Burma Undergoes Quasi-Balkanization and the Embattled Junta Resorts to Mass Conscription


Maung Zarni | FORSEA – TRANSCEND Media Service

Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Photo Masum-al-Hasan Rocky, Wikipedia Commons

No Burmese in their right minds have bought into the spin “service to the nation” from the junta leadership. Reportedly, young men and women are frantically finding ways to exit the country.

23 Feb 2024 – One day after the Union of Burma Day this year (12-February), to mark the formation of a new post-colonial Burma as a union of multiple ethnic nations, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services posted the transcript (verbatim) of the speech delivered at a press conference by its spokesperson, Major General Zaw Min Tun.

It concerns the embattled coup regime’s announcement that it is enforcing the two acts – the People’s Military Service Act (or conscription) and the Reserve Military Force Law – that were adopted in November 2010, something that has caused panic among the country’s public, particularly the age groups which are deemed eligible for conscription.

The conscription law concerns both men and women of certain age groups being called to serve in the country’s defence services.

The Reserve Military Force Law is about the veterans who retired from, or were allowed to discharge from active duties, automatically being required to stay in the Reservist Corps for the next 5 years since the day of retirement, or discharge.

The good general-spokesman is a popular laughingstock and derisively nicknamed, in Burmese, as Zaw Mae Lone, by the public at home and in the diaspora, for his loathsome lies and all too apparent distortions of the country’s realities of violence, wars, and the junta’s incurable leadership and policy failures. So, I shall refer to the junta spokesperson as Zaw Mae Lone.

In the press conference, Zaw Mae Lone took aim at the “nation-destroying” Myanmar language media which refused to call out on the practice of conscription by anti-junta forces in non-Bama ethnic regions such as Shan state. He then framed the nationwide armed uprising against the junta as “a proxy war” by foreign funders, without being able to offer a shred of evidence. And he couldn’t because not a single foreign government has financed, armed or trained hundreds of anti-junta resistance organizations, which organically mushroomed after the coup three years ago, or others that have been in existence for decades.

Then Zaw Mae Lone went on to deny that the junta’s curious timing behind the enforcement of these acts had anything to do with a steady stream of verified news reports about hundreds of its troops including battalion and strategic command commanders, abandoning their posts and bases in various ethnic states. Chin, Rakhine, Shan, Karenni and Karen regions bordering on India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand have witnessed the junta troops seeking refuge across borders in India and Bangladesh or simply surrendering to the anti-junta ethnic resistance organizations (EROs). As they abandon their bases – and the General Staff’s Orders to fight on – these deserting units have gifted massive caches of assorted military hardware and munition including armoured vehicles, and a few Howitzers.

It is as if Zaw Mae Lone wanted to hurl insults at the intelligence of the general public, who have seen, in their social media feeds, the humiliating video news of the junta troops fleeing for their lives, with their families, as the EROs overran their regimental, or battalion bases.

In 2017, the public in Burma and the world saw over 730,000 Rohingya genocide survivors filing across the country’s western land borders into neighbouring Bangladesh.

2018: Rohingya Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo VOA, Wikipedia Commons

In the early months of 2024, the same Myanmar public were treated to the video news images of Myanmar Border Guards and other infantry units walking across the same border for their survival, only here they are less traumatized and more orderly. Presumably, these rank-and-file soldiers now seeking temporary refuge on Bangladesh soil, were the ones who perpetrated genocidal acts of mass killings of thousands of Rohingya, burning over 300 villages and gang-raping the young and old Rohingya women in 2016 and 2017. Some of them openly gloated how many Rohingya they had killed in a given day on their Facebook walls.

On my own Facebook feed, I have noticed more than a few “Karma is a bitch” postings from Rohingya people.

Instead of exploring an honourable exit for the universally reviled junta in particular, and the country’s largest military force, its instrument of decades-old repression, from national politics, the junta leaders have once again doubled down. They sent Zaw Mae Lone to lie to the country via its diabolical press conferences.

A week after his press briefing on the conscription plan, the junta had court-martialled and sentenced to death the three generals whose troops in the Northern Shan State gambling town on the Sino-Burmese borders, known as Laukkai, surrendered to the Three Brotherhood Alliance resistance in the resistance offensive known as 10/27, after the date of October 27, 2023.

Stating, with a straight face, that all is well with the junta’s troops, the spokesperson who heads the True News Committee explained to the public that his bosses’ decision to enforce the nationwide conscription act, was made solely with the legitimate concerns for the peace and security of the nation – and in the interests of a post-junta multiparty democracy.

Therefore, there was no reason for the public to panic, Zaw Mae Lone assured the public.

According to the statistic he offered there are a total of 13 million Myanmar (6.3 million men and 7.7 million women) who are, based on their age groups, can be called up for the National Service. The age brackets for conscription are 18-35 years for men and 18-27 years for women.

Because there are over 60,000 administrative units, or wards, at different village and town levels, there will be only 2 or 3 conscripts on average for each ward. That will generate about 120,000 new recruits for the country’s Defence Services. And not everyone thus “honorably” drafted into these defence services will need to see combat. Economists, entrepreneurs, cyber-specialists, teachers, doctors, and so on will be able to carry out their own respective professional duties within the junta’s broad definition of “national defence”.

But no Burmese in his or her right mind has bought into this “service to the nation” spin from the junta leadership. Reportedly, young men and women are frantically finding ways to exit the country. The oldest ERO, Karen National Union, publicly urged the country’s draft-age people to dodge it and join the resistance instead.

