A soldier stands guard next to anti-coup protesters in Yangon on February 15, 2021. (AFP)

Why military defections still matter to Myanmar’s revolution


Resistance to the junta is much more likely to succeed if, rather than relying on armed force, it gives equal weight to non-violent strategies – including encouraging defections.


Recently Frontier published an edition of its Political Insider newsletter with the provocative title “Abort Mission: Why are fewer soldiers defecting?” It describes a discouraging slowdown of defections from Myanmar’s security forces this year, based on numbers provided by programmes encouraging defections, and includes interviews with some defectors who argue that only armed combat will turn the tide of the revolution. This is a tempting mistake, made in countless conflicts past, that many analysts have argued compellingly against. 

Revolutionaries must remain versed in the military’s language of violence, but we are much more likely to succeed if we persevere in the ostensibly less glamorous, base-broadening work of bloodless resistance. This work is upheld by defection programmes, strikes, diplomacy, and even the much-belittled pillar of debate and ideological refinement and messaging.

I may be a pacifist personally, but I concede that the National Unity Government and anyone with access to international weapons markets and sympathetic militaries should pursue those avenues. They should keep searching for their version of Charlie Wilson (the United States Congressman who surreptitiously funnelled weapons to the Afghan resistance in the 1980s). But what of those of us who do not have access to such networks? Where does that leave me, a five-foot-tall woman and avowed Buddhist but with more than a decade of experience in full-time grassroots activism? What can we offer other than crowdfunding for weapons and building landmines? 

The Frontier analysis ends with a quote from prominent defector Captain Lin Htet Aung, who argues: “It’s time for the NUG to put more effort into winning the revolution rather than focusing on defectors…When the army is defeated, soldiers will automatically surrender to resistance forces.” 

If only it were so simple. Many losing sides in the past have had unlimited access to weapons; our dreams of freedom must not be pinned to obtaining them. I have no doubt that our people would thrash the hateful junta if we were flush with arms, but until such a windfall can be conjured, we must be more strategic and inclusive in our rebuilding of the nation. 

In 1971, at the height of the American war in Vietnam, the US military analyst Emmett J. O’Brien wrote a now declassified report lamenting the lack of support for a programme that induced thousands of defections from Vietnamese communist forces between 1963 and 1971. The misguidedness of the American cause notwithstanding, O’Brien wrote, “two observations were obvious: (1) the number of lives saved on both sides and (2) the unimaginable damage done to [enemy] military and political organizations.” But despite the programme’s merits, O’Brien writes it didn’t receive enough support because it wasn’t seen as “glamorous in comparison to other programs”.

These “other programs” saw Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Lyndon B Johnson throw more weapons at a conflict than anyone thought possible, and similar mistakes were made in the Soviet and US campaigns in Afghanistan.

In the case of our Myanmar revolution, which side do we most resemble? Is the US going give us enough weapons to try the “shock and awe” strategy against our tormenters? Or are we much more like the wide-based people’s resistance of Vietnam, where ideological commitment, basic righteousness, and inclusive participation played important roles along with just enough weapons to stay afloat?

In their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan analysed 323 resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. They surprised themselves in finding that nonviolent campaigns had been twice as effective as their violent counterparts. They also found that “nonviolent campaigns have been most successful when they have produced security-force defections. In fact, such defections increase the likelihood of success by nearly 60 percent.” 

However, Chenoweth and Stephan do not advocate handing out olive branches – sound advice in the case of Myanmar, where the people are already aware of the military’s irredeemable bad faith when it comes to promises and negotiations. Rather, Chenoweth and Stephan argue for fierce asymmetrical bloodless fighting, and that nonviolent resistance is more terrifying to the enemy because it is more likely to wind them up in court and on the gallows. 

They contend that “a critical source of the success of nonviolent resistance is mass participation, which can erode or remove a regime’s main sources of power when the participants represent diverse sectors of society.” I can participate in nonviolent resistance. So can you. Anyone can. 

It starts with messaging. After the coup, we protested in the streets. Many refused to work, many have stayed away from school. Others collect and share information. Others sabotage. Others debate and brainstorm. Others have defected, and most of them have gone on to contribute in other ways to the resistance. Out of thousands of defectors, only a few have been treacherous; we mustn’t let these red herrings blind us to defection’s well-documented value

We don’t need thousands of heroes and martyrs, just millions of rocks in the machine. 

Marianne Dahl of the Peace Research Institute Oslo followed up on Chenoweth and Stephan’s research and found something else that applies to Myanmar. She noticed that many regimes that fell to nonviolent resistance, such as the Shah in 1979 Iran, appeared stable from the outside. This is because strong-looking militaries, like the one controlled by the junta, employ strategies to prevent internal coups. 

These strategies include promotion systems that reward loyalty over skill and the rotation and dismissal of officers to prevent them from building their own power centres. This creates a body of soldiers who might secretly pine for regime change but don’t feel confident enough to plot a coup. As Dahl writes, “no sound man would ever try to commit a coup that he believed no other soldier would support, but a soldier could switch sides and defect, even if he believed that no one would follow his actions… As defection does not hinge on coordination, anyone can choose to defect.”

There is so much work to be done in so many areas. When foreign allies hear about our struggle, they should not be led to believe that supporting defection programmes is useless. The same goes for strike committees, civil society development, counterintelligence, media and messaging, sanctions advocacy, and other parts of the Civil Disobedience Movement. 

It’s the path of activists like me to talk till we are blue in the face, and to keep talking to anyone who will listen and to those who don’t want to listen. Conversely, it’s the path of an NUG member to network, weigh options and make deals, the path of a fighter to fight (or defect), and the path of a union member to strike. 

The flow of the revolution is fed by many streams. Let’s help everyone have access to it!

Thinzar Shunlei Yi is a Myanmar democracy and human rights activist who has worked with grassroots political coalition Action Committee for Democracy Development since 2016. She is an executive member of People’s Goal, formerly known as People’s Soldiers, an organisation advocating for and supporting military defections in Myanmar. Colleagues associated with People’s Goal assisted with researching and writing this article. 

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