The Myanmar people’s fight against the military regime will prevail eventually, said Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, a Burmese-American security expert, pointing to the large number of young and committed freedom fighters, as well as the rising number of defectors and disintegration within the military.
Within 10 months of the military coup in Feb. 1 last year the young resistance fighters comprising the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) had become very effective even without real, formal military training, she said, citing the fact that the military routinely suffers a higher number of killed in action than the PDF side whenever there is a real battle happening.
She told The Irrawaddy, “On the resistance side, they are learning, adapting all the time and they are innovating. Again, in the military operation, it is not the firepower that contributes to success. It is strategy; the ability to outsmart the enemy. I am very optimistic on the people’s side, because they are adapting and changing, whereas the military is very rigid and they are unable to change it.”
Since the coup, Myanmar soldiers’ defections have reached unprecedented levels. Some 2,500 have been recorded and at least another 2,000-3,000 have gone unreported, she added.
Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii, US. She served in the US Army for 28 years after joining at the age of 18. The immigrant academic, 55, has contributed her wisdom in providing education to Myanmar military personnel, and empowerment to local women and youth, since 2012.
Based on her interviews with members of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), defectors, ethnic armed organizations, PDFs and those leading the parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG), she believes 2022 will be a turning point for Myanmar.
In this exclusive interview with The Irrawaddy, Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd shared her perspectives on the current turmoil in Myanmar, the role of the international community and ways of resolving the crisis.
Thousands of soldiers, mostly privates, have joined the CDM, but high-ranking military personnel are not joining the people’s movement. What can you tell from this defection pattern?
Well, actually, the people in the frontline holding the guns and shooting the people are the soldiers, not the leaders. Leaders are sitting in the headquarters or in Naypyitaw.
So if you no longer have, I call them “trigger pullers”, you can’t kill people, you can’t win, you can’t do anything.
I wouldn’t discount the lower level or the frontline soldiers defecting. In fact, that is better, because the weapons don’t get up and shoot by themselves. Depriving the military of their soldiers, one way is to kill them and the other way is to lay down their arms and join the people’s side. The same effect, that takes away military strength. That’s why [the regime] are now reverting to air power.
Does that mean the military is disintegrating?
We can say that, because they don’t have any other strategy. It seems that their primary strategy is all about military strategy. When you make the military strategy as your primary strategy, and when you no longer have soldiers to fight your war, you have nothing else left.
On the people’s side, they have a variety of strategies. One of the things I notice on the people’s side is they use a lot of communication strategies. In military [terms] we call it strategic communication strategy, to make sure everybody knows. All the audiences are informed of all the brutal [incidents], what the military is doing and making sure everybody inside the country understands where they are going, what the military is doing, and then informing the international community on what the military is doing and what the Myanmar people together want; you know, where they want the country to go.
The military is trying to justify their brutality by blaming the PDFs and the NUG, which of course appeared after the coup. Are these attempts by the military failing?
I think it is a false equivalence to say what the PDFs are doing is the same as what the military has done or is doing. It is a totally false equivalency. You can’t even go there.
…The military shot the unarmed protesters in the head—in the head, not just any other [place], it’s purposefully in the head. That’s no longer equitable to what the people have to do to defend themselves. If the military did not take that action, the people would not be doing what they have to do today.
Has the West given up on Myanmar? There is a lack of action from the West and the US and the UN.
I’d not say the West has given up on Myanmar per se, because as you know we are in the middle of the pandemic … A lot of governments are also grappling with the pandemic and they have a lot of domestic issues that they are dealing with, to really do anything about Myanmar.
But the biggest thing, the most valuable thing the international community has done for Myanmar is to delegitimate, not accept the military regime. Even in ASEAN, the neighboring countries do not accept the Myanmar military junta. I think they are doing what they can.
Meanwhile Myanmar people, I think, sometimes it is good to be bootstrapping yourself and you will value it more. If the external [force] comes in, many times the external people don’t understand the actual operating environment, the complexity of the operating environment. Sometimes the external forces can make things worse.