The public are cognizant that the junta has been losing territories and troops at the hands of the EROs and anti-coup People Defence Forces (PDFs), at an unprecedented rate since the founding of Myanmar’s national armed forces in December 1942.

The Panglong Agreement between the Burmese government under Aung San and the Shan, Kachin, and Chin peoples on 12 February 1947

It has been nearly 80 years since the Panglong Agreement, stipulating ethnic group equality as the basis of forming a voluntary union of a post-colonial Burma out of a myriad of various ethnic groups with their own ancestral regions, was signed in Shan state, eastern Burma. Under successive military regimes since 1962, when General Ne Win established a military dictatorship under the banner of a Fake Socialism after the first coup, Burma, as a union of multiple nations, has been unravelling.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi, as Myanmar State Counsellor in her office from 2015-2020, also failed to pursue federalist policies or practices which could have renewed the commitment to the country’s founding principle of ethnic equality as an effective bond. She even sided with “my father’s military” in both cases of Rohingya genocide, and the army’s vicious attacks against Kachin and Rakhine resistance movements and communities.

In the past three years since Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Burma’s national armed forces, staged his universally opposed coup which ousted the re-elected Suu Kyi government, both the spirit and substance of the Panglong Agreement (or a political union forged voluntarily by different ethnic communities) has unravelled drastically, and, perhaps beyond repair, on one hand.

On the other hand, no ethnic armed resistance organization today really buys into the ethnic Bama-controlled National Unity Government’s (NUG) polemic of re-building the military-destroyed country as a federalist democracy, with the NUG leaders as the new heads of the post-coup Union of Burma. Neither Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and her followers, nor the central military, have treated non-Bama ethnic nations with respect, or the principle of group equality, in these past decades.

The important leaders of the non-dominant ethnic groups such as Kachin, Karen, and Karenni who have offered their backing, protection and sanctuary to the NUG as a mix of the old Suu Kyi loyalists and non-Bama ethnic representatives, are fed up with the monopolistic way in which NUG’s Bama leaders have been running this best-known anti-junta group.

Worse still, the male chauvinist and/or Bama-centric leaders who backseat drive the NUG have similarly triggered widespread deep resentment and anger among one of the key pillars of anti-coup resistance, namely women’s revolutionary groups. The male chauvinists who lead NUG have blocked proper representation of women in leadership and policy roles with the token woman leader as its “Foreign Minister”.

Burma’s woes are not confined to the majoritarian Bama.

Ethnic resistance organizations which have made significant territorial gains over the last 6 months – for instance, the Arakan Army on the coastal state of Rakhine, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army of Northern Shan state in eastern Burma – are primarily focused on consolidating their gains and building autonomous sub-, or semi-states, based on their own respective ethnocentric visions and territorial claims internally. These militarily victorious groups seek to build their own economic ties with important neighbours such as China, Bangladesh and India.

In brief, the country is certainly undergoing a self-contained process of quasi-Balkanization, albeit without the emergence of new republican states.

In the areas which are still under the junta’s effective control, for instance, cities and large towns, the multi-ethnic populations feel most vulnerable to the junta’s plan to enforce the Conscription Law. Worryingly, in Rakhine state, the site of the Rohingya genocide, the junta is reportedly trying to implement its conscription scheme among Rohingya Muslims, putting the genocide survivors between the rock and a hard place. For post-genocide group relations between Rakhine and Rohingya have been extremely fragile, uncertain and distrust-ridden. Contrary to the rosy view of the coastal Arracan as a success story of quasi-Balkanized sub-state, led by the Arakan Army, gifted with the multi-billion $ Chinese pipeline, Indian development zone, Japan-funded agri-economy, massive destruction and death appear to be on the horizons. Besides, Putin’s Russian navy, none of these external powers are prepared to see the core of Burma – the largest military called Tatmadaw – go the way of Saddam’s Barthists state.

Additionally, the generals are signalling no indication of finding a compromise, thanks to ‘business-as-usual’ from the United Nations technical agencies with their Memoranda of Understanding with the generals, the unconditional support from Putin’s Russia, Modi’s Hindutva India, China, Thailand and the authoritarian bloc within the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). This is despite the anti-junta organizations’ spin to the contrary – that the junta is on the verge of a collapse.


A Buddhist humanist from Burma (Myanmar), Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, former Visiting Lecturer with Harvard Medical School, specializing in racism and violence in Burma and Sri Lanka, and Non-resident Scholar in Genocide Studies with Documentation Center – Cambodia. Zarni s the co-founder of FORSEA, a grass-roots organization of Southeast Asian human rights defenders, coordinator for Strategic Affairs for Free Rohingya Coalition, and an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism, Cambridge. Zarni holds a PhD (U Wisconsin at Madison) and a MA (U California), and has held various teaching, research and visiting fellowships at the universities in Asia, Europe and USA including Oxford, LSE, UCL Institute of Education, National-Louis, Malaya, and Brunei. He is the recipient of the “Cultivation of Harmony” award from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (2015). His analyses have appeared in leading newspapers including the New York Times, The Guardian and the Times. Among his academic publications on Rohingya genocide are The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal), An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide, (Middle East Institute, American University), and Myanmar’s State-directed Persecution of Rohingyas and Other Muslims (Brown World Affairs Journal). He co-authored, with Natalie Brinham, Essays on Myanmar Genocide.

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