Myanmar’s notorious army faces morale crisis

Aung Myo Htet had always dreamed of being a soldier and had reached the rank of captain. But when he joined the military in Myanmar, he thought he would defend his country, not fight – and lose – pitched battles against his own countrymen.

In June, he was sent to the front lines in Kayah state to put down resistance fighters and armed protesters opposed to the generals who seized power in a coup in February. Three of his comrades were killed, said Aung Myo Htet, 32.

“Seeing the victims on our side made me so sad,” he said. “We fought and we sacrificed for the good of the general and not for the country. “

On October 7, he left his base and joined the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement, a national effort to restore democracy and bring down General Min Aung Hlaing, the man behind the coup. At least 2,000 other soldiers and police have followed suit, as part of a larger campaign to weaken the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s most notorious institution.

Defectors make up a small percentage of the Southeast Asian nation’s military, which is estimated to be between 280,000 and 350,000. But they seem to have struck a chord and contributed to a growing morale crisis among the military. troops. The army struggles to recruit. He recalled all retirees, threatening to withhold pensions if they did not return. The wives of the soldiers say they have been ordered to ensure the security of the bases, in violation of military law.

For the first time in 67 years of history, the Myanmar Defense Services Academy, the equivalent of West Point in the country, was unable to fill the seats in the first year of this year.

“We have never seen defections at this level,” said Moe Thuzar, Myanmar studies program coordinator at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “What we’ve seen since February is this constant trickle of people leaving, and also publicly declaring their support for the CDM. It’s unprecedented.”

General Min Aung Hlaing still has the loyalty of his senior officers, and there are too few defectors to overthrow the Tatmadaw. But those who leave are quickly embraced by the resistance. Four of Myanmar’s armed ethnic organizations, which have fought against the Tatmadaw since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, have offered food and refuge and the opportunity to combine forces.

“Their seasoned military experience has been invaluable to our armed resistance,” said Naing Htoo Aung, defense secretary of the Government of National Unity, a group of ousted leaders who have declared themselves to be the legitimate government of Myanmar and who have followed the growing number of defectors. . “We all now have a common goal. “

Many defectors posted their accounts on social media, encouraging other soldiers to follow them. Most of the people who left are of lower rank, but some have been officers.

Several defectors are now working with a group of tech activists in a stealthy online campaign to get more troops to break ranks. Using archival footage of servicemen and attractive women as profile photos, activists created more than a dozen fake Facebook pages to befriend the soldiers.

Accounts are used to send direct messages, imploring them not to hurt innocent people. Another group used Facebook to urge wives to persuade their husbands to quit the military and stop supporting the junta.

“There is significance in the unfolding propaganda war,” said Richard Horsey, senior advisor on Myanmar for the International Crisis Group. “I think they make the resistance emboldened and confident.”

The soldiers who left say they felt compelled to do so after the coup, describing their reluctance at instructions from their superiors to shoot civilians. On November 6, the head of a United Nations agency investigating war crimes in Myanmar said that the army’s attacks on civilians amounted to “”crimes against humanity. “

“When I was ordered to shoot, I called people and told them to run away,” said Htet Myat, a captain stationed in Bhamo, a town in northern Myanmar that was the scene of the shooting. intense fighting between armed ethnic rebels and the army. “People were saved, but I couldn’t live in such an inhuman place. “

Yet defecting can be as dangerous as any battlefield. People’s Soldiers, a group created by a former captain who was once a speechwriter for General Min Aung Hlaing, tried to help.

One night in August, Kaung Htet Aung, a 29-year-old sergeant, watched another soldier, during a Zoom session hosted by People’s Soldiers, debate a major who had defected in March and had been speaking for a long time. hidden place. As he lay in his barracks and secretly watched the video, Kaung Htet Aung thought about all the major had to sacrifice to join the anti-coup movement.

He then contacted the People’s Soldiers, who told him they would help him defect, marking the start of a heart-wrenching journey. He left his base on May 9 and was in a motorcycle accident. When he asked for help, he was thrown in a military prison, he said. On September 6, he escaped the prison and made his way through the jungle on foot.

The sergeant, who was making ammunition, then took a bus to a “liberated area,” a term the resistance uses to refer to Myanmar’s ethnic borders. “I was very happy to be free,” he said. “Now I don’t have to make bullets to kill people anymore. “

While The New York Times could not independently verify the soldier’s account, the risks of defection are clear. He carries a three-year prison sentence and family members often face reprisals. The journey can be perilous, involving hiding places in several cities before reaching safety in border areas.

To defect is also to sacrifice a potentially lucrative future. Officers able to rise through the ranks generally benefit from the Tatmadaw’s vast commercial holdings, which include the country’s two most powerful conglomerates.

“Most of the military are brainwashed and cannot see the truth,” said Lin Htet Aung, a captain who defected in March. “Some who see the truth don’t want to give up their position.”

One argument that defectors use to persuade others to leave centers on the mistreatment of ordinary soldiers. Zwe Man, a corporal, said he wanted to join the military after seeing people putting garlands on troops marching in the southern town of Bago in 2016.

A year later, he graduated from the military academy and became a sniper. He said he made only $ 105 a month and the food was bad. “I joined the army because I wanted to be a soldier who protects the country and is loved by the people,” he said. “But when I enlisted, I found out that it was a place to torture lower-ranking soldiers.”

In May, Mr. Zwe Man stumbled across the People’s Soldiers Facebook page and started reading the comments:

“The the army is murdering its own people.

“The army is the big thief. “

“The military is trying to run the country for itself. “

In July, at the height of the Covid-19 epidemic, Mr Zwe Man said the military failed to isolate those infected with the virus, resulting in deaths in barracks. He is also haunted by the violence he has witnessed since the coup: people arrested and houses set on fire.

He said his girlfriend told him the military was killing civilians and encouraged him to join the Civil Disobedience Movement. “I decided what I really needed to do was stand up for what was right,” he said. “And don’t be on the wrong side of people.” On September 17, Mr. Zwe Man asked his military supervisor for permission to leave the base.

His request was approved, he said. And he never came back.

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