Introduction to the Special Issue: Soldier Defections Since the 2021 Military Coup

Helene Maria Kyed | ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို အင်္ဂလိပ်ဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ

Cite as: 
Kyed, H. M. (2022). Introduction to the Special Issue: Soldier Defections Since the 2021 Military Coup. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 1. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=3616

The main duty of the military is to protect the country but in Myanmar, they kill the people and always try to rule the country. I do not want to be hated by the people. That is why I chose to stand on the people’s side. Killing the people is like killing my family members.1

– Ex-sergeant Yin Le Le Htun.

The above perspective is from just one of an estimated 2,600-3,000 soldiers who have left the Myanmar military to join the “people’s side” and oppose the military coup of 1 February 2021.2 Since the first killings of unarmed civilian protesters soon after the coup, more and more soldiers have risked their lives and those of their family members to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), along with teachers, doctors, policemen and others who refuse to work under military leadership.3 These CDM soldiers, who commonly identify as “people’s soldiers” (pyithusitthar), are part of the broader revolution aimed at toppling military power and creating a new society in Myanmar. They are not simply ‘deserters’ (tat pyay)4 who have run away from the military but are ‘defectors’ (pat pyaung lar thu)5 who have deliberately sided with the people against the institution to which they spent years, in some cases most of their lives, working for.

In this special issue, published in an entirely bilingual Burmese edition, Yin Le Le Htun and other defectors and spouses of CDM soldiers tell their stories of why and how they left the military. They joined the People’s Soldiers, one of the two main CDM soldier groups—along with People’s Embrace—which since May 2021 have mobilized and aided new defectors through intensive online campaigns and material and logistical support.6 Some of them were helped by these groups to flee to safety and ‘liberated areas’ under the control of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Their stories reveal deep moral disgust, shame, and anger towards a military organization that is “killing its own people” rather than protecting them. They left because they refused to enact and be complicit in the violent crackdowns, torture, and killings being inflicted on the public by the military’s security forces after the coup. They also felt demoralized and victimized by a military system saturated with internal abuses, deprivations and brainwashing. This system has a long history in Myanmar, but in the eyes of defectors, it has only worsened after the coup. Anger towards a military leadership described as unjust, corrupt, self-interested, lacking popular legitimacy, and creating a split between soldiers and civilians, has catalyzed not only desertions, but defections to the people’s side.

As reflected in this issue’s memoirs, post-coup defections in Myanmar began largely as one-off individual departures from disparate military sectors. But as some who left the military began to go public, declaring their identification with the CDM and the people’s resistance, defection gradually developed into an explicit revolutionary strategy. Supported by pro-democracy activists and later by the NUG7 and EAOs like the Karen National Union (KNU), defection is now considered one of the three pillars of the Spring Revolution—a common term used for the people’s struggle against the military regime. Alongside civilian protests and armed resistance, the defection pillar centers on making the military collapse from within and from below, by getting more and more soldiers and other security force personnel, such as police, to leave or engage in civil disobedience.8 Military disintegration could enable the anti-coup resistance movement to guide Myanmar onto a genuinely federal democratic path.9 This prospect is supported by comparative research into civil-military relations, which shows that military defections or mutinies have historically been a key factor in the success of revolutions and pro-democracy popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes. Marcos Degaut even goes so far as to argue that defections of a regime’s armed forces are a necessary condition for pro-democratic regime transition.10

It is impossible to predict the level of defection and internal disobedience needed for military regime collapse using only existing theories and comparative studies. Contextual and historically specific factors matter greatly. In the case of Myanmar, the effect of defections on reversing the coup would arguably depend on their interaction with wider developments in the civilian resistance, which since May 2021 has evolved from civilian protests and strikes to encompass a government in exile—the NUG—and growing armed resistance by anti-coup EAOs, People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), which are aligned with the NUG, and Local Defense Forces (LDFs), across the country.11 The historical legacy of the Myanmar military is also important to consider in any discussion of defection as a pillar in the revolution. As Michael Charney discusses in this journal issue, the Myanmar military is not simply an army, but is an organization that held central state power for 50 years (1962-2011), and which during 2011-2021 continued to employ a comprehensive ideological propaganda apparatus and exert significant political and economic power, including exclusive control of key government ministries. It is also highly cohesive, keeping soldiers and officers (and their families) socially, economically, and mentally tied to the military.

At the time of writing in August 2022 the number of CDM soldiers does not compare favorably with the estimated 300,000-350,000 strong Myanmar military,12 and the leadership of the military junta, the State Administrative Council (SAC),13 has shown no discernible sign of resignation or change of course from their apparent unified intent on waging war against the people at all costs. Nevertheless, the defections suggest that a lack of schisms at the top is increasingly counterbalanced by internal splits and acts of defiance at the bottom of the military hierarchy. Defection arguably constitutes a significant symbolic blow to the military’s internal cohesion and legitimacy.14 The stringent tightening of strategies to prevent military troops from defecting after the coup also suggests that the military leadership views defections as a serious threat to maintaining its power on the battlefield and to its appearance of unity. On this threat, one of the most outspoken defectors, Nyi Thuta, expressed: “The generals’ worst nightmare is our greatest dream: to see the people and the soldiers be united”.15 This unity of people and soldiers has been strengthened by the CDM movement and the support provided to the armed resistance movement by some CDM soldiers, either by directly joining PDFs, by training them or by providing intelligence based on their knowledge of and connections with the military.16 Such support bolsters the armed resistance in an otherwise asymmetrical battlefield where the military has superiority in airpower, armor and artillery, but where it is increasingly “suffering from overstretch and low morale”.17

The degree to which CDM soldiers have organized themselves and aligned with an anti-coup, pro-democracy opposition to the military is unprecedented in Myanmar’s long history of military rule.18 While soldiers have deserted from the military for decades,19 this has never led to the development of organized defector groups like we see today. These groups are an outcome of the development of a historically large, broad, and incredibly resilient revolutionary movement that, despite facing challenges regarding unity, spans across many ethnic, religious, geographical and class-based divisions prevalent in Myanmar society.20 The CDM, as a large and highly popular movement spanning various public sectors, has constituted a significant exit option for soldiers, providing them with an avenue for joining the people and for gaining moral relief and support.

