People hold a Pa-O flag as they release balloons attached with fireworks during the Tazaungdaing Festival in Taunggyi in southern Shan State. (AFP)

‘They are preparing for war’: Forced recruiting by Pa-O militia in Shan

Pa-O residents say a military-aligned militia is increasingly relying on compulsory conscription and extortion to build up its forces as Myanmar’s post-coup conflict penetrates deeper into southern Shan State.

By FRONTIER

About 500 young men and women in military uniforms marched in formation, guns in hand, chanting slogans in the Pa-O language. Up on a stage, officers looked down on the parade.

The video posted to Facebook showed the latest graduation ceremony of the Pa-O National Army, armed wing of the Pa-O National Organisation, which has been allied closely with the Myanmar military since both sides signed a ceasefire in 1991. The event took place on February 10 in the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone of southern Shan State, where the PNO maintains tight control.

Residents say this was the seventh such ceremony since May last year, with 4,000 new recruits trained in that time. However, they alleged that those in the parade were not participating out of fervent Pa-O nationalism but because they had been forcibly recruited from within the Pa-O SAZ townships of Hopong, Pinlaung and Hsi Hseng, as well as areas of neighbouring townships like Taunggyi and Nyaung Shwe that have large Pa-O populations.

“At first we heard they collected people from Pinlaung and Taunggyi townships. Then our village head told us the PNO had instructed him to send residents for military training,” said Ko Tun Zaw*, a 28-year-old who fled his family farm in Hopong Township last year to avoid recruitment. “He said people under the age of 35 had to attend the training. If I had stayed at home, I would surely have had to go.”

Three days after the visit from the village headman, Tun Zaw escaped to Taungoo Township in eastern Bago Region. There he works at a friend’s shop while planning to move to Thailand, because he is still too scared to go home. He said his parents had to pay a one-time fee of K30,000 (around U$15) and a sack of rice to the PNO.

“Most of them don’t want to attend military training,” said Ma Poe Chi*, an NGO worker and Hopong resident. “They have to do it because the PNO forced them.”

She said the PNO has escalated its practice of forced recruiting and tax collection in its territory since July last year, typically demanding K30,000 and a young male from each family.

PNO officials acknowledged they are enlisting soldiers and collecting taxes but denied this was tantamount to forced recruitment, arguing that the recruitment drive was necessary to provide security for Pa-O villages amid a growing civil war.

“In the beginning, soldiers were recruited from the villages. Now we are asking people who use drugs to take a military combat training course to help them get clean,” said Ta Khok Kham, a PNO member in Hopong. 

After the February 2021 coup and violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, armed resistance to military rule took root across the country, with young pro-democracy fighters allying with more established ethnic armed groups. In Shan, which has more ethnic armed groups than any other state or region, some of these groups have clashed with the military and trained new resistance forces. Other powerful groups, like the United Wa State Army or Restoration Council of Shan State, have instead regularly met with junta officials while continuing to observe ceasefires.

As in some other areas, many Pa-O youths have broken with their elders since the coup and formed new anti-junta armed groups, rather than joining the ranks of a military collaborator. These new resistance groups have watched the PNO’s recent recruitment drive with alarm.

“They are preparing for war,” said Khun Thiha Htoo Zaw, a spokesperson for the Pa-O National Defence Force, which was formed after the coup to fight the military regime.

Screen capture from a video of a recent Pa-O National Army graduation ceremony. (Facebook | San Aung)

Buying compliance

Pa-O uprisings against the central government began shortly after independence in 1948, with various armed factions emerging, sometimes riven by internal schisms. The PNO emerged as one prominent faction, but in exchange for signing a ceasefire in 1991, its leaders were granted lucrative jade and gem mining concessions. Over the following decades, the group’s business empire grew to include transport and tourism enterprises, including a prominent resort on Inle Lake. 

Despite retaining an armed wing that is officially a militia under Tatmadaw command, the PNO is also a registered political party and has dominated successive elections in the Pa-O SAZ. 

