After significant battlefield setbacks over the past three months, Myanmar’s military announced that it would start to enforce for the first time a 2010 conscription law that subjects young men and women to at least two years of military service.
In a statement read out on state broadcaster MRTV on Saturday, junta spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw said that the People’s Military Service Law was being applied, effective immediately, The Associated Press reported. Under the law, men between the ages of 18 and 45 and women aged 18-35 can be drafted into the armed forces for two years, a period extendable to five years during national emergencies.
The statement said that the junta’s Ministry of Defense would “release necessary bylaws, procedures, announcements orders, notifications, and instructions.” Evading conscription is punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine.
The conscription announcement comes at a testing time for the military junta, which seized power in a coup d’etat just over three years ago. In late October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic resistance groups launched a surprise offensive that has seized a large stretch of territory in northern Shan State, overrunning hundreds of military outposts, seizing control of important border crossings, and ousting a junta-aligned Border Guard Force from Kokang, a strategic region running along the Chinese border. This has been followed by further offensives in the east and west of the country, which have eroded junta positions in Rakhine, Chin, and Karen states.
In this context, the AP notes, the activation of the conscription law “amounts to a major, though tacit, admission that the army is struggling to contain the nationwide armed resistance against its rule.”
In his statement, Zaw Min Tun said that activating the law could help reverse this by projecting a show of strength to the opponents of the military regime.
“So what we want to say is that the responsibility of national defense is not only the responsibility of the soldier. It is the responsibility of all people in all parts of the country. National security is everyone’s responsibility,” Zaw Min Tun said. “That is why I would like to tell everyone to serve with pride under the enacted law of people’s military service.”
The move speaks to the desperation of the military administration to reverse its recent losses and hold the line against further rebel advances. For months, the military has reportedly struggled to recruit the soldiers necessary to replenish its losses and defend against the omnidirectional resistance attacks. This has forced the armed forces to press non-combat personnel into service, and even distribute arms to civil servants.
The fact that the junta has not made such a move until now speaks to the great risks associated with it. With the stroke of a pen, the military has posed every young person in the country with a choice: serve when called upon, go to prison, or find some other way of avoiding military service. Those who can afford to do so will likely attempt to bribe their way out of services. Others may choose to flee into the universities or the Buddhist sangha, since members of religious orders are exempt from the conscription law, and students can be granted temporary deferments. The prospect of suffering on the frontlines could also push a lot of young people, already embittered with military rule, to take their chance on joining the resistance in some form.
Whatever the longer-term political impacts, in the short term such a move will almost certainly open the door to further rounds of abuses by the Myanmar armed forces, which have a long history of pressganging civilians into military service, as minesweepers, combat porters, and human shields. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the military would employ an influx of untrained recruits for any other purpose, given the fact that they would lack the training to make an appreciable difference in combat operations.
For this reason, Linn Thant, a representative of the opposition National Unity Government based in Prague, said in an emailed statement that the military’s activation of the conscription law was a “grave development.”
“By legalizing mandatory military service,” the statement read, “the junta effectively grants itself the license to abduct citizens, subject them to forced labor, and even use them as human shields, all while undermining the fundamental rights and dignity of the Myanmar people.”
It is too soon to say exactly what the impact of the conscription order will be, since this depends on how zealously it is implemented. But the move has the potential to destabilize the military’s already precarious position and undermine what thin base of popular support, or tolerance, still remains.