Internet access and 4G telecommunications networks grew widespread in Myanmar from 2014 on and have been crucial in facilitating these CDM soldier groups to form, mobilize and support soldiers to escape from their service.21 The CDM soldier groups have made use of a plethora of social media platforms, YouTube, Zoom, encrypted messaging apps, and the independent media to wage intelligent and pervasive campaigns both to convince the public to welcome defectors and to compel in-service soldiers to change their perspective. These activities, alongside material and logistic support, could prove decisive in increasing the numbers of defections to a scale that challenges the military’s overall integrity.

But rather than focusing intently on CDM soldier organizational strategy and quantitative benchmarks, this special journal issue explores qualitative questions of how and why soldiers leave the military, what obstacles they face in doing so and how defection interacts with the wider revolutionary movement. It does so by relying on personal voices and reflections in the form of eighteen memoirs ghost-written into narrative form from interviews with fifteen military personnel, and three military spouses, who escaped the military between February and November 2021.22

The interviews were conducted in late 2021 with associates of the People’s Soldiers group who have decided to speak openly about joining the CDM and who in one way or another are actively engaged in supporting the revolution, e.g., by mobilizing more defectors, getting intelligence from military insiders, providing material support for CDM soldier families, or actively fighting the military in combat. In that way they differ from soldiers who have left the army quietly and whose voices we are unfamiliar with. Reflecting a general pattern that CDM soldiers have tended to be younger and of lower rank, those represented in this issue are mostly between the age of 25 and 35, and ranked below major.23 Most of them belong to the Bama majority group, reflecting the general composition of the Myanmar military, and there is a mixture of defectors with and without a military family background. While most of the memoirs are based on interviews with defectors from the navy, air force, and Light Infantry Battalions/Divisions, defectors since the coup have come from a wide variety of sectors (information/public relations, military equipment, combat units, weapons production, investigation units, medical units, military academies etc.). This variety shows that while defectors tend to be young and lower ranked, defection is a broad-based movement that cuts across army sectors and ethnic and family affiliations, which suggests that personal convictions and experiences play a significant role in motivating defection. This is reflected in the memoirs in this issue, which provide powerful insights into the personal choices, sacrifices and rewards associated with defection by the soldiers themselves and by their family members.

In the remainder of this introduction, I embed the personal insights provided by the memoirs in this issue within a broader analysis of defection motivations and obstacles, which is shaped by a digital ethnography Ah Lynn and I conducted between May 2021 and June 2022.

Choices and Reasons

Moral disgust and feelings of anger and shame towards military violence against civilians, and a refusal to engage in such violence or be complicit in it, was the most strongly articulated reason for defecting in the first months after the coup. It is therefore unsurprising that the first significant wave of defections took place in the days and weeks after Armed Forces Day on 27 March 2021, which saw the highest number of civilian casualties since the coup. The killings made soldiers feel sick, as vividly described in the memoirs by Master Black and Aung Zaya, two soldiers who were ordered to participate in violent crackdowns on unarmed protesters. But this revulsion was also felt by those who were in the barracks or doing office work and receiving the news of the killings on social media or from friends and family members. For Yin Le Le Htun and other defectors, the moral reason to escape from the military is lacking the will to “kill our own people” and a sense that the supposed purpose of the military, e.g., to protect the people, has been betrayed.

Defection reflects a deep demoralization and embarrassment with the military organization. It is also conveyed as a personal reaction to the loss of self-esteem and worth as a soldier. Central here is the divide between ‘the military’ and ‘the people’, a gulf which has grown deeper and deeper as the military’s responses to pervasive civilian resistance have become more and more brutal. This, I suggest, has shaped the motivation to not simply leave, but to defect and deliberately join the ‘people’s side’. To defect is here a way to become a ‘good citizen’ or ‘good people’s soldier’, loved and respected by the people.

Several of the memoirs in this issue also emphasize how a feeling of being hated by the people and fears of being socially punished, looked down upon and discriminated against, have formed part of the choice to defect. Cherry, the wife of a CDM soldier, initially did not want her husband to defect out of fear for her family’s security. She recounts in her memoir how awful her husband felt, telling her that people were spitting on soldiers in uniform and viewing them as outcasts. She came to see how her husband joining the CDM was actually a way to save their children from being discriminated against and “cloistered away from society”.24

More explicit political motivations—in addition to the moral concerns surrounding violence—have also informed some soldiers’ choices to leave the military. This is expressed in disapproval of the unlawful seizure of power and ousting of the elected government as well as in disbelief of the military leaderships’ allegations of electoral fraud, which it used to justify the coup. CDM soldiers have given testimonies of how the military instigated its own fraud, either by denying soldiers their right to vote or by pressuring them to vote for the military-proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP),25 as Master Black, Hla Min Kyaw and Aung Myo Thant all explain in their memoirs. Although political motivations for defection exist among CDM soldiers, particularly those who declare support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, they also extend to a more generalized critique of the military leadership that is independent of party-political affiliation. Resentment and anger towards the leadership for being corrupt, power crazy, and serving their own economic interests at the expense of the people—and therefore at the expense of the military organization’s legitimacy itself—form part of this critique. Defection here is a refusal to serve as a soldier for the simple benefit of “the dictator, Min Aung Hlaing [who is] only working for his own benefit and does not care about the development of the country”, as Zwe Man accounts in this issue. It becomes a way to escape an unjust and politically illegitimate institution, irrespective of whether one supports a particular political party.

