Interview with an SPDC deserter

Published date:
Monday, July 28, 2008

This news bulletin comprises a translated interview with a 28-year-old deserter from the Burma Army who spoke to KHRG in July 2008. The content of the interview covers issues of child soldiers, mistreatment of civilians and low-ranking soldiers, and the deployment of army personnel against monks and civilians during the country's September 2007 protests.

The transcript reprinted in full below comprises the text of an extended interview which KHRG conducted with a former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) soldier who deserted from the Burma Army in late 2007. The interviewee, 28-year-old Ko S--- of Thaton township, spoke to KHRG in July 2008 about his experiences in the Army from recruitment, to training, to frontline duty, to eventual escape. In the interview, Ko S--- described the Army's continued use of child soldiers, poor treatment of civilians and low-ranking soldiers and the deployment of soldiers against monks and other civilians during the country's September 2007 protests.

Ko S--- was himself deployed during the September protests. He reported to KHRG that when he was ordered to shoot on protesting monks, he instead fired into the air. This non-compliance with a military directive led to his subsequent arrest, detention and torture. However, as the Army was in need of soldiers to continue the offensive in Karen State following the 2007 rainy season, Ko S--- was taken out of detention, demoted from his previous rank of 2nd lieutenant to corporal and sent to fight on the frontlines.

When he finally fled from the Burma Army while serving in Karen State, Ko S--- took his gun with him - a much more severe crime than absconding without one's weapon - and had to run through the forest from pursuing soldiers. Ko S--- now dares not return to his home in Burma, fearing severe retaliation from SPDC military authorities. Along with the name of Ko S---, other details of the interview - such as his battalion number and commander's name - have been censored in order to protect his family, which is vulnerable to retributive punishment for Ko S---'s desertion.


What was your occupation?

When I lived in my village, I was a general-wage labourer and when I had a break I also had to do work that my stepmother ordered me to do. This involved serving as a waiter in a small tea shop and going around the town selling items which I carried.

Are you married?

Yes, I'm a married man and I have one daughter. She is one year and three months old.

What do your parents do?

My father is a brick layer.

What is your education level?

My education level is eighth standard [grade eight; usually completed around age 14 or 15].

What was your name in the army?

They called me S---.

What battalion were you in?

My battalion was LIB [Light Infantry Battalion] #---. [The column] is called "---" column.

What is your commander name?

My battalion commander's name is deputy battalion commander A---.

What was your responsibility in the army?

When I was in the army, I had to serve in the Heavy Weapons Company. We were a bad army for the people, but for us, we thought of ourselves as being commandos.

What was your rank?

I was demoted after the September uprising and I was imprisoned. When they conducted military operations into Karen state, they took me out from prison and sent us [Ko S--- and other detainees] to the frontline. Initially, my position was 2nd lieutenant but I was demoted to corporal.

What is your personnel number?

My personnel number is #---.

When did you join the army?

[When] I finished eighth standard. I have been in the army from a young age.

Can you explain how you ended up in the army?

At that time, I had gone to Rangoon for work. When I was depressed over a personal issue I drank some beer and when I got drunk an SPDC officer arrested me and put me in Mingaladon Military Recruitment Center. The next morning I realised that I was in a military recruitment center, but I wasn't interested in being a soldier. I told them that I didn't want to be a soldier but couldn't get permission to leave. When I told them that I was going to return to the place where I lived, they punched me and beat me. They threatened that if I wanted to go back, they would imprison me. They not only threatened me with violence but also were violent with me. So I was afraid of them and accepted [the fact that he would have to] become a soldier. Then they came and collected the new people, group-by-group, and sent us to the basic military training centre of Military Operations Command #9 for four and a half months. At the closing ceremony of the training, we had to take an oath that we would become soldiers. Then the soldiers were separated into different battalions. I was sent to LIB #---. I tried my best and fulfilled all of the duties that were given to me and then I was liked by the battalion commanders. I was promoted to 2nd corporal. After becoming a corporal, I was able to apply [to become] an officer cadet. I don't know much about this process. After I sent in my application form, I was sent to officer training school. My training group was class #--.

How old were you when you first joined the army?

