Forced conscription, a nightmare Rohingya men can’t escape

Forced to be a “human shield” in Myanmar: Abdullah’s story

  • Published on
    May 14, 2024
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    Slavery In conflict
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The Rohingya population in Myanmar were stripped of their citizenship rights decades ago. And now, due to the ongoing conflict, they have also been robbed of their ability to move. This leaves them trapped when government agents show up to forcibly conscript them into a losing war. A story that is tragically repeated for hundreds of Rohingya men in both Myanmar and Bangladesh forcibly conscripted into a battle that isn’t theirs and that, regardless of the outcome of the war, they cannot win. This is the story of Abdullah*, as reported in the Guardian.

“Thrown into the battlefield as human shields.”

Abdullah was asleep when soldiers came to his home in the middle of the night brandishing guns. They forced him into a truck where he waited in the dark for four hours, watching as the soldiers entered the homes of his neighbors, forcibly pulling out 30 more young men from their homes to join him. Abdullah had spent the last two weeks trying desperately to hide from the military after he heard rumors about forced conscription. But sadly, morning found Abdullah and the other forced conscripts at an army base with a commander telling them they would be trained for 10 days, then taken into battle and ordered to fight.

Looking around the base Abdullah said:

“I saw lots of dead bodies at the base and if the soldiers who had training for six months were being killed in fighting, how could we fight the rebels after just 10 days of training? It was impossible. I was sure we would die fighting,”

The military commander told them they would be fighting a local rebel group, the Arakan Army, made up of some of the 1,000 Rohingyas who had also been forcibly conscripted but fled. According to the UN, the military is aiming to forcibly conscript 5,000 people a month to try and reverse huge troop losses due to casualties and defections. On paper, forced conscription was only supposed to apply to citizens and the Rohingya’s had their citizenship stripped in 1982 by a law that had led to decades of persecution. But Myanmar’s military has been losing ground leading to a desperate need for more soldiers. However, far from contributing to any military victory, many Rohingya’s fear they are simply being “thrown into the battlefield as human shields.”

Nowhere left to hide

Due to the military’s genocidal treatment of Rohingyas in Myanmar, close to a million have fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they have been living in refugee camps for years. But even national borders have failed to keep them safe from forced conscription by the Myanmar military. Activists report armed gangs are entering refugee camps in Bangladesh and abducting young men, presumably taking them back to Myanmar, where, just like Abdullah, they are forced to fight.

One Rohingya man living in Bangladesh said:

“People say the youth who are abducted are sold to the Myanmar government, their parents cannot find them. They are trying their best, but not one is found.”

His 19-year-old nephew and two other boys were taken by a group of armed men in early May from their refugee camp in Bangladesh to Myanmar, where they presumably were forced to fight. Despite the families’ attempts to find them, they have not been heard from since.

After his forced conscription, Abdullah desperately wanted to escape, even trying to persuade other forced conscripts to join him. But fearful their families would be punished in retaliation, the others stayed behind. However, instead of heading back to his village, Abdullah fled on his own to Bangladesh hoping to find safety due to increasing instability in the Rohingya villages in Myanmar. Civilians in Rohingya villages like Abdullah’s are lately being pinned between the military and Arakan Army who taken up positions on either side of the villages leaving villagers “trapped between two armed factions who have a track record of killing them”. In addition, without telling residents, both sides have started placing landmines near Rohingya villages resulting in injuries to innocent people.

For now, Abdullah is safe in Bangladesh. But it seems no matter where Rohingya men flee, there is nowhere to hide from the threat of being forced to fight and possibly die for a cause that promises nothing but pain and suffering for the Rohingya people, no matter which side they fight on.

*Name has been changed

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