Captain Pyae Sone Oo waited deep into the night before preparing to flee. His superiors ordered him to gather 25 infantrymen under his command to attack the anti-coup protesters the next morning.
But from his military base near the city of Dawei in southeastern Myanmar, the prospect of killing innocent civilians worries him deeply.
“I know that I cannot command my soldiers to inflict such brutality on civilians,” the 30-year-old told Al Jazeera by phone.
So, just as dawn broke on April 15, 2021, Pyae Sone Oo snuck out of his army base. Heart pounding, he boarded a small plane that took him to rebel-held territory.
“Escape by plane is the only option,” he explained. “Leaving by car would be impossible given the number of security checkpoints across the terrain of the east coast.”
From Dawei, Pyae Sone Oo traveled to eastern Karen State, to territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), an opposition political group with a large armed force. His brother, also an officer in the army, deserted and joined the resistance there.
The two are among thousands of soldiers believed to have defected from Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, since it toppled the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. last year.
The People’s Soldiers, an organization that works to help the army leave Tatmadaw, estimates that around 2,500 soldiers have defected since the army took power and the deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters peace. According to human rights groups, nearly 1,600 people have been killed and 10,000 detained since the coup, while hundreds of thousands have been displaced as civil war rages across the country.
Even before the coup, Tatmadaw was famous for carrying out extreme violence against his people. For decades, security forces have shelled and raided villages in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups in the border regions, often forcing men to work under the threat of soldiers. death. They have long used rape as a weapon of war, and in 2017 committed what many have labeled “genocide” by persecuting the Rohingya Muslim minority, killing thousands of people died, burned villages and forced some 700,000 people into asylum in neighboring Bangladesh.
Pyae Sone Oo were all too familiar with the violent tactics of the military. Having witnessed first-hand how the system of soldiers conditioning causes violence to the people, he understood the psychology behind the devastation.
“The point they always propagate is that the Tatmadaw is an organization that holds the country together, an organization that defends Buddhism,” he said. “If Tatmadaw did not exist, then Myanmar would become a slave country of the West and Buddhism would cease to exist in this country.”
He explained that most lower-ranking soldiers were “bribed to engage in propaganda,” but that many officers like him had greater access to information, education, and knowledge of the history of violence. Tatmadaw’s longstanding civilian force.
He said Tatmadaw forces vulnerable young men to join and also attracts criminals looking to evade crime. It then facilitates the military to believe that they are part of a heroic and glorified society. This “ideology” encourages the military to carry out their orders, even if it means committing atrocities, he added.
“When I was out, that’s when I realized the full extent of the military’s terror on its own citizens,” said Pyae Sone Oo.
Anthony Davis, a security analyst specializing in Southeast Asian militaries, shares much of the former captain’s observations.
Davis told Al Jazeera: “Training for Tatmadaw infantrymen has always been rigorous and often brutal. “The level of brutality is part of the course in training. In addition, Light Infantry Divisions acting as shock troops were often deployed against insurgent-held areas, where they often suffered high casualties, and such losses added to the process. brutal. “
Davis believes the number of defectors may not be as high as the People’s soldiers claim, but admits that the Tatmadaw is built to be extremely difficult to leave.
A spokesman for the Myanmar military did not respond to email inquiries at the time of publication.
“Once you’re in the family, you’re in good shape,” Davis said. “You live on a military base, your family lives on a military base, your children go to school on a military base. Tatmadaw is like a military caste, a whole social ecosystem, like an army in the narrow sense. That class included hundreds of thousands of people, including the families and relatives of soldiers, and camp followers — not just the army.”
He added that those in the institution are in a tightly controlled bubble, one that has been even more protected and protected since the coup. He also explained that soldiers in Tatmadaw enjoy all kinds of privileges, free schools, free housing and social status.
Davis added: “Then on the battlefield prescribe punishment. “And that often includes looting, looting and even rape. Tatmadaw combat units were the obvious end of a caste system that brought almost complete retribution because the Tatmadaw was a caste that saw itself as owning and running the entire country. “
‘Soldiers are prisoners’
Nyi Thuta, a co-founder of the People’s Force, believes that getting the army out of Tatmadaw, which has about 300,000 employees, is key to loosening its grip on power – especially senior officers.
Once the captain of Tatmadaw, Nyi Thuta said he joined the army in 2007 because he wanted to protect his country. The idea was to revive Myanmar as it embarked on democratic reforms, but when the coup took place more than a decade later, everything changed.
Nyi Thuta told Al Jazeera: “The country has a long history of dictatorships, so I know how bad this can get.
So the 32-year-old took to Facebook to express his anger, writing posts about how the coup was receding and a step back. It didn’t take long, his superiors threatened him, asking him to stop sharing his opinions online.
Nyi Thuta said: “That’s when I realized that my freedom was gone. “I know the only way to express my freedom is to go outside of Tatmadaw.”
Days after the coup, as protests began to erupt across the country, Nyi Thuta was cautiously optimistic that Tatmadaw would allow protesters to demonstrate peacefully. But it’s not like that.
It was the first victim of the coup, he said, referring to a 19-year-old girl who was shot in the head during a protest in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on 8 February last year. “I was thinking about who killed her. I wonder if he is to blame, if so maybe there is hope. But it didn’t happen.”
Nyi Thuta left Tatmadaw a few weeks later, in early March.
Reflecting on life inside the institute, he explained that soldiers were often “stuck”.
“Soldiers are like prisoners,” he said. “They just follow their orders. If they are asked to suppress protesters, or order them to be killed, they must do it. “
If the military refused to carry out their orders, he said, they could be sent to military prison or killed, or their families could be targeted.
“They force you to kill others to survive,” says Nyi Thuta. “First, you might not like the idea – the sounds of the screams are very painful. But you get used to it. Because you have no choice, you have to do what they are told. ”
But for many soldiers, the coup – after a decade of democratic reforms – went a step too far.
In the past two weeks alone, many senior officers, including three lieutenant colonels, have defected with their families, Nyi Thuta said, and fled to territory controlled by ethnic armed groups, where they are now support the war.
He hopes that many more will join their ranks.
Back in the Karen State, Pyae Sone Oo also joined the resistance. But he has trouble looking to the future.
His mind is focused on only one goal and one goal – revolution.
“At this point, I have no future,” he said. “And I can’t think about my future until the revolution is won.”