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Embattled military regime resorts to conscription law

Guest contributor

Maung Zarni 

The day following Union Day on Feb. 12 – to mark the formation of a new post-colonial union of ethnic nations – the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services posted the transcript (verbatim) of the speech delivered by its spokesperson Zaw Min Tun at a press conference.   

It concerns the embattled military regime’s announcement that it is enforcing the two acts – the People’s Military Service Act (or conscription) and the Reserve Military Force Law – that were adopted in 2010, but enforced on Feb. 10 causing panic among those deemed eligible for conscription.  

The law concerns both men and women of certain age groups being called to serve in the country’s defence services. 

The Reserve Military Force Law is about the veterans who retired from or were allowed to discharge from active duties automatically being required to stay in the Reservist Corps for the next five years since the day of retirement or discharge.         

The senior general is a popular laughing stock and derisively nicknamed in Burmese as Zaw Mae Lone, by the public at home and in the diaspora, for his loathsome lies and all too apparent distortions of the country’s realities of violence, wars, and the junta’s incurable leadership and policy failures. 

So, I shall refer to the junta spokesperson as Zaw Mae Lone. 

In the press conference, Zaw Mae Lone took aim at the “nation-destroying” Myanmar language media which refused to call out on the practice of conscription by anti-junta forces in non-Bamar ethnic regions such as Shan state.   

He then framed the nationwide armed uprising against the junta as “a proxy war” by foreign funders without being able to offer a shred of evidence. And he can’t because not a single foreign government has financed, armed or trained hundreds of anti-junta resistance organisations, which organically mushroomed after the coup three years ago, or those that have been in existence for decades.      

Then Zaw Mae Lone went on to deny that the junta’s curious timing behind the enforcement of these acts had anything to do with a steady stream of verified news reports about hundreds of its troops, including battalion and commanders, abandoning their posts and bases in various ethnic states.    

Chin, Rakhine (Arakan), Shan, Karenni and Karen regions bordering India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand have witnessed the junta troops seeking refuge across the border in India and Bangladesh or simply surrendering to the anti-junta Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs).  

As they abandon their bases – and the General Staff’s Orders to fight on – these deserting units have gifted massive caches of assorted military hardware and munitions, including  armoured vehicles and a few howitzers.    

As if Zaw Mae Lone wanted to hurl an insult at the general intelligence of the public, who have seen, in their social media feeds, the humiliating video news of the junta troops running away for their lives, with their families, as the EROs overran their regimental or battalion bases.

In 2017, the public in Myanmar and the world in general saw over 730,000 Rohingya genocide survivors crossing the country’s western land borders into neighbouring Bangladesh. 

In the early months of 2024, the same Myanmar public were treated to the video news images of Border Guards and other infantry units walking across the same border for their survival, if in orderly fashion and less traumatised.

Presumably these rank-and-file soldiers now seeking temporary refuge on Bangladesh soil were the ones who perpetrated genocidal acts of mass killings of thousands of Rohingya, burning over 300 villages in 2016 and 2017.  

Some of them openly gloated how many Rohingya they had killed in a given day on their Facebook feeds. On my own Facebook page, I noticed more than a few “Karma is a bitch” postings from Rohingya people.   

Instead of exploring an honourable exit for the universally reviled junta in particular, and the country’s largest military force, its instrument of decades-old repression, from national politics, the junta leaders have once again doubled down.  

They sent Zaw Mae Lone to lie to the country via its diabolical press conferences. 

A week after his press briefing on the conscription plan, the junta had court-martialled and sentenced to death the three generals whose troops in northern Shan State gambling hub of Laukkai, surrendered to the Three Brotherhood Alliance. 

Starting with a straight face that all is well with the junta’s troops, the spokesperson who heads the military “True News Information Team” explained to the public that his bosses’ decision to enforce the nationwide conscription act, was made solely with the legitimate concerns for the peace and security of the nation – and in the interests of a post-junta multiparty democracy. 

Therefore, there was no reason for the public to panic, Zaw Mae Lone assured the public. 

According to the statistics he offered there are a total of 13 million Myanmar (6.3 million men and 7.7 million women) who, based on their age groups, can be called up for the National Service. The age brackets for conscription for men are 18-35 and for women, 18-27.

Because there are over 60,000 administrative units or wards at different village, and town levels, there will be only two or three conscripts on average for each ward.  

That will generate about 120,000 new recruits for the country’s Defence Services. And not everyone thus “honourably” drafted into this defence services will need to see combat.  

Economists, entrepreneurs, cyber-specialists, teachers, doctors, and so on will be able to carry out their own respective professional duties within the junta’s broad definition of “national defence”. 

