Junta sends pardoned deserters who refused to rejoin military back to prison

Authorities fear they will defect to the armed resistance, sources say.
By RFA Burmese
2023.12.16
Junta sends pardoned deserters who refused to rejoin military back to prison One hundred and three prisoners were released from Pathein Prison, seen in this file photo, in Myanmar’s Bago region.
(Citizen journalist)

More than 200 pardoned deserters have been sent back to prison after refusing to rejoin Myanmar’s military, according to friends and family members, in what observers say is likely a bid by the junta to keep them from defecting to the armed resistance.

On Dec. 3, the junta announced that it would “accept” anyone serving time in jail for desertion or absence without leave, provided they rejoin the military. Four days later, authorities released 239 such prisoners as part of an amnesty to mark Myanmar’s National Day.

Among the 239, some 103 were released from Pathein Prison, 63 from Taungoo Prison, 39 from Pyay Prison, and 17 each from Paunde Prison and Daik-U Prison – all in Bago region.

However, instead of being allowed to return home, the 239 were sent to nearby military training schools and persuaded to rejoin the military, said relatives and sources close to the prisoners, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

When 36 of the 39 prisoners released from Pyay Prison refused to rejoin the military, all 39 were sent back to jail on Dec. 12, a source close to one of the deserters told RFA.

“Some pardoned deserters refused to serve in the military again, and opted for their remaining prison terms, so they were sent back to the prison, even though they had been freed,” he said.

Family members said that on Dec. 7, authorities sent release papers and documents containing personal information for the prisoners released from Pyay, Paungde, Taungoo and Daik-U Prisons to No.6 Military Advanced Training Depot in Bago’s Oke Twin township.

A source close to Taungoo Prison told RFA that the 63 prisoners released from the facility were also sent back to jail on Dec. 12 after refusing to serve in the military.

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Kaung Thu Win, who said he served as a captain in Myanmar's military before defecting in late December, poses for a photograph after his interview with Reuters at an undisclosed location in northeastern India, Jan. 21, 2022. REUTERS/Devjyot Ghoshal

On Dec. 4, a day after the junta’s announcement, junta Deputy Information Minister Major General Zaw Min Tun elaborated on the offer in an interview with state media.

“Ex-soldiers who were absent without leave and deserters are requested to rejoin the defense services if they are approved,” he said. “We announced that these former soldiers – valid for a specific period – will be accepted at their respective military bases and those who committed minor offenses and are willing to rejoin the military will be pardoned.”

He claimed that “thousands of former soldiers have contacted us, asking to perform military service.”

According to the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, Myanmar maintains a standing army of around 150,000 personnel – some 70,000 of whom are combat troops – with an additional 20,000 reservists. In 2023, Myanmar allocated US$2.7 billion to defense spending, or around 4% of the country’s GDP.

‘More at risk on the frontlines’

Former Captain Kaung Thu Win, who now serves as a military advisor to the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement, said that the junta’s offer is wishful thinking, given recent losses to the armed resistance and soldier morale at an all-time low since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat.

“Under these circumstances, [the junta] can’t expect too much,” he said. “Nonetheless, they are trying to force deserters to rejoin the military.”

“The junta is facing attacks on various fronts, so the deserters will choose prison sentences and hard labor [over returning to service],” he added. “Their lives are more at risk on the frontlines.”

Kaung Thu Win noted that the offer is being extended to soldiers who were imprisoned for breaking military rules and discipline, so even if they choose to return to the military, they are unlikely to follow orders.

A source close to Taungoo prison told RFA that the junta is returning the pardoned deserters to jail because of concerns that they will defect to the armed resistance.

Maung Maung Swe, the deputy secretary of the Ministry of Defense under Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, or NUG – mostly made up of former civilian government leaders – acknowledged that they would be useful in his administration’s bid to unseat the junta, given its lack of resources compared to the military.

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A source close to Taungoo Prison [pictured] told RFA that the 63 prisoners released from the facility were sent back to jail on Dec. 12 after refusing to serve in the military. (Citizen journalist)

“They refused military services and chose a prison sentence, so if they were equipped with weapons, they would be more likely to fight against the junta,” he said. “We could persuade them [to join us] without difficulty, and we would receive their weapons. It’s a win-win situation for us.”

Maung Maung Swe added that forced military service is a violation of human rights, and described it as “yet another failed policy [by the junta] in the lead up to its collapse.”

The junta has yet to make a statement about sending pardoned deserters back to prison for their refusal to rejoin the military.

Attempts by RFA to contact the office of the junta’s deputy director-general of the Prison Department went unanswered Friday.

‘Resignations not accepted’

Former military officer Nay Myo Zin told RFA that he isn’t surprised by the junta’s policy, given how much the military tries to dissuade soldiers from leaving service, even in times of peace.

“The state allows for resignation after 10 years of military service, but most resignations are not accepted,” he said. “Any officer who repeatedly submits his resignation is assigned to life-threatening duties or dangerous tasks as part of a prison sentence. So, military personnel simply desert.”

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Maung Maung Swe, the deputy secretary of the Ministry of Defense under the National Unity Government, says forced military service is a breach of human rights. (Screenshot from Reuters file video)

In many cases, deserters aren’t arrested, he said, because their commanders would prefer to have their salaries and rations to themselves.

For those who are sent to prison for deserting, “prison authorities bully and mistreat” them, Nay Myo Zin said, forcing them to carry buckets of other prisoners’ feces or perform hard labor in hot weather conditions.

Additionally, the prospects for deserters who have completed their prison sentences are dim, he added.

“After serving time in prison, soldiers from the medical corps can work in health care and military engineers can find construction jobs, but soldiers from combat units have no other profession,” he said. “Their only option is to find work as a security guard or on a livestock farm.”

Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.



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