I was still young at that time. When I was in school I was a clever student and could pass one standard each year. When I left school after eighth standard I went to Rangoon for work for over one month and then I was arrested and put in the army.

Were you arrested alone or were your friends also included?

My friends' names are Ko N---, Ko Ht---, Ko Th---. I know their names but I don't know their personnel numbers because we were in different training centres. We were in the same class and the same standard when we were in the school. We were close friends.

Did you see soldiers under age 18 in the army?

There are many child soldiers. Mostly they are 15 and 16 [years old]. Their height and the height of an MA-1 or MA-2 gun [types of automatic rifles] are almost the same. They couldn't carry their backpacks at the frontline. The officers were very rude and the officers were still young. They had graduated from DSA [Defence Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin (May Myo)] and they had stars on their shoulders. They didn't understand about respecting old people. They kicked soldiers who were the same age as their parents. Most of the army's battalions are bad. There were only one or two good battalions out of ten battalions.

Most children who finish tenth standard [grade ten; usually completed at age 16 to 18] apply for DSA. Most people who apply are accepted. The reason this happens is because the civilians are facing many crises. We like the policies but not the SPDC [individuals]. They can't even follow their own policies that they write down. It's like [the proverb] 'unless one has a full stomach, there can be no morality'. If the students work as ordinary people outside [of the military], they aren't able to get enough daily food with the salary they receive. When they enter the military, if they can get [to the rank of] one star [1st lieutenant], they can get over one hundred thousand kyat [US $84 per month] as salary. So many young people choose to join the Army. Then they [the SPDC] are able to have strong armed forces. The larger the armed forces, the more taxes there are. As there are more taxes, the commodity prices go up and up in Burma. People think that unless they join the army, they can't get a better livelihood. So they enlist themselves in the Army even though they are not interested in becoming soldiers. Some people who have problems with their families and run away from home and people who get dumped by their girlfriends; most of these people enter the military eventually. There aren't any people who are [otherwise] interested in the army or joining the army.

The Army has become bad. It's not as in the time of General Aung San. They are not acting according to the military polices. The old soldiers oppress the new soldiers and the lance corporals oppress the old soldiers... according to their rank they oppress the people under them. This kind of oppression happens a lot in the Army. Their actions don't adhere to the law or to the policies they've produced. For example, if a senior leader orders them [subordinate officers] to build a road or a bridge, they will be given 1,000,000 [kyat (US $840.37)]. But when this 1,000,000 goes down another step [is transferred through the chain of command], it will become 900,000 [kyat (US $756.30)] and when it goes down another step, it will become 800,000 [kyat (US $672.27)]. Later on, the people who suffer are the civilians. I'm not able to say this clearly or with the appropriate words. I've used my own knowledge as I say this.

Have you been in a recruitment centre?

Yes, I've been in Mingaladon recruitment centre. In the past, we heard that they had arrested people for portering [forced labour carrying military supplies] and then they recruited the people whom they'd arrested to be soldiers. Now they are also persuading absent-minded young people whose minds have drifted away or who have unstable minds [those who are distracted and do not want to study] and then they recruit these young people as soldiers. In the military, they also have a rule that battalion commanders must recruit 5 or 6 soldiers every month. If they can't recruit [the quota], the officers must pay a fine. For example, [if] Battalion #1's battalion commander is able to recruit the quota of new soldiers every month, he can get promoted quickly, but if he can't do that [recruit the quota of soldiers], he will be slow in getting a promotion.

How do they recruit new soldiers?

They just go around the sections [of a given town] and look for young people. Then they enlist them in army and the battalion commanders have to inform the military tribunal how many soldiers they were able to recruit. But if a battalion has recruited the new soldiers, after the training, those soldiers won't have to go back to the original battalion at which they arrived. They will be sent to other battalions.

Are there young people under age 19 or 18 at recruitment centre?

There are many. For some of them, their childhood spirit has not yet gone. Nowadays, young people at the age of 20 have not yet lost their childhood spirit. But they must act according to military command. The senior leaders say that in the military there are only two words: one is 'restrict' and [the other] is 'command'. If access to a place is restricted, don't go, and if the work is commanded, do it. The military orders are very forceful.

What did you have to do when you were in the recruitment centre?

