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The moral disintegration of Burma's military

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Despite the increasingly repressive environment in Burma since monk-led protests were brutally quashed in September, monks and groups of activists continued to lead small-scale protests during the past few weeks, calling for peace and national reconciliation.

Two such rallies, the first in Pakokku, in central Burma, the site of the original alms boycott against the military regime, saw 200 monks walk for an hour in quiet, orderly lines of three, before returning to their monastery. The second, held the following day in Mogok, Burma's famous ruby capital, saw a similar march. Both monks and lay people have vowed to continue the struggle to its end. In the meantime, both groups continue to launch appeals to members of Burma's armed forces to join the movement for a peaceful resolution to the country's problems.

The situation in Burma has generated a lot of public comment and debate. What should the international community do? The debate has led to a paralysis at the UN Security Council over Burma and revealed deep ideological divisions between Western governments and China and other Asian nations.

But a handful of commentators note that the key to bringing change in Burma lies less with outside interventions than with the military itself. Some claim the 500,000 strong military has never been more powerful or more unified. But is this really the case? And what are the prospects for soldiers splitting ranks and joining the people's movement for change in Burma?

Despite the existence of two major factions that are deeply mistrustful of each other, Senior General Than Shwe, who was responsible for ordering the violent crackdown on monks and civilians, and General Maung Aye, seen as a voice for moderation in dealing with the latest crackdown, are committed to ensuring a strong army with a central role in Burma's future.

Power is never absolute and despite the general's best efforts, a number of cracks are starting to show. Eyewitnesses to the September protests reported seeing soldiers assuming gestures of prayer as the monks marched. Indeed, soldiers at a road block to Aung San Suu Kyi's house defied orders by allowing a column of monks to pass through and meet her briefly.

How deep these cracks are remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the military struggles to address low morale, high desertion and defection rates, and growing unease in the middle and upper ranks.

During the peak of the street curfews in October rumours circulated that Brigadier General Hla Htay Win, a confidante of General Maung Aye and Commander in Chief for Rangoon Division, refused to give orders for troops to crack down on monks. He and his family were reportedly placed under house arrest shortly thereafter, while Lieut-General Myint Swe from the Bureau of Special Operations, believed to be loyal to Than Shwe, was appointed to coordinate Rangoon crackdown efforts.

A number of eyewitness reports in Mandalay revealed that at the peak of the protests some soldiers defected, refusing to carry out violent orders against monks and the public. The international media later covered the defection of Major Htay Win of the 99th Division in Rangoon, and his teenaged son, to neighbouring Thailand. The Times reported him as saying that there were many more like him, deeply unhappy about the orders. Refusing such orders could result in death, hence the defections.

These recent defections are a drop in the ocean to the number of desertions and defections from the Army each quarter since 2005. For July to September 2006 Burma's army reported a staggering loss of 9497 personnel, including a high proportion of deserters. This has resulted in so-called 'recruitment' drives that target young boys who are either lured by deception or abducted to receive military training. It is no surprise that Burma is believed to have the world's largest number of child soldiers.

As reports of desertions and dissent circulate, top leaders have directed a public relations offensive targeting its rank and file members. Exiled radio and TV agency, Democratic Voice of Burma reported in early November that some soldiers who paticipated in the violence against the monks have been psychologically affected, resulting in suicides as well as defections.

Meanwhile, military sources report that, some weeks after the crackdown, officials ordered wives and families of soldiers to form committees to undertake public relations and morale boosting activities, and to record and make reports of any suspected army dissidents.

Opposition activists have called attention to the deplorable conditions under which soldiers live and work. The military's vast populations have been chronically underpaid for years. The widespread practice of soldiers resorting to theft and bribery of the local population to extort food and supplies is in effect institutionalised. Additionally, many large 'army base' townships are rife with social problems and poverty. Often ordinary soldiers commit crimes not out of hatred, but due to the harsh poverty in which their families are forced to live.

In contrast, many high ranking officers and their families have been able to accumulate untold levels of wealth via lucrative business deals with their cronies.

Many younger, well-to-do officers are concerned about the 'moral disintegration' of the armed forces, as officers become increasingly involved in prostitution, gambling and drinking. This emerging moderate, middle ranking element within the army has emerged over many years as a result, many believe, of greater international exposure and education. Many are graduates of the old British hill station training centre of Maymyo. Such soldiers are nearly always from the majority Burman ethnic group and are generally the sons of high ranking officers. They are potentially an important force for change within the military.

No pictureCarol Ransley is a human rights advocate who has monitored the situation in Burma for 15 years. Toe Zaw Latt, a former 1988 student activist, is the Thailand Bureau Chief of Democratic Voice of Burma.




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Existing comments

The number of defections from the Burmese army tells its own story. I am thankful for precise data on the numbers and their trigger mechanisms.

ray lamerand | 22 November 2007  

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