Men and women over the age of 18 will be required to serve up to three years in the Burmese military or face a lengthy jail term, reports claim.
Documents seen by Japanese broadcaster NHK suggest that the legislation was enacted on 17 December last year and requires all able-bodied adults to register with local authorities for the draft. Men between the ages of 18 and 45 are obligated, while for women it is between 18 and 35. Burma already has a standing army of close to half a million, one of biggest per capita in the world.
Reports of forcible conscription are common, and may well be the reasoning behind the new law: the 2008 constitution will officially come into force when the new parliament convenes this month, and fears of greater judicial reach and scrutiny of the practice may have the generals worried.
Laws surrounding forcible conscription are murky. According to Burmese and international law, the practice comes under the banner of forced labour, which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes as “any work that a person is required to do against their will, under threat of any form of penalty if they do not comply or cooperate”.
The new constitution says this is illegal except for “duties assigned by the Union in accord with the law in the interest of the public”.
It also says however that “Every citizen has the duty to undergo military training in accord with the provisions of the law and to serve in the Armed Forces to defend the Union.”
How universalised such policies will be, or how thoroughly they are enforced, is not clear but it seems likely to form a shield for the government, with forcibly conscripted individuals now without a legal basis to complain.
Tin Oo, deputy chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who held the position of commander in chief of the army until 1976, said that parliament should have debated the law before it was enacted.
“It is true to an extent that every citizen has the duty to protect the country…but it is not right to decide on a matter that concerns the people without proposing it to them first. A referendum should be held first before making the decision.”
The necessity for a large army is a practical consideration, with multiple ethnic armies refusing to sign a Border Guard Force deal which would see them assimilated into the Burmese army. There are a number of restive areas where large numbers of troops are required, and clashes have occurred recently in Arakan, Kachin and Shan states.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst on the China-Burma border, said that there are pros and cons to the new law. “From the bad side, our country is already in deep poverty and the people barely have anything to eat. So [adopting such a law] may cause bigger negative effects on the country, which is already…struggling to feed the current army and carry the burden of military expenses.
“On the plus side, civilians will learn how to use guns and be given a chance to understand the nature of the military. With the knowledge of how to handle weapons, the people will be able to rise up against the military – in a way they will be trained for the revolution.”
Desertion is believed to be an ever-present problem for the military, which pays lower-ranking troops around $US10 a month. Audio recordings of Senior General Than Shwe, obtained by DVB, show him to be concerned about the problem.
Additional reporting by Peter Aung