Defector pilot describes corruption, ‘brainwashing’ in Myanmar’s Air Force

Capt. Zay Thu Aung said he left because he could no longer tolerate the culture in the service.
By Khin Maung Soe
Defector pilot describes corruption, ‘brainwashing’ in Myanmar’s Air Force A screenshot shows Capt. Zay Thu Aung speaking with RFA via video conference from an undisclosed location in Myanmar, March 4, 2022.

Capt. Zay Thu Aung is an air force pilot who recently defected from a base in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw and joined the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) after relocating to an area controlled by one of the country’s armed ethnic groups. Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service in an exclusive interview, he alleged that Myanmar’s air force is rife with corruption, with officers at every level selling black market fuel to earn extra income. Zay Thu Aung also suggested that international sanctions targeting Moscow for invading Ukraine are likely to impact Myanmar’s junta, whose air force fleet is comprised of fighter jets that require regular maintenance by the Russians who built them.


RFA: Why did you defect from the Air Force?

Zay Thu Aung: There is widespread corruption in the air force. Many members of the air force are doing tasks that they are not professionally trained to do. There are unfair practices. Leaders from the air force only fight for power and promotion. The low-ranking officers die in disgrace and live in shame. Their relatives are ashamed to have a military officer in the family. I joined the CDM because I can’t abide by the general conditions in the air force.   

RFA: What is your opinion of the military coup?

Zay Thu Aung: It was planned all along. The evidence supporting [junta] allegations of voting fraud [by the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD)] is not concrete. They just wanted to use it to justify the planned military coup.

RFA: How does the Ukraine conflict impact the military’s use of Russian aircraft?

Zay Thu Aung: Myanmar’s military has purchased several aircraft from Russia. The MiG-35 fighter jet I flew requires being sent back to Russia for maintenance on a regular basis, whenever the engine has been used for 1,000 hours. Because of the armed conflict with Ukraine, it has become difficult to send them back. It is uncertain if the fighter jet can continue to be used after 1,000 hours of flight. If they are still using the jets, there is no guarantee for the safety of the pilots.

Brainwashed or trapped

RFA: What is your view of the military using air raids as part of their offensives [in remote border regions]?

Zay Thu Aung: I don’t like it. I joined the CDM because I don’t approve of the military’s actions. Many other officers are either brainwashed by propaganda or trapped by personal ties. The pilots consider those who taught them how to fly as their commanders. They idolize them as much as they do their parents. They cannot break out of those personal ties. They also must consider what might befall the family members they would leave behind. Officers have been trained with the ideology that the military is defending the country, and everything will fall apart once they step aside. These are the reasons that hold them back [from defecting].

RFA: How have military leaders persuaded Air Force officials that the coup was justified?

Zay Thu Aung: [Then-Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Air Force] Gen. Maung Maung Kyaw briefed us shortly after the coup. He said NLD officials ignored the advice of the military leaders and made decisions without consulting them. He also said that the NLD had taken a path that would destroy Buddhism. They persuaded us to support the military coup, based on these principles.

RFA: What can you say about the culture of misappropriating fuel in the Air Force?

Zay Thu Aung: All members of the air force rely on revenue from illegal sales of fuel. It has become standard in the air force ... to siphon fuel for illegal sale on the black market [and report longer flight hours]. The revenue from the sales is shared with every single member of the air forces to facilitate their living costs. They can’t survive without this income. A pilot receives between 30,000 and 40,000 kyats (U.S. $17 and $23) on a weekly basis. The commander in chief of the air force is aware of the issue.

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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