Outspoken CDM soldier Captain Nyi Thuta, who was one of the founders of the People’s Soldier group, describes defection as based on a shared experience of violation and a collective sense of victimhood with the people: “Defecting does not mean you work for the other side or other parties. The main thing is to oppose the military junta that does injustices”.26 He added elsewhere that “human rights violations are happening to soldiers. And … the people and the ethnic people are being violated by the military. So we are all victims … this battle (is) a collective struggle for all the victims to fight back … this struggle is not only for the people but also for the soldiers and their wives who are being oppressed by the military.”27

The military’s internal oppression and inhumane treatment of its own soldiers is also highlighted in this issue. This is embedded in a deeper critique of the military system that existed prior to the coup, whereas the moral condemnation of violence against civilians is primarily linked to military actions after the coup. CDM soldiers provide accounts of internal abuses and violence meted out on the bodies of lower-ranking soldiers, and they speak about forced recruitment, restrictions on movement, unjust promotions, and economic exploitation, like forced salary deductions to pay ‘shares’ in military-owned companies, and the treatment of soldiers’ wives as slaves. Yay Khal explains that he was even refused to visit his dying parents and withdraw his savings to care for their health. Cherry, the wife of a CDM soldier, tells how she was forced to do ‘voluntary labor’ but was refused any financial assistance to pay for post-natal surgery that cost more than a year of her husband’s salary. Defectors also convey how the military leadership disregards the lives of the soldiers, insults the injured and disabled, and refuses to hand over the bodies of dead soldiers to their family members. Captain Zarni Aung said in a People’s Soldier talk show, “there are no human rights and no humanitarianism in the army. The lives of soldiers are not valued”.28 Or as Moe Zet says in his memoir: “They [the military leadership] don’t give a damn about us!” Defecting from this system can here be seen as an act of escaping exploitation and inhumane treatment, often described retrospectively by defectors as a form of liberation and feeling free. As evident in some of the memoirs in this issue, the rupture caused by the coup and the possibility of becoming a CDM soldier provide a moment and space to opt out for those soldiers who felt enslaved even prior to the coup.

Since the escalation of armed resistance from May 2021, it appears that not only has internal exploitation increased within the military, but so has the fatigue and fear felt by soldiers. The military’s intensified fighting with resistance forces has shaped the reasons for defecting and presented pragmatic choices related to combat fatigue and fear of death.29 After the NUG’s declaration of a people’s defensive war on 7 September 2021, even more PDFs and LDFs mushroomed across the country, including in Bama majority areas where many Myanmar military recruits are often from. The anti-coup resistance forces engage in armed defense of civilians and attack military targets and personnel, sometimes in combined forces with EAOs, many of which also protect CDM members—including soldiers.30 The military has responded with extreme violent retaliation, including air strikes, shelling and the arson of entire villages, some of which are also the hometowns of soldiers, as Hla Min Kyaw notes in his memoir in this issue. With so many fronts to fight on, the military’s combat units are stretched, and even though it has superior firepower to the PDFs, it has suffered significant casualties.31 One soldier, who escaped the military only very recently, explained about the situation online: “the combat troops … are getting tired of war because they have been so long on the front lines (and) are no longer allowed to take rest”. He added that military personnel who used to have office or training duties are being forced into security duties in towns and cities, because all combat troops have been moved to the ‘jungle’ to fight: “since then, all military personnel have become busy day and night without getting rest. They cannot eat and sleep well. Also, many soldiers have been killed in battle … the rest have become demotivated and disappointed.”32 Sergeant Min Thura added that “the junta soldiers are emotionally demotivated because they do not know what they are fighting for. Even if they die in battle no one will have sympathy for them.”33

These conditions within the military help to explain why an increasing number of combat unit soldiers have defected during 2022, including three frontline battalion commanders. One of the civilian activists who aids the People’s Soldier/Goal group defines these latecomer defectors as part of a ‘third wave’ of defections.34 Unlike the first wave of soldiers joining CDM, which came shortly after the first killings of civilian protesters, and the second wave, beginning with the escalated fighting against PDFs, the third wave of defectors accounts for those who endured post-coup military atrocities for a year or more. While moral concerns surrounding military violence cannot be excluded as motivations for these more recent defections, according to the same activist they tend to be driven primarily by combat fatigue and self-interest in the form of fears for their own and their family’s safety.35 A growing disbelief in the military’s capacity to defeat or repress the armed resistance also seems to influence the choice of third-wave defectors, as related by Corporal Aung, who escaped the military in mid-2022. Testifying to having participated in killings and burnings of villages, he told a BBC reporter: “If I thought the military would win in the long term, I wouldn’t have switched sides to the people”. He explained that soldiers do not dare to leave their base alone as they are worried they will be killed by PDF members. “Wherever we go, we can only go with a military column. No one can say that we are dominating,” he said.36

For third-wave defectors who join the CDM and possibly become active in the CDM soldier groups, moral and political reasons for leaving the military can develop retrospectively. Yet it is significant to note that pragmatic factors like means of survival, personal/family security, and fear of defeat and of losing future benefits form part of a complex interplay of reasons to defect.37 These factors equally inform the hard choices that soldiers and their families make when deciding to stay in or leave from the military.

Sacrifices and Rewards

Defection involves extreme security risks and sacrifices that not only affect the individual soldier who decides to leave, but also his or her family. The memoirs in this issue show how family relationships are crucial to both thwarting and motivating defections. They also affect how such decisions are negotiated. Cherry explains in this issue how she at first tried to prevent her husband from defecting, even though she was unhappy with life in the military and supported the NLD. She worried about the safety of her husband and the discrimination that his defection would cause their four children to suffer in the military compound. It is easier for a single soldier to escape the military, but even for singles, this can mean breaking one’s relationship to a mother, father, brother, or intimate partner who remains within or loyal to the military. CDM soldiers often cut contact with family to protect them from being targeted and harassed by the military (following the adage, “what they don’t know, can’t hurt them”), as military officers often threaten CDM soldiers’ family members in their communities.

