Major Hein Thaw Oo from the Myanmar military’s 99th Light Infantry Division recently went AWOL from his army base in Meiktila, Mandalay region, to join anti-junta protesters in northeast Shan state. He is the highest-ranked known military defector who has rejected the army amid bloody crackdowns on demonstrators and other civilians in the aftermath of the military’s coup on Feb. 1 that overthrew the democratic government of country leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hein Thaw Oo’s division is notorious for its involvement, along with the 33rd Light Infantry Division, in the brutal military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state in 2017, which left thousands dead and drove 745,000 others out of the country to Bangladesh. He says that several military officers and soldiers from his outfit want join the protests and civil disobedience movement against the military regime. But they are unable to defect because they have been offered financial incentives and other economic opportunities — both legal and illegal — to stay loyal to the army, and also because their families are tightly controlled by senior officers.
In an exclusive telephone interview with Washington, DC-based reporter Khin Maung Soe of RFA’s Myanmar Service, Hein Thaw Oo discusses why he turned on the military and what protesters and the shadow government need to do in order to remove the junta. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: Why did you decide to leave your military post without permission?
Hein Thaw Oo: The new officers who were appointed recently are pretty corrupt. They oppress the staff below them no matter how upright they are. If you are upright, you will never get promoted for sure. By the time you become a major in the military, you have been there long enough and you know them pretty well. They use all kinds of tactics to make sure such officers don’t quit. When you get to a high-ranking level, they are pretty concerned that you might betray them, so they offer you all kinds of opportunities, even though low-ranking soldiers are starving and barely surviving. In which other countries are soldiers forced to eat the bark of a banana tree? They take action against low-ranking military officers for accepting bribes 200,000 or 300,000 kyats (U.S. $140-210). But they turn blind eyes to the high-ranking officers who take in 300 million kyats (U.S. $203,400) or as much as a billion kyats (U.S. $678,000). The military guarantees that an officer can resign after 10 years of service, but [in reality] they don’t allow anyone who wants to resign to leave. They give the excuse that an officer is required to own a house in order to resign. It’s unpractical because those in service on the front lines can’t afford to buy a house on their salaries. All the officers resort to corruption and take bribes as they continue their service. I decided that I could not continue this way any longer, so I left.
RFA: What do you think about the military coup?
Hein Thaw Oo: They [the military] always have plots for coups. They are not new. Military leaders are afraid of letting their power go.
RFA: Were you aware of their plan for the recent military coup?
Hein Thaw Oo: Yes, I was.
RFA: Since when did you know about the plan?
Hein Thaw Oo: I saw it coming as early as 2015 before they transferred the power to the National League for Democracy. I heard more revealing information in the last two years.
RFA: What kind of information?
Hein Thaw Oo: Before the (Nov. 8, 2020) election, the commanders of Special Command Division of the Ministry of Defense, who are of the lieutenant-general rank, toured the military command divisions across the country. They lectured soldiers about the consolidation of intra-military unity. It is a topic they frequently spoken about before. They asked them to make sure that none of the military units broke away no matter what the pressure was from outside elements. As I reflected on some of the speeches they had given before the elections, I knew that a military coup was coming.
RFA: What’s needed for the Spring Revolution, as the protest movement is called domestically, to succeed?
Hein Thaw Oo: There needs to be unity among ethnic armed groups. There is unity among the people in their minds, but it cannot be implemented on the ground. That’s because there are informers and spies among the people. The unity of the people must be formalized. There is a common motto among world militaries that a soldier needs to know about his enemy and about himself. If you fight a battle without the knowledge of these two, you will lose. If the civil disobedience movement continues, there could be less need for outside aid. But if it fails, there will be greater need for outside aid. If you are going to do something, you have to make plans, keeping in your mind your potential losses and gains. Otherwise, more and more lives will be lost. You need to elect a good leader and follow the leader’s guidance. In a war, whoever survives the battle will write its history.
RFA: How do you assess the strength of the Myanmar military?
Hein Thaw Oo: Among the infantry soldiers, some are fighting the battle on the front lines, while others are not going to the front lines. There are many soldiers who are not familiar with battle. They might be able to fire a gun, but they won’t hit the target. At most, there are only around 200,000 soldiers who can skillfully fire a gun. But, in the end, the decisive factor for winning a battle is not the guns. It is the artillery and the operations behind them.
RFA: If the plan to establish a federal army goes forward, what are the chances that Myanmar soldiers will defect and join the new force?
Hein Thaw Oo: If that is the case, then it depends on how much guarantee they have for security for themselves and for their families. The majority of the soldiers want to take the side of the just organization, but they are locked up in the incentives. They are prevented from doing so by fear. They are also hampered by deeply rooted beliefs. They also worried for their families. They are afraid that their families might be punished for their actions. Some are given wealth, possessions, and positions to stay. If the plans for a federal army succeed and the organization is successful, then it will erase their fears, and they will join it in droves. If the opposing sides can establish a free territory or a base in a city, then we will see divisions within the military.
RFA: Are there other officers and soldiers in the military who are considering leaving without permission?
Hein Thaw Oo: Yes, there are, and they might be thinking about the route they will take.
RFA: Will you work with the newly formed National Unity Government?
Hein Thaw Oo: It depends on what happens next. If they need me, then I am willing to help them.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.