Interview

US Expert Says Focusing on Regime Defections a Good Strategy for Myanmar’s Revolution

By The Irrawaddy 31 March 2022

Following last year’s coup, the Myanmar military has been struggling with a growing popular armed resistance against it, as well as a rising number of  defections. As of this month, the number of soldiers who have quit has risen to nearly 3,000, including some battalion commanders—the highest position among those to defect so far. Making matter worse for the regime, the Australian government has accepted defectors seeking asylum since January, prompting more troops to consider quitting the army.

Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, a Burmese-American security expert, said defections are one of three elements—along with the people’s support and international support—necessary for all successful revolutions, adding that the resistance side in Myanmar could focus on defections as a way to deprive the regime of soldiers.

“That’s why defection is a really important strategy for successful resistance,” she said.

In this interview with The Irrawaddy, the professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii discusses how a third-country incentive is important for defection; why a public relations strategy is essential, as in Ukraine, to draw attention to the revolution against the junta; and why the Myanmar issue has been overshadowed by the Ukraine war.

Myanmar regime troops at the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw on March 27, 2022/ Cincds

The Australian government’s recent granting of asylum to Myanmar army defectors has been big news in military circles. What’s your impression?

It’s not surprising. It’s really a great incentive. According to previous studies we have seen, that type of third-country incentive is really important. This is a huge development for the people’s side. Huge negative for the mitlairy side. When Australia opens themselves, other countries may open up as well, including European countries.

Do you think the third-country incentive could lure more army defectors?

I think so. I think the NUG’s [the parallel civilian National Unity Government’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs is specifically working on this issue. So, one of their first wins is Australia and I think there are some European countries they are working with. Now they are successful with Australia. It could have a domino effect on others countries they are working on.

What do you know about the army defectors?

I don’t have contact with defectors and I don’t have the data right now,  but I think I have to go with the data from People’s Embrace [a group assisting defecting soldiers], but I will interview some of them as I want to know what is the condition inside the military. When they were interviewed they said a good two-thirds of [personnel] inside the military [are] demoralized and they want to leave. It continues. I think the latest one, like the lieutenant colonel who is the battalion commander, he was saying the key [reason for defecting] is his family, and that he can’t show his face in his hometown [in Myanmar’s heartland] anymore. He is embarrassed. His family is embarrassed. So, as long as those things continue, it would create a lot of push for the military personnel to defect to the people’s side. You will have more as the majority of the military personnel were recruited from Myanmar’s heartland. Now they are bombing in the heartland of Myanmar. So, they are bombing their own relatives’ homes and they are attacking their own relatives! So, it’s not surprising that the lieutenant colonel has family members there. He may not himself directly do that but the organization he belongs to [is doing it]. Direct personal impact!

How can Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and the international community be creative and encourage more army defections, especially among higher ranks?

I think there are a variety of factors. Frist, the military continues to brutalize the population. The population sees them as the enemy. Their anger towards them increases. The second is the incentive. Once they get out, safety—specifically for themselves and their families. Those are logistical pieces that the NUG and international community have to work on. Right now Australia is the first one to open up to defectors. That’s really good.

Do you have any recommendations for the NUG and the international community? Some say if there are more third-country incentives, the revolution would be 70 percent accomplished.

I don’t have any other recommendations other than keep doing it, to make sure you [are well resourced for] this strategy. We can see it could be working as we have never seen this level of defection before. Now Australia opens for them. We expect to see some other countries are opening as well. You can say the strategy is working. It can take time. We want it faster but [there are] logistical pieces to work through.

If you compare the situation with Ukraine, the Myanmar resistance against the regime has not received much international support. Any comments?

I don’t think we can say Myanmar’s revolution doesn’t have international support. They have been supporting all throughout the year like humanitarian assistance and targeted sanctions. But Ukraine’s PR team is excellent. They seemed to handle the media and PR [as part of their] military strategic communication and it’s a major part of their war strategy and their counterstrategy. They utilize it. I think some are very proud of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s team because they realize that they can’t compete with Russia based on firepower. They know that communication power is something they have to really utilize. So they effectively use it. Everybody in the strategic communication or PR arena absolutely admires what President Zelensky and his team has done on PR. I would say it was because of the way they did it—that’s why they got the attention they need. It’s just part of their strategy.

What do you think of Myanmar on the PR issue?

Given the situation and limitations, I think they have done well. But I think Zelensky has a different level. He is also an actor. He came from that kind of world. He kind of understands how to utlize that. I would say Myanmar people did pretty well. But I would give them a B+ if I have to grade them and Zelensky A+. Definitely the Myanmar team, the resistance, can pick up their game, improve their game a little bit more, looking at Zelensky. I wouldn’t say they are failing. The international community did pay attention to Myanmar. But right now Zelensky did well. Then Myanmar can leverage attention on Ukraine and try to expand their connection to Ukraine. It’s not a zero-sum game. Actually, Ukraine is the European theater in the fight for democracy and against authoritarianism. Myanmar is in the Indo-Pacific theater frontline fight for democracy. In both countries, Russian bombs and bullets are killing people.

But the Myanmar resistance has been on their own so far: not a single bullet yet from outside. This is different from Ukraine.

Yes, that’s the way the problem is framed. In the international system, a country’s sovereignty is so valued that it’s quite shocking for another country to invade. When you have an internal problem, the principle is helping Ukraine but in Myanmar it becomes a little bit of a barrier or hindrance because of the value of sovereignty. So, as for military support or no support, Ukraine has a professional military that has a long relationship with the US and the neighboring countries. Myanmar’s NUG doesn’t have that kind of ready-made platform. Those are the differences. In missing those ready-made platforms, where the US and international community can step in is [that] we do have those sanction regimes. That’s why you’ve got that, and humanitarian aid. They are the differences between Ukraine and Myanmar.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Editor’s Note: The opinion presented in this interview is Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd’s own assessment as an expert on the subject matter. Her opinions do not represent the positions and policies of the U.S. government or any other agencies.

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