Myo Min Tun and Phyo Wai Oo, both privates in Myanmar’s army, met while in the same basic training unit five years ago. The two ethnic Shan soldiers were then assigned to the Special Construction Operations Command Headquarters in the capital Naypyidaw and became close friends. Myo Min Tun, 40, and Phyo Wai Oo, 26, are members of ethnic Shan minority groups. They joined the army to protect the people of Myanmar, but Phyo Wai Oo said that armed conflicts with ethnic minorities bothered him, so when the military ousted the country’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, the two friends decided to defect to an undisclosed region of Shan state in eastern Myanmar. Washington, D.C.-based RFA Myanmar Service reporter Khin Maung Soe conducted a telephone interview with the two soldiers, who said they planned to join the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a military organization which the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) hopes will grow to eventually be able to resist the junta by force. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
RFA: Why did you decide to defect?
Myo Min Tun: Since the military coup, I felt very upset when I saw all that was happening. I felt so sorry… especially when the military was treating civilians like that. It got to be worse and worse, so I contacted some people to join the Civil Disobedience Movement. We will work together with the people to overthrow the dictatorship.
Phyo Wai Oo: I don’t like the military. Because I come from an ethnic area near the border, I have a different opinion on things. I thought that things would be fine if I could just make it to retirement…but I did not support the coup. What good is it if the people die? I do not like the army shooting at people protesting. When the death toll rose higher and higher, my thinking [about staying until retirement] changed. I felt very bad.
RFA: Are most soldiers aware of the scope of what is happening? Do they know the extent of the violence and bloodshed?
Myo Min Tun: We did not know much about what was going on. We cannot use the internet in our units. We were not allowed to go out anymore, so we could not use the internet in nearby areas. Some said they had internet in Naypyidaw. I was closely following current events until the lines were shut down.
Phyo Wai Oo: At first, I was still able to watch the news when the internet was only partly shut down during the night. When wireless internet was cut off, we could not follow the news anymore. We learned about the first death in Naypyidaw when Mya Thwei Thwei Khine was killed. Later I heard about the killings in Mandalay. We last heard there were about a hundred deaths, and we only now found out that it was more than 800. I called home and learned from friends who are participating in the protests.”
RFA: What do you know about the wealth of coup leader Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders?
Phyo Wai Oo: We saw reports about their backgrounds recently. We found out that their daughters owned hospitals. I knew they were rich, but I didn’t know what they own. We only found out from online reports recently how much they own and how rich they are. How could he own that much with an official [monthly] salary of 5 million kyat [U.S $3211.12]? Even if he were to starve himself for a whole month there’s no way he could be so wealthy on that salary.
RFA: Are there others in the military who want to defect?
Phyo Wai Oo: Most soldiers feel the same way I do. There are some people who cannot leave even though they know things are so bad, because they have families and they have to stay because you cannot leave as a family. Many are aware of what is going on though. Everyone knows that what they are doing is wrong. There are so many just waiting for an opportunity to leave, but it is too difficult for this right now.
RFA: How were the two of you able to defect?
Phyo Wai Oo We had been trying to leave for a long time but we did not get the opportunity. We had no money. We had to wait until the end of the month and soon after getting our salary we left by motorcycle as if we were out shipping to some small villages nearby. We used to go shopping there before.
RFA: What will you do next?
Phyo Wai Oo: “I would like to join the PDF if the opportunity comes. That is what we decided to do when we left.
RFA: What do you think lies in store for the future of Myanmar?
Phyo Wai Oo: This coup is an opportunity for the people. Simply put, they are giving the people a chance to overthrow the dictatorship. The people should take advantage of this opportunity. I just want to say that this is the time when we can get rid of it completely. Additionally, I am very happy that people from the majority are sympathetic to the lives of the ethnic minorities. In the past they did not realize that murders and rapes were happening in the mountains. Now the majority is sympathetic to ethnic minorities because it is now, they too that are being shot, arrested and tortured. Now we are all one.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.