Myanmar Junta to Enforce Military Draft

For more than three years, Myanmar’s biggest cities have remained under the unyielding grip of the military junta. But the streets of places like Yangon were uncharacteristically quiet Monday evening as a sense of fear pervaded the country.

Residents had a new reason to avoid contact with soldiers on patrol: Over the weekend, the regime said that it was invoking a decades-old law to start drafting young men and women into the army, setting off widespread alarm across the country.

The regime’s forces have been depleted in recent months as they battle a growing insurgency by pro-democracy rebels and armed ethnic groups. The move to conscription to beef up the forces’ ranks suggested that the junta was on the defensive and growing desperate.

But while the rebels have posed the most widespread challenge ever to the regime’s rule, it remains to be seen whether they can overthrow the military, which has successfully suppressed many regional uprisings over the last several decades.

On Tuesday, there were reports from around the country of young men having been seized by soldiers during the night. Even before conscription was announced, the army was known to abduct young men and force them into service.

Critics of the regime said it was unlikely that new conscripts would be issued weapons and instead could be forced to serve as porters carrying supplies and ammunition on the battlefield. The military has a long history of using porters as human shields by forcing them to walk ahead of troops into suspected minefields or possible ambushes.

“When I heard the news, I felt as if an elephant had stepped on my head,” said Daw Thin Han, 45, who has three draft-age children. “I’m panicking about when a military truck will arrive in front of my house and take my children to the frontline.”

The junta announced the start of conscription on Saturday evening, saying that it was authorized by a law that has been on the books since 1959 but was never invoked during a previous half-century of military rule.

“National defense is not the sole responsibility of the soldier,” said Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the military spokesman, in justifying the order. “I would like to ask everyone to serve with pride and joy.”

Under the order, officially called the “People’s Military Service Law,” men ages 18 to 35 and women between 18 and 27 could be required to serve at least two years. For professionals, such as doctors, nurses and engineers, the age range is even higher — up to 35 for women and up to 45 for men, with compulsory service up to three years. Anyone refusing to serve faces up to five years in prison.

A father in Mandalay, U Myo Kyaw, said Tuesday that he feared that his 22-year-old son would be forced into military service after a witness saw him being taken at gunpoint by soldiers early Monday evening near their home.

After his son did not return, Mr. Myo Kyaw said he and his wife searched everywhere, including at police stations, but found no sign of him.

“My wife and I didn’t encounter anyone else on the road, only stray dogs,” he said. “My heart aches with anguish, as he is my only son. I pray not to witness my son being conscripted into the military.”

On Monday, said Ms. Thin Han, the mother of three draft-age children, four men in plainclothes and her ward administrator — a local official appointed by the regime — went to every house on her street in Mandalay, recording the names and ages of each resident. At her house, she said, one man circled the names of each of her children as he wrote them down in his notebook.

“I live in constant fear now,” she said.

Battlefield losses and defections have taken a toll on the military, especially in recent months.

The shadow civilian government, the National Unity Government, headed by ethnic leaders and ousted elected officials, says that its forces have seized hundreds of military outposts and 41 cities and towns in upper Myanmar since late October. The rebels claim to control more than half of the country’s territory, but the military still holds the major cities.

“The start of conscription reflects the dire situation of the army, which has suffered defeat on multiple fronts and struggles to recruit new soldiers,” said U Kyee Myint, a lawyer and political activist who is now in hiding. “This shows the junta’s desperation.”

He noted that wealthier people would be able to avoid the draft by paying a bribe, thus making conscription an effective moneymaking operation for regime officials.

Several draft-age men and women who spoke with The New York Times said they would do all they could to avoid serving in the military, including by enlisting with the rebel forces to fight against the regime.

“I prefer to risk my life in resistance rather than passively succumb to their tyranny,” said Ko Htet Aung Kyaw, 20, a student who has been involved in anti-junta protests since the coup on Feb. 1, 2021. “Serving in the junta’s military is not about defending the country. It is solely about preserving the junta’s power.”

A group calling itself People’s Embrace, which says it has helped more than 5,000 soldiers defect, offered its assistance to new draftees. “The People’s Embrace team is always ready to help you escape as soon as possible,” the group posted on Facebook.

Alice Htun, 21, who arrived in Minnesota in December to study art at Saint Paul College, said she would consider applying for political asylum in the United States if the junta was still in power when she completed her studies.

For much of her life, she has been exposed to the military’s ruthlessness. Her grandfather was a political prisoner. Her uncle was injured when soldiers forced him to walk ahead of them into battle carrying supplies. Last year, her family’s home in Shan State was riddled with bullets by soldiers battling rebels. Her family has fled, and her father is in hiding.

Now, with conscription, she worries that millions more people are vulnerable. Among others, she said, students returning from abroad could be seized at the airport on arrival and impressed into the army.

“The military’s growing repression has reached everyone’s doorstep,” she said. “They will try to expand their power and oppress us in the most brutal way possible.”