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Junta Defections Drop Two Years After Myanmar Coup

FILE - Members of the Myanmar military march at a parade ground to mark the country's Independence Day in Naypyidaw on Jan. 4, 2023.
FILE - Members of the Myanmar military march at a parade ground to mark the country's Independence Day in Naypyidaw on Jan. 4, 2023.

Defections from Myanmar security forces to the anti-junta opposition have dropped significantly, according to People's Embrace, an organization supporting defectors established by the opposition National Unity Government, as well as ethnic opposition groups and defectors.

They point to tightened security and stricter regulations in Myanmar's military, as well as inadequate protection and support for defectors by the NUG and other opposition organizations as the reasons for the drop.

"The main reason for the severe decline [in the number of defectors] is the junta's tightened security within the army. Soldiers living inside the battalion are being restricted in access to information and prohibited from connecting with people from outside. Another reason is that there are fewer soldiers who want to join the revolution voluntarily," Captain Lin Htet Aung, a military defector and a founding member of People's Embrace, said during a recent interview with VOA.

Among the reasons he and others cited for this reticence to join the anti-junta forces were risk, opposition to the anti-junta forces, reluctance to give up their rank and security, and the ability to extract money from civilians, including during vehicle or other inspections.

Although the military regime brutally cracked down on those opposed to the February 1, 2021, coup, soldiers and police have joined pro-democracy forces resisting the military coup. People welcomed the defecting security forces and expected mass defections, with the hope that more defectors would lead to a faster overthrow of the junta.

People's Embrace was formed in May 2021 by military officers who had defected to help security personnel wishing to defect. It later became part of the NUG Defense Ministry. People's Embrace verifies the background information of soldiers and police wanting to defect and helps secure accommodation and provide security for defectors.

According to the People's Embrace and NUG, nearly 3,000 soldiers and 7,000 police officers have defected since the coup. Most are low-ranking military personnel. The highest-ranking defecting soldiers are three lieutenant colonels and over 100 are captains. Among the police defectors, a police major is the highest-ranking defector.

It is hard to determine where most of the defections occur.

"At first, after the coup, many security personnel contacted us from cities such as Yangon and Mandalay," Lin Htet Aung said. As the opposition grew stronger, many from remote areas and front lines contacted the committee, he said.

People's Embrace said the peak period of defection was from June to December 2021, because of the encouragement and cash rewards by the NUG and other resistance organizations.

In order to attract defectors, the NUG has promised safe accommodation for military personnel and their family members who join the opposition's civil disobedience movement, known as CDM. Since April 2021, the NUG has announced that junta soldiers who desert and destroy or steal vehicles on their way out will be offered hefty cash rewards. The largest such reward is either 1 billion kyats or its rough equivalent, $500,000. In August, the NUG also offered cash rewards to junta soldiers who defect with anti-aircraft weapons, as the regime was increasingly using airstrikes against resistance people's defense forces fighters.

FILE - Members of the People's Defense Force, the armed wing of the civilian National Unity Government opposed to Myanmar's ruling military regime, take part in training at a camp in Kayin State, near the Myanmar-Thai border, Oct. 9, 2021.
FILE - Members of the People's Defense Force, the armed wing of the civilian National Unity Government opposed to Myanmar's ruling military regime, take part in training at a camp in Kayin State, near the Myanmar-Thai border, Oct. 9, 2021.

Some armed resistance groups based in Sagaing region and Chin state in the northwest part of the country and Kayah state in the eastern part of the country have offered cash rewards of 5 million kyats (about $2,400) to soldiers and police who defect with arms and ammunition, in addition to helping defectors relocate to a safe place.

However, the number of defectors has dwindled significantly since April.

"During the peak period, about 100 [soldiers and police] contacted us per month to seek help for defection. However, there are around 10 contacting us a month" since April 2022, Lin Htet Aung said.

A coalition resistance group, the Chinland Joint Defense Committee, made up of 17 local defense groups active in northwestern Chin state, has offered a minimum of 5 million kyats to defectors with arms. A total of 320 soldiers and policemen have defected to the CJDC within two years, however, only 30 left the army with arms.

While it cannot say the exact number, CJDC spokesman Salai Timmy said the number of defectors has decreased significantly since the early months of 2022. The main reason, he said, is lack of communication because the military is cutting off phone lines and internet services, including mobile data. In addition, the junta sent soldiers there who are not familiar with Chin.

"Moreover, defectors face difficulties living in the border town of Tamu," Salai Timmy said, referring to a border town close to India.

Those difficulties stem from the CJDC's inability to provide financial support to soldiers who have defected without arms, he said.

"Soldiers who defected with arms can survive with the cash reward, 5 million kyats that we give. We cannot offer financial support to defectors without arms. They have to struggle on their own," he said, adding that the CJDC provides security for the defector to be relocated. It does not provide a new home, though.

Defecting security personnel cited weaknesses of the NUG in receiving and providing security and facilities for defectors. With the increasing battles everywhere between resistance fighters and the military, the NUG is finding it difficult to find safe places for defectors, they said.

"They [the NUG] could not provide a proper safety plan for the defectors before we reach a safe place. This is the main reason for the decreasing number of defectors," said a defector captain who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns.

Lin Htet Aung conceded that the NUG cannot do a perfect job in accepting defectors, however, he insisted that NUG is also trying its best as a revolutionary government.

"I think they will be able to do a better job in the future," he added, meaning doing a better job in accepting defectors and will have a better plan to relocate and support them.

Some defectors in Mae Sot, just over the border in Thailand, who register with People's Embrace, said each is receiving funding of 1,000 Thai baht, about $31, per month, but that is not enough for accommodation and food. In this situation, they have to share a house with others, three defectors interviewed by VOA said.

A police officer who lives with 10 other defectors who joined the CDM movement to oppose the coup in a house in Mae Sot said that despite the inconveniences, he expected the situation before he defected from the army.

"We are in a good position compared to the defectors remain inside Myanmar. They are having many difficulties. Some of my colleagues in the police force are willing to defect, but they are afraid of coming out because they heard the difficulties of other defectors," said the 37-year-old policeman, referring to such difficulties as security and lack of money and accommodation, who defected in July 2021 from the No.26 Anti-Narcotics Task Force in Pinlaung township of Shan state.

Despite defection rate declines, the NUG said it has been writing new and better plans to increase the number of defections because NUG believes defection of security forces is important for the movement.

"This is a way of destroying the enemy force without fighting," Naing Htoo Aung, the secretary of the NUG's Ministry of Defense, recently texted in response to VOA questions.

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