Different to Cherry is another female spouse, Nwe Oo, whose experience shows that wives can be important to facilitating defections, and that they often continue their work after reaching liberated areas, keeping in contact with spouses of in-service soldiers.38 Living outside the army barracks, Nwe Oo was able to convince her fiancé to defect by sending him the news of military atrocities that he was barred from viewing within the barracks. From the outside, she was also able to better organize his escape route. It also helped that she refused to marry him if he did not leave. This was not without sacrifices—she had to give up her job and disconnect from her own family to keep her new husband safe. Soldiers must leave most if not all their personal belongings behind when they escape, including their salary savings, and they face extreme security risks and financial costs on their way to relative safety in liberated EAO areas that have agreed to give CDM soldiers protection, such as those administrated by the KNU.

Military officers actively obstruct, smear and track down defectors. In her memoir, Thuza Lwin, the wife of the first known major to defect after the coup, who herself grew up in the military barracks, painfully explains how the military disseminated pictures of her family with the message that her husband murders people, putting her and her two children in severe danger. She was lucky to finally escape, shepherding her children across a conflict zone, and joining her husband in a KNU area. Her sacrifices were high, but she does not regret them. Her husband has incurred injuries in the revolutionary armed forces and her son keeps asking if they are now poor because they live in harder conditions outside the military compound. But she feels proud of her husband and is happy to now be loved and respected by the people. While she lives without security and must occasionally flee from conflict, she claims to feel safer than the in-service soldier spouses she is still in contact with and who she encourages to leave.

The hard decisions and sacrifices that CDM soldiers and their families face, both emotionally and in relation to practical and material difficulties associated with leaving the military, are undeniable, and not always surmountable. For many soldiers who desire to escape the military, the risks are too great. As noted by one sergeant from Chin state, the military has imposed severe restrictions on leaving bases and the security of the family is crucial: “They do not dare to join the CDM (because they fear that) their families will be detained … be beaten, tortured or killed. It is (the military’s) way of controlling us”. He further explained that many soldiers are unaware of how to leave and where to go. He claims to know of three soldiers who committed suicide as an escape. To join the CDM, he explained, requires a “fervent desire to oppose the military dictatorship … if they have it, they will be ready to face any situation.”39 Even for those who are unhappy with their lives in the military, moral concerns and internal oppression may not be sufficient to push them to leave. They need assistance, encouragement, and assurances of present and future rewards.

The CDM soldier groups have been impressive in trying to meet such demands, appealing both to moral and pragmatic concerns among soldiers. As this issue’s memoirs evidence, these groups have actively aided soldiers to defect and find escape routes, while also providing them with material and logistical support—later including educational and health support—as they reach more secure residences.40 Importantly, they also constitute organizations providing solidarity, offering soldiers who escape from the military new identities and the possibility of a formalized role as a participant in the revolution. This is forged through various online activities, like postings on social media sites and Zoom or Facebook video debates where defectors share their views of the personal rewards that leaving the army yields. CDM soldier organizations also engage in weekly dialogues with various pro-democracy actors on topics such as military human rights violations, the oppression of soldiers within and by the military, federal democracy, and transitional justice, all topics that provide defectors with an opportunity to contribute their expertise and carve out a space in the revolution, while simultaneously encouraging others to join the CDM.

To boost their efforts at supporting soldiers who leave the military and encourage more to join their organizations, the CDM soldier groups continuously lobby the NUG. They also rely on EAOs’ willingness to welcome defectors. The KNU’s Brigade Five was the first to welcome CDM soldiers and it declared in online statements that it would treat such soldiers humanely and welcome them as part of the CDM and revolution. They have provided them with security and livelihood support.41 The Kachin Independence Organization and smaller EAOs like the Chin Defense Force (CDF) have also aided defectors, although the KNU is said to host the majority of CDM soldiers along the Thailand-Myanmar border.42 As evident in Thuza Lwin’s memoir, some defectors have also joined combined forces with the Karen National Liberation Army and the Cobra Column in fighting the military.

In August 2021 the NUG made a commitment to support defections as part of its strategy to topple the military. It issued a policy for ‘People’s Armed Forces and Police Forces’, signed by its interim President, which promises to address in-service soldiers’ immediate security concerns and their longer-term worries by assuring them a position and role in a future federal democracy. This includes continuity of pensions and positions; assistance programs for food, shelter and family security; assurance that defectors will not be attacked by PDFs, and integration into a (future) Federal Union Army and Police Force.43 Since the policy was announced, the People’s Embrace group has collaborated with the NUG’s Ministry of Defense to aid defectors and provide them with CDM registration codes, based on a vetting system.

On 7 April 2022 the NUG also announced a nine-point reward system for soldiers who either destroy military supplies or join the People’s Embrace with military supplies and vehicles. Rewards range from USD 100,000 for destroying a tank to USD 500,000 for defecting with an aircraft.44 While no one at the time of writing in August 2022 has defected with such heavy materiel, the reward system seeks to appeal to those soldiers who have predominantly pragmatic concerns, including fear of losing military positions and benefits. The KNU and the CDF have previously had some success with rewards granted to lower-ranking soldiers who defected with arms, grenades and bullets.45 When this happens photos of the defectors and the military gear are shared on the CDM soldier groups’ social media platforms, accompanied by laudatory messages.46

