A woman carrying a child talks with Ta’ang National liberation Army soldiers on January 11, 2022, the day before the 59th Ta’ang National Revolution Day, in northern Shan State’s Tangyan Township. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

Sealed fate: The second sons of Ta’ang State

As the TNLA expands its forced conscription policies to newly-conquered territories, a Frontier reporter reflects on his time with the group in 2021, and his friendship with a young Ta’ang boy destined for war since birth.


During my six months in northern Shan State in 2021, whenever I got the chance to chat with a young soldier in the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, I always asked them a slightly personal question.

“Are you an a-nyi?” I’d query, using the Ta’ang term for “second son”. More often than not, they’d look at me a bit surprised and reply: “How did you know?” while I hid a smile.

Around two-thirds of the more than two dozen fighters I spoke to were second sons. Finally, I started to ask some of the more senior TNLA leaders and generals. Compared to my other, more probing questions about the war, this topic hardly seemed sensitive. But the officers were typically perplexed by this line of questioning and would even begin debating among themselves whether soldiers they knew were second sons.

It’s well known that the TNLA has a strong mandatory service policy in their territories, where each family with at least two sons must provide one to the armed group. So, why so many second sons? Is it because second sons are less loved?

A few months after the military seized power in February 2021, the TNLA invited some journalists into their territory to show off their growing prowess and territorial control. At the time I was freelancing, but I travelled with another Frontier reporter who contributed rare on the ground coverage of a story most outlets were overlooking.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions and instability from clashes with the Restoration Council of Shan State, we ended up staying there far longer than originally anticipated – for six months in total. While there were times when we were impatient to get on with our reporting, it gave me a chance to wander around the Ta’ang villages by myself and get a better sense of local life.

Many areas where the Ta’ang people live aren’t easily accessible. Clouds smother the thickly forested mountains that zigzag across the horizon. The stunning views belie a tumultuous political landscape, filled with notorious stories of rogue militias, drug cartels and forced conscription.

One of the most abundant resources in Ta’ang villages is children. Whenever we arrived in a new settlement, the first thing we saw was crowds of children playing in the village streets. Boys grow up fast here, often being put to work at a young age to help their parents on the tea plantations, muscles rippling as they run up the steep mountain hills.

I became friends with an 11-year-old boy named A Thor, who lived in Lone Tauk village, in Namhsan Township. Every day, he and his friends would visit the house I was staying in, where we’d play and chat. Listening to them, I came to realise that the threat of forced conscription loomed large over them, and marked even their early childhood.

A Thor stood out from the group – he played rough and was disobedient, but I found him charming and endearingly trusting (and therefore easy to trick). He was almost as big as his older brother, who was 14, and together they would shoot down birds with a slingshot, then grill them.

As the second son, A Thor told me his parents had already decided he would have to serve in the TNLA when he came of age. His older brother was already working on the tea plantation with his parents, while his younger sister was a newborn.

“We will run away,” he told me. “I can work in a car repair shop after we run away.”

I nodded sadly, knowing it would be impossible for him to leave without his family, who would be unlikely to go along with such a plan. In Ta’ang lands, the future of many children is decided even before they are born.

Two brothers in a Ta’ang village in northern Shan’s Namhsam Township, seen in December 2021. The younger one will likely have to serve in the TNLA when he grows up. (Hein Thar | Frontier)

Born to die?

Forced conscription is nothing new in Myanmar, where civil war has been raging for decades, although the 2021 coup has intensified the conflict to new levels. For many years, young men and boys have been pressured or forced to join the military, its allied militias, or its ethnic armed opponents.

“It’s been over 60 years of conflict and there is no end in sight. Forced recruitment has already taken root and is even becoming a tradition in some ethnic regions, especially if you look at Shan, Kayin and Kachin states, where ethnic armed forces are powerful. You will see many children have no choice but to join an armed group, or their families will be in trouble,” said U Ye Tun, who represented northern Shan’s Hsipaw Township in the Pyithu Hluttaw for the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party from 2011 to 2016.

“But the scariest thing is, there’s no way out once you join the force. You must serve until you die. That’s different from conscription in stable countries.”

In other countries in the region with compulsory military service, like Singapore and South Korea, the service period typically lasts around two years. The TNLA has practiced some form of forced conscription since it was founded in 2009. But in February this year, after conquering large swathes of territory in northern Shan as part of Operation 1027 launched in late October, it released a formal explanation of its policy, which has been in place since 2017.

The group said it will conscript Ta’ang men aged 16-35 from any family with two or more sons, with exceptions for men with ill health or serving as monks. Ta’ang women with three or more siblings are also expected to serve. Exceptions are also made for families with a member serving in the “central committee in any Ta’ang civil society group”. The TNLA said it only obligates Ta’ang people to serve, but invites members of other ethnicities to join voluntarily.

