Phyo Win Aung

ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ

Cite as: 
The Memoir of Phyo Win Aung. (2022). Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 1.

I’m Phyo Win Aung and this is the story of how I joined and left the military, went protesting and ultimately came to a liberated area out of control of the Myanmar army. I wasn’t in the military for very long. I’m 23 years old, but when I joined up the clerks recorded my age as 21. I only made it to the end of eighth grade in my education.

I’ve wanted to be a chef since around fifth grade. Back during the school holidays as a kid I used to help in my friend’s kitchen and work as a cook. I also waited tables and did dishes. I finally dropped out of school because my parents’ economic situation was bad. I kept working in the food industry and became a food fryer. Although in that job I definitely helped my family, it was tricky to save any real money. I thought that if I could save a bit, I could do further vocational study and improve my prospects. I was fortunate: when I asked my boss about it, they understood and helped me to go and study. But after leaving and trying to study, I only lasted five days without a job…

Although I wanted to study, I happened to meet someone from Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT) who said they could get me better paying work maintaining MPT infrastructure in Rakhine State. So, I left the food industry and forewent the training opportunity provided by my employer. I went to Rakhine State and became a tower technician.

I would sometimes work late at the MPT office and occasionally fix towers with other staff in rural areas late at night. One night our car came under attack. Two gunshots rang out through the darkness. The first one seemed to miss but the second one hit the right side of the car. I was the one driving, so I quickly turned off the headlights and increased speed. We got away.

In Sittwe Town the next morning some members of the Arakan Army approached me at a local teashop.

“Was that your car last night?” they asked.

“Yes, I was working on the tower and it got late,” I replied.

“If night comes, you should sleep in the forest,” they warned me.

This experience was rattling. I couldn’t work in such conditions. I thought about what to do. In the end, I went back home, and after some phone calls, one of my acquaintances said I could come to the local Myanmar army battalion base and be recruited. That’s the winding story of how I ended up in the military.

I went to the base and was first asked to clear all the brush and tall grass surrounding the perimeter with a machete. That was hard work, but afterwards I was allowed to join up and everything was pretty good, at least for about a month, while I stayed at that base. After that I went to Taungoo to take the medical exam and formally register. I filled out a bunch of forms, had my fingerprints taken and joined a division. We then began proper training.

We had a strict lifestyle, with dinner at 6:30PM, night study until 9:30PM, and then we would be beaten if we did not make the deadlines. We were forced to drink a huge amount of milk every day and eat soup made with uncooked lentils. The training went for another month, but after graduation, the battalion I joined was not released for active duty. We were instead told to train to join the parade for National Armed Forces Day. I was ecstatic at the chance to participate in this, which I thought was an elite and exclusive exercise.

However, we basically just had to march for days under the hot sun of Nay Pyi Taw. Once I was told to walk to the parade grounds, over three kilometers away, at 1:30AM in the morning. Although I found it hard to take, there were also girls who would come out and put flower garlands over us at rehearsal, which filled me with joy. In the end, after nearly a month of practice, and just before the big parade day, I contracted COVID-19. I had to leave and stay at one of the training centers.

After I felt a bit better the center put me to doing manual labor like moving logs. It was back-breaking work and I still have pain from it. I was told I would have to train at the center for another three years. The senior officers in the military are like the spirits in the plane between heaven and earth. They suck up to those above them and oppress those below. They certainly do not give a shit about the freshest recruits, that’s for sure.

None of us even had any idea there had even been a coup when it happened. At that time we had to ask permission to use Facebook.

I decided to leave the army on 15 February, two weeks after the coup. Over the year I had become close with some of my seniors at the training center. I took a risk and told them I was going to leave. I asked them, “Can you help me get out? If you can’t, just put me in solitary confinement”. They are good people. They said I was doing the right thing and agreed to help. It took three days to plan everything out. My escape would be during a night when I was on guard duty.

Every night guards would be on duty in two-hour shifts. On my night of escape a deputy sergeant was on first watch, a sergeant on second, and a private on third. I was on fourth. When it was my turn I woke up and started doing favors. I gave the private a mosquito net and made him coffee that I spiked with Burmeton (a kind of cold medicine that makes people drowsy). I spent 5,000 Myanmar Kyat on a few bottles of army rum and some snacks for the sergeants. Everyone got drunk and drowsy and had fallen asleep one hour into my watch, perfectly according to plan. I could now move freely.