They gathered us in a building and we had to eat what they provided. There are many training centres in each township and city. They've given numbers to the training centres. There were sections, platoons and companies. Three battalions comprise one Operation Command. Three Operation Commands comprise one Light Infantry Division [LID]. They've deployed a lot of LIDs along the border... There aren't many villages, but they've deployed a lot of battalions because they think that the border isn't secured. In the military, just like when we are in the school, they divide up groups according to the colour of a flag. There was a green flag group, a yellow flag group, a red flag group and a blue flag group. Depending on the colour, they named them Bandula Battalion, Ah Law Si Thu Battalion etc. The red flag battalion that's called Bandula Battalion was the worst. They had to do everything according to the orders. They were very disrespectful [to the people]. If they didn't [follow the orders], their spirit and body would have been separated [they would have been executed].

A battalion commander is able promote a soldier up to [the rank of] warrant officer, but if they wanted to demote [the soldier], they had to inform the military tribunal. In the past, the military tribunal was in Rangoon, but now it's been moved to Naypyidaw. Now we can't refer to Pyinmana as 'Pyinmana'. We have to refer to Pyimana as 'Naypyidaw'. The SPDC is crazy for power. There are many conflicts among them. In the past, I worked in MI [Military Intelligence]. This Military Intelligence was under Khin Nyunt's control, but they [the SPDC leadership] destroyed the Military Intelligence and they established Sa Ah Pa [the new Military Intelligence] and this Sa Ah Pa is controlled by Na Pa Kha [Naypyidaw Intelligence], which is under Than Shwe.

Are there any people who attempt to escape from the recruitment centre?

Many people run. They imprison those people whom they're able to recapture. They don't imprison [them] in public prisons. They imprison those people in military prisons and, after the prison [term is finished], they send them directly to a training centre. They force people to become soldiers. In this way, they make people become soldiers as there is no other option for them [for the new recruits]. People have no personal interest in becoming soldiers.

How often did that [detaining people and forcing them to become soldiers] happen?

It happened whenever they recaptured people who had fled.

When I was young, they attacked Maw Poe Gkay and Wah Ka. There were many soldiers who died in that war. The people who stay in the forest and the people who stay in the town are different. When the people from the city attacked the people in the forest [at Maw Poe Gkay and Wah Ka], many of the city people died because the people in the forest knew the conditions of the forest very well. When many people died, they needed a lot of people [as new soldiers] and they grabbed many of the people who were around and recruited [them] as soldiers. They persuaded the people by showing the amount of money [they would get] for a salary. When people are in difficult circumstances, they see this as an opportunity and, even though they are not interested, they enter into the military.

Many taxes have emerged. People who work in Thailand, they can eat with the money that they get and buy clothes. But people who work in Burma, they can't do that. They earn 2,000 to 3,000 [kyat (US $1.68 - 2.52)] per day at the most and they can't survive on this amount of money for a long time. Two people can't eat on one person's salary. In other countries, one [person's] work can support two or three people or a family's survival. In Burma, for example, if there are three people in a family and the parents are old and can't work, how can this family survive in the situation in Burma if only one person can work? They have to struggle very hard and can only [earn enough to] eat to stay alive. The government doesn't care about this. If their [SPDC senior officials'] families can live and stay in good conditions, that's enough for them. They just look out for themselves. It is because of this that the uprising occurred which shouldn't have happened. That is why the uprising happened in Burma. If we look at [Cyclone] Nargis which struck Burma, they've just used the international aid for their own profit, not for the victims. Actually, all aid should go to the victims. If those in front go the proper way, those who follow can go the proper way. If the leaders go along a twisted route, the followers will be on a twisted route. Now the situation in Burma is like this.

How were the living conditions during the training period?

During the training period, we were very poor. When we are with our parents, they do not reprimand us violently. But during the military training period face-slapping was the least [of the abuses]. They beat the students a lot. People were afraid of them. They frightened the soldiers into following their policies.

What did you eat when you were in the military?