Members of CDM soldier groups have also achieved intensive international media exposure—from the New York Times to Nikkei and Al Jazeera—and lobbied through less public channels to bring attention to the importance of supporting defections. Aided by the NUG, this has included lobbying for nations to grant asylum to defectors. Australia has reportedly offered protection visas to an undisclosed number of military defectors since January 2022.47 According to leading members of the CDM soldier groups, the news of Australian asylum, which they shared on their groups’ social media pages, encouraged hundreds of in-service soldiers to contact them over a few days. This included those with higher ranks, a contingent which had rarely contacted them before.48

To mobilize soldiers on the frontline and among those who have no imminent moral or political drive to leave, offerings of material support, rewards, asylum, and promises of future positions by the NUG have undeniably boosted the defection strategy and provided it with an institutional anchoring. Yet, these initiatives have so far proven insufficient by and of themselves to dramatically escalate the number of soldiers escaping from the military. These initiatives are challenged by resource constraints and marred by insecurity and uncertainty. Importantly, they are also impeded by pervasive structural obstacles to defection that are deeply embedded in the military system and imaginary, which keep some military personnel loyal or so affixed to the military that they have no desire to leave. In this special issue’s memoirs, we get some important hints at who these military personnel are and how they think, and in Michael Charney’s contribution we also learn more about the historical roots of military loyalty and imaginaries.

Structural Obstacles and Imaginaries

In a July 2022 People’s Soldier/Goal talk show, CDM soldier Captain Clock was asked which soldiers are choosing to remain in the military and why. He replied that he believes 30 percent of them stay because they fear for their security and the security of their family, and that 70 percent stay because they either crave power and resources, or because they are brainwashed and uneducated, making them incapable of free, critical thinking.49 While such numerical estimates are surely off the cuff, the distinction Captain Clock makes is important for any understanding of how to overcome the diverse obstacles to a defection strategy. Whereas the former group can be encouraged to defect with safe escape routes and material support, the latter requires addressing much deeper structural constraints, linked to economic incentives, ideology, and mentality. Yay Khal’s memoir in this issue tells how lower-ranking soldiers are kept in the dark, subject to military propaganda and restricted information, which Htet Naing Aung asserts reproduces falsities such as “the people are the enemies” and “the military is protector of the nation”. Some also feel they are indebted to the military or that there is no life outside of it. Zwe Man and Htin Shar share in their memoirs that military officers stay inside because of economic benefits, linked to the military’s ability to run a range of illicit businesses. Some believe the coup will simply make them richer and more powerful.

As evident in CDM soldier testimonies since early 2021 as well as in the scholarship on the Myanmar military, the structural obstacles to defection are embedded in a pervasive insular culture, an internal hierarchical system of patron-client relations, and a powerful ideological machinery.50 The military has decades of institutional experience in nurturing a strong esprit de corps and in training its armed forces to stringently follow orders and be loyal through a combination of fear mongering and ideological propaganda that inculcates an imaginary of the military as the guardian of nation and of Buddhism (see Charney in this issue). Soldiers and officers are also tied to the military through an internal system of rewards, promotions, and punishments,51 and the military’s sway over the formal and informal economy has, at least since the 1990s, allowed it to keep the officer corps in check.52

Higher-ranking officers obviously stand to lose more than lower-ranked soldiers, both economically and in status, if they leave the army, and are perhaps more likely to deeply adhere to the military’s ideological imaginary. Yet, according to CDM soldier narratives, the military system has also bred a belief among some lower ranks that their daily economic survival is entirely dependent on the military.53 Not everyone has come to realize what the interviewees in this journal issue have: that the military system is in fact much more economically exploitative and abusive than it is beneficial for lower-ranked soldiers. CDM soldiers have explained that this standpoint persists among lower-ranked soldiers due to their limited education, due to recruitment patterns centered on the most financially disadvantaged citizens, and because of training techniques and propaganda that restrict soldiers from thinking freely, thereby blinding them to their own oppression.54 A CDM soldier sergeant linked low education and brainwashing to in-service soldiers’ continued enactment of violence: “the lower echelons are taking whatever orders … if the order is to kill, they kill. They do not think if they do it, what effect it will have on them or the country. (They) have less thinking ability. It is not their fault. Their original mentality is not like that (but) they were brainwashed and separated from the people.”55 Zaya Aung, whose memoir is included in this issue, similarly stated in a People’s Soldiers talk show that brainwashing makes soldiers into robots who lack empathy and act inhumanely.56

Lack of empathy for the people is likely reinforced through what CDM soldier Nyi Thuta has described as a deliberate isolation of soldiers from the people, with many soldiers and their families living isolated lives in army barracks, and with the military restricting social connections and information flows from the outside.57 The memoirs in this issue provide evidence that this isolation has been incomplete after the coup, but it can still have a pervasive effect, as Aung Ko Ko’s memoir testifies to. He claims that he desired to escape the military because he had many social connections from his previous civilian life before recruitment. His family members by contrast had no desire to leave and disapproved of his decision, because they had only lived within the military. He believes that they are ‘brainwashed’.

The separation between military and people is also nurtured through pervasive military propaganda that represents people who disregard or oppose military power as potential enemies that pose an existential threat to the nation and Buddhism. Reliance on this kind of construction of internal enemies has a long history in the Myanmar military’s ideology58 and has been used after the coup to justify violence against civilians. This has been complemented by the labelling of the anti-coup resistance movement, and the NUG, as terrorists bent on destabilizing the country. “They don’t think of people as actual people”, Nwe Oo claims in this issue, explaining that soldiers are not told that PDFs were formed by people who were first attacked by the military, but instead instructed that PDFs are “terrorists who bomb schools and markets and want to prevent the prosperity of the country”. Defectors have testified to how this kind of propaganda is spread by the military regularly through social media and instant messaging apps.59 A selfie video on a soldier’s cell phone found by a villager in Sagaing Region showed in-service soldiers bragging about how they have killed and brutalized civilians, displaying how such propaganda runs deep within combat troops.60

