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Thousands flee Myanmar as backlash grows against conscription

Reports say rebel groups have killed at least 10 officials enforcing the draft to tide over a severe manpower shortage
Myanmar military students attend a ceremony to mark the country's Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27.

Myanmar military students attend a ceremony to mark the country's Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 01, 2024 04:10 AM GMT
Updated: April 01, 2024 05:58 AM GMT

Thousands of draft-dodgers are continuing to flee Myanmar where ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are arresting and killing military officials who are attempting to conscript more than 5,000 soldiers a month to tide over a manpower shortage.

One soldier with the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the Myanmar government-in-exile, the National Unity Government (NUG), said about 100,000 young men and women of draft age had crossed the frontier into neighboring Thailand, to the north and south of the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border area, over the past week.

“Many more are expected to cross over the coming weeks because no one wants to fight with the Tatmadaw,” she said, using the local name for the military.

“Some just want out while others are joining the PDF or the EAOs.”

The backlash gained momentum shortly before Easter when men aged between 18 and 35 and women of 18 to 27 years of age began receiving letters demanding they report for military training or face prosecution.

A report by the Irrawaddy news outlet said at least 10 junta officials, including administration staff, were killed and at least seven others were detained by anti-regime groups for enforcing conscription in four states and seven regions between March 18 and 26.

"Losses were comparable with Germany and its failed bid to take Stalingrad"

Initial reports of such killings were reported by UCA News on March 26 from Myawaddy but the Irrawaddy report said officials were also using the draft to extort money from potential conscripts.

A manpower shortage followed a devastating five-month dry season offensive by the EAOs and the PDF and the military defeats were described by one military analyst as “historically unprecedented” in Myanmar.

Anthony Davis, Southeast Asia analyst with Janes security and defense publications, told a Myanmar seminar at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok that recent military losses were comparable with Germany and its failed bid to take Stalingrad during World War II.

“It wasn’t the end of war [World War II] but it told you which way the war was going,” he said, adding: “This is a war that the junta simply cannot win.”

“The impact on military morale has been equally severe,” he said.

Another analyst, Morgan Michaels, a research fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Tatmadaw was beset by “institutional rot” and the conscription was indicative of the manpower shortage.

Those sentiments are echoed by men and women who have fled their homeland.

One ethnic Barman — a 36-year-old goldsmith — is too old for the draft but says that would not stop the military from press-ganging him into their ranks. He recently fled Myanmar and spends most of his time raising funds for the PDF in Thailand.

"There are military and police checkpoints around each block"

“They don’t need more soldiers so I provide technical support which is finance. If the PDF needs more guns they buy more guns. If they need more food they buy more food,” he told UCA News from inside a safe house in Bangkok.

But he says it was also the rampant corruption and fear that had forced him to flee his home in Bagan in the Mandalay region, adding that just four out of 30 people who lived in his village block, or quarter, were not in prison.

“To travel you need papers from the local police station and an official letter stating you are a person of good standing and not with the PDF, EAOs or the NUG. But they don’t help. There are military and police checkpoints around each block.

“When you try to go to a supermarket you’re stopped. They check your mobile phone and your travel papers and passport. There’s always something wrong and they demand about 3,000 kyat [US$1.50]. It happens at checkpoint after checkpoint.

“If you don’t pay or if they don’t like you, you are taken to prison. Only four out of 30 from my quarter are not in jail. Then I met the KNU [Karen National Union] and I am no longer a person of good standing, I support every man fighting the Tatmadaw,” he told UCA News.

The KNU is one of some 20 EAOs fighting the Tatmadaw from bases inside their respective ethnic homelands alongside the PDF.

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