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28 Feb 2024 0:40
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  •   Home > News > Business

    Why Myanmar is only now enforcing a conscription law it's had on the books since 2010

    The Myanmar junta's decision to begin enforcing a conscription law first enacted 14 years ago shows the military's weakness and is likely to have unintended consequences, analysts say.

    13 February 2024

    The Myanmar junta's decision to begin enforcing a conscription law first enacted 14 years ago is an attack on the country's young people, a "pronouncement of psychotic resolve" and likely to have unintended consequences, analysts say.

    The junta's State Administrative Council (SAC) made the announcement via state media on Saturday.

    All men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 must serve for up to two years, while specialists like doctors aged up to 45 must serve for three years.

    The service could be extended to a total of five years in the ongoing state of emergency.

    "The duty to safeguard and defend the nation extends beyond just the soldiers but to all citizens," junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said. 

    "So I want to tell everyone to proudly follow this people's military service law."

    Those who fail to comply with the draft face up to five years in prison, the legislation says.

    'If they force me, I will just run away'

    A 31-year-old doctor in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, told Reuters he would rather leave Myanmar than serve in the military.

    "I cannot continue to live in the country because they can come get us anytime," he said.

    "If they force me, I will just run away. There's no way I am going to sacrifice my life for them," said the doctor, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

    A 31-year-old banker said she feared the junta would classify her as a "specialist" and force her to serve.

    "Instead of serving them, I will either leave the country or probably join the revolution forces," she said, also declining to be identified.

    Military junta 'on the back foot'

    Myanmar has been gripped by chaos since the military seized power from the country's elected government in the 2021 coup.

    In October, an alliance of three ethnic-minority insurgent groups with pro-democracy fighters launched a coordinated offensive in northern Shan State which culminated in the junta ceding control of the Kokang region in exchange for a localised ceasefire.

    Since then the military has continued to suffer a series of stinging defeats by other ethnic armed groups and anti-junta forces elsewhere in the country.

    It is the biggest challenge the military has faced since first taking power in the former British colony in 1962.

    Richard Horsey, a political analyst and Myanmar adviser to the Crisis Group, said the army was "on the back foot" in many parts of the country.

    "It has suffered historic losses in Shan State over the last three months, and something similar is now playing out in Rakhine State," he said.

    He said morale among officers was low, units were overstretched and they faced determined opponents who felt they had momentum. 

    While the junta still had a large number of troops, its fighting strength was ebbing, he said. 

    "The army has a lot of soldiers, but many are required for fixed deployments to defend critical locations and infrastructure," he said.

    "What the army lacks is enough experienced, rapidly deployable mobile forces — which are needed to reinforce units under attack, or to mount counteroffensives."

    Why a 14-year-old law is being enforced only now

    The law mandating conscription was first introduced in 2010 but had not been enforced.

    Independent Myanmar analyst David Mathieson said its use now was clear evidence the military regime was facing a serious personnel shortage.

    "The conscription law was always one of those military insurance policies established before the 2010 election and the beginning of the so-called 'transition'," he said, in reference to the partial and temporary democratisation of the country.

    "But it wasn’t required as recruitment levels for officers and ranks appeared to be stable [and] sufficient to make up for conflict casualties.

    "The regime deep down realises it's in terminal decline and has dwindling public support even from its base: the wider Myanmar population have despised the army since the coup and the extreme brutality inflicted on civilians.

    "There won’t be a long line for volunteers to prop up a fundamentally illegitimate junta, so they're resorting to press-ganging the hapless into the ranks."

    Mr Horsey said the military was now facing a high attrition rate from battlefield casualties, surrenders and desertions while at the same time struggling with recruitment.

    "Most people simply don't want to fight for the regime, even more so when it appears to be losing," he said.

    While there had been some forced recruitment before, he said this had been ad hoc and not legal. 

    "Even if these are inexperienced and unwilling recruits, the aim may be to free up more experienced troops for frontline duties," he said.

    Conscription not just about boosting troop numbers

    Justine Chambers, a Myanmar researcher with the Danish Institute for International Studies, said the junta's decision to enforce the conscription law now was also a way to remove the young people who were spearheading the revolution from the civilian population, and put them in positions where they were likely to be killed.

    The conscripts would probably be given minimal training before being sent to the front lines to be used primarily as human shields and porters as the military government had done in the past, she said.

    "It's about destroying them, destroying their lives, sending them to the front lines and turning them against each other," she said.

    "In the next year we're going to see huge loss of life among people who don't support the military who aren't soldiers."

    Dr Chambers said the announcement had already struck fear into the hearts of the country's youth who were terrified of being forced into the military and to fight against their own people.

    "I have a lot of friends in this age category who are completely panicked," Dr Chambers said.

    "The couple of people I have spoken to have said they haven't been able to sleep.

    "Young people aren't going to know when they're going to get called up for the military; is it going to be this week or in six months?"

    Dr Chambers called on the Australian government and international community to condemn the move.

    "But we need to more than just condemn it," she said.

    "There needs to be stronger action, I think." 

    Unintended consequences

    Mr Mathieson said the Myanmar army had the capability to enforce the new law.

    "But the two wildcard factors are operational dependability and broader social backlash," he said.

    "Even if they can forcibly recruit tens of thousands of men and gave them uniforms and weapons, how can they guarantee they will all fight effectively and not turn the weapons on the 'loyal' military?

    "And how will civilians who may despise the military but have not supported active armed resistance feel when their young people, and likely civilians of all ages, are essentially enslaved for military service?"

    Mr Horsey said any conscription system was "likely to be very messy and have unintended consequences".

    "It will provide legal cover for abusive forced recruitment practices — grabbing poor young men, including minors, from bus stops in the cities, for example," Mr Horsey said.

    "It will open up a lot of corruption opportunities for those administering the system.

    "If implemented at scale, it could drive higher levels of unregulated and risky labour migration.

    "It may also push more people to join the armed resistance.

    "It will also further erode morale in the army's ranks — although this is not a fighting force that has ever really relied on high morale among foot soldiers."

    Junta in 'terminal decline'

    Mr Mathieson said that while the military still had overwhelming firepower it was losing personnel on the ground "where it counts".

    "As a strategy to cling onto power, the SAC is evidently relying on air strikes and artillery to punish armed groups and target civilians to demoralise them, and likely planning on replenishing ground troops with forced conscription," he said.

    He said the military was taking a beating but still had a significant network of personnel, bases, and equipment and the "asymmetric trump card" of air power, which meant a consolidation of power in the country's heartland could be their strategy to hold on.

    "In the long run it won't work, I do think they're in terminal decline, but it could indicate that the protracted endgame of the SAC could be even more bloody, brutal and destructive than it already is," he said.

    "I think this conscription law announcement shouldn't be seen as a cry of desperation, but a pronouncement of psychotic resolve to take the entire country down with them.

    "This isn't an indication of imminent collapse, but a clear warning that the conflict could consume the entire country."



    © 2024 ABC, NZCity

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