As Charney argues in this issue, the imaginary of the military as a rightful powerholder and protector of the Buddhist nation has been shattered across Myanmar since the coup, and among some of the military’s own ranks, as defectors testify to. Obstacles nonetheless remain to changing this imaginary permanently, especially when it comes to counteracting the military’s pervasive internal propaganda machinery. CDM soldiers and activists in the People’s Soldiers group have worked tirelessly on this front, exploiting the gaps in the military’s efforts to control information flows and access to social media for in-service soldiers. In what they call psychological warfare to ‘open hearts and minds’, they try to infiltrate social media pages that soldiers use on platforms like Facebook, VK and TikTok with content that contradicts military propaganda and ‘fake news’. The content of the posts varies from appealing to the moral consciousness of the soldiers, their dignity, and fatigue from fighting, to emphasizing the injustices and internal oppression by the military. Through these efforts they try to prevent soldiers from believing the military’s news and justifications of their crimes. The next step is building rapport and trust with in-service soldiers by communicating with them personally through messaging apps, lending an ear to their concerns and worries. Over time, the goal is to get them to decide to escape, or at least to refrain from participating in atrocities, and then to facilitate this. Several soldiers have left the military this way, but it takes time, sometimes up to three months of continuous communication, because it often involves substantially changing the beliefs and powerful imaginaries many in-service soldiers hold of the military.61

Aspirations and Futures

Many CDM soldiers since the coup have described defection as coming out of the darkness into the light, opening their eyes to the injustices and manipulations of the generals, just as Ye Yint Thwe affirms in this issue.62 As more soldiers have joined the CDM, left military bases and become part of the revolution, a growing political consciousness and aspirations for alternative futures have also evolved. This is evident in this issue’s memoirs and in the frequent CDM soldier group online talk shows, which feature thoughtful conversations about the revolution, federal democracy, and justice. CDM soldiers have become some of the harshest critics of the military junta, based on their embedded personal experiences. Many are tirelessly working to get other soldiers to join them or supporting those who already found their way to the ‘liberated areas’.

Their dream of a better future for their country is strongly attached to the success of the Spring Revolution, shown in this issue’s memoirs. Aung Zaya aspires to a new society with “equality and freedom”, which he believes can only happen by rooting out the military dictatorship. This involves, Htet Naing Aung believes, not just a reform of the current military, but a complete destruction of it and the building of something new: a professional military that is formed and loved by the people, as interviewees Htin Shar and Phyo Win Aung also insist.63 While few defectors believe that the military leadership will withdraw or give up their fight against the people, they hope that defections can help the revolution to crumble the military from below and from within by depopulating it and creating internal chaos and defiance. Htet Naing Aung believes that the success of the revolution is not only about fighting the military on the battlefield, but first and foremost about “destroying their spirit”. It is about demasking the imaginary of the military as protector of the religion and nation, appealing to the humanity within each soldier, and capitalizing on what appears to be a growing fatigue and disbelief in what they are fighting for.

The humanism and moral consciousness of soldiers who have left the military are evident in the voices that form this special issue. Their personal future plans may be modest, and few imagine carrying a gun again, but their determination to be part of creating a new society in Myanmar gives hope during extremely troubling times. Such testimonies also provide invaluable firsthand evidence of military atrocities and crimes against humanity.64 These will be extremely useful in Myanmar’s future process of reckoning and in seeking justice for all in Myanmar who courageously struggle for the end of military rule.

