Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 23, 2024

The military junta and ethnic armed groups exploit Rohingya's vulnerability for their agendas. Without a regional framework to address the refugee crisis, this exploitation persists.

Rohingya crisis: Exploitation, recruitment, and challenges

The reinstatement of the conscription law by the Junta in Myanmar has been interpreted by many as a sign of its weakening grip on power. Following the 2021 coup, clashes between the army and pro-democracy factions, later joined by ethnic armed groups, have eroded the regime's control over territories, economic zones, and its personnel.

The Junta forces have seen a notable decrease, estimated at 150,000 in early 2021, possibly dwindling to 130,000 by late 2023. Inaccurate reporting inflated these figures, fostering a sense of complacency within the leadership. However, consecutive defeats, particularly following Operation 1027, have spurred the regime to consider the state of affairs. The loss of lives, resources, and influence has left military members dissatisfied, with some defecting to neighbouring countries like India and Thailand.

In response to these challenges, the military has reverted to its previous tactic of conscription under the 2010 People’s Military Service Law, causing fear and resentment among the nation's youth. The law enforced last month mandates individuals aged 18 to 45 for men and 18 to 35 for women to serve in the military for two years, with certain professions, such as medical professionals, required to serve for three years.

Inaccurate reporting inflated these figures, fostering a sense of complacency within the leadership. However, consecutive defeats, particularly following Operation 1027, have spurred the regime to consider the state of affairs.

The regime's objective is to conscript 60,000 men annually to uplift the morale of disheartened troops, who increasingly feel vulnerable even within their bases. This initiative underscores the urgency of the situation and the lengths the regime is willing to go to maintain control.

Avoiding conscription carries a penalty of imprisonment ranging from three to five years and a fine. Exemptions are granted to members of religious orders, while temporary deferments can be provided to civil servants, students, and people with severe health conditions. Despite these exemptions, reports and allegations of forced recruitment and involuntary conscription have been widespread, particularly in ethnic minority regions where armed conflict persists.

Recruiting Rohingyas

One questionable tactic employed by the military is the recruitment of Rohingya individuals, who have been deprived of citizenship rights under the 1982 Citizenship Law. Ironically, the conscription law exclusively pertains to citizens of the nation, excluding stateless communities. Initially, the military regime claimed that Rohingyas were brought in but not trained like other citizens. However, evidence, including videos and accounts, reveal Rohingyas being trained alongside other citizens.

According to various human rights organisations and testimonies from displaced individuals, since February 2024, the Myanmar military has forcibly recruited over 1,000 Rohingya Muslim men and boys from displacement camps in Kyaukphyu, Sittwe, Maungdaw, and Buthiduang townships, with this number steadily rising. Families and victims recount being seized during nighttime raids, deceived with false promises of citizenship rights and freedom of movement, and threatened with arrest, abduction, and physical abuse if they resisted or attempted to escape.

After employing these coercive tactics, the military subjects the displaced youth to abusive training sessions lasting two weeks before deploying them. Many are then forced onto the front lines of the escalating conflict between the junta and the Arakan Army (AA), resulting in numerous casualties. Thus, stateless men and boys are being used as human shields to serve the military's needs.

Families and victims recount being seized during nighttime raids, deceived with false promises of citizenship rights and freedom of movement, and threatened with arrest, abduction, and physical abuse if they resisted or attempted to escape.

In addition to the military junta's coercion and intimidation of the Rohingya population, there are allegations of extortion and targeted killings of Rohingyas by AA forces. While the AA denies these accusations of targeting Rohingya civilians, there are widespread reports of Rohingya and other ethnic communities being pressured to support opposing armed groups for their safety. It has also been noted that AA fighters frequently infiltrate Rohingya villages, which subsequently become targets of attacks by the Junta. Consequently, the displaced community is caught in the crossfire.

Conscription within Bangladesh camps

Bangladesh currently shelters 1 million Rohingya men, women, and children who fled military attacks in 2017, seeking refuge in the Cox's Bazar region until they can be repatriated to Myanmar with full citizenship rights. However, this prospect seems distant at present.

In the camp areas, displaced Rohingya face multiple insecurities amidst a fierce rivalry between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). ARSA, known for its role in the 2017 attacks in Rakhine State, has been overtaken by the resurgent RSO as the dominant group in the camps. However, both groups threaten the hapless people daily through extortion, abduction, and involvement in trafficking. While some Rohingya men see the potential benefits of having a solid ethnic armed organisation (EAO) to defend their interests, a lack of political leadership hampers their ability to engage in the anti-Junta resistance. Despite RSO's vocal support for the resistance, its involvement in the conflict remains limited, and there is doubt of its legitimacy as an EAO due to its primarily criminal activities in the camps.

Members of ARSA have reportedly taken the Rohingya men and boys from the camps for military training to join the Myanmar forces speculatively under the order of the junta. According to a camp dweller, these individuals were detained in the camps between 29 April and 8 May, with most of them aged between 14 and 30.

While some Rohingya men see the potential benefits of having a solid ethnic armed organisation (EAO) to defend their interests, a lack of political leadership hampers their ability to engage in the anti-Junta resistance.

The current situation has deeply concerned Bangladeshi authorities, with the Finance Minister, Hasan Mahmud, recently emphasising that the internal conflict in Myanmar cannot serve as a justification for delaying the repatriation of the Rohingya. However, the ongoing dilemma renders the return of displaced individuals unlikely due to security apprehensions, compounded by the Myanmar regime's failure to guarantee citizenship rights, protection, and concerns regarding conscription.

The utilisation of Rohingya individuals in Myanmar's conflicts represents a tragic illustration of the ongoing systemic oppression they face. Various actors, including the military Junta and ethnic armed groups, exploit their vulnerable status for their agendas, worsening the plight of the Rohingya and perpetuating instability within Myanmar and also Bangladesh.

Persisting challenges

International humanitarian law expressly prohibits the involvement of stateless individuals in warfare or as human shields. During armed conflicts, the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols outline protections for civilians, including stateless persons. Utilising civilians, including stateless individuals, for military advantage or placing them deliberately in harm's way constitutes war crimes, punishable under international law.

The international community bears a significant responsibility in addressing the exploitation of Rohingya and other ethnic communities in Myanmar's conflicts. Despite concerns raised by UN Secretary-General António Guterres regarding escalating conflict and reports of coercive detention and recruitment of Rohingya individuals, concrete actions remain elusive. The lack of accountability mechanisms, both domestically and internationally, perpetuates cycles of violence and injustice, hindering efforts for peace and reconciliation in Myanmar.

The international community bears a significant responsibility in addressing the exploitation of Rohingya and other ethnic communities in Myanmar's conflicts.

While the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has held the Junta accountable for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and issued directives to protect the population in 2022, its lack of enforcement authority underscores the importance of political will in ensuring compliance from individual nations—a component currently lacking. The regional bloc Association for Southeast Asian Nations's inability to provide practical solutions to the crisis has also drawn criticism, particularly for overlooking the Rohingya perspective, highlighting the ongoing challenges in addressing the Rohingya issue. The absence of a regional framework to tackle the refugee crisis remains a pressing concern.

As uncertainty persists, the lack of proper mechanisms to address the crisis complicates the outlook for a resolution, leaving the situation at a critical juncture with both the military regime and ethnic groups unwilling to relent in their pursuits.


Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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