In the military, if soldiers are single, they have an apartment for single soldiers [a dormitory]. And if the soldiers are married, they have their own apartments. Only after three years are they allowed to return to retrieve their family. As for the food, they gave us one ounce [or] two ounces [of rice] and they provided salt, seasoning powder [monosodium glutamate (MSG)] and condensed milk. And they also distributed alcohol. If the soldiers are single, they get [rations] for themselves. It's not sufficient. The soldiers become rude because they don't have enough food from their rations. They stand at checkpoints and demand money and they have to do it to be able to get enough for their survival. In Burma, everyone's afraid of people who wear uniforms even if we don't know who they are. In Burma, we have Swan Arr Shin [Masters of Force], Kyant Khaing [Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)], Lon Htein [riot police], Na Sa Ka [border security], the fire department, fire department reserves and militias. There are many organisations. This is the problem. The government can't support all of these organisations and so many taxes have been introduced. If there is an opportunity [to implement a tax], they will take a lot [of money]. If the civilians could work by themselves there would be no problem, but when there are many taxes, they rush into those departments and become members. If they become members, they are free from porter fees, electricity fees and sentry fees. Some have gone into the military. If a section leader goes around collecting taxes, they say that 'my son is in the fire department' or in the 'Kyant Khaing' organisation and then the section leaders won't collect money from them.

How long were you in the training?

I was in basic training for four months and I was in the officer cadet training school for three years.

Where was your training site located?

It's at the practice field in... Mon State. It's for basic training. For officer cadet training, I had to go to the officer training school in May Myo, which is [now] called Pyin Oo Lwin. As for me, I earned the position not because of my education level. I got the position through my work experience. We can be promoted easily and can be demoted easily.

What did you have to eat during the training period?

We were able to get good food when we were in the officer training school. But when we were in the basic soldiers' training school, we had to eat like pigs. We ate morning glory and sometimes there were leeches among the leaves. There are plenty of leeches in Burma. [There was] no oil, only some seasoning powder [MSG]. The curries were very salty and they just boiled water and some seasoning powder [MSG].

Did they beat or punch the trainees during the training period?

We suffered a lot of that kind of oppression. I have a scar on my body [from being] injured by mortar shrapnel. Even between the same [ranked] soldiers, the new soldiers have to be afraid of the older soldiers.

How did you feel when you were in such circumstances?

I didn't want to be a soldier. If I had tried to run away, I would have had no one that I could have relied on. I would have had to live with my stepmother and I can't depend on them [his stepmother's family]. I have one younger sister and we've been separated since we were children and I don't know where she is. When I ran, if they had been able to recapture me, I would have been imprisoned and I would have had to suffer beatings and punches and many kinds of torture. They would have also given my family members trouble. So I had no choice. Even though I didn't want to do it [be a soldier], I had to. Many soldiers are in these [types of] circumstances. If we didn't do what they ordered, it would have been death for us. If they ordered [us] to shoot, we had to shoot. Even when we knew that a [given] place was full of landmines and that if we went on we could die, if the officer ordered [the soldiers] to go ahead, we had to go. We couldn't go backwards. If we moved backwards, we would have died under their bullet fire.

How many officer trainees were there when you were in officer training school?

There were many officer trainees. There were about 1,004 trainees in the school.

How many trainers?

There were many trainers. We had trainers for [each] company.

Were other ethnic groups included amongst the trainees?

All ethnic groups were included. The most common were ethnic Burman, Mon and Rakhine. Few of the Rakhine people were interested in being soldiers. Most of them had been arrested when they went to the borderline to seek work and they were kept in a recruitment centre and trained to become soldiers.

Where did you go after the training?

I went back to my battalion LIB #---. There were two or three people in LIB #--- who applied for the officer cadet training, but only I was accepted. Many cadets from different battalions gathered at the training school.

How many people were in your battalion?

There were 7 soldiers in one section and there were 80 soldiers in one platoon. Four platoons make up one company.

Where is your battalion headquarters based?

My battalion's headquarters are located in... Dawei... When I was there, it wasn't easy for me to run away. I had always planned to run away because I didn't want my life to be finished in the army. When I heard that we would have to go for military operations in Karen State, I was very happy because it's close to my native town Thaton. When I was demoted, it became worse for me. Even as an officer I had not been happy, so how could I be happy as an ordinary soldier? So, when I was on sentry [duty], I ran to escape.

How much did you earn when you were in the military?

