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Conscription can mar Myanmar’s human rights

by Adrian David

RANGOON, 1 APR – Mandatory conscription in Myanmar will serve as a counterweight for military defections and worsen its human rights crisis, warned a research fellow.

Institute of Asian Research fellow Calvin San highlighted that some 14,000 people had been displaced – and many feared dead – since the coup d’etat by Myanmar’s Tatmataw junta in February 2021, from a democratically elected government.

“Many consider forced conscription as a desperate act by the military, but it creates graver concerns.

“Conscription will worsen Myanmar’s human rights crisis,” wrote San, a political science student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

San, who is also working with the Centre for Southeast Asia Research and the UBC Myanmar Initiative, opined that the enforced compulsory conscription for young men and women would amplify the ongoing human rights crisis in the country and lead to widespread emigration and extortion.

“As the international community’s pressure fails to deter nationwide persecution, it is crucial that international bodies ramp up their support for local pro-democracy groups directly engaged with civilians, leveraging diaspora networks and employing aid strategies that reach communities beyond the border areas,” San said, referring to the conscription for men aged 18-35 years and women aged 18-27, as announced by Myanmar’s military junta last month (February).

Those evading conscription faced penalties in the form of heavy fines or imprisonment for three to five years.

The conscription scheme aimed to enlist 60,000 people within this year, dragging huge numbers of unwilling youth into the line of fire.

“With millions impacted by another devastating policy under military rule, the international community cannot gamble on the junta’s willingness to act constructively any longer.

“International actors must ramp up support for local pro-democracy stakeholders.

“The military is facing a crisis in manpower. Historically, it relied on voluntary recruitment of poverty-stricken communities and underaged males.

“This tactic was temporarily offset by an increase in economic opportunities during the military’s power-sharing period with the National League for Democracy civilian government,” San said in his analysis.

He wrote that enlistment rates remained low since and stagnated further in the post-coup climate.

“In addition to horrific living conditions for conscripts, the vast majority of civilians lack the incentive for voluntary enlistment given the military’s atrocities and losses on the battlefield.

“The junta is also struggling to maintain control in many parts of the country as resistance forces launch coordinated campaigns and establish independent governing structures.

“In addition to low rates of voluntary enlistment and a lack of popular support, the junta’s functioning capacity is stretched thin.

“This makes systematic implementation of the law infeasible.

“Military officials will need to rely on entrapment, arbitrary abductions and other repressive methods to enforce mandatory conscription,” San retorted.

Since the announcement, he added, thousands had rushed to foreign embassies and passport offices to obtain documents for emigration.

He revealed that this had led to a stampede in Mandalay last February, that left two women dead.

“Many of those who were unable to acquire such documentation will nonetheless flee the country to protect themselves and their families,” he warned.

San pointed out that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there were around 1.35 million refugees and two million internally displaced persons in Myanmar.

“Both numbers are set to increase sharply as people flee towards ‘liberated zones’ inside Myanmar or towards neighbouring countries to avoid being drafted.

“As millions find ways to evade conscription, they are vulnerable to extortion by military authorities,” San wrote.

He alleged that Myanmar continued to rank among the world’s most corrupt states.

“It is likely that civilians will have to pay off military officers to avoid conscription.

“This is an extreme toll on a populace facing high inflation and deteriorating socio-economic conditions. “While wealthy families can afford to pay bribes, middle and working-class communities will be hit hardest by forced conscription.

“The most troubling implication is that the military seeks to make an entire country victim and accomplice to human rights abuses,” San said.

He further alleged that the military’s scorched earth campaigns had resulted in mass atrocities against whole communities.

He listed that at least 60,000 households were destroyed between 2021 and 2023 due to such campaigns.

“The military’s use of human shields during crackdowns is also well-documented.

“Abducting and employing civilians as cannon fodder is very common.

“In view of these practices, mandatory conscription must be treated as a human rights catastrophe.

“The military is pitting civilian against civilian and forcing youth to either do harm or be harmed,” he alleged.

The conscription law, San said, served as a justification for coercing and persecuting civilians, and spreading abuses on a larger scale.

“The junta’s move highlights the ineffectiveness of current international pressure.

“Existing sanctions have done little to deter the military from carrying out nationwide persecution and escalating the humanitarian crisis,” San said.

He accused Myanmar’s leaders of disregarding multilateral agreements, including the ‘Asean Five-Point Consensus’.

Asean had announced its intention to develop a ‘Myanmar-owned and led’ solution last January.

The concensus, San said, backed Thailand’s plan to build a humanitarian corridor on the Thailand-Myanmar border with the help of the Myanmar Red Cross Society, which was a junta-backed body.

“However, just days after the Asean meeting, the junta enforced mandatory conscription to safeguard its own interests.

“Hence, any real solution to the conflict and human rights crisis under military governance remains wishful thinking,” San further alleged.

He added that local pro-democracy actors remained in the best position to reach civilians directly.

“International bodies must maintain active and open engagements with the resistance-led National Unity government and other members of the National Unity Consultative Council.

“Sagaing, Karenni (Kayah), Karen and Tanintharyi areas, which are growing hubs for pro-democracy resistance groups, will be likely destinations for youths escaping conscription.

“Hence, international bodies need to establish support mechanisms for democratic deliberations on the ground, such as the Karenni State’s Interim Council and Sagaing Forum,” said San.

He cautioned foreign governments not to rely on aid strategies that stopped at Myanmar’s borders and sporadic consultation with domestic stakeholders.

“Foreign governments should leverage diaspora networks in their own countries as a gateway to stronger coordination with domestic organisations.

“Conscription affects communities far from border areas where most foreign aid networks are based.

“As Myanmar’s pro-democratic faction strives to build inclusivity, accountability, aid channels and stable administrative systems at the grassroots level, international actors must depend on them to reach populations in need.

“Prolonged hesitation to support local efforts will continue to put millions in Myanmar at risk,” San further warned. – airtimes.my

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