Here is organically defending yourself and for that Myanmar people as a society will be prouder and they can come up with the solution that is more sustainable and more appropriate for the environment they are facing.
Many people have criticized ASEAN—especially Cambodia, the current chair of the bloc—for meeting the junta. Analysts say China is behind ASEAN’s move. What is your take on that?
The ASEAN structure kind of prevents any … one individual country making a decision. Right now, four or five key countries in ASEAN do not recognize the military regime at all. Even though the chair [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen went to Myanmar, that does not mean that what he is proposing will be accepted by ASEAN as a group.
China has had an influential role in Myanmar for many years, so it’s not something new.
I have heard from my China specialist that actually China prefers to deal with the civilian government, because they were predictable. Whereas they have found the military to be unpredictable.
On top of this, during these 10 months the military has continued to purchase weapons and military equipment from Russia. That does not make [China] happy. They would rather Myanmar buy weapons and stuff from them. China always sees Myanmar as a part of their sphere of influence.
… Russia is playing [a large role] right now. Russia has provided not only equipment, but also diplomatic support. What is Russia’s interest in Myanmar? One, they are making a lot of money, selling arms to Myanmar. Also they are spoilers, because right now in the world, there is a contest in larger geopolitics, there is competition between the authoritarian system and the democratic system. Myanmar is, I would say, ground zero in that. It’s in the frontline. Russia wants Myanmar to not be a democratic country [for the symbolic value]. It’s poking in the eye of the United States. Those are the reasons the Russians are there.
Does that mean China will shift its focus to the people’s side, due to the Myanmar people’s frequent protests against China and boycotts of Chinese products since the Feb. 1 coup?
China does not want the entire Myanmar populace against them. In the early part of the protests, the anti-China sentiment got really high. That’s not in China’s interest. China is also between a rock and a hard place, because they want to be on the winning side. They thought the Myanmar military will win. They went toward that. Now, China realizes that the military winning is not a foregone conclusion. You cannot look at history as an indicator of which way it will go. I think that China will make adjustments to be on the winning side.
In the wake of the coup, the PDFs have emerged and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have played an indispensable role. What will happen if the EAOs and the PDFs’ collaboration gets stronger?
That would be the game-changer. I mean that would be the turning point if and when they really are able to, a hundred percent, coordinate and cooperate.
But they are cooperating already. We have hundreds of reports of that occurring from the frontline. When the PDFs are in a jam and they need help, EAOs step in. They were able to get through some of the distrust… The military for 75 years … made sure the people are divided. That’s what the people are having to overcome, in the middle of the crisis.
In  months, it’s amazing what has been achieved. It is also the mainland Burmese people that are starting to say things like, “Oh, we really understand and empathize with the plight and suffering of the ethnic groups,” over and over. That’s historic. It has never happened before.
As they get better at cooperating and collaborating, that’s going to be one of the indicators for the turning point that I have been talking about.
How can we explain the rapid growth of the PDFs in the last eight months?
Well, because of the [military] brutality. They feel like they have to provide the responsibility to protect locally. These PDFs can be considered as fulfilling the mission of responsibility to protect their people and their community.
Many say at the moment that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in 2015 is no longer applicable because of the coup. What do you think of the peace process that the junta is pushing based on the NCA?
I think people want to negotiate with the military from a position of strength, position of power. The fact that the military is starting to talk about negotiation—they didn’t want to talk about dialogue or negotiation before, now they are—that tells you that the military is in a bad position at this moment.
Of course, everybody should be all for dialogue and negotiation. You also have to address simultaneously the accountability for those war crimes that were definitely committed. There’re no ifs and buts about it.
If there are simultaneous war crimes tribunals going on at the same as the negotiations, I think that could be possible; the tribunals for those who actually committed, who actually pulled the triggers, and also those who supported it.