Endnotes

1 This was spoken during an online debate featuring soldiers participating in the CDM, organized by People’s Embrace, one of the two main CDM soldier groups (Yin Le Le Htun, 2021).
2 While the exact number of CDM soldiers is unclear, support groups estimate the total to have grown from around 300 soldiers in May 2021 to 800 in June 2021, 1,500-2,000 in October 2021 and then to a total of 2,600-3,000 in May 2022. These numbers reflect military personnel who purposefully joined the CDM and who are now registered as CDM soldiers with the National Unity Government (NUG) and does not include those who left the military without registering with the NUG. For more on defection numbers after the coup, see “‘Around 1,500’ soldiers”, 2021; Conrad & Bayer, 2021; People’s Embrace, 2021; “Roughly 800 soldiers”, 2021.
3 Police officers have also deserted and defected since the coup (Kyed & Nyan Corridor, 2021).
4 A common designation for deserters that translates to “military runaway”.
5 An uncommon translation of the English term: “a person who changes sides”. It is more common for Burmese people to use the terms CDM soldier or people’s soldier to describe defectors after the coup.
6 People’s Soldiers was established as a Facebook group on 16 May 2021 and changed its name to People’s Goal in January 2022 to signal that it is run not only by ex-soldiers, but also by civilian activists. People’s Embrace was established on 17 May 2021 and became connected with the NUG. For more on the formation and work of these groups, see Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021.
7 On 16 April 2021 the NUG declared itself the legitimate government of Myanmar, formed by members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which is comprised of National League for Democracy (NLD) members elected to parliament in the 2020 general elections and prevented from forming government, but lucky enough to avoid or escape immediate military detention. NUG ministers are a mixture of NLD members and others who represent ethnic minority groups and civilian activists. The NUG is supposed to be advised by the National Unity Consultative Council, which has members from EAOs, strike committees, labor unions and civil society organizations (Thawnghmung, 2021; “Who’s Who”, 2021).
8 Civilian defection activist, personal communication, May 23, 2022. Also see Tun Myint & Scott, 2021.
9 On the People’s Soldiers website, defection is key to winning the revolution with the least amount of bloodshed: “Only when the national soldiers of Myanmar stand for justice and join the people will this revolution have the least blood spilled, and highest chance of victory” (People’s Solders, 2021).
10 Degaut, 2019. Also see Anisin, 2020, and Nepstad, 2011.
11 PDFs were recognized by the NUG on 9 May 2021 and many allied with the exile government, accepting NUG command and control, while some remained independent; I refer to this remainder as LDFs. The estimated number of PDFs and LDFs is 400, totaling around 100,000 members. Also see Ye Myo Hein, 2022.
12 The number of combat-ready soldiers is approximately 100,000 (People’s Goal activist, personal communication, May 23, 2022). On the approximate size of the military as a whole, see Selth, 2021a, and Ye Myo Hein, 2021.
13 The military adopted the term SAC to refer to its rule after the 1 February 2021 coup. The SAC has both military and civilian members. Most people in Myanmar and commentators now use the term SAC when referring to the military junta, rather than the term tatmadaw, which has often been used as a vernacular term for the trident of armed forces, including the army, navy and air force (Selth, 2021b). After the coup many no longer use the term tatmadaw, as it literally means ‘royal armed force’, and the term ‘royal’ has connotations of glory, status and honor. Many now prefer to use the basic terms sit tat for military and sit thar for soldiers (anonymous revolutionaries, personal communications, July 5, 2022). Also see Desmond, 2022.
14 Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021.
15 Nyi Thuta, 2021b.
16 Anonymous CDM soldier, personal communication, October 1, 2021. On the complex relationship between defections and the civilian armed resistance see Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021, pp. 53-60.
17 Ye Myo Hein & Myers, 2022. For more see Choudhury, 2021. 18 “Atrocious Myanmar”, 2021.
19 Sai Latt, 2016. Nakanishi reports 2,000-5,000 desertions per year during the 1960s, due to insufficient equipment and frequent salary arrears during counter-insurgency operations in border areas; desertions continued up to and during the political crises in 1988 and 2007, but never resulted in large-scale mutinies or schisms that significantly undermined military strength (2013).
20 Kyed, 2021; Thawnghmung & Khun Noah, 2021; Yamahata, 2022.
21 Civilian defection activist, personal communication, May 23, 2022.
22 The names in this issue’s memoirs are those the participants choose to be identified by and may or may not be their real names.
23 See Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021. Since that report was written at least three battalion commanders have joined the CDM. These higher-ranking defectors have been linked to the Australian government’s granting of asylum to CDM soldiers (Min Min, 2022).
24 The resentment people feel towards soldiers is evident in various forms of non-violent social punishment. Many people boycott businesses owned by soldiers and their families and refuse to sell products to them. Soldiers are also mocked on social media, called cowards, military dogs and worse, and when they meet people on the street they are often met with barely concealed disgust (Dakkha, 2021).
25 The USDP was formed by ex-generals prior to the criticized 2010 elections, which it won handily. The USDP suffered huge losses when the NLD began participating in elections from the 2012 byelections onwards. The NLD won the 2015 and 2020 national elections convincingly; both were judged by independent observers to be largely free and fair.
26 In a Facebook post, since deleted (Nyi Thuta, 2021a).
27 ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊၂၀၂၁c။
28 Democratic Voice of Burma, 2021a. Thank you to Ah Lynn for translation assistance.
29 For more here see Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021, pp. 53-60.
30 For a comprehensive overview and analysis of the armed resistance to the military, see Ye Myo Hein, 2022.
31 According to the NUG in August 2022, more than 18,000 soldiers from the Myanmar military have been killed by EAOs and PDF/LDFs since the coup (“Myanmar’s Civilian Government”, 2022). Anecdotal evidence and testimonies from defectors also suggest that the military is finding it hard to recruit (“Myanmar Military Struggling”, 2021). The military has made it compulsory for children of soldiers aged 15 and above to take military training, as an effort to build up reserves (“Myanmar Regime Makes”, 2021). A BBC article, based on various interviews with defectors, also notes that the military is increasingly hiring soldiers and militias to aid its troops (Attwood et al., 2022). On pro-junta militias in just one part of the country, see Human Rights Foundation of Monland, 2022.
32 ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ ၂၀၂၂a။
33 Ibid.
34 Civilian activist in People’s Goal, personal communication, May 23, 2022.
35 Ibid.
36 Attwood et al., 2022.
37 The coexistence and overlap of various defection motives is not particular to Myanmar’s current situation (Albrecht, 2019, p. 305).
38 People’s Soldiers also formed a Wives of People’s Soldiers Group in October 2021. This group is run by CDM soldier wives to help mobilize defections by appealing to and contacting the wives of in-service soldiers. It also works as a support group for families of defectors in the liberated areas (Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021, p. 45). Also see Min Ye Kyaw & Parry, 2022.
39 Chinland Defense Force, 2021.
40 Support for CDM soldiers is funded by private donations which are advertised online. On the People’s Soldiers website, one such request is accompanied by the message: “Support Defections. Save Lives. The defections movement is a non-violent strategy that will ensure that the Spring Revolution will be won with least bloodshed” (People’s Soldiers, 2021).
41 Padoh Mann Mann, 2021. The KNU now has its own policy on defectors, explained by foreign affairs spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee on 17 July 2022: the KNU would treat defectors humanely, but also make sure that those who had committed crimes would be put to trial before a court (ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ ၂၀၂၂b).
42 People’s Goal activist, personal communication, May 23, 2022.
43 ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင်၊ ၂၀၂၁b။ Comparative scholarship on military defection has shown that such initiatives by opposition movements like the NUG can play a strong role in motivating soldiers to defect. This is especially the case if the opposition can make military personnel trust and believe in the opposition’s wider reform project or its alternative vision of social order. Perceived reliable future integration into new post-regime structures is also significant. See Anisin, 2020, pp. 138-142, and Morency-Laflamme, 2018.
44 “Myanmar’s Shadow Govt”, 2022.
45 In August 2021 the CDF announced that it would provide a five-million Myanmar Kyat (at that time, USD 2,725) cash reward to those defecting with vehicles or small arms and ammunition, and ten-million Myanmar Kyat for those defecting with heavy artillery. On 1 October the CDF said that three soldiers had joined them with arms and received their reward (ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ ၂၀၂၁b).
46 ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင်၊ ၂၀၂၁a။
47 Barret, 2022. US-Burmese security expert Dr. Mie Mie Winn Byrd has also encouraged other countries such as the USA to grant asylum to CDM soldiers, arguing a third country incentive is important to defection strategies (“US Expert says”, 2022).
48 “Australia’s Embrace”, 2022.
49 ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ ၂၀၂၂b။
50 For some of the most in-depth scholarly work on the Myanmar military see Bünte, 2017; Callahan, 2003; Maung Aung Myoe, 2009; Nakanishi, 2013; Selth, 2002. See also Charney in this issue.
51 Nakanishi, 2013.
52 Bünte, 2017.
53 ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ ၂၀၂၁a။
54 Kyed & Ah Lynn, 2021, pp. 71-75.
55 Democratic Voice of Burma, 2021a.
56 From a People’s Soldiers talk program dated 26 December 2021 but uploaded to YouTube in January 2022 (People’s Soldier from Burma, 2022).
57 ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ ၂၀၂၁c။
58 Callahan, 2003.
59 Radio Free Asia, 2021. Also see Conrad & Bayer, 2021.
60 The video was provided to Radio Free Asia. In it, the soldiers also complain about their lack of agency, saying they do not know their futures and are “like driftwood” (Khin Maung Soe & Nayrein Kyaw, 2022).
61 These insights on the psychological warfare effort are based on interviews with one civilian activist and from a group interview with several representatives of a CDM soldier group in May 2022.
62 ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင်၊ ၂၀၂၁c။
63 What could possibly replace the Myanmar military is a topic of ongoing debate, which so far has focused on building a federal army that adheres to international human rights standards. It is also still unclear how CDM soldiers would fit into a new army and the extent to which they wish to do so varies in the current discussions. The topic was debated in a People’s Goal talk show on 14 August 2022 (People’s Goal, 2022).
64 In a report from 2022, Fortify Rights accuses specific military perpetrators of war crimes and genocide, based partly on evidence by defectors and insiders who support the revolution. It also reveals evidence of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017 (Fortify Rights, 2022). See also Zaw Ye Thwe, 2022.

