Following tactics it has long used to punish communities harbouring armed resistance, the military has retaliated with full-scale attacks on AA-controlled and contested areas by air, land and water while cutting off transit routes, communication channels and access to medical care for entire populations.

Hundreds of civilians have been injured or lost their lives and more than 185,000 people displaced across Rakhine State and Paletwa since November out of more than three million that the United Nations says have been displaced across the country, mostly as a result of the coup.

Through its forced conscription of Rohingya men as well as by demanding they protest against the AA, the military is also deliberately working to threaten years of fragile progress towards reconciliation between Rakhine and Rohingya communities, according to Simbulan, the conflict sensitivity specialist.

“The military is once again resorting to stirring up communal tensions because it is desperately losing ground in Rakhine,” she said. “As the expected de facto authority in Rakhine, the AA needs to heed its own words that this is a military tactic to divide communities, and not fall into the trap the military has set.”

Fear of conscription

Zubair, in Maungdaw, said that the conflict and military conscription drive left him feeling like the military was attempting to “destroy our Rohingya youth … from every angle”.

Since November, he has repeatedly been forced to flee his home due to the conflict. “Our village was attacked a lot, so we moved to another village which was less attacked,” he said. By February, he was also running from military conscription. Human Rights Watch reported in April that the military had used methods including false offers of citizenship, nighttime raids and abduction at gunpoint to conscript at least 1,000 Rohingya men, some of whom it sent to fight on the front lines against the AA.

In Maungdaw, Zubair said he had been unable to sleep since military soldiers took his neighbours from their home one night in March because he was fearful he might be next. The military was also blocking the roads between villages, leaving him and other young people with few places to go. “We ran inside the village,” said Zubair. “When we heard that [soldiers] were coming from one direction, we ran in another.”

Then, the military ordered the Maungdaw hospital to close, leaving Zubair’s father, who needs to use an inhaler because of a respiratory disease, unable to access medical care.

By April, heavy fighting between the military and AA had reached Rakhine State’s northern townships, alongside a series of devastating arson attacks across neighbouring Buthidaung township whose perpetrator remains disputed.

With a fight for control over Maungdaw looming, Zubair and his parents sneaked across the Naf river into Bangladesh one night at the end of May.

Now staying in the world’s largest refugee camp, Zubair rarely leaves his shelter, fearing that he could be robbed by other camp residents or arrested by Bangladeshi police, who sent back more than 300 people between February and April, according to the research and advocacy group Fortify Rights.

“I need to be cautious every time I go outside,” he told Al Jazeera.

After escaping to nearby villages, Thura Maung, the Rakhine youth, also left the state due to the conflict. On February 9, he travelled by boat for two days to the state capital of Sittwe, and then boarded a plane bound for Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon.

He landed to find a city in chaos. While he was in transit, the military had announced plans to activate conscription from April, prompting a mass exodus from areas under its control. Thura Maung, who had planned to enrol in language classes in Yangon, could not find a course accepting new students and also feared conscription himself. So a week later, he began the trip back to Myebon, which had just been captured by the AA.

As soon as his flight touched down in Sittwe, however, he was arrested at the airport along with the other passengers on his flight. Held without charge at a Buddhist religious centre, military soldiers took his mugshot, interrogated him and searched through his phone.

He is among hundreds of people who have been detained by the military while travelling to or within Rakhine State since February. In March, the military also ordered travel agents and bus operators to stop issuing tickets to Rakhine State natives.

While these actions may have been intended to stop the flow of information and recruits to the AA, for Thura Maung, they had the opposite effect. Nearly a week after he was arrested, he sneaked away and headed towards an AA camp. “I felt lost,” he said. “I attempted to enter the AA without letting my parents know, because I thought it was the only certain thing I could do.”

A relative talked him out of it, however; now back in Myebon, where he is safe from military conscription because the AA controls the town, he still fears he could become the next victim of the military’s attacks. “I feel safer living in Myebon, but I still have to worry about air strikes,” he said.

‘Survival is my priority’

Tun Tun Win, a 24-year-old ethnic Rakhine, was also arrested at Sittwe airport. He had been attending language classes in Yangon when fighting broke out between the military and AA; although he had initially stayed in the city, he changed his plans in February. “Although there is ongoing conflict in Rakhine, I felt more secure living with my family than living alone in Yangon under the conscription law,” he said.

Fleeing one danger, however, he was soon caught up in another. Like Thura Maung, soldiers took him away at the airport and interrogated him for several days at a Buddhist religious centre before he managed to sneak away. Now back home in Myebon, he faces a new set of struggles. “Currently, survival has become my priority rather than pursuing my ambition and plans,” he said.

Arkar Htet, a 27-year-old ethnic Rakhine from a village on the outskirts of Sittwe, also saw his plans fall apart after the conflict broke out. He was running an online delivery service and working as a dance instructor but stopped both after the military imposed a nighttime curfew and stepped up its surveillance and arrests. “I feared going outside even in the afternoon,” he said.

But even at home, he did not feel safe. As the military and AA battled for control over the town of Pauktaw, 30 kilometres (19 miles) northeast, military shells whizzed over his roof, as well as jet fighters on their way to bomb the town.

By January, the AA controlled Pauktaw, but the military had burned most of it down. As the fighting shifted to areas around Sittwe, Arkar Htet and his family fled by boat on February 29. Stray fire injured a passenger on the way; back in the city, about a dozen people died when shelling hit a portside market.

Arkar Htet and his family managed to reach a village under the AA’s control in Ponnagyun township, and in early April, he told Al Jazeera that he felt “70 percent safe”.

Less than two months later, on May 29 and 30, the military raided Byaing Phyu village, just a few kilometres from the village from which Arkar Htet had fled. According to the AA, military forces killed 72 civilians and raped three women; the military has denied the claims.

Then on June 1, the military bombed a village in Ponnagyun township next to the one where Arkar Htet had taken shelter, killing two civilians. Al Jazeera has been unable to get in touch with him since.

Source: Al Jazeera