Burma’s pro-military parliament has passed a new law paving the way for compulsory service in the Burmese Army for up to five years in the case of a state of emergency.

The Public Service Military Law requires both men and women to serve in the Burmese Army, or Tatmadaw, regardless of ethnicity. Rebel groups have repeatedly refused to sign up to the military’s Border Guard Force (BGF) plan, giving the Burmese Army control over all armed groups, in exchange for an end to the numerous conflicts in Burma.

Foreign Policy Journal has obtained an unofficial English translation of the law, signed by Senior-General Than Shwe on November 4, 2010. However, it is unclear whether the regulations are now active.

Dr. Nicholas Farrelly from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific has told Foreign Policy Journal that the law served as a reminder of the Burmese military’s ability to terrorize civilians and extract bribes from families.

Conscription of ethnic minorities, Dr. Farrelly added, could also be “a potential trigger for all-out war.”

Human rights activists have criticized the new law as being divisive and say that it will split Burma along ethnic boundaries, as well as cause a mass exodus of young people from the country.

The Burma Campaign United Kingdom’s Zoya Phan told Foreign Policy Journal that the new law was a sign that the Burmese Army “are demoralized, worried about their strength and are under greater strain than we realize.” She warned, however, that young people would flee to Thailand to avoid being detained.

Ms. Phan also said that Burma Campaign UK was “skeptical” of reports that the Burmese Army currently has 400,000 soldiers. More ethnic groups were refusing to sign up to the Border Force Guard agreement, the latest being the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) 5th Brigade, a splinter group of the Burmese Army operating in Karen State, Ms. Phan said.

Under the new laws, men between 18 and 35 years must serve up to three years mandatory military service and women between 18 and 27 years will be required to serve up to two years. Human Rights Watch reported in 2007 that under the Conscription Act of 1959, “both men and women served a period between six months and two years, but women were not recruited.”

The issue of forced child recruitment, however, remains a concern.

In 2009, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers advised the United Nations that Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SDPC) recruited and used “thousands of children” in 2008 and continued to be amongst the most notable offenders of forced child recruitment practices (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2009, pp. 1-2). ¬†Burma-based human rights activist and lawyer Aye Myint told Radio Free Asia in 2010 that 121 incidents of forced recruitment had been reported in 2009 (Radio Free Asia, 2010).

Sold to Be Soldiers, an in-depth investigation into the use of children in the Burmese Army and rebel groups throughout Burma, was published by Human Rights Watch in 2007. The report expressed concern over the likelihood of children becoming “vulnerable to forcible recruitment in light of increasing desertions within the Burmese Army and its intensified recruitment drives an in-depth investigation into the forced recruitment of children in the Burmese Army” (Human Rights Watch, 2007, p. 75).

The report contained testimony from former members of the Burmese Army and ex-child soldiers about the recruitment practices and systematic use and abuse of minors in the military, including beatings, denial of food and water, and slavery.

In March 2010, a Burmese Army defector, Maung Shwe (not his real name), told the Burma Campaign UK that he was¬† inducted against his will aged 15 in 2003. He said that he was forced to take “energy pills” which made him “aggressive”, resulting in him being forced to destroy villages. He claimed that 30 of the 230 soldiers in his unit were forcibly taken and recruited, and said that child soldier populations in other battalions were around 50 per cent, possibly more.

After a previous unsuccessful attempt to escape, Maung eventually fled the army in February 2010, but fears recapture and a 40 year imprisonment if caught by authorities.