Jul 13, 2024  |  
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Grant Peck

NextImg:Many in Myanmar consider fleeing to Thailand to escape conscription into an army they despise

BANGKOK — Thwel, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, saw very few options left to her after Myanmar’s military announced it is implementing conscription to fill its ranks.

“As a person living in this country, I only have two options: to go abroad illegally or die here,” Thwel told The Associated Press by phone while traveling to a border area to try crossing into Thailand with a small group of like-minded people.

Some observers believe a mass exodus of young talent is taking place and could become a social problem, with their exit heightening the instability that followed the military takeover that now amounts to a civil war.

Thwel, whose home in Myanmar’s southern Mon state is the scene of occasional combat between the army and resistance forces, spoke on condition she be called by only one name as protection from the military authorities. Like many professionals, she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement that was formed to oppose military rule after the army’s 2021 seizure of power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since then, the army‘s manpower has been stretched thin by increasing pressure from surprisingly durable pro-democracy resistance forces and ethnic minority armed organizations,

Over the past four months, opposition groups scored significant victories and seized strategically important territory in northern Shan state where Myanmar borders China, and in Rakhine state in the west.

On Feb. 10, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, chair of Myanmar’s ruling military council, ordered the 2010 conscription law be activated to replenish the ranks that have been depleted by the struggle to quash a nationwide pro-democracy insurgency. All healthy men ages 18-35 and women 18-27 are required to register for two years of military service.

Evading conscription is punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine.

Of Myanmar‘s 56 million people, about 14 million - 6.3 million men and 7.7 million women - are eligible for military service, according to Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the military government. The government will draft 60,000 people a year, with an initial batch of 5,000 to be called up soon after the traditional Thingyan New Year celebration in mid-April, he said.

After an uproar over the initial announcement, Zaw Min Tun said there is no plan to call women into military service yet - meaning schoolteacher Thwel might actually be in the clear for the time being.

But many people are actively looking for ways to escape.

The street in front of Thailand’s embassy in Yangon has been filled with visa applicants queued up to get numbered appointment tickets. Overwhelmed, the embassy announced it would accept only 400 visa appointments per day, and they must be made online. According to the Thai Foreign Ministry, some 7,000 Myanmar nationals have applied for visas, Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper reported Thursday.

Each day at the state passport office in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, 4,000-5000 people were lining up to get one of the 200-250 daily appointment tickets. Two women died and one was injured after they fell into a ditch in a pre-dawn rush to get a coveted early place in line.

A 32-year-old news translator from Yangon said he made a snap decision to leave the country after the conscription announcement, and flew to Thailand a few days later. Like almost all persons willing to discuss their plans, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of the legal consequences.

He said he was very concerned because serving in the military is like entering a labyrinth with no way back out, giving the example of his uncle, who joined the army for a five-year enlistment but was not allowed to leave for more than 40 years.

A 26-year-old journalist who has been working covertly in Mandalay, said the conscription law made his situation untenable. He also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of the legal consequences; more than 150 journalists were arrested after the army sized power, and more than one-third remain locked up, according to the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

“I tried my best to stay inside the country in the past few years while other journalists were fleeing abroad or to areas controlled by ethnic minority armed groups,” he said. “But, this time, we can’t hide anywhere. We can’t stay out of sight. There is no choice.”

He is also planning to flee to Thailand.

The Institute for Strategy and Policy, an independent think tank, said conscription could trigger a mass exodus, more widespread violations of human rights and increase corruption and extortion at all levels. It anticipates that young people close to areas where armed conflict is active could join the ethnic minority armed forces and pro-democracy resistance groups.

There were around 160,000 soldiers before the army takeover, the institute said, and there are now fewer than 100,000 due to casualties, desertions and defection.

Like schoolteacher Thwel, a 35-year old doctor from Yangon had joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. He was consequently restricted from treating patients, since activist medical workers are boycotting government hospitals, while private clinics and hospitals risk closure if they hire them. They are also blacklisted by immigration authorities, making them unable to get passports to legally leave the country.

Professionals such as medical doctors and engineers face a higher age limit for conscription - 45 for men and 35 for women - and their term of service is three years.

“For me, the announcement of the law was the impetus to make a decision to go abroad,” said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety.

The doctor said he was exploring the best ways flee abroad or to border areas controlled by the ethnic armed groups.

Ethnic resistance groups such as the Arakan Army from Rakhine state and the Shan State Progress Party have invited people to take refuge in territory they control. The Karen National Union in Kayin state in the southeast has similarly promised help.

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, the leading political body of the pro-democracy resistance, declared that the public is not required to comply with the conscription law, urging them instead to intensify their participation in the fight against army rule.

The Yangon region branch of its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force, announced a recruitment drive and said they received about 1,000 online applications within 12 hours.

More than 1,000 working-age Myanmar nationals are believed to be crossing into Thailand every day since conscription was announced, said Moe Kyaw of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association-Thailand, an aid association for Myanmar migrant workers.

“It is not a good sign that human resources and intellectuals leave a country,” he said.

He echoed other aid workers in predicting that with new waves of people entering Thailand, generally illegally, there will be increased human trafficking and related crimes, and there will be friction as the new entrants compete for jobs with as many as 3 million already employed Myanmar migrant workers.