Why Has the Myanmar Junta Banned Its Male Citizens from Going Abroad for Work?

The situation in Myanmar has been appalling since the military junta, led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, launched a coup on February 01, 2021, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. In the wake of the coup, millions of protesters flooded national streets demonstrating against the military takeover and calling for democracy to be restored. The crisis continued to escalate as resistance against the junta began to form in the guerrilla units such as the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and long-standing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Arakan Army (AA) intensifying their operations against the military regime.

The conflict has since spiraled into a full-blown armed resistance, with intense battles raging across multiple states and regions, particularly in areas with significant ethnic minority populations like Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, and Kayah. The junta has responded with indiscriminate airstrikes, artillery bombardments, and ground offensives, often targeting civilian populations and committing widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and the systematic burning of villages. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the conflict has displaced over 1.4 million people within Myanmar, while nearly 70,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, and India. 

In response, the junta’s attempts to recruit more troops and suppress the growing resistance included, in February 2024, the implementation of the People’s Military Service Law, which forced men between the ages of 18 to 35 and women from 18 to 27 to serve two-year military terms. This led to further worsening of the problem when the junta further stated that on May 1, 2024 permits for male employment abroad to work are to be suspended for the meantime. This decision will not only worsen the humanitarian situation and more economic hardship but also fanning more armed resistance and instability across the world. With the ongoing conflict, the citizens of Myanmar are subjected to the horrors of war including recruitment as forced labor, internal displacement, impoverishment, and crimes against humanity. The decision by the junta to ban men from working abroad is an infringement on their rights as human beings and also a ploy of ensuring that there is no revolt against the junta by the population.

The Junta’s Struggle to Bolster Military Ranks Through Forced Conscription

It is worth noting that the core of the junta’s decision is a strive for power and an attempt to enlarge the military forces amid the resistance it faces and armed opposition. On 10 February 2024 the regime declared the conscription policy under the People’s Military Service Law. This was a clear recognition of the fact that the grip of the military junta was getting weak day by day and it could no longer continue with its military operations against various ethnic armed forces and also the growing PDFs of the civilians. As reported by the Burmese Affairs and Conflict Study, the junta had recruited about 5,000 young men in March 2024 alone and deployed them in 15 army training camps in various parts of the nation.

A representative of an overseas employment agency in Yangon’s Thingangyun township told, “Since the day the law was implemented, large numbers of men have been going abroad either officially or unofficially through various means.” However, the junta’s efforts have been met with widespread resistance and defiance. Thousands of young people have attempted to flee the country, seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh and Thailand or areas controlled by ethnic armed groups opposed to the regime. Others have chosen to join the resistant groups, taking up arms against the very military they were conscripted to serve. A young man from Ayeyarwady Region, referring to the possibility of joining the armed resistance said, “If all other options are barred, then we are left with only one. The situation is deeply concerning.” 

The Exodus of Myanmar’s Youth: Evading Conscription at All Costs

The announcement of the conscription law triggered a mass exodus of young people desperate to avoid being forced into the military ranks. According to the ILO, over 4 million Myanmar migrants work overseas, with the largest concentration – approximately 2 million – in neighboring Thailand. In the weeks following the junta’s announcement, long queues formed outside foreign embassies in Yangon, as thousands of young people sought visas and work permits in a bid to leave the country legally. Others opted for more perilous routes, attempting to cross the porous borders with Thailand and other neighboring countries illegally. “I decided to evade conscription by going abroad for work. But, if I can’t, I will join the PDF and fight the junta,” Ko Kyaw Myo told. The desperation to flee the country was further fueled by the junta’s subsequent decision to ban men from working abroad, a move that left many feeling trapped and vulnerable to forced conscription. The exodus of Myanmar’s youth has not only deprived the country of a vital workforce but has also exposed the lengths to which people are willing to go to escape the junta’s oppressive rule. Many have risked their lives and livelihoods, undertook perilous journeys and incurred significant debts, all in an effort to evade conscription and the possibility of being forced to fight for a regime they despise.

