Myanmar junta’s move to enforce military conscription fuels fear and defiance among young people

BANGKOK – Yangon has been spared the worst of the armed conflict between the Myanmar military and resistance forces set off by the 2021 coup, but life for young people in the city may become more precarious after the junta on Feb 10 announced it was enforcing national conscription. 

According to the recently activated law, all men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 will now have to serve in the military, and those with specialist expertise may be conscripted even if they are older. Those who evade conscription can be jailed three to five years.

Full details on how conscription will be carried out are not available.

“I am afraid,” Ms Su, a 26-year-old private school teacher, told The Straits Times. “I could be arrested and forced to serve in the military. I am trying to avoid staying out late and travelling in general. But it is not always possible because I have to work late.”

Ms Su, who declined to give her full name for security reasons, said: “I want to go abroad by any means.”

While forced recruitment has been practised by some ethnic armed groups that have battled the Myanmar military before the coup, this is the first time the State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta calls itself, has activated the conscription law, which was enacted in 2010.

In justifying the decision, junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said it is every citizen’s duty to unite against what the regime calls terrorists.

Analysts, however, believe the move was triggered by the military’s unprecedented losses in the north of the country since a surprise October 2023 offensive by resistance forces.

“The military really needs new recruits because they had had many losses, defections and desertions over the past three years,” Mr Min Zin, executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, told ST. “At its peak, it had 200,000 troops. Now it has dwindled to 75,000.”

Young people ST spoke to have responded to the announcement with a mixture of defiance and ridicule, as well as deep anxiety and disillusionment.

A 29-year-old entrepreneur in Yangon, who asked to be known only as Mr Paing, said: “I don’t know what to do. Should I continue to live here or should I continue to study? Where should I run to? Should I join the revolution forces?

“I am worried that my parents will be affected if I run away. I am lost and unhappy and depressed.”

“I think that if they send a conscription letter to my house, I would either run away or join with revolution forces,” he added, using the term that anti-coup groups call the resistance.

A 32-year-old dentist who wanted to be known only as Mr Zaw also said he would consider taking up arms against the junta if he was conscripted.

Mr Amara Thiha, a researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo, thinks that random conscription is unlikely to happen soon.

He said the regime was simply putting in a legal framework to incorporate existing pro-junta militia into the formal forces.

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