'I couldn’t kill innocent people': Myanmar soldiers defect to join resistance
Yey Int Thwe* remembers July 25 as the day when “everything changed”. The 30-year-old was part of a group of some 10 soldiers forcing their way into homes in southeast Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. As members of the Burmese army, known as the Tatmadaw, they had been tasked with arresting people suspected of organising protests against the February 1 military coup. Armed and carrying handcuffs, Yey Int Thwe found himself face-to-face with his own cousin.
“It was a shock. I spent my childhood with him, and suddenly I was supposed to fight against him and arrest him. For what? Because he dared to express his opinion,” the former soldier told FRANCE 24. “That was the moment I knew I had to leave the army”.
That evening he returned to his barracks and started to devise an exit plan. Now, five months later, he lives in hiding in the jungle near the border between Myanmar and Thailand.
'I joined the army to protect people'
According to Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG), 2,000 soldiers have defected from the military and joined the ranks of the opposition since February’s coup led by Min Aung Hlaing.
“The Tatmadaw has never been more hated than now in Myanmar,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, told FRANCE 24. Every year members of the army defect because they are dissatisfied with their living and work conditions. But this time there is an added moral crisis: Soldiers do not want to support the junta anymore.
Many defectors are motivated by a refusal to turn their weapons on the people of Myanmar as the country heads towards civil war. Since February, 1,300 civilians have been killed by Burmese security forces according to local activist group Assistance Action for Political Prisoners (AAPP). A UN commissioner found evidence of "violations that may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes" perpetrated by the military.
“In 2015 I was making sure that voting booths were secure, for the elections which allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to be democratically elected. In 2021, the military is shooting at her defenders. I can’t stand the military killing people,” said Kaung Htet Aung* in an interview with FRANCE 24. He added, “I joined the army to protect the people of Myanmar, not to fight against them.”
At 29, after having spent nine years serving as a sergeant, he also left the Tatmadaw and joined the civil disobedience movement. Doing so meant taking a huge risk. "Soldiers don’t have the right to quit their positions, it’s a job for life," he said. "Desertion is punishable by imprisonment, or worse. Then there’s the risk of retaliation against our loved ones."
'The only way to end this is by force'
His path out of the military was riddled with danger. On May 6 the young soldier escaped his military base, but not for long. Just hours later he was injured while riding a motorbike and recaptured. His punishment was three months in military prison. In August, the junta granted him a second chance and offered him his old military job back, but he ran away again.
This time he was helped by People’s Soldiers, an organisation of former members of the military now helping would-be deserters work out the logistics of their escape. "As soon as I got out of prison I made contact with them through social media," Kaung Htet Aung said. "A few weeks later they helped me make my escape."
"It all happens on social media," a spokesperson for the group told FRANCE 24. "Soldiers or their loved ones contact us. As soon as we verify their information, we get them a bus ticket to bring them to free zones." The free zones are areas near the border controlled not by the junta, but by armed ethnic groups. Once escapees arrive, People’s Soldiers helps them find accommodation and provides other basic necessities.
“I am so happy to be free,” said Kaung Htet Aung, smiling as he spoke to FRANCE 24 despite the deluge of rain beating down on his makeshift shelter. Now he is helping the resistance using skills and knowledge he learned in the army. “I made weapons for the Tatmadaw, and today I make weapons to fight against them. I also teach young people who have just joined the militia how to use them.”
“The only way we are going to end this is by force,” he added.
Providing practical help is not the only objective of People’s Soldiers – the organisation is also heavily invested in communications campaigns to encourage those still serving in the Tatmadaw to switch sides.
Every Sunday at 10am sharp, the group broadcasts video conferences on social media covering different subjects each week, with speakers including members of the NUG, representatives from the pro-democracy movement and former-soldiers who have already deserted. These discussions are only part of the group's efforts to flood social media with its message and even send direct messages to members of the military and their loved ones.
“This propaganda plays a major role,” said Phil Robertson. “It doesn’t only reassure those who are thinking of deserting, but also adds pressure and encourages them to take the leap.” It is also endorsed by the NUG who since September has itself been calling on soldiers to join the resistance and promising safety for those who do desert.
It was through such messages that Yey Int Thwe’s sister was able to get in touch with the organisation, when he could not. “The Tatmadaw knows that People’s Soldiers exists. To stop soldiers contacting members of the organisation, they monitor our phones very closely,” he said.
“My sister found out the group existed thanks to one of their online meetings. She sent them a message, then she told me the location I needed go to in order to escape to a free zone” he added.
Today he is helping the organisation by building houses in the jungle for future defectors to live in. “I live thanks to donations made to People’s Soldiers, and I spend my days cutting bamboo,” he says.
Although he feels safe now, Yey Int Thwe hopes for his family to come and live with him. “The whole time I was running away, they were scared for me. Now I’m the one who’s scared for them. I’m scared that they are going to face the consequences for my decision.”
Retired soldiers returning to service
The rate of desertion is still relatively low compared to the 350,000 members that still make up the Tatmadaw according to official estimates. Yet every soldier that leaves the military is celebrated as a victory by the resistance.
“The defections have not reached a scale yet that would topple the military. The Tatmadaw’s reaction has been anger and retaliation. The military knows one way, and really one way only – which is use of force to get its way. So, they just double down in what they have always known, which is using more intimidation and abuse to try to keep soldiers in line,” said Phil Robertson. “But each defection helps to raise awareness and it’s possible that continued defections could imperil the military’s leadership.”
Another sign of growing disengagement is the difficulty the Tatmadaw is facing to recruit new members. Independent news site Myanmar NOW reported that multiple retired soldiers and high-ranking officers have been called back to service and threatened with suspended pensions if they refuse.
According to another Burmese news source, The Irrawady, the Burmese army has introduced mandatory military training for the children of military members, effectively creating a reserve force and breaking international humanitarian laws in the process.
“The junta needs to understand that even within its ranks, some people don’t support it anymore,” said Yey Int Thwe. “It has to return power to the people and we need to start a huge military reform. The army needs to return to its original purpose: protecting the people.”
*The names of some of these interviewees were changed to protect their identity.