Online activists help Burmese troops desert
Protesters march against Myanmar’s military coup in the northern region of Sagaing – Copyright AFP –
A team of Burmese activists working behind the scenes are using social media and messaging apps to persuade disillusioned junta soldiers to abandon their posts and overthrow the mighty army.
Sergeant Zay Ya answered the call, slipping away from his base near Yangon to a waiting car to take him to the Thai border, where he found refuge with ethnic fighters who fought the army.
The 29-year-old has spent several weeks planning his escape with People’s Goal, a group of former soldiers and activists reaching out to those horrified by the crackdown on dissent which the UN says has killed more than 1,500 people.
“I was sickened to see soldiers brutalizing civilians and ransacking homes,” said the eight-year Air Force veteran.
“I felt guilty for being part of all this,” he told AFP from an undisclosed location, using a pseudonym for security reasons.
People’s Goal – Pyithu Pandaing in Burmese – claims to have helped “several hundred” soldiers flee to safety in neighboring countries or rebel-held areas in Myanmar, according to its spokesman Ko Saw Lone, also using a pseudonym.
He hosts weekly town halls on Facebook or Zoom where service members who have already defected talk about their experiences and try to convince potential defectors to take the plunge.
“It’s bloodless resistance,” said founder Nyi Thuta, a former captain who previously worked in the military capital Naypyidaw, writing speeches for the armed forces chief, before deserting shortly after the coup. State.
“I knew deep down that there were a lot of soldiers in the army who were on the side of the people,” he told AFP.
AFP could not verify the team’s claim that it helped several hundred soldiers to desert, and the Myanmar military does not publish figures on desertions.
But in comments carried by state media on Wednesday, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing reminded troops to “control themselves with good leadership” and obey orders.
– ‘Watermelon soldiers’ –
Desertion is a dangerous business – those caught risk execution or decades in prison.
After showing interest in open forums on Facebook and Twitter, would-be defectors are asked to upgrade to encrypted messaging apps where they undergo a lengthy vetting process.
“We have to be sure that a candidate for desertion is not a spy for the junta,” Emily told Pyithu Yin Kwin – People’s Embrace, another activist group helping troops escape.
Sympathetic soldiers — who themselves might defect later — are a source of intelligence, Emily said, and can help verify identities and intentions.
They call them “watermelon soldiers”, she added, because the green of their uniforms hides their commitment to democracy and the red flag of the ousted civil administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hla Min Kyaw, who deserted after 10 years in the navy, told AFP he had to provide proof of identity in several forms and was subjected to a “battery” of questions.
Once he was cleared, he said a “digital ID card” was sent to his smartphone, which facilitated access to rebel-held territory.
– Denied –
The families of deserters may come under pressure from the military.
Zay Ya said his relatives were “harassed” by security forces and they later disavowed him via a notice in a state-controlled newspaper.
Strengthening the resolve of those in doubt to leave is an important part of People’s Goal’s work, Nyi Thuta said.
“We are here to reassure them, to tell them that we know how hard it is because we have already been there.”
In their new lives, some soldiers are blending into communities along Myanmar’s porous borders, Emily said.
Others pass on their military skills to protesters who have taken up arms against the junta.
Padoh Saw Thamain Tun of the Karen National Union – which has sheltered several deserters – said they are taking in former enemies “because we are fighting for the freedom of all the people”.
– ‘A life saved’ –
The effect of the desertions on Myanmar’s armed forces – which analysts estimate at around 350,000 to 400,000 troops – remains limited.
A national unity shadow government made up of ousted lawmakers says around 2,000 soldiers have deserted since the coup, but the figure is impossible to verify.
“In the short term, desertions are an unwanted headache for the regime, but have no significant impact on its fighting strength,” Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
But activists say every small success behind a computer is a step towards another victory on the battlefield.
“The desertion of just one cook is a win because it impacts operations,” Emily said.
“That’s what we’re aiming for. A soldier who deserts is a life saved in the field.