Eight youth who are part of a strike committee in Mandalay have been missing since Monday, according to another member of the group.
A committee leader told Myanmar Now that three of the young people were initially shot at and arrested by junta troops while photographing a flash mob protest in Mandalay that morning, and five others in their network disappeared later in the day.
“Three people went missing first. According to people from the neighbourhood, gunshots were heard, so it’s possible that they were arrested,” he said. “The military could have found out about the other five after interrogating the first three.”
The victims were identified as Hein Min Zaw, Aung Zaw Myint, Naing Lin Tun, Kyaw Soe Moe, Kyaw Min Tun, Htet Ko, Thae Su and Ja Seng Aung—all in their 20s.
Since the February 2021 coup, there have been several instances where people were taken by the junta’s forces and killed in military custody, their bodies not returned to their families.
An interrogation centre located inside Mandalay Palace has become notorious for brutal acts of torture perpetrated against detainees, as has Mandalay’s Obo Prison.
According to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), nearly 2,000 people have been killed by the military since the coup and more than 13,000 remain in detention.
The military has dismissed the numbers as exaggerated, but the AAPP claims that they are likely much higher, noting that they are compiled based on available records.
The junta’s spokesperson did not answer Myanmar Now’s calls regarding the missing youth activists in Mandalay.
‘Freedom is never free; it comes at a great price’— KNU
In an interview with Myanmar Now, the Karen ethnic armed organisation’s spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee lauds public support for the resistance movement and condemns a junta-controlled election
More than 60 Karen civil society organisations, including the KWO, released a joint statement late last week calling for the resignation of all KNU central executive committee members with ties to so-called “new city projects,” including illegal casinos and other gambling businesses.
In response, the KNU released a statement on Sunday denying that it had issued any permits for illegal businesses in Karen (Kayin) State.
KNU congresses typically last about a month, and are attended by central executive committee members and representatives from each brigade.
Padoh Saw Liston, the district secretary for KNLA Brigade 6, said he didn’t expect the current congress to last any longer than usual, despite being the first to be conducted online—an innovation, he said, necessitated by the risk of airstrikes.
He added that the Karen public also hopes to see more “political integrity” in the group’s leadership.
“I think the public feels that the leadership’s behaviour should reflect the KNU’s political integrity, so I think there may be some changes. However, everything depends on the representatives’ skills,” he stated.
More than 50 representatives are slated to be elected as members of the KNU’s central executive committee during the congress. The elected representatives will then choose the group’s chair, vice-chair, and secretary general.
KNU territory is divided into seven districts, each one controlled by a different brigade of either the KNLA or the Karen National Defence Organisation, another armed wing under the KNU’s command.
Why thousands have left Myanmar’s military—and why most stay
While discontent is rife within the ranks, few soldiers are willing to risk the consequences of defecting
Another retired soldier who served in the army for 40 years told Myanmar Now that among these new recruits, the reasons for joining were often rooted in pragmatism over patriotism.
“No one has joined the army because they love the country,” he said.
Once provided with uniforms, weapons, and two weeks of combat training, family members of troops are often sent to reinforce weakened battalions and brigades nationwide, according to Cpt Zin Yaw, who left the Myanmar army after nearly 20 years to join the Civil Disobedience Movement.
“The new recruits are often underage and not in a good mental state,” he said, citing sources still in the military. “They were kept at the base just for show. Some were so unstable that they couldn’t be trusted enough to have their guns loaded with real bullets.”
He noted that this information came from an officer currently serving in the Southeastern Regional Command, active in Mon and Karen states, where intense fighting has taken place between the Myanmar army and resistance forces including the longstanding ethnic armed organisation the Karen National Union (KNU).
Children among troops
A former child soldier forcibly recruited into the military while on a Buddhist pilgrimage in 2019 affirmed that the Myanmar army resorted to unorthodox measures to bolster its troop numbers well before the coup.
Hein Zaw Oo said he was 16 and had just visited the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Mon State when he was approached by a police officer he met on the train back to his native Yangon. The officer convinced him to enlist, and initially sent him to Infantry Battalion 30 in Bago Region’s Taungoo Township. He then attended six months of combat training in Thabeikkyin Township in Mandalay.
“There were many underage children among the troops,” he recalled. “Many of them were younger than me.”
Speaking to Myanmar Now on the condition of anonymity, another army captain who served for 10 years before joining the CDM said that Hein Zaw Oo’s experience was not uncommon, and that railway stations had long been known military recruitment sites, particularly for minors.
“They target the boys who seem lost at the stations—naïve young boys are threatened and recruited into the army,” the captain said. “For example, they will accuse the boys of stealing, and after beating them, they will threaten them with prison if they don’t join [the army].”
Officers were under pressure to find two new recruits each month in order to secure their own promotions, he explained. Prior to the coup, they could expect to spend up to 2m kyat (nearly US$1,000) in “fees” to take credit for bringing on a new soldier.
“Some bases sell their troops’ recruitment records to those officers. The military recruitment units also sell the names of the people they have recruited, and the officers [who want a promotion] will buy from them,” he explained.
After he completed his training, teenager Hein Zaw Oo became a member of Light Infantry Battalion 2 under Light Infantry Division 44, and was—perhaps ironically—stationed in the Kyaikhto, the same township as the holy site he visited before he was recruited.
He was then deployed to Rakhine State to fight against the Arakan Army in 2020, and transferred across the country to Karen State one year after the coup. Looking for an escape, he contacted the Cobra Column—a combined force made up of KNU soldiers and members of the anti-junta People’s Defence Force—as they advanced along the highway connecting Myawaddy with Waw Lay along the Thai border in May 2022, and defected to the resistance.
Upon his arrival in liberated territory, Hein Zaw Oo told Myanmar Now that the “propaganda” spread by the military about the anti-junta armed groups turned out to be false.
“The army says that deserters who join the CDM will be killed by [the resistance forces] after being fed for a day or two,” he explained, speculating that the regime is desperate not to lose more troops to the movement it is struggling to suppress.