Myanmar’s Conscription Exodus: A Struggle for Survival on the Thai Border

Last Updated on March 24, 2024 3:05 pm

Md Khayrul Bashar, Senior Reporter:

In the sleepy village of Wale, nestled along the boundary between Thailand and Myanmar, a familiar scene unfolds daily. Villagers traverse the small wooden bridge connecting the two sides, their lives intertwined by the narrow river flowing beneath. However, amidst this tranquility, a new phenomenon has emerged, drawing attention to the plight of Myanmar’s youth.

In recent weeks, an unprecedented number of young people, identifiable by their hefty rucksacks, have been making the arduous journey across the border, seeking refuge from Myanmar’s looming mandatory military service. With conscription set to come into effect in April, individuals aged 18 to 35 for men and 18 to 27 for women face a stark choice: comply or risk imprisonment for refusal.

For many, escaping to Thailand represents a chance at survival. On the Myanmar side of Wale, controlled by the Karen National Union, a semblance of safety awaits those fleeing conscription. Yet, the journey is fraught with danger. Patrols by border police pose a constant threat of arrest, with consequences ranging from detention to deportation or even bribery for freedom.

Despite these risks, the porous “green border” offers a glimmer of hope for those desperate to evade military service. Unmonitored crossings through the dense jungle or blending in with regular commuters provide avenues of escape for the determined.

As the influx of refugees grows, concerns mount over Thailand’s readiness to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding at its doorstep. With plans for a humanitarian security zone in the works, the Thai government faces mounting pressure to provide assistance to those fleeing conflict and persecution.

Yet, amidst the uncertainty, voices in Wale echo a sentiment of solidarity and pragmatism. Motorcycle taxi drivers like Pattanew see the influx of migrants as essential to the local economy, providing much-needed labor for agricultural and domestic work. Despite the challenges ahead, individuals like Mao Uh cling to hope, dreaming of a better future for themselves and their loved ones.

As Thailand grapples with the complexities of migration policy and the realities of an unfolding crisis, the resilience of those fleeing conscription serves as a stark reminder of the human cost of conflict and the enduring quest for freedom.

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