For more than three years, Myanmar’s largest cities have remained under the unyielding control of the military junta. But the streets of places like Yangon were unusually quiet on Monday night as a sense of fear gripped the country.

Residents had a new reason to avoid contact with patrolling soldiers: Over the weekend, the regime said it was invoking a decades-old law to begin recruiting young men and women for the military, sparking a widespread alarm throughout the country.

Regime forces have been depleted in recent months as they fight a growing insurgency by pro-democracy rebels and armed ethnic groups. The move to compulsory military service to bolster the ranks of the forces suggested that the junta was on the defensive and increasingly desperate.

But while the rebels have posed the most widespread challenge ever to regime rule, it remains to be seen whether they can topple the military, which has successfully suppressed many regional uprisings in recent decades.

On Tuesday, there were reports across the country of young men being captured by soldiers overnight. Even before conscription was announced, the army was known to kidnap young men and force them into service.

Critics of the regime said new recruits were unlikely to receive weapons and could instead be forced to serve as porters carrying supplies and ammunition on the battlefield. The military has a long history of using porters as human shields, forcing them to walk ahead of troops into suspected minefields or possible ambushes.

“When I heard the news, I felt like an elephant had stepped on my head,” said Daw Thin Han, 45, who has three children of draft age. “I’m terrified when a military truck will arrive in front of my house and take my children to the front.”

The junta announced the start of conscription on Saturday night, saying it was authorized by a law that has been in effect since 1959 but was never invoked during the previous half-century of military rule.

“National defense is not the sole responsibility of the soldier,” said General Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesman, justifying the order. “I would like to ask everyone to serve with pride and joy.”

Under the order, officially called the “People’s Military Service Law,” men between the ages of 18 and 35 and women between the ages of 18 and 27 could be required to serve at least two years. For professionals, such as doctors, nurses and engineers, the age range is even higher: up to 35 years for women and up to 45 years for men, with mandatory service of up to three years. Anyone who refuses to serve time faces up to five years in prison.

A Mandalay father, U Myo Kyaw, said Tuesday he feared his 22-year-old son would be forced into military service after a witness saw soldiers take him away at gunpoint Monday afternoon near his house.

After his son did not return, Mr Myo Kyaw said he and his wife searched everywhere, including police stations, but found no sign of him.

“My wife and I didn’t meet anyone else on the road, just stray dogs,” he said. “My heart aches with anguish, since he is my only son. He prayed not to witness my son’s recruitment into the army.”

On Monday, said Ms. Thin Han, a mother of three draft-age children, four plainclothes men and her neighborhood administrator – a local official appointed by the regime – went to every house on her street in Mandalay, searching names and ages. of each resident. At her house, she said, a man circled the names of each of her children while he wrote them down in her notebook.

“Now I live in constant fear,” he said.

Battlefield losses and desertions have taken their toll on the military, especially in recent months.

The shadow civilian government, the Government of National Unity, led by ethnic leaders and ousted elected officials, says its forces have seized hundreds of military posts and 41 towns and villages in upper Myanmar since late October. The rebels claim to control more than half of the country’s territory, but the army still controls the main cities.

“The start of conscription reflects the dire situation of the army, which has suffered defeats on multiple fronts and is struggling to recruit new soldiers,” said U Kyee Myint, a lawyer and political activist who is now in hiding. “This shows the desperation of the board.”

He noted that wealthier people could avoid conscription by paying a bribe, thus making conscription an effective money-making operation for regime officials.

Several men and women of military age who spoke to The New York Times said they would do everything they could to avoid serving in the military, including enlisting in rebel forces to fight the regime.

“I would rather risk my life in resistance than passively succumb to their tyranny,” said Ko Htet Aung Kyaw, 20, a student who has been involved in anti-junta protests since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup. junta army is not about defending the country. “It’s just about preserving the power of the board.”

A group calling itself Abrazo del Pueblo, which says it has helped more than 5,000 soldiers desert, offered its help to the new recruits. “The People’s Embrace team is always ready to help you escape as soon as possible,” the group posted on Facebook.

Alice Htun, 21, who came to Minnesota in December to study art at Saint Paul College, said she would consider seeking political asylum in the United States if the junta was still in power when she completed her studies.

For much of her life she has been exposed to the cruelty of the military. Her grandfather was a political prisoner. Her uncle was injured when soldiers forced him to walk ahead of them into battle carrying supplies. Last year, her family’s home in Shan State was riddled with bullets by soldiers fighting rebels. Her family has fled and her father is hiding.

Now, with mandatory military service, he worries millions more people will be vulnerable. Among other things, he said, students returning from abroad could be detained at the airport upon arrival and incorporated into the army.

“The growing military repression has reached everyone’s doors,” he said. “They will try to expand their power and oppress us in the most brutal way possible.”

By Sam