As an ordinary soldier, I earned 21,000 kyat [US $17.65 per month] plus a bonus. As an officer, I earned 23,000 kyat [US $19.32; this sentence is unclear as 23,000 kyat is too low for an officer’s salary]. For the soldiers who have families, they received rations and they could cook at their own houses. They were given salaries depending on their position. Rations are different than the salaries.

Were the salaries of the single men and the married different or the same?

[They] weren't different, but [their salaries] depended on their position. Corporals earn their own salaries and lance corporals earn their own salaries. An ordinary soldier earns 21,000 kyat [US $17.65 per month] and [an additional] 5,000 kyat [US $4.20 per month] for 'stress' pay. If an ordinary soldier is promoted to [the rank of] lance corporal, his salary increases from 21,000 [US $17.65 per month] to 27,000 kyat [US $22.69 per month]. If he goes up another step, it will increase by another 6,000 kyat [US $17.65 per month]. It goes up and up like that.

Did you have to do work hard in the army?

Ordinary soldiers up to warrant officers have to work hard. We have to do a lot of 'Hpat Htait' [labour]. This [the term 'Hpat Htait'] is how they referred to the work. For me, after I came back from officer cadet training school, I was an officer, but I wasn't an officer who had a high level of education so I didn't have an opportunity to put a star on my shoulder. I had to wear it on my arm. I still had to work hard. If the star had been on my shoulder, I wouldn't have had to work hard anymore. We would've only had to sit for sentry duty.

How did you escape from the army?

We had a military operation in Kyaikdon, Karen State, and we had to clear landmines from the 18 mile [road marker] to the 20 mile [road marker]. When I was demoted, they took away my pistol and they gave me an MA-1 [automatic rifle], one landmine, two exploding bullets, 5.5 [calibre] bullets, one grenade and four bullet cartridges. When we were not doing road security, the battalion commander took back the landmine. I didn't discuss about my [planned] escape with the other soldiers because in the army soldiers spy on each other. I dared not discuss [the issue] with any other soldiers. They had given us 240 bullets and I asked for some [more] bullets from my friends who were close to me. When the officer put me on covert sentry duty and said 'this is the way that enemies will come,' I started [running] at that place. It was at N--- village. I got lost on the way to K--- because I didn't have a map. When I had been an officer I got one map and one night scope. The three battalions were lying in wait for me but I fled between them. There were two soldiers running after me. They were my close friends. When I had been in the army headquarters, I had also asked some of the soldiers secretly about their lives and they shared [their stories] with me. If they needed help, I gave it to them.

During the September uprising, we had to wear red scarves around our necks and we had to control Mon State. When I got to Moulmein, we saw some monks and lay people gathering together and the officer ordered me to shoot. I was ranked lieutenant at that time. I didn't shoot the monks and the people. But to disperse the crowd, I shot into the air. Then they [the other SPDC officers] arrested me and tied me up because I didn't shoot the monks and the people according to orders. They sent me back to headquarters and tortured me and touched me with electric wires and then imprisoned me. Everyday when we did the flag raising and lowering ceremony, in the morning I was beaten seven times and in the evening I was beaten seven times. Everyday I had to suffer their torture. When they took me out from the prison for military operations in Kyaikdon, I was free from the beatings. They didn't give me any of the equipment which the officers use. They treated me like an ordinary soldier but, if I had returned after this military operation, I would have been re-issued my [former] position [as lieutenant]. I fled not just because I was demoted. I had planned to run away many times already.

How long did it [the escape] take you once you fled?

It took me eight days because I caught malaria. One village head saw me and he had a close relationship with the KNU and I gave him the gun and all the military utilities. At that time I was mostly unconscious. He gave me pots with which I could to cook rice for myself. He asked me not to go outside because the DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] and KPF [Karen Peace Force] often came to the village. If they saw [Ko S---], it would not be easy. Many people run away to escape when they get a chance. Not only did the soldiers from LIB #--- run away. The soldiers from LIB #--- and #--- also ran away. Some of the soldiers couldn't take anything along with them. But, as for me, I had to bring them [military items] because I had to rely on them. When I fled, my battalion came after me. I had written a letter and told them 'Don't follow me. If you follow me, I will plant landmines which I have brought along with me.' I had two landmines which I had stolen from the soldiers while they slept. They still followed me and I fired a mortar shell and then they dared not follow me as closely as before so I could run faster. They surrounded me in a 'U' formation [from behind] and in front were DKBA and KPF battalions; two battalions [in total] lying in wait. Then I turned back and shot [the mortar] and went through the small group [of SPDC soldiers]. Then I ran around [the soldiers] and escaped. I am lucky. They fired at me a lot. They also used poison bullets.

