Accessibility links

Breaking News

Thailand Braces for Refugee Influx After Myanmar Junta Announces Conscription Law

FILE - Military officers march during a parade in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2023. The country's military government revealed last week how it will implement its newly activated conscription law.
FILE - Military officers march during a parade in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2023. The country's military government revealed last week how it will implement its newly activated conscription law.

Thailand is bracing for an influx of refugees after Myanmar’s military recently announced a conscription law.

Analysts say the Thai government should put those fleeing Myanmar into safe zones.

Last week, Myanmar’s military activated the People’s Military Service Law, meaning men aged 18 to 45 and women aged 18 to 35 can be drafted into the armed forces for two years of compulsory service. Certain personnel in specialist professions, like doctors and engineers, must serve for three years. In the case of a national emergency, the military service can be extended to five years.

The military says the conscription order is essential given the conflict with rebel groups in the country. Analysts say it is because the junta has struggled to sign up new recruits and is facing its biggest challenges on the battlefield.

The declaration of mandatory military service came into effect on February 13 with the junta planning to enroll 5,000 people per month from April, drafting 60,000 new military sign-ups yearly.

Videos have circulated on social media in recent days showing long lines of people applying for visas at the Thai Embassy in Yangon. Local media reported that the embassy was issuing 400 tickets per day.

Khin Ohmar, founder of rights group Progressive Voice Myanmar, says many young people are fleeing to avoid conscription.

“Many young people are fleeing already. A few hundred already from local counts. Many have been arrested by Thai authorities at border checkpoints,” she said.

At least 27 Myanmar nationals have already been arrested in Tak, in northern Thailand, by the Thai border task force after allegedly crossing the border illegally, Eleven Media Myanmar reports.

“Thailand should do two things. For immediate response, instead of arresting and putting them in police station and detention centers, open temporary safe zones on Thailand’s side with international, U.N. assistance and provide protection,” Khin Ohmar said.

“[The Thai government] should convince the Myanmar junta to stop this. And also call on the U.N. Security Council to help as the junta’s actions threaten regional peace and stability, resulting from its terror campaign across the country targeting civilian populations mercilessly, especially airstrikes and forced conscription,” she added.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since a February 2021 military coup, which has been hugely opposed by the Myanmar population. Ousted politicians and regional leaders have formed a National Unity Government, or NUG, while the military crackdown has fueled an armed resistance from opposition and ethnic groups. Thailand and Myanmar share a 2,414-kilometer border, making it accessible for fleeing Myanmar refugees to cross into safety.

A recent alliance of opposition forces has since launched a large offensive operation that has seen the occupation of dozens of townships and hundreds of junta-held posts. The NUG says 60% of Myanmar is now under the control of opposition forces.

Tun Aung Shwe, Australia representative for the NUG, says the conscription law has Myanmar youths living in the city seeking protection.

“Urban youths are now scrambling to seek refuge in liberated areas under the NUG and democratic forces control. Regrettably, many impoverished youths find themselves conscripted into the military ranks, unwillingly serving as cannon fodder in front-line conflicts and minefields,” he said.

Thailand has been the go-to country for Myanmar people fleeing conflict. Human Rights Watch reported in November that approximately 45,000 Myanmar refugees have entered Thailand since the military coup three years ago.

A camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar as seen across the Moei river from Mae Sot in western Thailand, Feb. 8, 2024.
A camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar as seen across the Moei river from Mae Sot in western Thailand, Feb. 8, 2024.

Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no specific domestic legal framework for protection of urban refugees and asylum-seekers.

Thailand, however, has recently shifted its approach toward Myanmar and is taking a more humanitarian role since Thailand’s new government come into power last year. The kingdom is now under the leadership of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai party, while Thailand’s new military chief, General Songwit Noonpakdee, was appointed in October.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said last year the government is ready to build shelters along the Thai-Myanmar border should the conflict force refugees to spill over into Thailand. He met with U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington last week, discussing the need to further address the crisis in Myanmar.

A statement from Blinken’s office said the secretary “emphasized the urgent need to expand humanitarian assistance to displaced people... in Burma (Myanmar) and ... release all those unjustly detained, end the violence, and put Burma back on a path to democratic civilian governance.”

Parnpree also visited the border town of Mae Sot this month to establish humanitarian corridors as the conflict worsens. But experts say Thailand needs to include Myanmar’s opposition forces in any cross-border agreements.

Phil Robertson, the Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, also called on Thailand to receive fleeing Burmese.

“Thailand has both a human rights and humanitarian obligation to receive Burmese people fleeing political persecution, including those escaping the [State Administrative Council] military junta's forced conscription law that seems intended to drive the young people out of the country,” he said.

“From a military that already specializes in systematically attacking civilians as part of its core tactics, the highly unpopular junta's latest move looks like an assertion of intimidation and control of youth throughout the country by press ganging them into military service. The Thai government and military, which have closely aligned with the [Myanmar] junta and been all too willing to do their bidding, need to think again because it's clear the junta's strategy is to send young people streaming across the borders to escape a brutal bout of military service,” he added.

The crisis has also seen Myanmar’s economy suffer, which has also prompted Myanmar nationals to seek other opportunities over its border. Millions are unemployed in Myanmar with its economy 10% lower than it was in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by the World Bank.

For some, the conscription law is another blow to the livelihoods of people in Myanmar.

Emilie Palamy Pradichit, the founder of the Manushya Foundation, a human rights organization in Bangkok, said she has received a flurry of job applications from people in Myanmar looking to avoid the military call-up.

“We’ve been receiving a massive number of applications from Myanmar people in our job openings, mainly Gen Z and millennials telling us they need to leave [as soon as possible]. It’s heartbreaking. During the interview process, [they have] been asking us to help them and that they need to get out,” Emilie said.