Myanmar’s 78-year-old military has deteriorated rapidly since it staged a coup in February 2021, suffering daily losses in nationwide attacks by People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and powerful ethnic armed organizations.
The junta never reveals casualty figures, while revolutionary groups release claims of the number of junta and resistance troops killed in specific clashes. The latter cannot be verified and have been frequently labeled “exaggerated.”
However, a recent leaked military report dated August 1, 2023, may provide more insight. It was sent by Military Light Infantry Battalion 114—based in Shan State—to the top level of the military. It said only 132 troops were left in the battalion, despite a requirement that it have at least 857 troops to meet the requirement to be classified as a battalion according to the military’s structure.
In another leaked document—an instruction letter from the junta-run Shan State government to its district general administration departments in the state—the state’s security and border affairs minister Colonel Sein Win instructed the departments to provide lists of all civil servants except police.
The colonel said in the letter that all government staff would be formed as militia or reserve forces to handle urgent situations for the military regime.
To shed light on what is happening inside Myanmar’s notoriously opaque military, The Irrawaddy spoke with a former army captain who joined the civil disobedience movement in June 2021. Htet Myat, who is also helping others soldiers and officers defect, also spoke about the status of the revolution, its forces, the emergence of more pro-junta militias, what the resistance can expect, and what it should do.
Is the leaked military report real?
It must be real. In the military, every battalion must report lists of soldiers to the upper levels monthly. According to the military structure, there must be 800 troops or above in each battalion. But that was a tale from the past. No military battalion has had that number [of troops] for years.
When I joined the military as an officer in 2009 after graduating from the Defense Service Academy, I saw only around 200 troops in each of the most powerful battalions. So, we have to compare it with that 200 troops [figure] when we consider the depletion of the military.
In the leaked report, there were a total of 132 troops in the military battalion, of which 70 were on the front line. Only 62 were left at the base of the battalion. According to regulations, only about 40 troops must be left at the base. There must be reasons, including security issues, for the battalion to keep 62 troops at their base while sending only 70 troops to the front line.
Can you explain more about the changes in the military before and after the coup?
When I joined the military, there were many battalions that could send at least 120 to 150 troops to the front line. According to the procedure, a battalion must send at least 120 troops to the front line. Around 60 to 80 were left at the base [if the battalion has 200 troops].
Now, this military battalion has only around 132 troops in total. So, we can see the depletion of forces between 2009 and 2023.
Now, some battalions that sent 120 troops to the frontline in the past, can send only around 100 to the front line. Some can send only 60 troops. Some battalions have around 100 troops in total.
How has the military coup effected the military’s composition?
The major causes of the military’s depletion are due to the revolution. The depletion rates are rising at the military after the coup because of deaths, injuries, and defections. One of the main reasons is defection. The defection rate has been very high since the military staged a coup.
Many people in the military have realized the real attitude and behavior of the regime after the coup. So, those who have foresight are trying to defect. Another reason causing depletion in the military, is the growing military pressure from revolutionary groups.
Over the past years, the military has recruited anyone they could to be soldiers. A lot of people who didn’t want to be soldiers became soldiers. The military has persuaded and recruited a lot of people who had no food and no place to stay, as well as many repeat criminals evading arrest. Many other recruits were threatened and forced by the recruiters to be soldiers.
These soldiers are defecting when they face the danger of death.
What effect has the coup and the junta’s atrocities had on recruitment at defense services academies and military training schools?
There were about 6,000 to 7,000 students at the three academies: Defense Service Academy (DSA), Defense Services Medical Academy and Defense Service Technology Academy. There were other military training schools for other ranks who wanted to be army officers.
There were 3,100 students at Intake 52 of the DSA when I joined it in 2006. Only 2,557 students became officers in 2009 after three years at the DSA. Because there was a large number of DSA students, there were three battalions comprising up to 14 squadrons each.
I learned recently that there are only three squadrons in each battalion because there are not many youths who want to join the military. There are only a few hundred students attending military service academies now.
So, the military junta has to repeatedly extend the deadline of their invitation for the defense service academies because they haven’t received the targeted numbers of students. This also proves that only a few youths want to join the military.
Can you estimate the actual numbers of troops in the military?
To be honest, even coup leaders Min Aung Hlaing and Soe Win cannot know the real numbers of soldiers in the military. We can only get estimates. But what I can say with certainty is that the army is definitely weak. But it is not easy to know [exactly how weak].
We also need to count militia members as army forces. We only look at the decreasing numbers of soldiers in the military, but the junta is recruiting more militia forces.
Why does the junta plan to organize civil servants as reserve or militia forces for the military?
We can see how broken the military is because the junta is attempting to recruit more forces by arming government staff.
Whenever they arm a soldier with a weapon, they have to supervise that soldier. So, if they train and arm government staff, they will also have more duties to supervise and control them. This will be difficult.
I am interested in how the junta will assign armed civil servants. They are using militias as reserve forces of the military. The junta is now organizing more militia forces after permitting civilians to carry arms. One of their ambitions is to have more militia forces outside the military battalions. The military will have an advantage if they can create these militias by using its civil servants.
Another reason for organizing reserve militias is to control the movement of resistance groups who are spread out not only in rural areas and forests but also in urban areas. Currently, the resistance groups just need to target the military base and headquarters as most soldiers are there. But, the resistance groups will need to be alert to military supporters and reserve militias in their surroundings after the junta organizes its civil servants as reserve armed forces.
The junta will escalate its arrests and attacks on resistance forces with these armed forces.
What is your assessment of the ongoing revolution in the country?
Our less than three-year-old resistance movement has confronted a massive institution [the military] built up over more than 70 years, but what we have done so far shows how much our revolution has achieved.
Our revolutionary side has many weaknesses, including not enough weapons. However, despite this, our revolutionary groups have made a lot of anti-regime progress.
Junta personnel used to attempt to demoralize revolutionary forces by challenging us to “attack them and seize a town from their hands” and taunting us with the question “how many towns have your revolution forces occupied?”
However, the real question the military should consider is why their more than 70-year-old institution cannot defeat a less than three-year-old armed resistance. It would be shameful for the military regime [to ask this question].
There are many weaknesses on our resistance side. Our revolution has reached a certain point. But it is not because our revolution is very smart, but because the military is systematically deteriorating itself and is so stupid.
As we go ahead with our revolution, we need better plans and financial systems. We need good backup systems. The armed revolution is burning money. We will have to calculate which groups can spend more money.
We should think carefully about what will come next, and then make plans. If we can prepare for what might happen, the revolution will only get stronger.
Currently, every revolution groups still need enough ammunition and weapons while the guys from the military are going to the frontline with a full backpack of ammunition. It could be long time to victory since our revolutionary groups do not have enough ammunition to fight a military with plenty of rounds. But mentally, our revolutionary forces are in better shape than junta troops who are deteriorating a lot mentally.
The success or failure of our revolution depends a lot on how good our next steps are.
So far, a more than 70-year-old military institution has been unable to beat a less than three-year-old armed rebellion.