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ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင်၊ (၂၀၂၁a၊ ဇွန်လ)၊ လက်နက်နဲ့ CDM ကို ညတွင်းချင်း ထုတ်ပေးခဲ့တဲ့ People’s Embrace နဲ့ URF [Facebook post]၊ Facebook။ https://web.facebook.com/PeoplesEmbrace/posts/pfbid05mdCyQDuHp9K9E8oQGsTyJbxShuZSTWVB2s9qBfdjj6X85uiRH4Q3gk248N5RkPAl

ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင်၊ (၂၀၂၁b၊ ဩဂုတ်လ ၂၄)၊ National Unity Government of Myanmar ၏ ပြည်သူ့တပ်မတော်သားများ၊ ပြည်သူ့ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့ဝင် များနှင့် စပ်လျဉ်းသည့်မူဝါဒ ထုတ်ပြန်ကြေညာချက်ကို “ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင် – People’s Embrace” အဖွဲ့က လှိုက်လှဲစွာ ထောက်ခံကြိုဆိုပါသည် [ဗီဒီယို]၊ Facebook။ https://web.facebook.com/107790364828632/posts/161341269473541/

ပြည်သူ့ရင်ခွင်၊ (၂၀၂၁c၊ ဩဂုတ်လ ၂၅)၊တော်လှန်ရေးအကြောင်း တစေ့တစောင်း EP06 [ဗီဒီယို]၊ Facebook။ https://www.facebook.com/PeoplesEmbrace/videos/866897214201927/

ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ (၂၀၂၁a၊ ဩဂုတ်လ ၂၉)၊ စစ်တပ်ကိုစွန့်ခွာပြီး ပြည်သူ့ဘက် ရပ်တည်လာကြတဲ့ ပြည်သူ့တပ်သားများရဲ့ အတွေးအမြင် [ဗီဒီယို]၊ Facebook။https://www.facebook.com/peoplesoldiers2021/videos/451300399257990/

ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ (၂၀၂၁b၊ အောက်တိုဘာလ၂)၊ ပြည်သူ့ထံအလင်းဝင်လာ သည့် စစ်သားများ ယနေ့ စစ်သား ၃ ဦး CDM လုပ်၊ တစ်ဦး လက်နက်အပြည့်အစုံပါ၍ ဆုကြေးရ၊ အားလုံးလုံခြုံမှုအပြည့်ရှိ [Facebook post]၊ Facebook။ https://www.facebook.com/107033758237394/posts/185255277081908/

ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ (၂၀၂၁c၊ အောက်တိုဘာလ ၁၀)၊ ပြည်သူ့စစ်သားစကား ဝိုင်း [ဗီဒီယို]၊ Facebook။ https://web.facebook.com/peoplesoldiers2021/videos/578817503451455/

ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ (၂၀၂၂a၊ မေလ ၁၅)၊ အာဏာသိမ်းပြီးနောက် ပိုမို ဆိုးရွားလာသော တပ်တွင်းပြိုကွဲမှုများ [ဗီဒီယို]၊ Facebook။ https://fb.watch/diYV0N_Bwf/

ပြည်သူ့ပန်းတိုင်၊ (၂၀၂၂b၊ ဇူလိုင်လ ၁၇)၊ တော်လှန်ရေးအတွက် စစ်ကောင်စီတပ်ဖွဲ့မှ CDM တွေ လိုအပ်နေဆဲလား ဗီဒီယို]၊ Facebook။ https://fb.watch/eG2CSwNnIg/