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Military Conscription in Southeastern Myanmar Demands International Intervention

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Military Conscription in Southeastern Myanmar Demands International Intervention

To stave off defeat, the military regime is robbing the country’s youth of livelihoods and educational opportunities.

Military Conscription in Southeastern Myanmar Demands International Intervention

In this undated photo released on April 8, 2024 by The Military True News Information Team, trainees of the first batch of military conscripts have meals at an opening ceremony for their training session at a military compound in Yangon, Myanmar.

Credit: The Military True News Information Team via AP

On February 10, Myanmar’s military junta announced it would mandate conscription for the first time since the People’s Military Service Law was passed in 2010. Under the law, all men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 are eligible to serve in the armed forces for at least two years.

The forced conscription order has sent shockwaves across the country and caused widespread fear among young people, whose futures remain increasingly uncertain amid the ongoing conflict. Fighting has escalated in recent months, leading to unprecedented junta losses in several parts of the country. Additionally, the resistance gains have led to increased military defections nationwide.

In Mon State, Kayin (Karen) State, and Tanintharyi region, in particular, the conscription is causing widespread anxiety. The majority of young men and women are now seeking to work or study abroad in order to avoid serving under the regime.

The international community, including neighboring countries such as China, India, and Thailand, must respond compassionately to those crossing the borders and uphold the right to asylum and refugee status determination procedures.

The Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM), a civil society group documenting the rights abuses and attacks by the Myanmar army in Mon State, Kayin State, and Tanintharyi Region, has found patterns of worrying tactics being used by the junta to enlist young men and women under the conscription law forcibly.

In the latest briefing paper by HURFOM, titled “Forced to Fight,” the group reported that at least 600 young people are currently undergoing forced military training by the junta across its target areas. The authorities have also initiated preliminary registration for its second batch of military conscripts.

Forced military service is clearly designed to strengthen the junta’s power and protect its interests. But it is leading to widespread destruction and severe human rights violations.

In Mon State, HURFOM fieldworkers cover six townships, 90 wards, and 140 villages. Across all target areas, the junta insists that most military recruitment thus far has been voluntary, accounting for 60 percent of all recruitment efforts. However, based on HURFOM data, the authors of the briefing argue that this is a vast overestimate, with less than 5 percent of conscripts volunteering.

In addition, false promises of financial assistance and lucrative salaries for enlisted soldiers are being used extensively in junta recruitment strategies. According to a resident of Mawlamyine, “junta-backed authorities are promising money and then forcefully enlist them into military service with less financial support than what was agreed upon.”

The exodus of youth fleeing the country and others joining the revolutionary forces has created negative ripple effects. Their flight has left labor shortages that are being filled by children who have joined the workforce to support their families. Violations of child labor involving children between the ages of 12 and 16 have been documented by HURFOM, and their wages are also being exploited by various sectors, from tea shops and rubber factories to small-scale industries. Tea shop owners are among the most frequent violators of children’s rights. The children working there often have to start their day at 3 a.m. and continue until 11 p.m., earning only 3,000 to 4,000 Myanmar kyat ($1.50-$2) per day.

Out of fear of conscription, parents are also taking their children out of school and sending them to neighboring countries to find work opportunities.

“No young men, women, or their parents support the compulsory conscription law,” a young person from Mudon Township in Mon State told HURFOM in March.

“The New Mon State Party (Anti-Dictatorship) and other revolutionary forces have spoken out against it and supported the youth’s decision not to fight. This has really encouraged us,” said a young person who spoke to HURFOM.

The resistance within Mon State is vehemently opposing these conscription laws, warning officials enforcing the junta’s directives that decisive action will be taken to stop forced recruitment. Pro-democracy bodies, including the National Unity Consultative Council, the National Unity Government, and several revolutionary armies have each stated they will do the same.

Following these declarations, some village-level administrators and committees in northern Ye Township resigned from their roles, citing fears for their safety. Still, the junta is seeking its forcible recruitment drive, even as its administrators are targeted and killed by those who oppose the law.

“Only a few young men are left in my village in Northern Ye Township. Many are terrified of being forced into military service and have fled to areas controlled by ethnic revolution organizations (EROs) or have escaped to neighboring countries like Thailand through various brokers’ services and illegal routes,” a resident of Dawei told HURFOM.

Despite the resistance, conscription drives persist across the country. More than 5,000 young people have reportedly been recruited in the first wave of conscription and have already been sent to 15 military schools for training.

To compensate for its military losses, the regime is robbing youth of education opportunities and livelihoods. The international community must intervene to put an end to not only the junta’s dangerous recruitment strategies but also offer young people protection from being forced to carry weapons and fight against the opposition.

There must be increased monitoring efforts on the human rights situation related to military conscription in Myanmar and regular reporting to international lawmakers and United Nations agencies. Civil society organizations need to be supported in their work to protect individuals from forced conscription.

In addition, global actors must support and fund campaigns to raise awareness both within Myanmar and internationally about the implications of forced conscription and other unjust military practices.

Engagement with local administrators, including the National Unity Government, ethnic revolution organizations, and locally established bodies, is critical to ensuring the response to forced conscription is met with urgent action. They must be provided with the necessary resources and international backing to maintain their effectiveness on the ground.

Lastly, humanitarian aid must be urgently delivered to regions deeply affected by conflict and conscription. Without this assistance, young people will continue to face the risk of profound instability, emotional trauma, and potentially deadly conditions.