Locals in southern Shan State report forced recruitment into Pa-O militia

Locals claim that a militia operating under the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO) has been forcibly recruiting members from villages across multiple southern Shan State townships to fight against anti-junta resistance groups. 

The military started a series of renewed assaults on southern Shan State in April, searching for guerrilla fighters and their bases. Armed forces operating under the PNO have been described by the resistance as fighting alongside the Myanmar army during clashes in the region, an allegation which the PNO has denied. 

Anti-coup guerrilla groups have, since early this year, been active in Aung Ban, Kalaw, Nyaungshwe, Pindaya, Taunggyi and Ywangan townships in collaboration with defence forces based in neighbouring Karenni (Kayah) State. 

Conscription into a PNO-aligned militia has allegedly been taking place in these areas since May, as well as in the townships of Lawksawk, Loilem, Mawkmai and Namsang, and the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone in Hsihseng, Hopong and Pinlaung. 

Members of local resistance forces have gone as far as to accuse the PNO of forming chapters of the military-backed Pyu Saw Htee in the region: militias of plainclothes junta allies typically trained and armed by Myanmar’s military council, which have been implicated in brutal assaults on villages in central and northwestern Myanmar.

PNO members seen near Pekhon Lake in August 2021 (PNO)

‘Money and men’

Locals described to Myanmar Now scenarios in which militia members affiliated with the PNO had arrived in their villages and demanded financial contributions as well as setting a quota of men to enlist in their forces. 

One source said that the militia carried out such an attempt in Hopong Township’s Yankin village in early May, calling for 13 villagers to join their group and a payment of 30,000 kyat (US$16) from each household at a time in which many families in the region have little to no income. 

The recruits were reportedly selected at random through a drawing in which every man under the age of 45 was required to submit his name. 

Those who were chosen but did not want to serve were required to sign a contract stating that they would find a replacement, the local source explained.

“It’s very hard for people who are poor, as they are asking for not only money but also men,” he said, adding that larger villages were required to put forward as many as 15 men. 

The militia also reportedly called a meeting of administrators from at least 20 communities in Nang Toke village tract in Pinlaung Township on June 15 to discuss plans to form smaller chapters, according to another local who attended the event. 

“They said during the meeting that the purpose [of the recruitment] was not to fight in other regions but to protect one’s own village,” the individual said. 

Five men from Nang Toke were allegedly selected to undergo one month of combat training, after which they would be required to teach other villagers to fight.

Another local from neighbouring Pin Som said that youth in his village were opposed to their mandated involvement in the militia. 

“They don’t agree with this at all. They don’t even want to stay in this community anymore,” he explained, adding that some were planning to seek work across the border in Thailand to avoid conscription. 

He confirmed that recruiters had demanded the payment of 30,000 kyat from every family in his village tract and that it had caused significant financial hardship. 

“There are some families that couldn’t pay that amount of money. They had to borrow from the village’s own funds to pay it off,” he said.

When contacted by Myanmar Now, PNO officer Lt-Col Khun Aung Than admitted to having asked for financial contributions from locals. 

“We need money to protect our own villages,” he said, but did not elaborate.

Concerning the allegations of forced recruitment, he stated that it was mandatory for men between the ages of 18 and 35 to undergo combat training and learn martial arts. 

PNO patron Aung Kham Hti is seen meeting with military chief Min Aung Hlaing in early 2020 (Junta-controlled media)

Allegations of collaboration

The Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) and its allies have told Myanmar Now that the PNO has been seen fighting alongside the junta forces during battles. 

Accompanied by the Pekhon People’s Defence Force and other local guerrilla groups, in early May the KNDF attacked a military outpost near Hti Ri village in Nyaungshwe, near the township border with Pekhon. They reported that the location was manned by both junta and PNO personnel, and that some 15 troops were killed and five taken prisoner. 

The PNO’s Lt-Col Khun Aung Than rejected the allegation that his group was collaborating with the military, but did not deny the presence of PNO members at the outpost. 

“It is true that we were with the military personnel as it is inside our territory. We have never trespassed into anyone’s territory but we will attack whoever trespasses into ours,” he said. 

The PNO was founded in 1949 but was restructured into a militia after its leadership signed a ceasefire with an earlier junta in 1991. It is currently headed by Aung Kham Hti, who is known to have close ties to the military. 

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