Where did they get the poison bullets?

I don't know where they got the poison but I marked down the number on the bullets. '5.56' was written on the bullets. There was a band at the top of the bullets. They started to use these kinds of bullets in 1999. There were a lot of weapons that I'd never seen before. In my battalion there were two strange guns that I saw only once. They were for shooting down jet planes. They [the SPDC officers] said that if the target was in their sights, an alarm would sound.

How did you meet with the KNU soldiers?

I didn't meet with the KNU. I only met with a person who had a close relationship with the KNU soldiers and I gave him my gun. Only after I met with the man did I have a better situation. I was able to get clothing. I was carried by tractor cart and passed by many villages. Then I arrived in W---. I disguised myself as a Karen man by wearing a Karen longyi [sarong] and on the way smoking a Karen bamboo pipe. We came across a battalion that was based in Mon State and I was very afraid of them. I was worried that they would recognise me. I didn't even dare to raise my head to look around. I was so afraid of them that I almost urinated under my longyi. And I was sweating.

So you gave your weapon to the man?

When I gave him the weapon, I told him, 'Hand me over to the KNU or to the student army [All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF)], but please don't hand me back to the SPDC.' He said, 'I'll hand you over [to the KNU]. Don't worry.' And he gave me 2,000 kyat [US $1.68] and put me on the bus to go to W---. The man who helped is named Ko Z--- and his wife's name is Ny---.

Have you ever fought with the KNU?

Even when I was in Karen State I never fought against the KNU. I had fights with Mon rebel groups. In my whole experience in the army, I never caught any enemies. The only way we got their weapons was when we saw a dead body. I mostly saw Mon and Burman people.

Have you ever entered into a village?

Yes, we went in and out of the villages. If our officer told [the soldiers] to demand something, we had to demand [those] things from the village head because we were afraid of them [the officers]. We wouldn't have been able to not enforce their demands.

What would the soldiers do if the villagers were not able pay?

If the villagers couldn't pay, the soldiers would frighten or torture the villagers until they got what the battalion commander wanted. If not, when they returned to the battalion, they would be tortured as well. For me, I didn't do that [torture villagers] because I was able to empathise with them [the villagers]. When I took road security duty, I was able to get additional [income] from people who were smuggling wood or cattle. We politely asked [for money] from them and with that money, when we went to the frontline, when I was asked to demand things, I demanded some and took out some [money] from my own pocket. If the money was a large amount, I would let the battalion commander torture me. The officers and some soldiers were usually drunk for 24 hours [of the day]. For this reason the soldiers become rude. The officers are very young. They passed tenth standard and applied for DSA and they were trained at the officer cadet training school and after that they became officers. Their ages were about 19 and 20 and 21. They are very rude. They scold people who are about the same age as their parents and insult old people.

When you were in Mon State did you see anyone detain people for duty as a porter?

In the past they [the Burma Army] did [detain people to serve as porters], but later they didn't. If they saw suspicious people, they would arrest [them] and recruit them as soldiers. Because they've made a rule that after 10:00 pm [people] can't go outside, if they see [anyone], they usually arrest [them]. Some young people gather [in groups of] four or five and play guitar in the dark. They [Burma Army personnel] mostly arrest these people and recruit them as soldiers.

Do you remember the date you fled?

I started to run on November 5th 2007. I entered M--- in January 2008.

Is there anything else that you would like to say that we have not asked you about?

I want to share with you that in the present situation, I am worried about my security... I am also worried about my daughter. I have one daughter. I worry about her future. I am looking for people who will send me to a place that is free from danger. I feel I am not secure in ---. When I fled I also brought along my weapon and that's a very big crime... So I don't feel secure here... I have tried to manage my life as well as I can... If I was single, there would be no problem. But I have a family now. There will be many consequences.