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Soldiers stand next to military vehicles as people gather to protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, in this February 15 2021 file photo. Picture: REUTERS
Soldiers stand next to military vehicles as people gather to protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, in this February 15 2021 file photo. Picture: REUTERS

Estelle knew she had to flee Myanmar. The military junta had just announced it would introduce conscription to bolster its forces against myriad armed groups challenging its power, and she was terrified she would be forced to fight.

The former government worker, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is among thousands of people who have decided to leave their homes since the mandatory military service law was announced in February and came into effect in April.

Some people have risked their lives to trek through jungles and ford rivers, crossing into neighbouring countries without documentation because the military has made it increasingly difficult to leave through formal channels. Others have fled to areas under the control of armed groups fighting against the military or have joined these groups themselves.

The mass exodus is taking place as the military regime faces its most serious crisis since it took power in a 2021 coup, which sparked widespread protests.

The street demonstrations, which were met with a brutal crackdown, morphed into an armed resistance movement that has seen newer anti-coup forces join with many of Myanmar’s autonomy-seeking ethnic armed groups, posing the most significant challenge to the military in decades.

The UN Human Rights Office says more than 5,000 people have been killed by the military since the coup, including more than 1,000 women. About 3-million people have been displaced.

Estelle had to sneak out of the country because she had joined a countrywide civil disobedience movement after the coup and faced international travel restrictions as a result. She and a friend paid the equivalent of abour $280 each in Myanmar’s kyat currency to travel by car from the city of Mawlamyine to the border with Thailand and then hired a smuggler to take them across the Moei River.

“It was just the two of us girls travelling with a man we didn’t know,” Estelle said. “We were scared we would be arrested or trafficked.”

But they took the risk anyway despite the fact that, at 36, Estelle falls outside the age range for conscription. A few days after its initial announcement, the junta also pledged to exempt women for the time being.

But Estelle is not going back. “That’s just words,” she said. “We never know when the time will come when they will make difficulties for us.”

The junta has been accused by Western governments of systematic atrocities, including executions and torture, and excessive use of air strikes and artillery in civilian areas. It has dismissed that as misinformation and says it is targeting “terrorists”.

The junta said it planned to call up 5,000 people by the end of April and 60,000 by the end of the year.

Men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 are eligible, with the age limit extending to 45 for men and 35 for women in the case of specialists like doctors.

In a report published in July, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said women’s rights organisations had identified increasing reports of the trafficking of women and girls following the enactment of the conscription law.

“Women are using dangerous channels to flee the country amid fears of conscription, putting them at high risk of trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Conscription exemptions for married women also raise the risk of early and forced marriage for girls and women,” Andrews wrote.

For Catherine, whose name has also been changed for security reasons, the writing is on the wall.

“The military is weak, so it’s calling [up] young people. It’s not OK for us, and we don’t accept it,” the 23-year-old florist and office worker said in a telephone interview from the northern city of Myitkyina. “Military conscription laws in other countries are designed to protect and defend their nations against external threats, but in our country this law is intended to force us to kill our own people.”

Guns not flowers

Catherine and her friends attempt to make light of the situation, but they are worried.

“We joke that the hands that once held flowers will hold guns now,” she said. “Although we are joking, we feel deeply concerned and disappointed that it has come to this situation.”

Catherine is trying to get a passport but is struggling as the demand for passports has surged since February.

The military call-up comes on top of an economic crisis that has sent the currency spiralling lower and caused unemployment to surge. The World Bank says women have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn that followed the Covid pandemic and the coup.

Moon Nay Li, joint general secretary for advocacy group the Women’s League of Burma, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that displaced women could be pushed into early or forced marriage, and also face heightened risks of domestic violence. “There is no safe place for women and girls ... they have to survive in risky situations,” she said.

Reign of fear

In his report, Andrews said women, girls and LGBTQ+ people were acutely vulnerable to discrimination, violence and exploitation since the coup.

Women interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said a sense of unease had seeped into their everyday lives. “Sometimes, I feel mentally exhausted,” said Catherine. “I’m scared to go out alone, even to get a coffee.”

And in the past months, there have been signs that their exemption from military service may be coming to an end.

Several media have said that local-level officials serving under the military’s administration were drawing up lists of women who were eligible to be called up to the army.

The military has denied these claims — describing them as “fake news” — but an analysis of military pamphlets and pro-military media channels conducted by the Burma Affairs and Conflict Study (BACS) advocacy group found that women were likely to be included in the fifth batch of conscripts, due to be called up in August.

Min Htet Aung, a lead researcher for BACS, said women would face unique risks if forced to serve. “The Myanmar military is an organisation dominated by patriarchy and male chauvinism. Consequently, women who join the military may face discrimination and sexual abuse,” he said in an emailed response to questions.

Women were at the forefront of resistance to the 2021 coup and have joined armed groups fighting the military. About one-fifth of the 20,000 political prisoners in Myanmar are female, according to a local rights group.

Women from the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, have also faced fresh hardships after years of abuses. In 2017, a violent military crackdown against the Rohingya sent 730,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh. The UN described the action as genocidal in intent.

Though Rohingya are not eligible for conscription under the law because they are denied citizenship, the military has conscripted more than 1,000 Rohingya men and boys since February using methods including abduction, threats and false promises of citizenship, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

And this has had an effect on women and the economic welfare of their households. “Families are worried ... Women don’t want their husbands to go,” said Sofia, a Rohingya women’s protection specialist in Rakhine, who also used a pseudonym for security reasons.

Force

On May 3, the military said men of conscription age would no longer be allowed to seek employment abroad and those avoiding conscription would face three years in jail.

Min Htet Aung said the army was snatching people from their homes, roadside checkpoints, tea shops and bars and sometimes soldiers threatened the parents of people who had fled, a tactic it also uses against opponents.

“The junta propagates the notion that they only recruit volunteers. However, in reality, few people willingly enlist. Most are recruited by force,” said Min Htet Aung.

The International Organisation for Migration in Thailand said it had seen a steady increase in people crossing the border from Myanmar, including a nearly 30% increase between January and February. Women were more likely than men to enter without official documentation, it said.

But it’s not just military conscription that some women have to fear. In Shan State, at least three ethnic armed groups have announced mandatory service policies in recent months and two conscript women.

Fear of being conscripted into an ethnic armed group drove 16-year-old Christine, who also did not give her real name for security reasons, from her home in Lashio township in February after one of the armed groups there told her grandmother that Christine and her siblings would have to serve in its forces.

They fled the next day and Christine headed to Malaysia. She described hiding in the back of a cargo truck and walking through mountains at night.

She is now in Kuala Lumpur, where she is terrified of being arrested by immigration officials. “I don’t have many difficulties as long as I don’t leave my room,” she said. “It’s not safe around here.”

Estelle also found it hard to get by in Thailand because she did not enter legally. But she has no intention of going home while the junta remains in power. “I hope the revolution will succeed quickly and that I can return home quickly.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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