A tale of two defections

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Khin Pa Pa Tun and Aung Myo Htet are among thousands of soldiers who defected to the resistance since the military coup in February 2021(Supplied)

Two defectors who entered the military in their teens recall what it took for them to finally break its hold on their lives

By Myanmar Now

A few days before this year’s mid-April Thingyan water festival, Khin Pa Pa Tun left behind a career she had loved, and hated, for more than two decades.

The 43-year-old military nurse had attained the rank of captain, but that wasn’t the part of her job that meant the most to her. What she cared about was working in the hospital wards, tending to the needs of her patients. Losing her status as an army officer was no loss at all, as far as she was concerned.

Long before last year’s coup, Khin Pa Pa Tun had come to realise what a malign institution Myanmar’s military truly was. Her own husband, a former military doctor, had deserted more than a decade earlier, fed up with the abuse and complete absence of freedom that are endemic features of life in the armed forces.

“I had been in the military since I was 18. I had no youth, no freedom, no life. We had to live and even dress ourselves according to their orders. There was no such thing as happiness for us,” Khin Pa Pa Tun told Myanmar Now a few months after she finally made her escape.

Khin Pa Pa Tun poses for a photo at a post-graduation ceremony in Hmawbi Township, Yangon (Supplied)

Walking away from a military so bent on control was no simple matter. It took planning, stamina, and the support of those ready to help. But most of all, it required real determination.

For Khin Pa Pa Tun and her husband, Thin Aung Htwe, it was the fate of their two teenaged children that did the most to steel their will. They knew that they must, at whatever cost, spare them the grim future that would surely await them if the family remained a part of a military that had declared war on its own people.

‘It just felt wrong’

Aung Myo Htet, a 32-year-old army captain, had only his wife of three years to think of when he decided to defect late last year. But he found in her a more than willing partner in his bid to break free of the military’s hold on his life.

“From the time we got married, she started telling me to quit. She heard and saw how lower-ranking soldiers are bullied and abused by their superiors. She pushed me to leave even before all of this happened, and pushed even harder after,” he said.

By the time of the coup, Aung Myo Htet had spent nearly half his life in uniform. He entered the elite Defence Services Academy (DSA) in 2006, straight out of high school, and was serving as a squadron commander in Rakhine State when he heard the news that the country’s civilian leaders had been rounded up in Naypyitaw on the morning of February 1, 2021.

At the time, it would have been almost unthinkable for him to try to leave the army. Not only were soldiers in his battalion (Infantry Battalion 80, under the notorious Light Infantry Division 66) ordered to fall in every two hours to ensure that everyone was present and accounted for, but there was also the tense situation outside the barracks to consider.

“Everyone was pretty hot-blooded at that time. It would have been impossible for anyone in the resistance to really trust me as I stood there holding a gun,” he said.

Still, the idea that he wanted to get out had begun to take hold, and after he was sent to Karenni (Kayah) State last June, it continued to grow in his mind.

“Everyone was pretty hot-blooded at that time. It would have been impossible for anyone in the resistance to really trust me as I stood there holding a gun”

Aung Myo Htet defected to the resistance in Karenni State in October 2021 (Supplied)

He had been deployed to Karenni State to take part in the junta’s “clearance operations” against local civilians who had joined the armed resistance movement. Unlike in Rakhine State, where he had faced off against the battle-hardened Arakan Army, in Karenni he was expected to fight a vastly outgunned adversary.

“What we were ordered to do was fight with our own people, not with groups that had years of experience in armed rebellion. It just felt wrong,” he said.


Even before Khin Pa Pa Tun and Thin Aung Htwe made up their minds to escape from the army once and for all, they decided to take their children away from their military-provided accommodation in suburban Yangon.

“I knew that people would look at our children and see them as ‘military kids’. I didn’t think they should have to live with that,” said Thin Aung Htwe, explaining why he and the children moved to another location while his wife continued her job.

I had been in the military since I was 18. I had no youth, no freedom, no life” 

Khin Pa Pa Tun (in red circle) is seen among military colleagues in an undated photo (Supplied)

From the start, Khin Pa Pa Tun had wanted to take part in the mass civic boycott of the newly installed regime, but didn’t because she knew it would endanger her family.

After all, this wasn’t like 2015, when she and her husband openly celebrated the landslide victory of the now-ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). (They did this despite the fact that their own ballots had been cast by the military on their behalf—almost certainly for the NLD’s chief rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.)

Khin Pa Pa Tun had, in fact, tried to resign twice between 2015 and the coup, and each time was denied permission to leave, despite completing the minimum 10 years of service required of those who receive professional training in the military.

