The Sunday Telegraph

Myanmar’s conscripti­on plan drives youth to rebels

Three years on from their coup, the junta’s plan to ramp up recruitmen­t is backfiring spectacula­rly

- By Lorcan Lovett and Ko David in Tagu, southern Myanmar

SITTING on flimsy plastic chairs in an old town hall with holes in the roof and flaking paint on the walls, a dozen young people wait patiently for their turn to join Myanmar’s rebel army.

As they kill time, they compare notes about the junta-controlled cities and villages they have come from.

Some are just mere miles away from the rebel-held town of Tagu, one of several areas in southern Myanmar’s Taninthary­i region which the insurgent People’s Defence Force (PDF) has captured from the ruling military government over the past year.

“I didn’t even know a place like this existed,” said Jenny, 18. She asked not to use her real name for fear of repercussi­ons for her family, like all the people interviewe­d for this story.

Jenny wanted to join the fight against the country’s junta ever since they launched a coup in February 2021 and jailed then-leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She watched appalled as the army launched a campaign of violent repression, mass rape and bombing campaigns.

“No way would I choose the Burmese military – they kill civilians,” she said. “I want to be a revolution­ary.”

Her parents had always refused. That all changed when the army said it would be introducin­g conscripti­on from mid-April. Women were initially included, and then exempted.

But Jenny’s family did not want to take the risk of her being called up. They gave their blessing for her to flee to Tagu.

“I would have liked my own small business, but we lost our dreams a long time ago,” she said. Instead, she now plans to make combat drones “to destroy the military columns".

Jenny is one of hundreds of young people flocking to rebel-held territory to escape being conscripte­d into the Burmese army as it tries to plug major troop shortages.

Ever since the 2021 coup, the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his forces have done everything in their power to stamp out any opposition, from shooting peaceful protesters to launching relentless air strikes to torching villages.

But they are continuing to lose troops – through defections and deaths – as well as territory to a loose alliance of ethnic rebel groups and a civilian militia movement that has squeezed the junta away from Myanmar’s borders with Thailand, Bangladesh, China and India and into a central rump of territory.

The army began training conscripts in April after announcing it would impose a mandatory service law for men aged 18-35, or 45 for profession­als.

The regime wants 60,000 sign ups in the first year to almost double its current troop strength, estimated at 70,000, but it is not an enticing pitch.

Joy, 30, who defected from the government’s home affairs department two months after the coup, said: “With the conscripti­on law, the people they are targeting could be more educated, younger people who have more political awareness.”

New conscripts would be placed away from the rank and file, and “closely vetted to find out who can be trusted”, he said.

“Those who can’t be trusted may be used as porters or as human shields to cross mine fields.”

Lists of new recruits have already been drawn up through Hunger Games-style local lotteries. Some names have allegedly been included by local regime officials to settle grudges. Draft dodgers face up to five years in prison.

The aim is to increase the war effort but so far it appears to be backfiring, instead causing a fresh exodus from the country.

In the rush to escape, two women were crushed to death in a queue for Thai visas, while at least two men killed themselves after their names were drawn in conscripti­on lotteries.

In the western state of Rakhine, where Burmese troops have been accused by the UN of “textbook genocide” against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, the same men that were once persecuted have now been forcibly enlisted to fight alongside their persecutor.

Bom, 31, said the atmosphere in his home city – which he didn’t want to name for security reasons – was “intense, because of the pressure from the dictatorsh­ip”.

He described soldiers snatching young people from the streets, and families paying bribes of over $100 to avoid the draft.

“We have to unite and fight the dictatorsh­ip now,” said Bom. “I am joining the PDF to fight.”

Htet, 20, said like Jenny he too was held back by his family until the draft order was announced.

“The conscripti­on law sucks,” he said. “It’s just a way to get civilians to kill each other. Since the coup, I’ve wanted to join the PDF, but my parents were worried. When the conscripti­on was announced, they let me leave.”

Yone Lay, 25, left behind his job at a highway bus station. “I don’t want to fight the PDF, so I joined them instead. At the beginning I was afraid, but not now.”

Tun Myint Zaw, 51, a headmaster in Tagu, is in charge of registerin­g newcomers to the rebel-held area. He said he had signed up roughly 230 people over the past two weeks, 30 per cent of whom were women.

The resistance’s appeal among young people is helped by the fact that at the moment they appear to be winning.

The PDF claimed responsibi­lity for a bold and unpreceden­ted barrage of drone attacks on an air base, the airport and the military generals’ lair in the capital, Naypyidaw, in April.

It was not clear how much damage was caused – if any – but the rebels’ ability to penetrate what should be a heavily fortified city was embarrassi­ng for the junta.

A joint force of ethnic Karen forces and the PDF have captured Myawaddy, a key border town for most of Myanmar’s overland trade with Thailand.

Maintainin­g that momentum is the key challenge facing the resistance.

Back near the front line in Taninthary­i region, 69-year-old Ko Star, a nom de guerre, assesses a room of 69 new recruits aged between 16 and 35 about to embark on two months’ training.

Once a parliament­arian, he was ousted in the coup and is now a regional PDF leader.

Due to weapon and ammunition shortages, not all the new recruits would receive a gun, and none would receive a salary, he explained. That made the “strong will” of the new recruits all the more important, said Ko Star.

“Recruits come to us based on their own decisions and their own feelings.”

He compared the people joining the PDF of their own free will with the people being forced into the army and “undergoing training without a desire to fight”.

That will “definitely fail”, he said. Not everyone comes to Tagu to wage war, however.

Headteache­r Tun Myint Zaw said: “If they want to join the PDF, we can help them.

“If they don’t, they can stay in the village and we can help them with food and accommodat­ion as much as we can.”

Fresh arrival Bo Pein, 27, is one of those planning to stay off the battlefiel­d, at least for now.

Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Life is Easy” above a picture of a cannabis leaf, he was vague about what he would do instead.

“I’ve never liked the military,” he said. “If necessary, I am ready to join the PDF. For now, I will stay in the village.”

 ?? ?? The Taninthary­i region in southern Myanmar has been captured in the past year by the People’s Defence Force, the insurgent group which the country’s young are flocking to
The Taninthary­i region in southern Myanmar has been captured in the past year by the People’s Defence Force, the insurgent group which the country’s young are flocking to

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