Myanmar’s War Within: Is the Myanmar Government’s Forced Conscription Doing it Any Favours?

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Recently, on February 10, Myanmar’s ruling junta revived an inactive compulsory conscription law which was enacted all the way back in 2010. The law is known as the People’s Military Service law, numbered 27210 of the State Peace and Development Council. The quasi-civilian governments that ruled the politics of Myanmar from 2011 till 2021 decided not to apply the law.

However, until recently the junta did not want to revive the dormant law. The conscription law mandates that all young men aged between 18 to 35 years and women aged between 18 to 27 years must enlist in the military for at least two years. Apart from this, doctors and other specialist professional groups up to the age of 45 are mandated to serve under the military for at least three years. Those who failed to report to the call of conscription would be jailed for the same period.

There is a possibility that the conscription program will continue for at least five years due to the current state of emergency in Myanmar under the junta rule — it is to be noted that the history of conscription in Myanmar is rather storied.

The first-ever known instance of military conscription in Myanmar, in recent history, can be traced back to the 1950s, the context was to prevent Indo-Chinese invasion. Apart from exogenous factors, the law was promulgated due to some internal necessity as well, for instance, preventing a military coup from the disloyal and rebel head of the armed forces. It remained unclear if this law ever came into force, though it was drafted by the caretaker government in the late 1950s.

After the 1988 rebellion, the military decided to apply forced conscription on the young populace and the practice continued for some time without support of any law and it was arbitrary in nature. Even though the military was facing a manpower crisis, it decided not to apply mandatory conscription as there was a fear that an overwhelming number of young men and women being given military training could challenge the military itself.

One may ask why there has been such a necessity to revive the 2010 law now, and such questions would be absolutely justified.

Just before the 2010 election, the departing military rulers decided to enact a conscription law fearing that they might need to keep the fresh blood flow into their support base to prolong their authoritarian rule. However, after the 2010 election, a quasi-civilian government came to power and decided to shelve the law for about a decade. It has been three years since the junta took over power in Myanmar. The junta has been facing strong-armed opposition from various ethnic armed groups since the former took control over Myanmar through a coup. Since October 2023, different ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, under the banner of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, have gained momentum in their attacks against Tatmadaw in the northern Shan state. The whole affair was dubbed Operation 1027.

The Tatmadaw stretched across Myanmar and has been facing a series of surprising and humiliating defeats consequently. This has provoked other offensives in various parts of Myanmar as well. The Rakhine State also witnessed increasing attacks from the ethnic armed groups recently after Operation 1027, and the unprecedented losses after the offensives have resulted in surrenders, defeats, defections, and desertions, thus reducing the number of active military personnel serving Tatmadaw.

These losses have resulted in declining morale and will to fight, and shows unhappiness existing in both the lower and upper ranks of the Tatmadaw. The declining manpower has left a significant psychological damage on the soldiers and commanders of Tatmadaw. Since they took over, for the first time the junta president of Myanmar has stated that the country is in danger of disintegrating due to the severity of the ongoing civil conflict and the poor handling of the recent unrest in its border areas with China.

The recent revival of the conscription law by the Myanmar junta can be understood as a way to tackle the soldier crisis, to boost morale, regain its image from embarrassing losses, and to keep the fresh blood flowing in the military forces in order to cash from the ethnic tensions transferring from one generation to another. This revival of the conscription law is a clear sign of great desperation which is unprecedented, even when there was a fear of external Chinese and Indian attacks on the horizon back in the 1950s the conscription law did not see the light.

The military is thinking in a Clausewitzian manner — when all factors of war are equal, whoever possesses the larger number of soldiers will have the decisive victory eventually. The junta believes that the greater number of conscripted soldiers will save its face, and can aid the fight in controlling the ethnic armies’ advancements. However, this will be very difficult to manifest.

First, as the ethnic armed forces are too invested in removing the junta from power, and there is no sign of them being quelled down.

Second, already a large number of young people are trying to flee into neighboring Thailand and other countries to evade the mandatory military service, thus young people joining the military services willingly and happily remains a big question mark that Tatmadaw needs to answer.

Third, the junta will have to mobilize additional material and moral resources for the conscription drive, which remains a tough challenge given the economic situations affected by the civil war.

Fourth, the regime will need more time to train the fresh conscripts, the ethnic armies are not likely to wait and let Tatmadaw keep open this window of opportunity.

Finally, given the corruption in Tatmadaw, the powerful families will find ways to keep their young members escaping the conscription, thus the economically and politically weaker young population would be forced to join mandatory military services further augmenting the anti-junta sentiments among the already disgruntled population.

How far this conscription drive will meet the desperation of the junta to regain control and address the deepened crisis, only time will tell us. So far, the odds do not seem to be in favour of the junta.

– Md. Ali Siddiquee is an adjunct Research Fellow at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA) and Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.

Published in Dhaka Tribune [Link]