Monday, March 4, 2024
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Soldiers of Conscience: Myanmar’s military defectors

Guest contributor

James Shwe

International and regional efforts to address the crisis in Myanmar have primarily focused on advocating for negotiations. However, it’s now clear that meaningful talks with this new military regime is unlikely unless the opposition surrenders, or the military is totally defeated.

There should be no half measures. The people’s desire in the face of repression remains unwavering, and the military’s grip on the nation is weakening. This uprising against a return to military rule is like no other in Myanmar’s history.  

The military’s weakness has become glaringly evident. No nation has recognized it as Myanmar’s legitimate government. The economy has been in shambles since it staged a 2021 military coup by ousting Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government replacing it with a regime led by Min Aung Hlaing.

The military’s territorial control now barely extends to 17 percent of the country and is contracting further as the Brotherhood Alliance’s Operation 1027 gains momentum and spreads nationwide, and as anti-coup forces unite with it to end military rule for once and all. 

In central Myanmar, areas are slipping out of military control. In terms of public support and respect, it has none. Loyalty to the military appears to be sustained only through force, coercion, financial incentives, criminal partnerships, and blackmail.

The international community has played a crucial role by withholding legitimacy and condemning the military’s atrocities against civilians. International sanctions are gradually adding pressure and could become even more effective with enhanced international coordination and enforcement.

One strategy deserving greater attention is providing incentives for defections among the civil servants, military, and security personnel. The proposed “Deserter Program” in the 2024 U.S. State Department Appropriations Bill, aimed at supporting military personnel who have defected represents a positive step forward.

Leaving the military is fraught with risks, including potential jail sentences and threats to soldiers’ families. The journey to safety can be perilous, involving multiple hideouts before reaching liberated areas.

Despite these formidable challenges, records from the National Unity Government (NUG) indicate that a significant number of military personnel and police officers have defected. It states that over 14,000 have laid down their weapons since the 2021 military coup.

These defectors describe the military as demoralized, fatigued, and panicked. Many soldiers wish to leave the army, but their families, held hostage to ensure loyalty, compel them to remain.

The “People’s Embrace” program of the NUG, also called the “Loyalty Shift” program, was initiated in August 2021 to assist defectors from the military. Under this program:

  • Military and police personnel who have defected from the military regime and joined the peoples’ cause are celebrated as true sons and daughters of the nation.
  • The NUG formally acknowledges their service, rank, and entitlements, including pensions, ensuring these are duly recognized and provided.
  • The NUG takes responsibility for addressing their immediate security and livelihood needs, ensuring their safety and well-being during their transition to civilian life.
  • The NUG actively engages in negotiations with the People’s Defense Force (PDF) and allied groups to create an environment of trust and support, urging them not to harm or punish defectors.
  • In recognition of their bravery, defectors are promised significant and equitable roles within the future Federal Army and Police, ensuring their contributions are honoured.

Recent reports indicate that soldiers who surrendered to the resistance were being treated humanely, following these guidelines.

On Nov. 14, all 127 members of Infantry Battalion (IB) 129 stationed in Laukkai, located in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone of northern Shan State near the Myanmar-China border, surrendered. Along with their family members, 262 people in total were placed under the care of the Brotherhood Alliance.

On Nov. 28, all 172 troops with the No. 125 Infantry Regiment, known as Kha-La-Ya 125, surrendered. Along with 100 family members, 272 people in total surrendered. It marks the second major battalion to capitulate in the Kokang region. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) stated it has all 534 in its custody.

Li Kyar Win, the MNDAA spokesperson, said that he guarantees the safety of soldiers and their families, vowing to respect the human rights of those who lay down their weapons. They reportedly provide medical assistance and cover travel expenses to reunite soldiers with their families. Each soldier receives one million kyat ($480 USD), and each family member receives 100,000 kyat ($48 USD), to surrender.

These developments signify a significant shift in the dynamics of the conflict, indicating growing unrest within the military ranks and a shift in the balance of power in northern Shan State. The NUG has established camps for defectors in liberated areas, with some former soldiers founding organizations to assist with the transition.

These programs provide defectors with sanctuary and financial support, offering hope and a fresh start. While the number of military defectors isn’t yet sufficient to topple the regime in Naypyidaw, it’s steadily growing. International support for this crucial area remains limited.

I propose that many nations advocating a negotiated solution contribute to a fund designed to support the livelihood and security of military defectors and their families for a defined period.

This approach could weaken the military and compel them to engage in negotiations, while also minimizing death and displacement. It might be more cost effective in the long-run than just long-term humanitarian assistance to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

I request that the U.S. expand its support program for military defectors who prioritize conscience over coercion and urge the rest of the international community to endorse such an initiative.

I urge the U.N. and the E.U. to consider this approach and adopt a locally-led humanitarian aid strategy, including this program. If and when it’s properly implemented, it will maximize aid effectiveness, promote community well-being, and contribute to sustainable solutions in Myanmar. 

I believe that the Myanmar people are best positioned to address the support of this kind of effort through locally-led organizations, especially those working closely with the NUG and Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs). The NUG and EROs must be included as dialogue partners in this process.

Many security analysts state that they are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Myanmar military. Momentum has been building at a steady pace since late October, and with the right international support, Myanmar’s end of military rule may be closer than we may think.


James Shwe is a Burmese-American living in the U.S. He has actively championed Myanmar’s democracy movement following the 2021 military coup. He advocates on behalf of both the U.S. government and the National Unity Government (NUG). 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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