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A man sits in front of a house in Shan State that was destroyed during fighting between Myanmar security forces and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, January 10, 2023.  © 2023 Sipa via AP Images

(Bangkok) – An ethnic armed group in northern Myanmar has abducted and forcibly recruited civilians fleeing fighting in Shan State, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar’s military also has a long record of using adults for forced labor and recruiting children, but getting recent information about unlawful practices in junta-controlled areas is difficult.

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Kokang armed group, should immediately end its abusive practices against civilians, and take all available measures to protect them during hostilities against Myanmar’s armed forces and pro-junta militias.

“The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army is violating the laws of war by abducting and forcibly recruiting civilians, putting them at grave risk,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Civilians should be able to seek safety from fighting without fearing that the Myanmar military or ethnic armed groups will force them into their armies.”

On October 27, 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – a coalition of the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – began Operation 1027, an offensive targeting Myanmar military outposts in northern Shan State. The offensive triggered attacks by opposition armed groups elsewhere in the country. Since late October, fighting between opposition forces and the military has displaced more than 600,000 people, including almost 100,000 in Shan State.

Tens of thousands have fled Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang Special Autonomous Zone in northern Shan State, in advance of an anticipated MNDAA assault on the town, which the group formerly controlled. Although the MNDAA assisted those fleeing by opening up previously closed forest roads, the armed unit also confiscated mobile phones and detained an unknown number of people as they left Laukkai, local media and witnesses said.

On November 24, the MNDAA abducted seven men as they traveled from Laukkai to Chin Shwe Haw, near the Myanmar-China border. Relatives told the Shan News Herald that the men’s friends last saw them detained on the roadside just outside Chin Shwe Haw, before Alliance Army fighters took them away. The Shan News Herald reported that an MNDAA spokesperson said that Sai Ai Naw, 18; Maung Nyi Ka, 19; Sai Lianghan, 20; Sai Ilaw, 26; Maung Nor Goon, 26; Sai Aung Heng, 27, and a seventh, unnamed 20-year-old man would be assigned to military service.

On November 25, a doctor who left Laukkai along the same route said he witnessed many young men pulled over and detained by MNDAA fighters outside Par Hsin Kyaw, a village between Laukkai and Chin Shwe Haw.

“They [MNDAA fighters] were pulling over men who were on motorcycles in groups of twos and threes,” he said. They did not pull over couples, and I had one of the female nurses riding pillion, so we didn’t get stopped. But there were scores of young men pulled over and I saw them being rounded up. I was too afraid to stop and look but they were being gathered together and taken away somewhere.”

On December 12, the parents of seven other young men who did not arrive home after fleeing Laukkai in late October issued a letter to the MNDAA, pleading for their release. The families wrote, in the letter obtained by Human Rights Watch, that they last saw their sons being led away by MNDAA fighters near Chin Shwe Haw. All those abducted were of Ta’ang ethnicity and came from Man Khite village, Namhsan township, in northern Shan State.

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army operates in northern Shan State along the China-Myanmar border. It was founded as the Communist Party of Burma collapsed in 1989 and agreed to a ceasefire with the Myanmar military later that year. The ceasefire ended in 2009, when a military-aligned faction of the Alliance Army became the Kokang Border Guard Force and was put in charge of Laukkai, where illegal activity, most recently cyber scam centers, has thrived. The MNDAA has attempted multiple times to regain the territory, including Laukkai, that it lost in 2009.

Some ethnic armed groups, including the MNDAA, impose quotas requiring villages or households to supply a recruit, who in some cases may be willing to serve. Myanmar’s military and pro-junta militias also use forced recruits, including children, to bolster their armed forces or for other roles such as porters, cooks, or cleaners.

In a widely shared video dated December 5 that Human Rights Watch reviewed and verified, an MNDAA official in uniform warns families not to shirk their responsibilities and to ensure those recruited were at least 15 years old and younger than 50.

“If [you don’t] have a boy … if you have a girl … if you have three [one must serve],” the official tells a crowd gathered at a monastery in Pang Hseng village, Monekoe township, in northern Shan State. “If you have five, two of them must serve. Got it? If you have five males at home, two of them must serve.”

He continued: “So, if you’re thinking about not bringing your sons and daughters because you’re concerned, don’t do that. … One day when they come back because things are peaceful, we are going to collect household registrations and we will know that they did not serve, and we will arrest them for it.”

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applicable to the non-international armed conflicts in Myanmar, warring parties are prohibited from arbitrarily depriving anyone of their liberty, including through abductions and forced recruitment. Parties must treat all civilians humanely; arbitrary deprivation of liberty is incompatible with this requirement.

In September 2019, Myanmar ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which obligates non-state armed forces not to, “under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18.” The 2019 Myanmar Child Rights Law also forbids recruiting anyone under 18 into the armed forces or non-state armed groups.

In 2023, the United Nations secretary-general's annual report on children in armed conflict identified the Myanmar military as responsible for the majority of the cases the UN had verified as recruiting and using children the previous year. However, the report also named the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army as having recruited up to seven children and separately, abducting up to seven others. The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has also received various reports that the Myanmar military’s recruitment and use of children has increased since the 2021 military coup.

“Governments with any influence over opposition and ethnic armed groups in Myanmar should impress upon them that violations by the Myanmar armed forces never justifies abuses by their own forces,” Pearson said.

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