But no Burmese in his or her right mind has bought this “service to the nation” spin of the junta leadership. Reportedly, young men and women frantically find a way to exit the country. The Karen National Union (KNU) publicly urged the country’s draft-age people to dodge it and join the resistance instead.

The public well know that the junta has been losing territories and troops at the hands of the EROs and anti-coup People’s Defense Force (PDF), at an unprecedented rate since the founding of Myanmar’s national armed forces in December 1942.

It’s been nearly 80 years since the Panglong Agreement, stipulating ethnic group equality as the basis of forming a voluntary union of a post-colonial Myanmar out of a myriad of various ethnic groups with their own ancestral regions, was signed in Shan State.    

Under successive military regimes since 1962 when General Ne Win established a military dictatorship under the banner of socialism, Myanmar as a union of multiple nations has been unravelling.    

On her part, Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor from 2015-2020 had also failed to pursue federalist policies or practices which could have renewed the commitment to the country’s founding principle of ethnic equality as an effective bond.   

She even sided with her “father’s military” in both cases of Rohingya genocide, and of the army’s vicious attacks against Kachin and Rakhine (Arakan) resistance movements and communities.    

In the past three years since Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar’s national armed forces staged his universally opposed coup which ousted the re-elected Suu Kyi government.

Both the spirit and substance of the Panglong Agreement (or a political union forged voluntarily by different ethnic communities) has unraveled drastically, and, perhaps beyond repair, on one hand. 

On the other hand, no ERO really buys the ethnic Bama-controlled National Unity Government (NUG) polemic of rebuilding the military-destroyed country as a federalist democracy, with the NUG leaders as the new heads of the post-coup Union of Myanmar.

Neither Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and her followers, nor the central military have treated non-Bamar ethnic nations with respect or principle of group equality in all these past decades.  

The important leaders of the non-dominant ethnic groups such as Kachin, Karen, and Karenni who have offered their backing, protection and sanctuary to the NUG as a mix of the old Suu Kyi loyalists and non-Bama ethnic representatives, are fed up with the monopolistic way in which NUG’s ethnic Bamar leaders have been running this best-known anti-junta group.     

Worse still, the male chauvinist and/or Bama-centric leaders who backseat drive the NUG have similarly triggered widespread deep resentment and anger among one of the key pillars of anti-coup resistance, namely women’s revolutionary groups.  

The male chauvinists who lead the NUG have blocked proper representation of women in leadership and policy roles with the token woman leader as its “Foreign Minister.”

Myanmar’s woes are not confined to the majoritarian Bamar. 

EROs which have made significant territorial gains over the last six months – for instance, the Arakan Army on the coastal state of Rakhine (Arakan), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – are primarily focused on consolidating their gains and building autonomous sub- or semi-states based on their own respective ethno-centric visions and territorial claims internally. 

These militarily victorious groups seek to build their own economic ties with important neighbours such as China, Bangladesh and India. 

In brief, the country is definitely undergoing a self-contained process of quasi-Balkanization, albeit without the emergence of new republican states.       

In the areas which are still under the junta’s effective control, for instance, cities and large towns, the multi-ethnic populations feel most vulnerable to the junta’s plan to enforce the conscription law.  

Worryingly, in Rakhine (Arakan) State, the site of the Rohingya genocide, the junta is reportedly trying to implement its conscription scheme among Rohingya, putting the genocide survivors between a rock and a hard place.  

For post-genocide group relations between Rakhine and Rohingya have been extremely fragile, uncertain and distrust-ridden.

Additionally, the generals are signalling no indication of finding a compromise, thanks to the business-as-usual from the U.N. technical agencies with their Memoranda of Understanding with the generals, the unconditional support from Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, China, Thailand and the authoritarian bloc within the Association of Southeast Asia (ASEAN).  

This is despite the anti-junta organisations’ spin to the contrary – that the junta is on the verge of a collapse. 

These are extremely trying times for the public in Myanmar as millions struggle to eke out a living in the war-torn local economies, even without the spectre of dreadful conscription in areas the junta still controls at gunpoint.  

The news of the draft has already led to the death of two women in an early morning crowd crush as they queued at the passport office in Mandalay. 

The 17 million men and women whom Zaw Mae Lone said are eligible for conscription want to exit the increasingly violent and militarized Myanmar. This bodes ill for building the country as a federal democracy. 

*This story has been edited for brevity and clarity. The original story was published here.

Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled scholar and revolutionary from Burma with 35 years of direct political involvement in Burmese affairs.  

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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