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Burmese army commanders have been ordered to embark on a seemingly rapacious recruitment drive that will see more than 25,000 troops added to its already formidable manpower each year.
A directive sent out by the War Office in Naypyidaw said that those among the 530-plus battalions who achieve the quota of a minimum four new soldiers per month will be rewarded with a one million kyat ($US1,300) bonus at the end of each calendar year. Those who fail are to be punished under military law.
Current estimates put the size of Burma’s army at around 400,000, a sizeable figure when considering the fact that Burma has no external enemy and has not fought a war against a foreign force since the 19th century.
But military expansion remains a priority of the central government, which announced earlier this year that a revised budget will allocate nearly a quarter of total annual spending to the army. In contrast, less than three percent will go to healthcare and education combined.
Forced recruitment has been a hallmark of military policy that sees Burma hosting one of the world’s highest numbers of child soldiers, despite use of minors made officially illegal by the government.
“There are soldiers waiting at bus terminals, train stations and ports and the youths are scared to travel alone without their family members [for fear of being forcibly recruited],” said Aye Myint, who runs the Guiding Star legal advocacy group that monitors child soldier recruitment.
Late last year the government mooted the idea of introducing a military draft that would see men and women over the age of 18 required to serve up to three years in the army or face a lengthy jail term.
Benjamin Zawacki, Burma researcher at Amnesty International, said that while no decision has yet been passed on the draft, parliament is believed to be reviewing it.
The prospect of a forced conscription raises the possibility of legalising the coercive and highly controversial measures known to be used by the Burmese army to boost troop numbers.
“Prior to the idea of a military draft, I’ve not been aware of any sort of regulation surrounding how troops are recruited,” Zawacki told DVB. “The government is ostensibly opposed to child soldiers but we know that happens on a wide scale, so while there is regulation, it’s not abided by.”
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2002 found that around 70,000 children below 18 were active in the military, making Burma one of the world’s leading recruiters of child soldiers. Another report last week by the New York-based group said that hundreds of prison inmates had been sent to the frontline in the Burmese army’s ongoing battles against ethnic armies, where they are forced to carry equipment and act as human minesweepers.
But many individuals do join at their own behest, Zawacki says. “One of the reasons for the 400,000-strong force is the economic opportunities that being in the army offers. While pay is incredibly low, the military offers relative certainty and security.”
He added however that if the ambitious quota set down by the War Office is to be realised, then “it stands to reason they’ll have to assert some pressure on people [to join]”.
Additional reporting by Francis Wade