The first time was in 2015, when she had finished her post-graduate degree. The second was just months before the coup, after she learned that she had been recommended, without her consent, for an unwanted promotion—something that would only prolong her time in the military. The second rejection reduced her almost to despair, forcing her to bury herself in her work just to cope with the sense that she was well and truly trapped.

Because she didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks with her family’s safety, the coup did not offer her an immediate way out of her dilemma. But when the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) declared last September that it would wage a defensive war against a junta that was behaving like a terrorist organisation, she and her husband knew they would soon have to make a move.

It was not until December, however, that a definite plan began to take shape. With the help of a group called People’s Embrace, established by others who had already defected from the military, Khin Pa Pa Tun could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Once we decided that the whole family would leave altogether, I felt so free, so happy and relieved,” she told Myanmar Now.

Taking the leap

Aung Myo Htet didn’t have time for elaborate planning. Nor did he have the need for it. All he had to do was wait for the right opportunity, and hope for the best until then.

As a kid, playing gunfights was the height of excitement for Aung Myo Htet. Now, however, he found himself in a real-life situation that filled him with dread. The last thing he wanted was to be forced to shoot to kill.

“Of course, there were a few times I had to fire my weapon,” he said. “But those were just warning shots. I never had to engage in a direct clash with resistance forces.”

It wasn’t just the fact that he had to fight with civilians that made Aung Myo Htet feel so conflicted. Although he was born in Pyay, in northern Bago Region, he had spent his teen years in the Mon State town of Kyaikhto. Because of this, eastern Myanmar, including Karenni State, was familiar territory to him from his pre-military life.

One of the places that he remembered from those years was Moebye, a town in southern Shan State that lies just across the border from the Karenni State capital Loikaw. When he returned there last year, however, he could barely recognise it.

“Most of Moebye had been reduced to ashes. I could still feel the heat from the fires that had burned there. There were only a handful of houses still standing,” he recalled.

This devastation was the result of the military’s response to an attack on a police station by Karenni resistance forces.

“I never imagined that I would ever see something like this in a town. This was just a peaceful little place that I used to pass through when I was younger, and now it lay in ruins. I can’t even find the words to describe it,” he said.

For four long months, he remained on the side of this conflict that treated the lives and livelihoods of civilians with utter disregard. Then, in October, he finally decided to take a leap into the unknown.

That was when he defected to the resistance with the help of an anti-regime group called People’s Soldiers. Thanks to that decision, he is now in a liberated area, where he has been reunited with his wife.

Safe and sound

It took nearly four months for Khin Pa Pa Tun and her family to prepare for their escape. During this time, Thin Aung Htwe had their two children do walking exercises every day to build up their stamina for the difficult journey that lay ahead of them.

When the time finally came, they set off on a summer’s day in April to clear the first hurdle: leaving Yangon undetected.

“I was really worried that someone might recognise me, as I knew a lot of people in the city. I was afraid that someone might come up to me to chat, or ask me where I was going,” Khin Pa Pa Tun recalled.

To avoid this, she wore sunglasses and a hat and avoided facing people in crowds. Sometimes, she said, she even hid behind her children.

Despite her concerns, however, they managed to make it past Yangon’s last checkpoint without incident. But they weren’t in the clear yet.

The final leg of their journey took them through territory that has seen fierce fighting since late last year. There was a very real risk that they could find themselves in the crossfire.

“My husband and I weren’t worried about ourselves, because of our military background, but it was different for our kids,” said Khin Pa Pa Tun.

In the end, however, they made it safe and sound to a place where the military, with the stranglehold it had on all their lives, could no longer reach them.

Khin Pa Pa Tun and her husband Thin Aung Htwe (centre) celebrate the NLD’s landslide election victory outside the party’s Yangon headquarters in 2015 (Supplied)

For Thin Aung Htwe, who deserted from the military more than a decade ago and later turned himself in rather than live as a fugitive, it was an especially liberating experience.

After spending two years in prison for going AWOL, he returned to civilian life as a relatively free man. But with his wife still in the military, his family remained in the clutches of the country’s generals.

“They forced us to do things we didn’t want to do—things that were not for the good of the country, that were only for their own benefit,” he said.

This time, however, the whole family had been freed. What that means for their future remains to be seen, but for Thin Aung Htwe, this uncertainty was still infinitely preferable to the alternative.

“We can deal with everything else later, one step at a time. What is important now is that we are no longer in danger, and no longer have them pulling our strings,” he said

Original Post: Myanmar Now