Beleaguered junta will pardon deserters who return to barracks 

Openly allowing deserters to rejoin their units is unprecedented in the Myanmar military and a possible sign of the army’s overextension since the launch of Operation 1027

The Myanmar military council announced on Monday that it would offer a pardon to soldiers willing to resume their duties after deserting. 

In what may be the latest sign of the military’s overextension, the announcement, published in regime-controlled newspapers, said some soldiers had contacted the army asking to return after deserting and that they would be allowed to resume service. 

The announcement said the pardon would be granted to deserters due to the recent intensification of fighting throughout the country. 

The escalation of hostilities began with the launch of Operation 1027, a major anti-junta offensive led by the Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups. 

The military has lost control of more than a dozen towns to the nationwide wave of armed resistance, including economically important trade hubs on Myanmar’s northeastern border with China and one district-level administrative seat in Sagaing Region.

Scores of military bases in northern Shan State have also fallen to the anti-junta forces since the beginning of Operation 1027, with entire battalions surrendering in some instances.

According to the military council’s announcement, eligible soldiers will be readmitted to their respective battalions or reassigned based on need. The military will also grant an amnesty to people convicted of petty crimes and still wishing to serve. 

Veterans have said this is the first instance in their memory of the military openly allowing deserters return to duty. 

Captain Zin Yaw, who defected from the Myanmar military following the February 2021 coup, said that in the past the army treated desertion as an unforgivable offence.

The junta may also be trying to reintegrate soldiers who are already trained due to the scarcity of manpower and the challenges the military has faced in recruiting, Captain Yin Zaw added.

He also interpreted the announcement as an implicit warning to deserters, predicting harsher consequences for those who chose not to take the offered pardon soon. 

“”I think that they will start arresting deserters who are absent without leave,” he said.

A former officer in his 70s with over 40 years’ service in the army said the use of deserters was comparable to less overt practices he had seen in the past. 

“Back then, battalion commanders sometimes took back deserters on a gentlemen’s agreement, because their battalion needed more troops. They had to lie to higher-ups to accept them,” the retired officer said. 

“And if the deserter couldn’t be accepted back into his own unit, he would go into a unit in another region or state, essentially being treated like a new recruit,” he added.

At a press conference held in December 2020, before the military seized power, army spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Zaw Min Tun said no country and no army has the custom nor the right to pardon or forgive deserters.

According to the Defensive Services Act of 1959, deserters can be prosecuted under Section 38 for absence without leave and under Section 37 for deserting or abetting desertion.

In time of war or during active military operations, desertion can be punished with seven years’ imprisonment or even the death penalty in certain cases. Desertion in peace time carries a sentence of up to seven years, as determined and handed down by a military court.

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