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Forced to Fight For Your Own Worst Enemy

UUSC partners sound the alarm about the Burmese junta’s new forced conscription policy.
Burma Military

By Josh Leach on March 7, 2024

Imagine being forced to risk your life to defend the very regime that stole your future. 

Unfathomable as it may seem, this is the fate confronting millions of young people right now in the Southeast Asian country of Burma (Myanmar). The military junta that has ruled the country for the last three years recently announced a new policy forcing young adults to register for military service. This means putting their lives on the line, in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, to protect an illegitimate regime that never should have seized power in the first place. 

How did we get here? 

Just under 10 years ago, Burma’s future seemed much more hopeful. In 2015, the country held its first democratic elections in a half-century. The end of the oppressive junta’s rule seemed in sight. Even though the Burmese military retained too much power, under the country’s constitutional structure, the election of the country’s first civilian leadership in decades seemed to promise a new era of democratic governance and peace. 

That outlook began to change in 2017, when the military used its remaining leverage to commit a genocide against the country’s Rohingya population. Four years later, the Burmese people refused—by a democratic vote—to install the military’s preferred candidate in power. 

Rather than accept this expression of the public’s will, the military chose to eliminate what lingering shreds of democracy still remained. In February 2021, the junta seized power in an attempted coup. Since that time, they have governed without the public’s consent, relying on terror and violence alone to hold power. 

Despite the grave risks involved in opposing the military, thousands of Burmese people rose up to confront them in the aftermath of the coup. To this day, the freely-elected National Unity Government (NUG) works in exile to restore Burma’s democracy and remove the junta from power. Inside the country, meanwhile, a civil war has raged between the Burmese military and various armed factions opposed to its rule. 

Forcing young people to kill or be killed

The Burmese military obviously cannot rely on public support to wage their war effort. Burma’s people have proven that time and again, putting their safety and future at risk to speak out against the military’s oppression.

Since the junta cannot recruit enough soldiers voluntarily, they have resorted once again to force. Under the military’s new conscription policy, young people could face a sentence of up to five years in prison if they refuse to enroll. The junta reportedly aims to enlist 60,000 people each year, of an estimated population of 13 million eligible young people. 

Burma’s civil war has been unspeakably brutal, and enlistment in the country’s military almost certainly means signing up to kill or be killed. One expert quoted by the U.S. news outlet Voice of America (VOA) warns that the forced recruits could be placed on “mine detection” duty, for instance—exposing them to death from an accidental explosion.

Others might be forced to participate in the junta’s atrocities against their own civilian population. Since the start of the war, after all, the junta has been responsible for the confirmed killing of at least 4,000 civilians—with UN experts estimating the true toll of the military’s crimes to be probably much higher. Each week brings fresh reports of military airstrikes that have leveled villages and killed innocent people. 

In an effort to avoid being forced to participate in such crimes, Burma’s young people have been rushing to escape the country. Khin Ohmar, the founder of Progressive Voice, was quoted in VOA estimating that hundreds of Burmese young adults have already fled to Thailand. Ohmar called on other governments to welcome Burmese refugees escaping the conscription policy. She also urged the UN Security Council to prioritize addressing the conflict, as it now extends into a fourth year. 

A forgotten war? 

In the past year, fighting in Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza has riveted the world’s attention, and rightly so—the human costs of these conflicts have been appalling. But the world also must not forget the crisis unfolding in Burma—especially as the junta crosses a new threshold of depravity in their war effort, by forcing even more of the country’s young people to turn weapons against their own friends and neighbors.

No person should ever be forced to fight on behalf of an illegitimate regime—still less one that has been responsible for trampling on their future and murdering their families and loved ones. The young people of Burma deserve better. The junta must cease its atrocities, and the U.S. and global community must aid the Burmese people in their struggle to end military rule.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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