Myanmar youths go into hiding to avoid getting forced into battle

Junta forms committee to implement conscription law.
By RFA Burmese
2024.02.14
Myanmar youths go into hiding to avoid getting forced into battle Soldiers march during a parade for Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2023.
AFP

With Myanmar’s junta plowing ahead toward a full-scale draft, young men say they are staying indoors to avoid getting dragooned into the army to fight in a war in which the military is losing ground and men.

Most youths have no desire to fight – for the junta or the armed resistance, said a 22-year-old Mandalay resident who asked not to be identified. 

“We have no choice as the junta is cornering us to join the army,” he said. “Now we don’t dare to go out – day or night. There are a lot of abductions [for forced recruitment], so I’m worried. My friends say they will join the [resistance] but I don’t know what to do, since I can’t fight.”

With recent rapid advances by ethnic armies People’s Defense Force, or PDF, militias of civilians who have taken up arms against the junta, the military appears to be on the defensive as hundreds of soldiers have surrendered.

Junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing announced on Feb. 10 that the People’s Military Service Law, enacted in 2010 by a previous military regime, would go into effect immediately. On Tuesday night, the junta announced the formation of a committee to oversee the conscription process.

But reports suggest that the military and pro-junta militias are already rounding up as many able bodies as they can with the goal of forcing recruits to undergo simple training, putting weapons in their hands, and dumping them onto the battlefield.

Eligible citizens have told RFA Burmese that they would rather join the armed resistance or flee Myanmar than fight for the junta, which seized control of the country in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat.

One young resident of Yangon told RFA he would likely be killed if he is forced to join the military.

“I don’t want to join and my friends feel the same, but … we can’t resist because they have weapons,” he said. “So, we have to take the training they’ll give us and if I get a chance, I will go to the liberated areas [controlled by anti-junta forces].”

The ‘right’ to defend the country

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told military-controlled media on Tuesday that the national conscription law provides every citizen “the right” to receive military training to defend the country, and urged people not to be concerned because they wouldn’t immediately be sent to fight.

“Just like us professional soldiers, you have to carry out national defense duties only after undertaking proper military training,” he said.

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A parade of the 78th anniversary of the Armed Forces Day which on March 27, 2023. (AFP)

According to Myanmar’s compulsory military service law, men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 face up to five years in prison if they refuse to serve for two years.

Professionals – such as doctors, engineers and technicians – aged 18-45 for men and 18-35 for women must also serve, but up to five years, given the country’s current state of emergency, extended by the junta on Feb. 1 for another six months.

According to the 2019 census, there are 6.3 million men and 7.7 million women – totaling nearly 14 million people – who are eligible for military service in Myanmar, Zaw Min Tun said Tuesday. The number is equivalent to just over one-quarter of Myanmar’s population of 54 million.

He added that parents “don’t need to worry” because there are more than 3,000 wards and 60,000 villages across the country, “so only one or two persons per ward need to join the military.”

Zaw Min Tun’s comments did little to sooth the concerns of Yangon resident Wai Lwin Oo, whose 23-year-old son is eligible for the draft.

“Parents are extremely concerned,” he said. “There are only two options and as a parent, the last thing I want to do is tell my children which path to choose … There are no parents who are amenable [to the conscription law].”

Round-ups underway

Residents of Yangon and Mandalay told RFA that since the military service law was announced on Feb. 10, young people are nowhere to be seen in the city after 8 p.m.

Additionally, RFA received reports on Wednesday that at least 25 young people from Ngwe Than Win Ward in Yangon region’s Thanlyin township had been rounded up for conscription by joint forces of the junta and pro-junta militias conducting house-to-house inspections since Monday.

The following day, at least 10 others were taken into custody from Thanlyin’s Darga ward, according to Private Sanda, an official with the local People’s Defense Force.

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Southwestern commander Brig. Gen. Wai Lin meets with members of militia from some townships of the Ayeyarwady region on Sept. 22, 2023. (Myanmar Military)

RFA also received reports on Wednesday that the junta has been recruiting residents of five townships in Myanmar’s southwestern Ayeyarwady region for military training using a raffle drawing since January.

Residents said that whoever is selected in the raffle in Kyonpyaw, Myanaung, Kyangin, Kyaiklat and Mawlamyinegyun townships and refuses to join the military is being made to pay up to 1 million kyats (US$475).

A lawmaker, who declined to be named, said that the junta is targeting Ayeyarwady because the region is firmly under its control, adding that the military has a “very high demand for soldiers” because its troops are “surrendering, fleeing into other countries, and dying” on the frontlines.

Attempts by RFA to reach junta officials for comment on the reported round-ups went unanswered Wednesday.

‘Human shields’ on the battlefield

Zaw Min Tun, the junta spokesman, has been cited in media reports as saying that the conscription law will be put into practice after the traditional Thingyan New Year holidays in April, and 5,000 conscripts will be called up in each round. No further details have been provided.

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, or NUG, responded to the junta’s announcement of the formation of the Central Committee for Militia Recruitment on Tuesday with a statement urging people not to comply with the conscription law.

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Members of the local militia group attend training in Htone Gyi village of Mandalay region’s Singu township are seen on Jan. 22, 2024. (Soe Khtt)

Nay Phone Latt, the spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office of the NUG, told RFA that the shadow government is making preparations to assist young people who do not want to join the military, if they flee to the liberated areas.

“The revolutionary forces and we, the NUG, have already liberated more than 44 townships, and there are also ethnic areas [outside of junta control],” he said. “If people come to these areas, we are already preparing plans on how to cooperate in helping and protecting them.”

Nay Phone Latt said that, in the face of a growing number of military defeats, the junta is applying the conscription law because it wants to “legalize its abduction of people to use as forced labor or human shields on the frontlines.”  

In addition to announcing the formation of the Central Committee for Militia Recruitment on Tuesday, the junta also said it had enacted the Reserve Force Act, which would allow it to recall retired and demobilized military personnel to serve for up to five years.

Those who refuse face a prison term of up to three years, the announcement said.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw and Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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