Economic Implications of Banning Overseas Employment for Men

The junta’s decision to ban men from working abroad has severe economic implications, both for individual families and for the country as a whole. Remittances from overseas workers have long been a crucial source of income for Myanmar, with the Statista estimating that over $2.67 billion was sent home in 2020 alone, which number decreased to $1.24 and $1.26 billion in the subsequent years of 2021 and 2022 due to the political instability. The ban on overseas employment for men threatens to disrupt this vital flow of income, potentially plunging thousands of households into economic hardship and exacerbating poverty levels in a country already reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the junta’s mismanagement of the economy. Kyaw Htin Kyaw, vice president of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, said, “…Primarily, the most vulnerable group affected by this situation is the workers themselves.”

The ban has also dealt a significant blow to the overseas employment industry, which plays a crucial role in facilitating the legal migration of workers and ensuring their rights and protections abroad. With male workers barred from seeking employment opportunities, agencies face an uncertain future and potential financial ruin. Moreover, the economic implications extend beyond individual households and businesses. The loss of remittances could have far-reaching consequences for Myanmar’s already fragile economy, impacting foreign exchange reserves, consumer spending, and overall economic growth. According to the World Bank, remittances accounted for nearly 3.4% of Myanmar’s GDP in 2020, while it accounted for 1.9% and 2% in the subsequent years of 2021 and 2022. The disruption caused by the junta’s ban could further aggravate the economic crisis and extend the adversity faced by the people of Myanmar.

The Rise of Armed Resistance and the Role of Ethnic Armed Groups

The junta’s oppressive policies, including the conscription law and the ban on overseas employment for men, have fueled the rise of armed resistance movements across Myanmar. As legal channels for evading conscription are closed off, more and more young people are turning to the ranks of the PDFs and ethnic armed groups like the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA) to take up arms against the regime. The PDFs, initially formed in the wake of the 2021 coup as a civilian defense force, have grown in strength and capability, carrying out numerous attacks against junta targets and playing a crucial role in the broader armed resistance against the military regime. Ethnic armed groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the overall Three Brotherhood Alliance, consisting of Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have also stepped up their operations, seizing territory and engaging in intense battles with junta forces. 

In December of 2021, the alliance succeeded in driving government forces out of the MNDAA stronghold city of Namphan, one of many victories the group had against the Tatmadaw that year. In October 2023, a large-scale attack against military, police, and government-allied militia facilities was organized and carried out by some 10,000 fighters from the alliance across Shan state. In their withdrawal, the troops abandoned heavy weaponry and a large quantity of ammunition, causing over a hundred military outposts to fall. The coalition has taken control of two important border towns, Chin Shwe Haw and Mong Ko. They also claimed to take over the villages of Hpawng Hseng, Pang Hseng, and Hsenwi. Rebel strikes have rocked Shan’s largest town, Lashio, and the roadways and bridges that link Myanmar and China have been destroyed. The alliance recent claim of capturing the town of Buthidaung near the Bangladesh border is a also a considerable move to the growing strength and determination of it against the junta regime. 

Human Rights Violations and International Pressure on the Junta 

The junta’s actions, including the ban on overseas employment for men and the enforcement of the conscription law are seen as violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of movement, the right to work, and the right to life. Human rights organizations have documented numerous cases of forced conscription, with young men being abducted from their homes or snatched off the streets by junta forces. The use of conscription as a form of punishment or retaliation against families and communities suspected of supporting the resistance has also been widely reported.

However, over the years, the international community has responded with a range of sanctions and measures aimed at isolating the junta and pressuring it to end its human rights violations and engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition. The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have imposed targeted sanctions on junta officials and military-linked entities, while the United Nations has repeatedly condemned the regime’s actions and called for an immediate cessation of violence. The junta has remained defiant in the face of international pressure, dismissing calls for reform and accusing foreign powers of interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs. 

Since the crisis in Myanmar is becoming more protracted and wide in impacts, the junta’s move to ban men from working abroad and enforce the conscription law stands as a stark reminder of the regime’s disregard for human rights and its determination to cling to power at any cost. The international community’s response will be critical in determining the fate of the country and its people, who have endured years of oppression and conflict in their quest for freedom and democracy.

[Photo by Vadim Savitsky, mil.ru]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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