Cooperation with the military has only deepened since the coup. In February of this year, Pa-O SAZ chairman Khun San Lwin was appointed to the State Administration Council, the executive body of the military junta. Khun Aung Kham Hti, the PNO’s veteran leader, was awarded the honorary title of Wunna Kyawhtin by military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in April last year, while pro-military monk Sitagu Sayadaw paid a visit to his home in May.

“We don’t accept the military coup, but [PNO leaders] work together with the military,” Poe Chi said. “They accept it and don’t even hide it… They stand on the opposite side of the Pa-O people. We believe that if the military asks, the PNO will do anything.”

Khok Kham declined to comment on how PNO’s business interests had been affected by the coup. However, in November last year, the same social media account that broadcast the graduation shared a video showing an antimony mining block in Hopong controlled by the powerful PNO-backed Ruby Dragon Group of Companies. Company chair Khun Nay Win Tun, a former member of parliament, is seen in PNO military uniform explaining how local communities can benefit from the mining industry.

But Pa-O people interviewed by Frontier insist they don’t receive any benefits from the PNO’s businesses. 

“They said this is for us, but the benefits never reach the people,” Poe Chi said. “Now that commodity prices are rising, livelihoods are at risk. Many Pa-O are going to work in Thailand.”

Thiha Htoo Zaw agreed. “The PNO is only working for the interests of the top leaders,” he said.

Members of the Pa-O National Organisation at a rally in the Shan State capital Taunggyi in 2015. (Frontier)

‘A thorn in the side of revolutionary forces’

Before the coup, the PNO was believed to have around 200-300 soldiers, recruiting fighters only to replenish its ranks.

“This is the first time I have seen such a large-scale recruitment of soldiers by the PNO,” said Khun Tin Maung*, a former welfare worker from Pinlaung who now works as a tea leaf farmer.

Locals have little doubt about why this is happening.

In May last year, the People’s Defence Force-Pekhon and Karenni Nationalities Defence Force reportedly attacked a joint camp belonging to the PNO and Tatmadaw near Hti Ree village in Nyaung Shwe Township. The resistance groups said they killed 15 enemy troops, including a Tatmadaw major, and captured five more, including three PNO fighters.

The KNDF primarily operates in Kayah State, south of Shan , while the PDF–Pekon is active on the Shan-Kayah border. The attack in Hti Ree took place around 90 kilometres north of the state border, indicating the groups were penetrating deeper into Shan. This seemingly alarmed the PNO.

In July, Tin Maung said “the PNO held a meeting and made a decision”, after which PNO military officers “announced in the villages that people need to attend their military training”.

According to residents, the PNO ordered village elders to each choose 15 new recruits between the ages of 18 and 35, prompting an exodus of young people.

“Some of them went to work in cities elsewhere. Many people didn’t want to join,” Poe Chi said.

She said the PNO also began demanding money from residents. Each household was expected to pay a one-time fee of K30,000, but Poe Chi claimed the PNO also set up checkpoints on roads where its troops arbitrarily demand payment from travellers. She said her friend was stopped and forced to pay K50,000 for driving after 9pm.

“They do this when our living conditions are already tight, which just causes more hardship,” Poe Chi said.

Fighting has continued this year – on January 3, an anti-regime coalition known as the United Southern Shan Federal Union reportedly clashed with the military and PNO again in Nyaung Shwe.

“The PNO is a thorn in the side of the revolutionary forces in southern Shan State. If we want to attack the military, we need to fight PNO first,” said Thiha Htoo Zaw of the Pa-O National Defence Force. “If the PNO is doing what the military asks, they are our enemy. If they are our enemy, we must fight them.”

But civilians like Tin Maung worry this will lead to Pa-O people fighting and killing each other.

“The PNO recruited soldiers by force. The PDFs may misunderstand this. We don’t support the military council, but if the PNO forces us we have to go,” he said.

For people like Tun Zaw, who fled to Taungoo to avoid recruitment, the escalating tensions mean he can’t return home.

“If I went back to my village, I might still have to do military training. So, I’m trying to go to Thailand instead,” he said. “I miss my parents; they are very old now. If the PNO didn’t try to recruit me, I wouldn’t leave for Thailand. I could stay and work at my parents’ farm.”

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