Fleeing conscription, over 160 Myanmar nationals in custody at Thai borders

RFA staff
Fleeing conscription, over 160 Myanmar nationals in custody at Thai borders People walk across a bridge from Myanmar at a border crossing station into Wa Le, Thailand, Feb. 22, 2024.

Thai officials have arrested 167 people fleeing Myanmar since the country enacted its conscription laws, a migrant assistance organization told Radio Free Asia.

From Feb. 12 to 20, dozens of Myanmar nationals have been arrested in Thailand on its southern and western borders, said Moe Kyo, who runs the Joint Action Committee on Burmese Affairs based in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. 

“It would even exceed that number. In reality, there are cases of arrests occurring in places that remain inaccessible to us,” he said, citing a nationwide network of organizations sharing information about arrests.

Since junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing announced the enforcement of the People’s Military Service Law on Feb. 10, people in Myanmar have been scrambling to avoid conscription into the regime’s army through both official and unofficial routes. 

A narrow stream separates Thailand and Myanmar in Wa Le, Feb. 22, 2024. [RFA]

Citizens have flocked to passport offices and embassies nationwide, while mass arrests of young people have caused panic, despite junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Htun’s pledge that recruitment would not begin until April. 

The law would recruit some 50,000 people a year, with prison time if they refuse to cooperate. Women between the ages of 18 and 27 and men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve two years, while highly skilled professionals ages 18 to 45 are required to serve five years. 

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin issued a statement on Monday saying people entering the country illegally would be prosecuted, adding that security agencies have been alerted to the issue. 

On Sunday, 20 migrants were arrested in two locations near the border, aid worker Moe Kyo said. One group was discovered in Tha Song Yang district of Tak province.

“Thai authorities stopped and inspected a vehicle at a checkpoint. They discovered 13 undocumented Myanmar nationals inside,” he said. “It is also noted that those individuals had paid 15,000 Thai baht (US$418) to the brokers for their journey.”

Others have been arrested in Ranong, Songkhla, and Chumphon provinces in Thailand’s south. 

Desperate to Escape

Thailand’s Ratchamanu task force, based in Tak, arrested two groups totaling more than 54 people from Feb. 14 to 16 near the border town of Wa Le. The porous border area is 57 km. (35 miles) south of the official Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing. 

Task Force Commander Col. Nattakorn Reuntib told RFA, a news service affiliated with BenarNews, that 249 Myanmar nationals, including 13 brokers, were arrested in five border districts from Feb. 1 to 21 in Tak. He declined to comment on the impact of conscription laws, but said the number had increased from 183 people arrested in the entire month of January. 

A woman and her son stand in front of a border checkpoint in Wa Le, Thailand, Feb. 22, 2024. [RFA]

All 27 people in one group were between the ages of 20 and 29, he said, telling Thai media they fled because of conscription laws. 

“Many of them came via south Wa Le village. After being arrested, they would be deported through Mae Sot,” said an officer at Phop Pra police station who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. 

“There have been many coming this way in recent weeks. We understand them, they need a job and security.”

Organizations focused on migrant rights said the Thai government needs to seriously consider humane solutions for people fleeing conscription as systems become overwhelmed.

A house in Myanmar stands just meters from the border in Wa Le, Thailand, Feb. 22, 2024. [RFA]

The Thai Embassy of Myanmar announced a 400-person per day limit as its office quickly became overwhelmed, and Chiang Mai’s Buddhist University stated it would no longer accept applicants from Myanmar, citing an overwhelming number of applications. 

“I think it's a dangerous situation because we’ve also seen previous incidents where brokers were smuggling migrants and then there was a police chase ending in a car crash with people dying, so I can only hope that doesn’t happen in the future,” said Brahm Press, director of the Migrant Assistance Program in Thailand.

“I’m sure that whatever systems are in place that migrants had previously been using are going to be further overwhelmed.”


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