Myanmar’s military regime has offered rewards for resistance fighters who surrender, but while many desertions appear to be staged, a handful of genuine turncoats have caused serious intelligence breaches.
On January 5, resistance fighter Ko Min Min* vanished while patrolling in rural Monywa Township. He resurfaced three and a half months later at a junta-orchestrated ceremony.
“I would like to invite young people to surrender their arms to the Tatmadaw and live peacefully with their families, instead of living in poverty with illegal weapons,” Min Min said in an interview broadcast by state-owned and military-run television channels.
After the military seized power in a February 2021 coup, Min Min was one of many young people who joined mass protests in Monywa, Sagaing Region’s capital and largest city. When the new regime responded to peaceful demonstrations with brutal massacres, including in Monywa, Sagaing was the first region to take up arms, and Min Min made the difficult decision to join the uprising.
Min Min’s comrades in the Monywa People’s Defence Force told Frontier he was a strong-willed man dedicated to the fight for democracy and doubted the authenticity of his state media message. Frontier managed to track him down and reveal the truth of his seemingly forced confession.
Min Min said he was captured by soldiers and interrogated for more than a month, a process that at times involved torture.
“If I didn’t accept their demands, they said that they would not only imprison me, but also arrest and punish my parents. That’s why I had to act as a PDF fighter surrendering to the military council,” he told Frontier. “I had no choice, I was already in their hands.”
Min Min also claimed that some of the other 17 people forced to participate in the ceremony weren’t even resistance fighters.
“When I spoke to one of them, I learned that he was a government employee who was arrested for CDM,” Min Min said, referring to the mass strike of public servants known as the Civil Disobedience Movement. “He was also threatened like me and forced to attend as a PDF member.”
The regime seems to be replicating a strategy employed by various anti-junta groups to encourage military defections with cash rewards, although the resistance has been far more successful in this regard. People’s Embrace, an organisation founded by defectors, estimates some 10,000 soldiers and police officers have deserted or joined the resistance since the coup. This figure dwarfs claims by pro-military Telegram channels and media outlets that some 550 resistance fighters have turned themselves in to the regime, although there is good reason to believe even those meagre numbers are inflated.
Since the beginning of last year, the military regime has tried to tempt resistance fighters into surrendering, promising to welcome them into the “legal fold” if they hand over their weapons. In July of that year, the regime’s spokesperson claimed 230 PDF members had surrendered so far.
In a new measure to encourage more desertions, the regime announced in May this year that those who surrender with weapons will be given between K200,000 and K7.5 million (US$95-$3,570) as a reward.
Min Min said he was given K300,000 after his forced surrender, which he felt obligated to accept for fear of reprisal.
Some desertions from resistance armies, however, do appear to be genuine. And like with Tatmadaw defections, one lone resistance deserter can have an outsized impact by revealing crucial intelligence.
Soon after it unveiled its new reward scheme, the junta announced on state-run television that seven resistance fighters from two allied groups had surrendered with weapons and cash funds in Magway Region on May 25. This included three members of the Defence Team Pakokku, who handed over two automatic rifles and K4 million in cash, and four members of the Earthquake People’s Defence Force, who gave up two guns and K2 million.
The groups are not under the command of the National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup, but had previously fought with the NUG-affiliated Pakokku PDF. After the alleged surrenders, the Pakokku PDF said it had long ceased working with these groups and accused them of extorting civilians, but sources in the groups told Frontier their relationship on the ground had been strong until the surrenders.
But what the military didn’t reveal was that they were preceded by an earlier desertion. Members of DTP said the group’s leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Snake, turned himself in during April, bringing with him a large amount of funds raised via donations.
The military also appears to be intentionally blurring the line between willing desertions and surrenders at gunpoint.
Earthquake PDF’s leader told Frontier the four members only surrendered after being surrounded by Tatmadaw troops at a checkpoint in Impin village, and were then forced to pose as deserters. He also said it was impossible that they had such a large amount of cash on them at the time.
“They weren’t from the group’s financial team,” he said, theorising that the money was either brought over by Snake when he deserted earlier, or was completely fabricated by the regime.
After the Earthquake PDF members were captured, the group had to move their camp and take other emergency measures. One of their close allies, the Eagle Brigade, was also seemingly affected when the regime captured a vehicle transporting weapons and ammunition to Pakokku on May 27.
“I think this security breach occurred because some members of the alliance cooperated with the military on May 25. Those who surrendered were aware of the weapons shipment and other military information,” said Eagle Brigade member Ko Toe. He told Frontier the weapons were shipped from Kayin State’s Myawaddy Township, on the border with Thailand, and were worth K400 million.
Ko Toe claimed the Eagle Brigade is strong enough to deter the military’s ground attacks, but they still had to move their camp because of the possibility of air strikes, which have increasingly been used to target resistance bases.
A similar security breach unfolded in Kayan Township, on the rural outskirts of Yangon Region. The Kayan PDF announced on May 25 that nine of its members were dismissed from their duties for disobedience. According to a member of the group, they were expelled for leaking information to the military, but the damage had already been done.
“Due to the security leak, seven members and a large number of weapons were seized by the military council,” he told Frontier.
He said the captured members had been secretly renting apartments in Yangon city to stage attacks on regime targets. Their safehouses were raided at night, and the following day, weapons and ammunition were seized from hidden locations in Kayan and Thanlyin townships. An eighth member was subsequently arrested in Bilin town in Mon State where he was awaiting a weapons shipment.
U Naing Htoo Aung, secretary to the NUG’s defence ministry, said he is aware resistance fighters may become disillusioned as the fight to overthrow the military regime drags on, and that the potential for security breaches is something to take seriously.
“We must try to strengthen the morale and discipline of the revolutionary forces,” he told Frontier. “On the other hand, it’s possible that the revolution will be stronger because those who are not committed will leave.”
Min Min, who was forced to pose as a deserter, says he feels his name has been “ruined” and is contemplating going abroad to “disappear”.
“I’m telling you this because I’m worried that other PDFs may see these ceremonies and be convinced to surrender or cooperate. The military is an untrustworthy organisation and I don’t want anyone to consider joining them,” he said.
*indicates a pseudonym for security reasons