Youth Caught in the Crossfire: The Devastating Impact of Myanmar’s Conscription Law Commentary
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Youth Caught in the Crossfire: The Devastating Impact of Myanmar’s Conscription Law
Edited by: JURIST Staff

For many of the world’s nations, domestic warfare is thought of as a thing of the past. Battlefields, mass killings, hostilities, guerrilla warfare, and wartime brutalities are little more than words in a textbook for much of the global population — a theoretical possibility that only currently affects distant populations. Sadly, this is not the case for the youths in Myanmar, where entire generations are experiencing their formative years in the framework of civil war.

The effects of this have varied. Some of us have decided to join the resistance. Some of us have simply given up on our educational and professional pursuits, instead tending to our homes and families. Some of us have become itinerant. Some of us have become homeless. But all of us have been forced to make difficult choices amid the ongoing violence.

In the civil war’s latest tragedy, it appears that for all too many of us, even difficult choices will become a thing of the past. Following current conscription policy shifts, we all are at the risk of being sent to the battlefield without our consent.

In some countries, conscription, or compulsive military service, is a nod to a bygone era, having become little more than a means of showcasing patriotism. But in a country engulfed in active warfare, conscription is all too often a death sentence. As young people born into a country prone to political instability, far too many of us face the loss of our basic human rights.

Before I delve into the details of Myanmar’s newly revised Conscription Law, I feel I must provide some context.

The civil war in Myanmar long predates the strife underpinning the country’s latest dramatic power struggle — the 2021 Military Coup. More than six decades of political struggle have earned the country the dubious distinction of being host to the world’s longest-running civil conflict. However, it’s undeniable that the 2021 Coup ignited nationwide resistance and anger, escalating battlefields across most parts of the country. As the conflict persists and resistant forces forge alliances, the military (Tatmadaw) weakens due to battlefield losses and soldiers joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Moreover, the influx of new recruits has dwindled since 2000, averaging only 12,000 per year until 2020. In a bid to replenish its ranks, the military has explored alternative recruitment methods, ranging from enlisting soldiers’ family members to re-enlisting veterans with promises of non-frontline deployment and a salary.

However, on Feb. 10, 2024, approximately a week after the third anniversary of the 2021 Coup, the State Administration Council (SAC) announced the enforcement of a mandatory conscription law, which mandated compulsory military service for the majority of Myanmar’s youths. Under the law, the following age groups are eligible to be drafted:

Eligible PersonsMale AgeFemale Age
General Public18 – 3518 – 27
Skilled Personnel18 – 4518 – 35

Some 14 million young people in Myanmar are eligible for military conscription. The law stipulates a service period of up to 2 years for the general populace and 3 years for skilled personnel, with the possibility of extending to 5 years during a State of Emergency. The SAC recently extended its ongoing State of Emergency for another six months from February 1, 2024, meaning those drafted during this period will be compelled to serve for five years.

The enforcement of this law has instilled widespread fear among the youth of Myanmar. Following the announcement, thousands queued outside the Embassy of Thailand in Myanmar, seeking visas. Many are actively pursuing scholarship opportunities, while others contemplate fleeing to border regions or joining resistance forces. Parents are utilizing their life savings to send their children away, echoing a common sentiment in households: “Go. Leave, and don’t come back.”

As the days pass, speculation and fear intensify. The military-backed government media attempts to placate concerns by making shallow promises, such as not recruiting females until the fifth batch of recruitment and delaying official recruitment until after Myanmar’s new year festival, Thingyan. However, since the start of March, reports have emerged about lists of eligible youths held by Ward Administration Offices and invitation letters being sent out for recruitment discussions. In some villages and wards, administrations arrange lotteries, demanding significant sums of money to remove names from the list. The already distraught youths are now desperate, seeking any means to escape this highly stressful situation.

Interestingly, one unintended consequence of the law emerges: weddings. I personally know of over 10 couples who have recently either registered their marriages at court or otherwise abruptly tied the knot, as the law exempts married women from service. This allows men to leave their wives at home while they seek a better life abroad, with the eventual goal of moving their families out of the country. Even amidst the darkest times, expressions of love remain as sweet as honey.

For many, emigrating and finding work abroad appears to be the most viable option at present. However, even this presents significant challenges. Thailand, our neighboring country with impressive infrastructure, stands out as a popular destination. While there are numerous legal resettlement options in Thailand, many require substantial financial resources that are out of reach for most. Similarly, neighboring countries impose similar requirements and standards for legal migration, leading to concerns about potential illegal crossings.

Even for those with better financial means, thriving in a foreign country requires a significant commitment to compete with locals for decent job opportunities. These daunting circumstances highlight the urgent need for humanitarian protection, resettlement opportunities, and other forms of support. I sincerely hope that the international community can recognize the gravity of this situation and empathize with the desperation of our people.

On a personal level, I had plans to return home in March to visit my parents from the country where I am currently studying abroad. Now, I’m uncertain when I’ll be able to go back. During an emotional conversation with my parents, they simply told me, “Don’t come back.” Those words hit me hard, making me realize that I may never return home again, and my heart sank. It feels like I’ve lost my home, and in a sense, we’ve all lost our home.

Despite the situation, we remain resilient. I’ve always admired the strength of my people and their ability to adapt to adversity. We’ve weathered countless hardships over the years. As a Myanmar saying goes, “The night cannot be deeper than the Midnight,” and I firmly believe that we can overcome this dire situation together.

The author is a law student from Myanmar who is currently completing her education abroad. She wishes to remain anonymous due to threats to her security. 

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.