Conscription will likely prove counter-productive in Myanmar

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Members of Myanmar’s military security force patrol a street during a 'silent strike' to protest and to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in Yangon on Feb. 1.

Members of Myanmar’s military security force patrol a street during a ‘silent strike’ to protest and to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in Yangon on Feb. 1. (Photo by AFP)

The declaration of mandatory military service for all young men and women in Myanmar is the latest in the litany of repression inflicted upon the people by the country’s military dictatorship.

It is a clear sign of the fragility of the military, that it has had to resort to this, and it will either spell the end of the regime or the end of Myanmar.

On Saturday, the junta issued a notification that the People’s Military Service Law would take immediate effect. All men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 are required to serve for up to two years, while specialists like doctors aged up to 45 must serve for three years.

The service can be extended to a total of five years in the ongoing state of emergency, according to state media.

This unprecedented action is clearly a response to the fact that in the past four months or more, Myanmar’s military has suffered the worst setbacks since it seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021. Tens of thousands of its soldiers have defected, deserted, or refused to fight.

The military is struggling to recruit troops — and faces growing dissent and increasing despair, with a breakdown of morale within the ranks.

Since October last year, opposition pro-democracy armed groups have captured dozens of towns, including in strategically important locations such as key border trading posts.

Myanmar is in a dire human rights and humanitarian crisis.

According to the United Nations, nearly two million people have been internally displaced since the coup, and the real figure is likely far higher. Thousands more people have fled across the borders to neighboring countries.

Thousands have been killed as a result of the military’s airstrikes and ground offensives against civilians. Nearly 26,000 people have been arrested since the coup for pro-democracy activities, and at least 19,000 political prisoners remain in jail today.

A third of the population — at least 18 million people — are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk told the UN just last month that “military tactics have consistently focused on the punishment of civilians.”

As a result, he said, “the military has routinely targeted civilians and protected objects under international humanitarian law, especially medical facilities and schools. Indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes underline the lack of measures to protect civilians on the ground, including disruption of basic communications that would help warn civilians in advance of fighting so they could get out of harm’s way.”

Now the military is not only bombing civilians but forcing them to join the army that is perpetrating these atrocities.  In effect, it is ordering ordinary Myanmar young people, en masse, to sign up to kill, torture, and rape their fellow citizens and loot, pillage, and burn their neighbors’ property.

The junta is trying to conscript its people into becoming war criminals committing crimes against humanity and against their own country.

Myanmar’s young people are unlikely to do this willingly. Many have already joined the armed opposition groups over the past three years, and this order is likely to inspire many more to do so. Many will likely refuse the order and, if necessary, risk arrest or flee their homes.

Those who obey the order will do so under duress, and therefore the already depleted morale of the Myanmar army is likely to sink even lower. It may well lead to further defections and desertions.

If Myanmar’s young people can mobilize a strike across the nation to refuse this forced conscription — perhaps similar to the silent strikes on the anniversary of the coup over the past three years or the civil disobedience campaign immediately after the coup in 2021 — that could further weaken the junta significantly.

The opposition groups should be prepared to welcome young people who refuse the call-up and should try to mobilize a general strike against it.

The international community should step up its efforts in support of the pro-democracy movement, and should intensify pressure on the military through targeted sanctions, a ban on aviation fuel, and the implementation of a global arms embargo.

Now is the time to use every tool available to cut the lifelines of support to this dying regime.

Time will tell where this leads, but in issuing a call for mandatory conscription the military may well have taken a counter-productive step that could be one of the final nails in its coffin. It could be the last straw that might cause the entire nation to rise together against this brutal, illegal military regime.

Such an uprising will, as with all previous movements in Myanmar, come at a high and bloody price, as the military will undoubtedly respond with characteristic brutality, but it might just be an uprising that this time could succeed.

The world should watch Myanmar closely in the coming days and weeks and be on standby to help.