Murphy's Law: Drafted Into Prison

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January 18, 2011: Myanmar (Burma) recently announced that last year it had secretly passed a law introducing conscription for all men (18-45) and women (18-35). The law was passed by a parliament controlled by a military dictatorship that has run the country for decades. The secrecy was probably because the military just conducted the first national elections since the early 1990s. The elections were rigged, but presented to the world as a return to democracy. But what has all that got to do with conscription? One possibility is that conscripting opponents of the new government would be easier than arresting them, and less likely to cause a political uproar at home, and abroad.

About one percent of Burma's 50 million people are in the armed forces (including paramilitary "intelligence" and "security" secret police type organizations.) The secret police keep an eye on the troops, and the troops keep an eye (and often gun pointed at) the people. Myanmar only spends about a billion dollars a year on the armed forces, most of that going to pay and living expenses of infantry troops. Conscripts are often paid little, or nothing, and can be kept in what amount to prison camps, and used as slave labor. In many poor countries, conscripts often spend much of their time on non-military tasks (like growing their own food.)

Most of the Burmese troops serve in 500 infantry (60 percent of them "light infantry") battalions. The "light" units are cheap to maintain. No vehicles, and few heavy weapons. But such units are excellent for controlling unruly citizens. About half the infantry do just that, being assigned to 22 Operation Control Commands (OCCs), which cover most of the country. Each OCC has about ten infantry battalions, trained to deal with unrest, patrolling and low level infantry combat. In the last two decades, the number of infantry battalions has nearly doubled.

Myanmar has also been building up a mechanized force of about ten divisions. They are doing this by purchasing bargain basement (and relatively primitive) armored vehicles from China and other low cost providers. The problem is that, the military budget is so meager, that there is no money to buy fuel for training these mechanized units. Some of the generals really believe that the United States is going to invade. It's clear to any military planner that the United States could move in and seize several of the major urban areas in the country in a matter of days. This is something most Burmese would like to see happen, but there much less enthusiasm for this in America. As a result, Myanmar's mechanized might sits there waiting to be used against any civilian unrest.

 


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