Rohingya forced to fight alongside Myanmar army tormentors


KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh (AFP): Rohingya mother Sofura Begum has spent years in a squalid refugee camp after fleeing Myanmar. Now her teenage son has been taken to fight alongside the troops that put her there.

Militant Rohingya groups in Bangladesh have forcibly recruited hundreds of young Rohingya men and boys to battle the Arakan Army, a rebel outfit in neighbouring Myanmar that has won a string of victories against the junta there.

Those sent to fight are making common cause with the military that drove 750,000 members of the persecuted Muslim minority from their homes and into Bangladesh in a 2017 crackdown now the subject of an ongoing UN genocide court case.

In their recruitment drive, militants say Rohingya need to ally with old enemies in the Myanmar army to face a new threat.

But the families of those dragooned into combat say that their relatives were not given a choice.

"They told us to hand him over," Begum, 30, told AFP after her 15-year-old son Abdul was picked up by armed men from her home.

"They threatened us... They said it's our war of faith. I didn't want my son to join the war. But we are in a dangerous situation."

AFP spoke with six families who said men from their household had been forcibly recruited by three Rohingya armed groups with an established presence in the refugee camps.

One man, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said his 20-year-old son had been taken by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and sent across the border to fight.

"I learned that he was injured in the war," the man said.

"It's shameful my son was forcibly recruited... Every day our people are being picked up."

- 'Slaughtered our people' -

Myanmar's military has lost vast swathes of territory this year to an advance by the Arakan Army, one of several rebel groups battling the junta that took power in a 2021 coup.

The Arakan Army says it is fighting for more autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine population in the state, which is also home to around 600,000 Rohingya who remained after the 2017 crackdown.

This month the rebel outfit took control of Buthidaung, a Rohingya-majority town not far from Bangladesh.

Several Rohingya diaspora groups said in a statement that fighters forced Rohingya to flee, then looted and burned their homes -- claims the Arakan Army called "propaganda".

Another armed group in the Bangladesh camps, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), said it had recruited refugees to fight.

"The Arakan Army has tortured and slaughtered our people," Ko Ko Linn, the RSO's political chief, told AFP.

"Their only policy is the extermination of the Rohingya community," he added. "So we are recruiting Rohingyas regularly, giving them military training."

Ko Ko Linn would not say if other groups had forcibly recruited people.

But Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha accused three groups -- RSO, ARSA and the Arakan Rohingya Army (ARA) -- of recruiting Rohingya from Bangladesh.

He said the conscripts were taken for training in a Myanmar army base, before "fighting alongside" the junta's forces.

With mobile and internet networks down across swathes of Rakhine state it is difficult to assess how any cooperation between Rohingya groups and the junta is playing out on the battlefield.

- 'Lied from the beginning' -

A senior UN staffer and a rights group official, both speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said Rohingya armed groups had recruited "hundreds" of refugees in Bangladesh.

Rohingya armed groups working in concert with the military have recruited hundreds more men and boys in Myanmar itself.

Myanmar officially regards the Rohingya as interlopers from Bangladesh, despite roots in the country stretching back centuries.

Successive governments there have subjected the minority to decades of persecution, including a 2015 decision to cease recognising their citizenship.

Thomas Kean of the International Crisis Group think tank told AFP that children as young as 14 had been pressed into battle against their will.

But he added that it appeared a small number of Rohingya had signed on to fight voluntarily after being promised "wages and even citizenship" by Myanmar's junta.

After significant battlefield losses against rebel groups since last year, Myanmar's junta activated a dormant conscription law in February to bolster its armed forces.

One Rohingya man in Buthidaung, who asked not to be identified, told AFP his brother had been "beaten and abducted by ARSA" and taken to serve alongside the military.

He said that the junta's representatives had said at first that the recruits were being trained as a militia to defend Rohingya villages. - AFP

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