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A young man avoids Myanmar's conscription service by fleeing to Thailand

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A civil war has torn apart Myanmar since a coup in 2021. The military rulers there are weakened after all that warfare, and they're now forcing young people into the military to replenish their depleted ranks. Many people are fleeing instead. Michael Sullivan caught up with one, an aspiring musician in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

KO NYAN: I have to tune.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: OK.

KO NYAN: (Tuning guitar).

SULLIVAN: Ko Nyan is a wiry 23-year-old with tattoos up and down both arms and a cross around his neck who says all he wanted was to be left alone at his home outside Yangon to play music.

KO NYAN: (Playing guitar).

SULLIVAN: Blues, mostly, and older rock and metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN BLACK")

SULLIVAN: He's playing for me in his dad's cramped and sweltering one-room place here in Mae Sot. It'd sound better, he says, apologetically, if he hadn't blown out his amp the day before. He played well enough, he says, to make a living back home.

KO NYAN: I play guitar and sing at, like, bar, restaurants and festival. And I have a band in Myanmar.

SULLIVAN: And the life he wanted. Then came his first run-in with the military in April 2021, after he joined the protests against the coup. He earned a six-month stint in Yangon's infamous and aptly named Insein Prison for his trouble - sent there after he, his mother and a few friends staying with them were found with a collection of anti-junta placards and Molotov cocktails.

KO NYAN: They told us, like, it's not about that long. After one week or two week, you can go back, they say. But wait - and we wait, we wait, we wait. And that's, like, six months.

SULLIVAN: A grim six months when COVID swept both the country and the prison.

KO NYAN: Like, I lost smell sense and, like, sick about a week. I can't do anything. I lay in my place about one week.

SULLIVAN: Did a doctor come and look at you or no?

KO NYAN: No. And we also - we didn't know the situation outside, that COVID - that everybody dies. We didn't know that.

SULLIVAN: There were about 80 people in a cell, he says, sleeping shoulder to shoulder. He doesn't know how many died, and nobody knows how many really died countrywide, with little to no access to vaccines or care or information from the tight-lipped junta. He and his mother were finally freed after six months, and he tried to go back to a quiet life and his music. But it was hard.

KO NYAN: It's, like, every time we see soldier, we got scared. And at night, we have to check outside. Is everything OK? Like, every night. I don't like that feeling.

SULLIVAN: But he chose to stay, mostly for his mom, he says. Then came the new conscription law back in February. The military said it needed 50,000 new soldiers to bolster its depleted ranks for its war against its own people. There was no way he was going to go, he says, and joining the resistance was out, too.

KO NYAN: I don't want to.

SULLIVAN: Fight.

KO NYAN: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: For anyone.

KO NYAN: For anyone. It's hard for me to kill somebody.

SULLIVAN: He arranged for a smuggler to take him to the border, like countless others fleeing conscription. But the trip was a harrowing one, and each checkpoint filled him with fear.

KO NYAN: They check our ID card every gate.

SULLIVAN: Many times?

KO NYAN: Many times. They ask, where are you going? Like, at that moment, I'm so scared, and I can't remember what to enter or something like that.

SULLIVAN: How many times did this happen?

KO NYAN: Like, about 20 or more.

SULLIVAN: But every time, the driver would pay a bribe to the soldiers to allow them to pass. Eventually, he made it to the Thai border and, around a month ago, crossed the narrow Moei River to freedom.

KO NYAN: I don't have to scare that anymore.

SULLIVAN: You don't have to be scared anymore.

KO NYAN: Yeah. I can do whatever I want to.

SULLIVAN: Not quite. Because he's not here legally, he can't get a real job. And like thousands of others, he's subject to regular shakedowns by Thai police or risks jail or deportation. But it's still far better, he says, than the alternative. And he still talks to his mother back in Myanmar daily and plays the blues, waiting for the day the military is toppled, and he and everyone else can go home.

KO NYAN: (Playing guitar).

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Mae Sot.

KO NYAN: (Playing guitar). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.