One of my seniors then snuck out and brought me a change of clothes. I’m really grateful to the people on the inside who helped me. Their circumstances prevent them from leaving the army, but their hearts are good. I think around half of the people in the army would like to leave. But there are many reasons that prevent them from doing so.

My senior friend took me to the back of the base and I ran across the army cemetery and got out. I ran down the main road that goes to Bago and Phaung Gyi. As luck would have it, there was a COVID-19 checkpoint full of police, even at this time in the morning. I was worried because although friends had helped me escape, there was still no way for me to bring my national ID card, deep inside the base—and I left my army boots at the base, so I did not have any shoes.

I walked along the road. There was a long traffic jam leading up to the checkpoint. I went straight up to the police and said I was coming home from singing at a KTV bar. They told me to call my mother to confirm the story. When I rang her, she played along perfectly. She did not know I was leaving the army. Without any foreknowledge, my mom said all the right things and the police let me through. This was the major hurdle that morning. Three hours later, at about 4:30AM, I found a bamboo forest.

There, a few people were already out harvesting bamboo. It was tricky as I only had the light of my phone and bare feet. I called out to the harvesters and decided to trust them with my story. They understood and helped me a lot. Thanks to them, I managed to make it back to Yangon eventually, some three weeks later. Once I was in the city I started protesting on the streets with the crowds right away. I protested in Yangon as well as Ayeyarwady Region. The protests were met with so much violence.

The situation was so bad that I decided to go back to my home village. My mother still did not understand that I had left the army for good. I didn’t want to get her in trouble, so I just told her I was on leave. I borrowed a motorcycle and went to protests in Magway, Min Bu, Salin and Ye Nan Chaung, then on to Mandalay. I didn’t know anyone in Mandalay and even had to sleep on the street at the beginning. But people were very welcoming. Just like the army takes in any random recruit, so the protesters took in anyone willing.

I decided to head back to Yangon on my motorcycle and see my sister, who lives in an outer township. I called my mother and told her I was protesting. I asked her for money, even though she lives hand to mouth. She sent me one lakh and said she gained strength from my convictions.

On the expressway I dared not go through the Mile 115 checkpoint. There’s a way to get around it, but it involves going off-road and crossing a flooded section. When I tried to cross the water, I hit rocks and collided with other motorbikes and people doing the same thing. It was messy. Some villagers helped me pull my bike out, but it wouldn’t start. The local mechanic had to look at it. Luckily he fixed it the same day and I arrived in Yangon late that night.

After arriving at my sister’s, I learned that some of my old army colleagues had identified me from photographs of protests. This was the sword in my grave. They were preparing to arrest me. I was always protesting very much in public, so it was only a matter of time, I suppose. Because they knew about my family, they came to my sister’s neighborhood, pretending to be civilians and asking about me. But the people in that ward had a lot of solidarity and lied to the army, saying they’d never seen me before. I was bringing too much pressure to them, and to my sister, so I had to move on.

I was low on cash but borrowed a little from a friend. I went up to Taungoo, which I knew OK from my military days. I laid low for a couple of weeks and did some odd jobs. The situation was changing. I saw someone arrested in front of the place I was staying just for watching a political video on Tik Tok. After that I was asked to move on by my host. I thanked them for taking care of me for a little while at least and moved on yet again. I didn’t know where to go except back to my family home.

The bus fare was 25,000 Myanmar Kyat, but the train fare was only 2,000, so I went with that. Unfortunately soon after departing Taungoo two of the carriages derailed, delaying the trip substantially and encouraging travelers to mingle. I just wanted to be left alone. As luck would have it, right next to me a soldier was sitting. I bought him alcohol to get him drunk. I thought that if I didn’t, he would try to ask me things, and come to suspect me.

I arrived back to the area of my village during the daytime, but it was too intense to go in. I waited until nightfall. Even in my own home the coup forced me to sneak around like a scared cat. I was tense and miserable. I just sat in my home, avoiding people and potential military informants. I was looked after by my mother for ten days like that. This was when I reached out through social media on my little brother’s phone to the People’s Soldiers organization.

They sent me money to pay back my mother for her assistance to me since the coup (she had even taken out a loan) as well as money to cover my travel and living expenses. They helped me a lot. I stood tall and went to Yangon and then on to the liberated area. Since then I have worked tirelessly for this organization, with all my strength, for the good of the people. I want to say directly to the soldiers reading this: if you want to get out, please contact us. I hope the people can develop a professional military to challenge the Myanmar army. I would serve in it. Otherwise, I guess I will work towards becoming a chef, like I always wanted to be.