Internet activists helping Myanmar troops desert

A team of Myanmar activists working in the shadows is using social media and messaging programs to persuade frustrated junta soldiers to leave their posts and overthrow a powerful army.

Sergeant Zay I listened to the call, slipping out of his base near Yangon to a car waiting to take him to the Thai border, where he found refuge with ethnic fighters who clashed with the military.

The 29-year-old spent several weeks planning an escape from the People’s Goal, a group of former soldiers and activists who have turned to those horrified by the crackdown on dissent, which the United Nations has said killed more than 1,500 people.

“I feel sick when I see soldiers brutally insulting civilians and searching homes,” said the eight-year-old Air Force veteran.

“I felt guilty for being involved in all of this,” he told AFP from unidentified locations, using the pseudonym for security reasons.

The People’s Goal – Pythu Pandaing in Burmese – claims to have helped “several hundred” soldiers escape to safety in neighboring rebel-held countries or areas of Myanmar, spokesman Ko Saw Lon said, also using a pseudonym.

He conducts weekly open chats on Facebook or Zoom, where soldiers who have already defected talk about their experiences and try to persuade potential deserters to take a decisive step.

“It’s resistance without bloodshed,” said founder Ni Tuta, a former captain who previously worked in the military capital of Naypyidaw, wrote speeches for the head of the armed forces and then deserted shortly after the coup.

“I knew in my heart that there were a lot of people standing with people in the military,” he told AFP.

AFP has failed to verify the team’s claim that it helped several hundred soldiers desert, and Myanmar’s military has not released data on the desertion.

But in comments released by state media on Wednesday, junta leader Min Aung Khlang reminded the military of “controlling themselves with good leadership” and following orders.

– “Watermelon Soldiers” –

Desertion is a dangerous business – those caught are threatened with execution or decades in prison.

After showing interest in open forums on Facebook and Twitter, potential defectors are invited to switch to encrypted messaging programs, where they undergo a lengthy verification process.

“We need to make sure that the desertion candidate is not a spy for the junta,” said Emily in Pyithu Yin Kwin – People’s Embrace, another group of activists helping the troops escape.

Compassionate soldiers – who may run away 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 color of their uniforms hides their commitment to democracy and the red flag of a toppled civilian administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hla Ming Zha, who deserted after 10 years in the Navy, told AFP that he needed to confirm his identity in several forms, and he was subjected to a “battery” of questions.

After he was cleared, he said a “digital ID” was sent to his smartphone, which facilitates access to rebel-held territory.

– Deviated –

The family of deserters may be under pressure from the military.

Zai I said that his relatives were “persecuted” by the security forces, and later they refused him through a report in the state-controlled newspaper.

Gaining the determination of those who doubt leaving is an important part of the People’s Goal job, Nai Tuta said.

“We’re here to reassure them, to tell them we know how hard it is because we’ve been through this before.”

In their new lives, some soldiers are melting 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.

Pad Sa Sa Tamin Thun of the National Union of Karen, who sheltered several deserters, said they welcome former enemies, “because we are fighting for the freedom of the entire population.”

– “Saved Life” –

The effect of desertion on Myanmar’s armed forces, which analysts estimate is between 350,000 and 400,000, remains limited.

The government of the shadow national unity of ousted lawmakers says about 2,000 soldiers deserted after the coup, but that figure cannot be verified.

“In the short term, desertion is an undesirable headache for the regime, but it does not affect its fighting power,” said Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group (AFP).

But activists say every little success because of the computer is a step towards another victory on the battlefield.

“Even one chef’s desertion is a victory because it affects the job,” Emily said.

“This is what we are striving for. A deserted soldier is a life saved on earth.”

sde / pdw / rma / axn

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