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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Rebecca Ratcliffe and Aung Naing Soe

‘They have lists of everyone’s names’: Myanmar conscription law unleashes wave of fear

Military officers march during a parade to commemorate Myanmar's 78th Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 27 March 2023.
Military officers on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 27 March 2023. Many in Myanmar have expressed alarm at the conscription law. Photograph: Aung Shine Oo/AP

Passport offices and embassies in Myanmar have been flooded with applications, with a queue of more than a thousand people on a single day trying to secure a visa for neighbouring Thailand. Helplines offering advice on ways to leave the country – how to manage checkpoints, what documents are needed – have been inundated.

Across Myanmar, the young and middle aged, both men and women, are desperately searching for ways to flee their homes, after it was announced the military junta will impose a mandatory conscription law from mid-April. The law, which would force people to serve a military many despise, has sent a wave of terror across the country.

“If I joined the military, I would have to fight my own people. I do not want to do that,” says Thura, who spoke under a fake name, from Shan State. “The military is infamous – they are killing people, arresting people, doing so many unjust things.”

His wife, he added, had urged him to leave her and their eight-year-old daughter behind.

UN special rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews warned last week the number of people fleeing across borders to escape conscription “will surely skyrocket”.

In Thura’s area, streets are now empty by early evening. “It’s very unusual to see any people, any young people, on the road,” he says. “All the shops and cafes – they are closed by 6pm.”

Even before the conscription was announced, there were reports of people being snatched on the streets and forcibly recruited. Young people are terrified they might be kidnapped by the military.

Activists fear conscripts will be used as porters to carry supplies on the frontline. In the past, the military has used porters as human shields, sending them out in front to trip landmines and shield soldiers from gunfire.

Junta facing mounting losses on the battlefield

Under the 2010 People’s Military Service Law, to be enacted next month, men aged 18 up to 35, or women aged 18 to 27, will be conscripted for up to five years in an emergency situation. For men and women who are considered professionals, a vaguely defined category that includes medical doctors, engineers, or others professional groups, the age cut-off is higher – 35 for women, and 45 for men.

The junta recently clarified its initial announcement, saying that women will not be conscripted for now. This claim has been treated with scepticism by the public, however, and many women are still trying to flee.

The military, which seized power in a coup in February 2021, a move that has been strongly opposed by the public, has been unable to control an armed opposition to its rule, which includes citizens who have taken up arms as well as older ethnic armed organisations that have long fought against the military. The junta’s decision to impose conscription reflects the recent devastating losses it has faced on the battlefield, in which entire battalions have surrendered, and key territory lost along the border with China.

“There’s already a refugee crisis and it’s going to get worse,” says Debbie Stothard, founder of the regional human rights group Altsean.

“Even low-ranking civil servants are sneaking away and disappearing because they know they are likely to be drafted if push comes to shove,” she adds.

Until now, for many in military-controlled areas, there was a sense that, as long as they were not associating with anti-junta activists or doing anything remotely political, they could remain somewhat safe, she says. “All they had to do was focus on survival,” says Stothard. The conscription law changes this. “Now they are at risk of being forced to join the army that’s committing these atrocities.”

Options for fleeing Myanmar are limited and fraught with danger: cross legally or illegally into a neighbouring country, or travel to an area that’s controlled by anti-coup groups, and hope that you do not get stopped by junta officials along the way.

Getting the correct papers takes time and money, a luxury most don’t have. Appointments for the passport office are booked until August, according to media reports, and some have been so overwhelmed that overcrowding has proved deadly. In Mandalay, two women were crushed as huge crowds gathered at a passport office last week.

For people who belong to ethnic minorities, which have long been oppressed in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, there are even fewer options. Thura, a Rohingya Muslim, has been unable to get a new passport because officials say his national ID card lists him as being Bengali – a racial slur used to imply that Rohingya people are not true citizens.

In the eyes of the military he does not belong in Myanmar; this means he is unable to leave the country legally.

Activists have reported several cases in which Rohingya have been arrested from villages or a refugee camp in Rakhine state over the past week, alleging they have been forcibly enlisted in the military.

The military is facing a genocide case in The Hague over its previous violence against Rohingya.

‘The military does whatever it wants’

Naung Yoe, of the civil society group People’s Goal, which supports people who want to defect from the military and join the pro-democracy resistance, told a recent press conference that he fears new conscripts could be used as human shields. They could also, based on accounts of other defectors, likely be “cut off entirely from their families and their communities. Their mobile phones and their computers will be taken or removed and they will have no access to the outside world,” he says.

In Mandalay city, junta officials toured townships last week, using loudspeakers to try to reassure people and dispel reports that people were being kidnapped and forcibly recruited, according to a report by Myanmar Now. In Tanintharyi region, in the south, pamphlets with similar messages, denying there had been arrests and saying there were no barriers to leaving the country, were also distributed, according to Dawei Watch.

Kyaw Gyi, an activist who supports workers, including garment workers, who are mostly women, and who spoke under a fake name, says they do not feel safe returning from work in the evening. Even at home, they are afraid.

“The military has already collected a list of names for each household in our township. We thought it was just for the census but then they unexpectedly announced conscription. It’s made us more worried – they have lists of everyone’s names,” Kyaw Gyi says.

He is 36 and not a professional, he adds, so he should be exempt, but he is hardly reassured. “The military does whatever it wants,” he says.

Thura fears he will be required to serve, even though he is 38, because he is a lawyer and therefore a professional. Fleeing to a resistance-controlled area isn’t an option because he does not know how he would be able to work there, he says, and he needs to support his family. But he worries about making the journey to the border, where roads are restricted and junta soldiers are likely to interrogate anyone passing through.

Even if he manages to cross, he faces the risk of being sent back by the Thai authorities. Thai prime minister Srettha Thavisin has warned people from Myanmar not to enter the country illegally. Authorities in the Thai border town of Mae Sot have told people to comply with a law that requires them to register any foreigner visitors staying at their home.

Thura dreads having to leave his wife and eight-year-old daughter behind. “It would be very difficult for them,” he says. “They would be on their own. But if there’s no option left, I would have to go.”

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