If you capture one of the military personnel, you can do it internationally somewhere or in areas that the PDFs have control over. There are many pockets of control, you know, being administered by PDFs and the NUG and the local administrators. No longer the military. The military do not have access to some of those places.
The military, since the coup, has not been able to consolidate its power. It cannot hold any of these areas, or one hundred percent of Myanmar’s area, on the ground.
As a military and security expert, you’ve always considered civil-military relations important and a key to resolving conflicts and national security. It seems like you had a good relationship with the military. The officers you worked with were considered moderate. Were they really? Are they on the people’s side now?
When we were engaging, it’s really that we never engaged with a large enough population within the military. When you are trying to transform an organization, you have to have a critical mass of those who have the transformative idea. But we never got there, because we have a lot of sanctions in place and so we can only touch on a handful of people.
We had not reached the tipping point, the critical mass for it to change yet. So it is unrealistic for us to say it should have changed because I had a handful of people that I engaged with. Even in the handful of people I engaged with, not everybody became transformative. We needed more time or we needed to engage at a much larger level while we were doing it. There are policy and things in place that [meant] we couldn’t do that.
As you were working with the Myanmar military and working in Myanmar, you also witnessed the country’s transition. Did you think that the coup would happen? Were you surprised when you first heard about the coup on Feb. 1st? What was your first reaction?
I was surprised when the coup occurred. But then, when I look back, pull myself back and analyze, really I should not have been surprised. Like I said earlier, we haven’t had a chance to reach out to a lot more senior military personnel to change their minds. But you are seeing a lot of the lower-level officers defecting, because they have different agendas. They went into the military wanting to join a professional army organization. And then when they saw what the military has turned into, the leaders have really committed suicide; for the military when they started shooting people in the head, using the brutality. `
That’s why I said in my other piece that the name Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] in the international arena has become synonymous with the organization of terror, similar to that of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Really what they have done is they, the military leaders, have assassinated their own military reputation.
What would be your suggestion if Myanmar were able to form a more collective armed forces or a Federal Army?
Future armed forces need to be inclusive and diversify. No one ethnic group should have complete control of the armed forces, because that’s what the Bamar did, pretty much the Myanmar military was primarily a Bamar military. They use their arms to oppress other ethnic groups—as well as, now, even the Bamar people. Also you need checks and balances, and that’s where civilian control of the military is one of the checks-and-balances principles.
In order for us to do that, the civilian side also needs to be educated on security studies. They don’t have to wear uniforms to understand military operations. In the US, we have many civilians that are inside the Department of Defense and inside the military, because we do want that check and balance, and also bringing in the civilian perspectives into the military.
You have always cared about youth and women’s participation in the political, military and other sectors. In this revolution, Myanmar women have taken part not only at the forefront of peaceful protests, but as supporters, medics and fighters on the frontline and so on. What would you share with them?
I think women bring a very unique and valuable contribution to the resistance or to building up democracy. I’d like them to lean in and try to be in leadership positions as well. Not only at the participant level, they need to also be sitting at the decision-making table. I’d encourage the NUG, NUCC [National Unity Consultative Council] to make sure to look around. If you are part of the decision-making body, look around the table and see, do you have 50 percent women? If you don’t, you may have a blind spot, because you don’t have everybody’s perspective represented.
We really need young people at the decision-making table as well, because they again bring different perspectives. And they have the creativity. Old people have the wisdom; together it is a powerful combination.
How would you describe Myanmar’s current situation: this revolution, that has seen unprecedented defections and the people’s commitment to fight against the military dictatorship?
According to studies, there are three key elements that are found in all successful revolutions. First is the people’s anger; huge amounts, huge numbers of people. Number two is international pressure, and three is defections.
Myanmar has all three elements—therefore, as I said it is unprecedented. The Silent Strike on Dec. 10, that was one of my indicators. The entire country was empty. That … is an indicator of the people’s commitment and anger. So, all three are [evident] in the current situation in Myanmar.
This interview has been edited for length.
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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