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Tea Leaves

Hey soldier, mind your missus

Myanmar military wives remind us who commands the household

Su Thit and her husband Htet Myat, an ex-army captain, in happier days. “We were only able to meet three times in three years of marriage." (Courtesy Su Thit)  

"If a soldier is going to defect, the first thing he does is consult his wife," says Su Thit, a young and determined-looking Burmese woman. "If she agrees, then it will happen." She should know, having urged her husband, an army captain, to leave his unit in northern Myanmar after the Feb. 1, 2021, military takeover. The two traveled across the country to safety last August.

On a hot afternoon, she's sitting on the bare floor of a safe house near the Thai-Myanmar border, with her husband Htet Myat and three fellow defectors. She proudly displays smartphone photos of their wedding day and others of her husband in full military uniform -- a far cry from the smiling, long-haired man sitting beside her in a T-shirt and longyi sarong.

"We fell in love and got married but he was posted far away; we could only meet three times in three years since our wedding," she says. It was a price the couple felt was worth paying to advance Htet Myat's promising military career. Unlike many soldiers' wives who live on army bases, Su Thit, a university graduate, had her own career, working as a sales and marketing manager in a Yangon hotel.

She also had what she describes as "a strong sense of what is right and wrong" and after the military takeover, called her husband every night to inform him of the violent crackdowns against civilian protesters, eventually convincing him to leave his army unit. He, in turn, helped 20 other colleagues to leave their posts.

Since then, more than 5,000 soldiers -- at least 20% of them officers -- and an estimated 9,000 police have joined the resistance movement, according to support organizations. That might sound small in a military that once claimed 450,000 troops (independent experts put the number at no more than 250,000 personnel). But Su Thit believes it's the tip of the iceberg. Many more military personnel have simply abandoned their posts to stay in hiding. "There could be thousands," she notes.

Su Thit, who set up Spouses of People’s Soldiers, says, “If a soldier is going to defect he consults his wife first." 

"We can't reach those kinds of deserters, but we can help people who contact us -- they run away, even without clothes or basic necessities, and it falls to wives to care for the family." For single soldiers, the decision to leave the military is easier. The idea of focusing on wives and helping entire families escape has attracted more senior personnel, she says.

Indeed, in recent months, a stream of officers including captains, majors and lieutenant-colonels have joined the ranks of defectors, bringing valuable knowledge of tactics, new officer networks and sometimes willingness to help train volunteer resistance fighters.

"Particularly in battalions, soldiers are more scared of the commander's wife than the commander," says Lin Htet Aung, a former captain who helps lead People's Embrace, another defector organization. "So wives can be very powerful, their role is very important, especially in what a soldier decides to do with his life."

Wives have also been important in conveying information. Many army defectors confess to initial feelings of disbelief when they heard about military atrocities after the Feb. 1 takeover. But as images and reports of troops burning villages, shooting at people and torturing and imprisoning civilians filled social media, many say they felt betrayed by their commanders.

Heavily armed soldiers stand near protesters on University Avenue in central Yangon on Feb. 9, 2021. (Photo by Mar Naw)

"It was my wife who kept informing me what was really going on. I realized we were brainwashed from the beginning," says Htet Myat, who has now published a book about his experiences. "When I was young I saw soldiers as upstanding, risking life to protect the people. But after the coup, I realized it was all a lie."

With his wife's support, Htet Myat helped set up a defector group called Blooming Padauk and now tries to reach former colleagues and other soldiers to urge them to defect. He also advises volunteer fighters with People's Defense Force guerilla groups. "I tell them about military tactics and try to guide them," he says.

Su Thit, meanwhile, decided to reach out to other military wives. "I was different from many military wives," she says. "I worked full-time, I didn't have children and I had worked in marketing." With three friends, she set up Spouses of People's Soldiers and began raising funds through social media. They are now supporting about 75 defector families, about 350 people, and expanding rapidly.

Htet Myat, in his former life as a captain in Myanmar's army.

The group also offers counseling and support services for military families, and has close ties with key defector organizations, People's Goal and People's Embrace. They run active social media programs, featuring weekly video sessions with speakers and campaigns to encourage soldiers to defect.

In a military organization now being used against the country's own people, wives and girlfriends are critical, says Su Thit. "That's the thing -- if the wife doesn't want to go, the soldier probably won't, but if she can see some support network to help, she'll try to convince her husband."

Some wives go even further. She cites the example of a woman who sought the group's help earlier this year after her husband, an army officer, refused to leave his unit. "He wasn't happy with the situation but was worried about his parents; so his wife decided to take the children and leave; we arranged safe passage," says Su Thit.

"Look at us. We've lost everything, we don't know what will come next. But in other ways we're much happier -- my husband feels totally free at last. We are doing the right thing," she says.

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