As Soldiers Abandon Notorious Myanmar Army, a Morale Crisis Looms

Aung Myo Htet had always dreamed of being a soldier, and had attained the rank of captain. But when he joined the army in Myanmar, he had thought he would be defending his country, not fighting — and losing — pitched battles against his own countrymen.

In June, he was sent to the front lines in Kayah State to subdue resistance fighters and armed protesters opposing the generals who seized power in a February coup. Three of his fellow soldiers were killed, said Aung Myo Htet, 32.

“Seeing the casualties on our side made me feel so sad,” he said. “We were fighting and sacrificing ourselves for the general’s sake and not for the country.”

On Oct. 7, he walked off his base and joined the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement, a nationwide effort aimed at restoring democracy and bringing down Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the man behind the coup. At least 2,000 other soldiers and police officers have done the same, part of a broader campaign to weaken the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s most notorious institution.

The defectors are a small percentage of the Southeast Asian nation’s army, which is estimated to number between 280,000 and 350,000. But they appear to have struck a nerve, and to have contributed to a growing crisis of morale among the troops. The army is struggling to recruit. It has recalled all retirees, threatening to withhold pensions if they do not return. Wives of soldiers say they are being ordered to provide security for the bases, in violation of military law.

“Never have we seen defections at this level,” said Moe Thuzar, the co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “What we’re seeing since February is this steady trickle of people leaving, and also publicly stating their support for the C.D.M. That’s unprecedented.”