Young people scramble to leave Myanmar as military conscription looms

After a recent junta announcement on mandatory service, youths look for ways to get to Thailand.
By RFA Burmese
2024.02.15
Young people scramble to leave Myanmar as military conscription looms Visa applicants wait outside Thailand Embassy in Yangon’s Dagon township on Feb. 15, 2024.
(RFA)

Young people in Myanmar’s commercial capital are lining up outside the Thai embassy to apply for visas and looking for other ways to leave the country following an announcement from the junta regime that it will call up conscripts for mandatory military service.

Starting in April, about 5,000 people each month will be enrolled into the military to perform “national defense duties,” junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said in an interview with BBC Burmese.

Zaw Min Tun told several junta-affiliated newspapers on Thursday that as many as 50,000 men will be recruited this year into the military, which has suffered numerous battlefield defeats and large-scale surrenders in recent months.

In Yangon, young people have already started heading for the Thai border, which is about 420 km (260 miles) away, several residents told Radio Free Asia.

About 50 people – most of them young – had already formed a queue in front of the Thai embassy at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, one Yangon resident, who didn’t want to be named for security reasons, said to RFA. 

Additionally, young people riding on city buses are talking to each other about entering the Buddhist monkhood to avoid military service if they get out of the country, the Yangon resident said.

They all seemed deeply worried, he added.

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People approach the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon on Feb. 15, 2024. (RFA)

Because of the recent rush of visa applicants, the Thai embassy said in a statement on Wednesday that only 400 applicants would be accepted per day. 

Also, the Buddhist University in Thailand’s city of Chiang Mai, which has an affordable tuition fee, announced Wednesday that it is no longer accepting applicants from Myanmar because it had already received too many applications.

‘They have lost their way’

A poor job market and the turmoil of the ongoing civil war had already made it very difficult for young people to build a life for themselves in the country, a young man who also lives in Yangon told RFA. 

Now, with the enforcement of the conscription law, young people know for certain that they don’t have a future in Myanmar, the young man said.

“All of them are preparing to leave the country because there are no jobs for them,” he said. “Now, with the implementation of this conscription law, they have lost their way.”

The young man said he had been searching for jobs in Japan, but is now focusing on finding work in neighboring Thailand.

“I heard that the junta is blocking workers from going abroad,” he said. “I also heard that [they block] new job offers by foreign countries. It’s hard to leave the country.”

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Soldiers march during a parade to commemorate Myanmar’s 78th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2023. (Aung Shine Oo/AP)

Sai Kyi Zin Soe, a political commentator, said that targeting young people – who typically have the highest productivity among all age groups – will damage the country’s economy and cause widespread resentment. 

“It is natural for many people who have their own goals in life to avoid armed conflicts,” he said. “They are educated young people. They can learn things. We see the targeting of this age group for use in conflict – to gain political advantage – as a very bad move.”

State-level committees

Zaw Min Tun’s comments on Thursday about conscription followed a Feb. 10 announcement from junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing that a military service law enacted in 2010 by a previous military regime would go into effect immediately. 

Enforcement of the law comes as anti-junta forces and ethnic armies have scored significant victories against the military in Myanmar’s civil war, which escalated in October 2023 when the rebel groups joined together and launched new offensives, causing significant casualties.

Under Min Aung Hlaing’s directive, Burmese men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 could face up to five years in prison if they refuse to serve for two years. 

Doctors, engineers and technicians – aged 18-45 for men and 18-35 for women – must also serve, but up to five years.

In the initial rounds, fewer women will be recruited, Zaw Min Tun told state media.

The junta will appoint a central committee and regional- and state-level committees to oversee the conscription, according to Zaw Min Tun. But because the junta would have to provide salaries, food and other items, the military won’t need more than 50,000 recruits, he said.

“I want to emphasize that we will not call up everyone who is eligible for military service,” he said.

The CIA World Factbook estimated that last year Myanmar’s military had somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 personnel. 

The Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace has suggested that 21,000 service personnel have been lost through casualties, desertions and defections since the February 2021 military coup d’etat, leaving an effective force of about 150,000.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw. Edited by Matt Reed.

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