Three lieutenant colonels serving as battalion commanders for the Myanmar military have defected and surrendered to the Karen National Union (KNU), making them the highest ranking soldiers to do so since last year’s coup.
Among them is lieutenant colonel Myo Min Tun, who was the commander of Light Infantry Battalion 351 in Bago Region’s Kyaukkyi Township, said Pado Saw Taw Nee, the KNU’s officer of foreign affairs.
Myo Min Tun is a native of Depayin Township in Sagaing Region, where the military has torched scores of villages and launched airstrikes as part of a scorched earth campaign targeting civilians and resistance fighters alike.
“The situation has come to a point where I can’t even visit my mother,” the commander told People’s Goal, an organisation that helps defectors. “I used to be a soldier but now I am a rebel.”
Myo Min Tun surrendered to the KNU’s Brigade 5 in Karen State’s Hpapun Township, Pado Saw Taw Nee said. He said he could not disclose details about the other defectors yet because of security concerns.
“We will release more information on the other battalion commanders later,” he said.
Lieutenant colonels are often appointed as battalion commanders, where they are the highest ranking officers among on-the-ground soldiers, and are of great importance in the management of units and their operations.
Captain Khant Ko, another soldier who has joined the CDM, said over 100 officers and soldiers have contacted him since it was revealed last week that the Australian government granted asylum to military defectors from Myanmar.
“Many have contacted me after the news about Australia broke,” he told Myanmar Now. “They asked so many questions, like if they would be transferred to Australia immediately and if they could take their families too.”
Captain Khant Ko served in the military for seven years and worked at an arms factory before defecting in May.
Pado Saw Taw Nee said he urged more soldiers to “be on the right side of history.”
“We need to let people in the military know that now is the best time to join the people’s side,” he said. “There is no doubt about what is right. This is how they redeem themselves. This is how they can be on the right side of history.”
On Thursday KNU officials in the town of Kawkareik warned civil servants and others working for the junta to leave their posts. “The KNU won’t be responsible for the consequences caused by failing to comply,” they said in a statement.
“We are ready to go to war,” said Pado Saw Taw Nee.
Sergeant Myat Min Thu, a defector who served in the Navy for 13 years, said a number of soldiers who left the military have joined the armed resistance against the junta, while others were helping with weapons production.
There are also a number of soldiers who have fled the military and gone into hiding but have not contacted anti-junta groups to inform them about their defections, he added.
“I have at least 15 friends who have defected from the military but haven’t signed up anywhere,” he said.
Myat Min Thu, 33, is training young resistance fighters in a rebel-held area after making contact with the underground National Unity Government (NUG).
The junta’s information minister Maung Maung Ohn told Chinese and Japanese journalists late last month that only one or two soldiers had “switched sides” since the coup.
The NUG said in November that over 2,000 soldiers and 6,000 police officers had defected.
Several soldiers taking part in the CDM told Myanmar Now that they believed officers were covering up defections to their superiors and taking the deserted soldiers’ salaries for themselves. Myanmar Now was unable to verify those claims.