Myanmar’s mass exodus to neighbouring countries prompted junta to introduce mandatory conscription

Fighters from Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

Mandatory military service is not an uncommon practice around the world. In Myanmar, such a law was first introduced in 1959, but had never been enforced.

After a military-led coup in 2021, army chief Min Aung Hlaing hinted at conscription – an idea that didn’t take off until three years later, with an announcement on Feb 10, 2024.

What are the details of the conscription law?
All men between 18 and 35 years old and all women aged between 18 and 27 will have to serve up to two years in the military if called up.

There will be a higher age limit of 45 for men and 35 for women – and a longer three-year term of service – for some vocations such as doctors and engineers.

The length of service can be extended to five years during a state of emergency – a situation Myanmar has been in since the coup.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told media at least 13 million people will be eligible. The country’s population was reported at 55 million in 2021.

He said each recruitment batch would involve 5,000 conscripts, with the first intake in mid-April after Myanmar’s new year holiday known as Thingyan.

Young women will be recruited only from the fifth batch.

The aim is to recruit 60,000 soldiers in a year, to a military whose current total strength is thought to lie between 200,000 and 300,000.

Evading conscription will be punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine. Members of religious orders are exempt, while civil servants and students can be granted temporary deferments.

But on Wednesday (Feb 21), the decision to recruit women was seemingly scrapped, with Zaw Min Tun saying there were no plans yet in this area.

Three key factors led to this decision, said the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security think-tank’s executive director Min Zaw Oo.

For a start, the Myanmar army has always had difficulty recruiting soldiers, a trend observed for decades now.

Added to that is the military being “overstretched” since its coup, with no reserve units that can be called up, Dr Min Zaw Oo added.

And then there was Operation 1027, a major offensive launched by ethnic rebel armies on Oct 27 last year. The large-scale, coordinated and prolonged attacks caught the junta by surprise, as many observers have pointed out.

“(The Myanmar army) is losing a lot of territories. And there are also other issues like drones, which have become a major threat to the military. Right now, what they need is to address the strength of the military,” said Dr Min Zaw Oo.

The opposition National Unity Government (NUG) said in August last year that it supplied at least 400 drones to rebel forces countrywide, to be used in launching attacks and dropping bombs on the military.

The NUG has slammed the enlistment decree as “unlawful”, saying citizens are “not required to comply with it”.

In a statement, the NUG – which views the coup as illegal and the junta as having no legal authority – added that the move shows the junta has “suffered significant and humiliating defeats across the country”; is now “desperate”; and thus forcing civilians to fight and serve as “human shields” on the battlefield.

Htet Myat, a former Myanmar army captain who defected in June 2021, said he was not surprised by the enlistment law. “The Myanmar army had (in May last year) enacted gun laws, allowing its supporters to be armed … So I saw this coming.”

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