A senior TNLA official, who asked to remain anonymous, acknowledged the unpopularity of the forced recruiting programme, and said it’s the one area where there’s friction between the TNLA and the people. But he insisted it’s necessary.

“The Ta’ang nation will only develop when the Ta’ang army is strong,” he said.

Since northern Shan is a flashpoint of armed conflict where several ethnic armed groups operate, children in the region can be forcibly conscripted by any number of forces, including the RCSS, Shan State Progress Party, Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. The official warned that if the TNLA wasn’t strong, Ta’ang people would be conscripted by other armed forces, so it’s better for them to join their own ethnic army.

The TNLA’s recruitment department keeps data for every household in the villages under its control, and as soon as a second son is recorded, they ask the family to name the son that will enter the army. According to TNLA soldiers I spoke to on the ground, if a recruit flees, like A Thor dreamed of, the department will take any other available male from the household – whether an underaged boy or a middle-aged father.

“People want to avoid going into the force for as long as possible. They only go at the last minute, or when they have no choice,” said 22-year-old Mai Aung Sar, a second son serving in the TNLA in Kutkai Township, who I spoke to over the phone in January and February.

His older brother works in Muse Township, on the Myanmar-China border, sending back money to support their parents.

“When I first joined, I was really depressed and always wanted to go home. But I saw how many young men and women were here to perform their national duty, and I decided I must also participate in founding a liberated Ta’ang State. I try to stay happy with that mindset,” he said.

Mai Aung Sar said different families have different philosophies on who to send, with some sending the black sheep, like alcoholics or deadbeats. But families are increasingly sending their best and brightest in an attempt to contribute to the Ta’ang cause, but also hoping that the more accomplished recruits will be sent to officer training rather than the front lines.

It’s daunting for parents to decide which son to send to the army, and to a potential early death. Most families make this decision when their children are still babies, as they need to provide a name to the recruitment department as soon as it records the second son’s birth.

For A Thor’s mother, Lway Shwe*, it was a matter of simple practicality.

“I need to keep one son to help with the housework, and the eldest son is already doing that, so I thought to send my second son,” she told Frontier in 2021.

TNLA troops parade at a ceremony in Tangyang marking Ta’ang National Revolution Day on January 12, 2022. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

A way out

But Lway Shwe has another plan in mind to save her second son.

“It’s really important to me that he gets a good education,” she insisted. “If my son is not properly educated, he won’t be given a good rank in the army, and will probably be sent to the front lines.”

Schools shuttered across Myanmar in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but unlike in other countries, many remain closed due to continued instability and widespread rejection of the public services provided by the regime. Many parents have worried about the effect this will have on their children’s development, but for kids like A Thor, it could be a matter of life or death.

Lway Shwe’s concerns echoed those of many Ta’ang families. As a poor farmer, she can hardly afford to send all her children to school, so she’s decided only A Thor would go. But even then, her options are limited. Whenever we met in 2021, she’d ask me about affordable schools or monasteries where her son could get a good education, and I could feel her concern and love for her second son.

Ashin Takkha Nyanna, a prominent Ta’ang monk based in Kyaukme Township, said many families send their children to monastic education in the bigger towns and cities to evade conscription for as long as they can, and with the hope they could serve as officers.

“If you look at the monasteries in Yangon and Mandalay, you will always see young novice Ta’ang monks and nuns, we used to joke about that. There are no monasteries without the Ta’ang,” he said during a phone interview in February.

Takkha Nyanna helped found the Ta’ang National Education Committee, which claims to run more than 420 schools serving over 25,000 students in TNLA territory. He said the TNLA is trying hard to fill the education void, but due to continued instability many children are still heading to monasteries in the big cities.

Meanwhile, the post-coup conflict has brought the reality of life in Myanmar’s troubled borderlands to the once peaceful Bamar heartland. For perhaps the first time, many parents in central Myanmar are worrying about their children being forcibly conscripted – something parents like Lway Shwe have lived with for many years.

This month, the junta sent shockwaves through the country when it announced its own plan to draft some 50,000 people per year to serve in its forces, as it faces unprecedented resistance across the country. The development has sent many young people scrambling for the exits, with an uptick in Myanmar nationals arrested while crossing the border to Thailand, while others contemplate joining anti-regime armed groups.

I reconnected with Lway Shwe a few days ago, catching up after three years of no contact. I was happy to hear A Thor is studying at a monastery in Mandalay city, where she hopes he can get a decent education.

“I’ll be grateful even if he can just read and write and learns some basic English and maths,” she said, although his fate remains sealed. “At least if he gets some education, he won’t be a low-ranking foot soldier.”

*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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