In Myanmar, Accounts of Disappearances Create a Climate of Fear

By John Mercury December 21, 2023

At least 16 young men disappeared last month.

In four cities across Myanmar, under cover of darkness, armed groups took them to police stations, according to family members and some of the men themselves. Some were released after paying ransoms. In other cases, failure to pay led to forced conscription into the military. Other men simply vanished.

Such disappearances began after Myanmar’s military seized power in February 2021. But they appear to have accelerated in recent weeks, at a time when the military is facing the most serious challenge to its rule since the coup. In October, three ethnic rebel armies started the biggest offensive against the government in nearly three years.

The New York Times confirmed the abductions of 16 men in November, through interviews with men who had been released or with relatives of others. In some cases, it is unclear where they were taken and why. In a country that is functionally locked down by the military junta, information is hard to come by, and it is difficult to determine the exact number of disappearances.

But the accounts have sent a chill through communities. Family members are instructing men and boys to stay home. Parents are pulling their sons out of school.

“It’s happening across Yangon, and people are jittery about it,” said U Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute, a policy advocacy organization based in that city. His family has told his 14-year-old grandson not to go out in the evening, he said, for fear that “he might be grabbed by the scruff of his neck and just thrown into a truck.”

People who lost their sons and husbands said reports to the police were often met with demands for money. Many did not dare to go to the authorities because they assumed the armed forces were behind the kidnappings.

Myanmar’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, dismissed that possibility, saying that “there’s no reason for the military to engage in such activities anywhere in Myanmar.”

But that has not quelled suspicions in a country where the army is known for its past reliance on forced labor. For decades, it nabbed villagers to help transport ammunition through hilly jungles and used convicts as human shields, and to trip land mines. That practice, documented by many human rights groups, was called forced portering, a term that still evokes dread in Myanmar and has been used in speculation about the recent disappearances.

The accounts come as the military is struggling with recruitment. At least 4,500 soldiers have defected from the army, according to People’s Embrace, a group that supports defectors from Myanmar’s security forces. While that accounts for a small percentage of the army’s total personnel, estimated at 280,000 to 350,000 people, the number of deserters has doubled since the start of the year.

Defectors say the army has called up retirees, who are fighting in the trenches. Male relatives of soldiers are now required to fight, and wives have been marshaled to provide security for bases, in violation of military law. The Defense Services Academy, Myanmar’s equivalent of West Point, admitted 83 students this year, far below the usual number of about 1,000, according to a lecturer from the academy, who declined to be named because the person was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Five men told The Times that they had been abducted by soldiers and forcibly conscripted into the army since the coup.

On Dec. 31 of last year, Myo Min Zaw was walking home from work in the city of Bago when soldiers shoved him into a military vehicle, he said. He was sent to an army recruitment unit in Mawlamyine, a city to the south. The next morning, soldiers shaved off most of his hair.

He told them he did not want to enlist.

“They said refusal meant imprisonment,” recalled Mr. Myo Min Zaw, 18.

He said he was sent to the No. 9 Training School in Thaton for a 27-week program. About 80 percent of the roughly 100 people there were forced recruits like Mr. Myo Min Zaw, while the rest were soldiers’ children. He was then assigned to a military base in Hpapun township to clean and cook. He escaped with a friend last month, taking their guns with them.

The number of reports of missing men appears to have increased since the start of Operation 1027, the offensive launched on Oct. 27 by three ethnic armies: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army.

That rebel alliance has teamed up with other armed ethnic groups and the People’s Defense Force — former protesters who took up arms after the coup — to seize hundreds of military outposts and strategic trade routes in three states and two regions. For more than a month, the army has struggled to retake any of its bases.

On Nov. 4, Zarni Lynn, 15, went to buy a bottle of water in Yangon around 12:30 p.m. and never returned.

His father, U Zarni Maung, said he had filed a police report but felt “utterly helpless.”

“I fear they might take him to the military front line and harm him,” he said.

Zarni Lynn, 15, went to buy a bottle of water in Yangon on Nov. 4 but never returned.

Two weeks later, Win Min Soe was sitting on a bench and playing games on his phone outside his house in Yangon when three men in plainclothes with guns seized him. It was 9:30 p.m.

Mr. Win Min Soe, 20, started shouting for help.

“I followed, yelling: ‘What are you doing? Why are you taking my son?’” said his father, Zaw Tun. The men warned him to stay back if he did not want to be shot, forced Mr. Win Min Soe into a car and drove off.

Daw Hla Hla Moe, a neighbor, witnessed the abduction and corroborated Mr. Zaw Tun’s account. “Taking a boy who is sitting in front of his own house is just terrifying,” she said.

Mr. Zaw Tun said he went to the police station to ask about his son but has been at a loss since then. Mr. Win Min Soe, quiet and well-liked, was his only child.

Before the coup, Mr. Win Min Soe had been a second-year computer science student at a local university. After the military seized power, he joined the nationwide civil disobedience movement and stopped going to school in protest.

In recent weeks, soldiers have been stationed in high schools in Yangon, adding to the panic. In late November, Daw Sein Htay said she received a call from her 12-year-old son’s teacher, who said that soldiers had based themselves in the school and that she “couldn’t guarantee his safety.”

Ms. Sein Htay rushed to pick up her son up that day. He has not been back at school since then, she said.

The abductions in Yangon appear to mirror those in other cities.

On Nov. 10, Ko Than Soe, a 34-year-old deliveryman, went to a mosque in the city of Mandalay for his morning prayers at 4:30 a.m. and never returned. When some of his friends came back that evening, they told his wife, Daw Moe Moe Lwin, that they had been seized by the police but managed to leave after they paid a ransom.

One of them said he was asked to pay about $860. The police told them that refusing meant being sent to the front line, said the man, who declined to be identified because the officers had instructed him not to talk about what had happened.

Ms. Moe Moe Lwin dashed to the police station to plead for her husband’s release and was told to pay $500. She is unemployed and did not have the money. She returned again to ask where her husband was. She was finally given an answer: a military base.

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