Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh Pressured to Join Myanmar’s Civil War

Dayna Santana Pérez | 30 June 2024
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Rohingya youth in refugee camps in Bangladesh face intimidation and forced recruitment by gangs, coercing them to join the very army that uprooted them.

After the midday prayers on a hot Wednesday, Hussain* was summoned by an armed group to a “community meeting” in his block within the world’s largest refugee settlement.

“They want us to go and fight in Myanmar,” Hussain said. “They are gathering all the young men in the Rohingya community and forcing them to join the Myanmar military against the Arakan Army.”

“We don’t want to go, but they are threatening us daily. It is more terrifying than ever to be in camp right now.”

Since May 15, armed Rohingya nationalist groups have been holding community meetings throughout the 33-camp refugee settlement in Bangladesh, intensifying efforts to recruit young Rohingya males for military service in Myanmar, targeting boys as young as 14.

“The situation deteriorates by the day,” said Mahmudul*, a Rohingya humanitarian worker living in Kutupalong Camp. 

“The gang conducts arrests around the clock, targeting anyone, particularly volunteer workers from our community, such as teachers and humanitarian aid workers. They have been organizing meetings in every camp for this purpose.”

Since 2021, following the military’s seizure of power through a coup, Myanmar has been embroiled in a brutal civil war, resulting in the loss of thousands of civilian lives. As 2023 saw a steady increase in fighting between the military junta and ethnic armed groups and resistance forces, the Myanmar junta has sought recruits from the Rohingya population it has persecuted and denied citizenship to for decades. 

“Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, already facing immense hardship, are now targeted for forced recruitment by the military through their proxies,” said HtwayLwin, a Rohingya human rights activist and community leader based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Several young men have fled the camp to evade recruitment, while others have relocated to the shelters of family and friends located in the Registered Refugee Camp settlement, which is purportedly facing fewer gang-related activities.

“Women and men stay awake at night, remaining alert as they fear their sons will be taken and forced to fight in Myanmar,” said Mohammed Younus* of Camp 4. 

The Diplomat documented four cases of forced recruitment and interviewed 19 Rohingya residents of Kutupalong Camp in Bangladesh. Family members of those recruited reported that their loved ones were taken from the camp and transported to Rakhine State. Similar accounts of forced recruitment have been documented by AFP.

One brother of a recruited young male shared that he has been in contact with his brother, who says he has started military training in Rakhine State to fight against the Arakan Army. 

“There are many people whose family members were taken forcibly and still there is no news of them. Their parents have been looking for them everywhere but there is no news,” said KyawMyint Aung* of Camp 4.

“Some say that they are now in Myanmar and undergoing military training. Others say they are in the Bandarban district of Bangladesh, near the border with Myanmar.”

Over 500 Rohingya refugees have reportedly been pressured by armed groups to join the ongoing war in Myanmar since May, according to Radio Free Asia, a regional news service. 

Those who refuse recruitment and assistance to the junta in Rakhine State face beatings and, in some instances, fatal consequences. Other sources share accounts of family members who refused recruitment attempts being detained and then forcefully taken to Myanmar to fight.

Forced recruitment has profoundly affected the lives of Rohingya in Kutupalong Camp, exacerbating their already dire circumstances.

Many Rohingya working with humanitarian organizations cannot go to work due to the high risk, shared Samina Islam*, a humanitarian worker living in the Rohingya Registered Refugee Camp. Samina said the armed groups have also been setting fires in some camps to intimidate the community. 

“People are now afraid to leave home,” says Samina Islam, “We can’t sleep well and there are often gunshots heard after dark… The gangs take people mostly at night, but sometimes during the daytime too, so we can never feel safe.”

The armed groups are pitching recruitment to fight the Arakan Army using promises of citizenship and coercion through threats of abduction, beatings, and repercussions on one’s family. 

In Rakhine State, where coerced recruitment of Rohingya men has been ongoing since February, the junta government has failed to provide citizenship cards to any Rohingya military recruits, despite their earlier promises to do so.

The factions driving recruitment in the camp say that the Rohingya must forge alliances with the Myanmar army, an old enemy, to confront the new threat of the Arakan Army.

Nearly 1 million people live in the Cox’s Bazar camps, according to the United Nations. Recent accounts from the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar echo reports of coerced recruitment akin to those witnessed this year in Rakhine State, perpetrated by Rohingya nationalist groups. 

Over 1,000 Rohingya men in Rakhine State, Myanmar have been abducted and forcibly recruited by the Myanmar military to fight on its behalf against the Arakan Army (AA), an insurgent force. Rohingya men and their family members have faced beatings and arrest after refusing to comply with conscription and undertake military training to support the junta’s conflict in Rakhine State. To evade recruitment efforts, over 100,000 young men have fled their homes. 

The junta is applying a conscription law to recruit Rohingya young men to assist with their internal conflicts with other ethnic groups. However the law only applies to citizens of Myanmar, and is therefore violating international human rights law when applied to the Rohingya population – as the Rohingya have been denied citizenship in the country since the 1982 Citizenship Law was enacted.

“Myanmar’s military, which has committed atrocities against the Rohingya for decades while denying them citizenship, is now forcing them to fight on its behalf,” said Shayna Bauchner of Human Rights Watch.

Noor Kolima, a human rights defender residing in Kutupalong Camp, said the forced recruitment of youth for the Myanmar military is impacting all Rohingya residing in the camps in Bangladesh. Noor reports that the deteriorating situation is leaving Rohingya youth feeling increasingly unsafe.

Rohingya refugees interviewed for this story and reports from other news outlets accuse three armed groups – the Rohingya Salvation Organization (RSO), the ArakanRohingya Army (ARA),  andArakanRohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – of coordinating recruitment efforts through widespread intimidation, threats of violence, and abduction. 

Gangs lack broad support among Rohingya in the camps, leading to escalating conflict between residents and gang members.

Mahmudul said that in many instances, residents of entire blocks, including women and children, have confronted armed RSO members in an effort to protect the young men in their families. 

Fires involving shelters and offices within Kutupalong Camp have been reported and verified. Many in Kutupalong allege that the fire outbreaks are a deliberate response to the unrest within camp, as the situation is pitting the armed groups against the wider Rohingya community, resulting in retribution and retaliation efforts. 

Suspicions and allegations that Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion is complicit in gang recruitment activities were widespread among interviewed Rohingya refugees. Rumors allege the Bangladeshi police are turning a blind eye to the violent and intimidating activities of the groups, failing to arrest the perpetrators, and even facilitating movement of Rohingya youth to the Myanmar border.

Gang violence between the RSO, ARA, and ARSA  is also increasing, adding to insecurity. The groups are in conflict, battling for control over different camps within the settlement. 

On June 10, a violent conflict erupted in Camp 4, resulting in the death of three RSO members at the hands of ARSA members.

The constant threat of abduction or violence has created a climate of fear and insecurity within the camps. The highly stressful environment is taking a significant toll on the community’s daily life, and physical and mental wellbeing.

Families are often compelled to act as unofficial security in their own blocks, staying vigilant to protect their loved ones. Guards have been hired in some blocks to maintain watch for threats to young men and adolescent boys in the camp.

MHM KolimUllah* from Camp 14 expressed, “The feeling of extreme stress and tension within the camp now makes it impossible for us to feel safe or envision a future.”

“I am always in danger,” said KyawMyint Aung, “There is no safety, no security… Now the refugee camp is like hell for innocent refugees.”

Dayna Santana Pérez is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney and humanitarian program director.

This article was originally published on The Diplomat.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.