Head of Myanmar’s junta urges unity as military defections continue

In a 30-minute speech delivered on Sunday, Myanmar’s junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, urged unity among those under his command amid signs of tension within the ranks.

The speech, addressed to senior officers and other military personnel at a ceremony held in Naypyitaw to mark Armed Forces Day, made multiple references to the need to maintain unity in the face of external challenges.

Citing threats from “foreign aggressors and a bunch of self-interested political parties in the country,” Min Aung Hlaing said it was crucial for those in the military to close ranks.

The emphasis on internal cohesion was seen by some observers as evidence that the junta continues to lose support from rank-and-file troops after more than a year of conflict ignited by last year’s coup.

“Soldiers of the lower ranks are beginning to realise what their superiors are ordering them to do,” said Lin Htet Aung, an army captain who defected last year. 

“They know they’re not working for the good of either the military or the country, and they no longer want to serve this regime,” he added.

Since last year, he said, at least 3,000 military personnel, including several ranking as high as lieutenant colonel, have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement against military rule.

According to Lin Htet Aung, that number continues to rise, and could see a surge in the near future.

Political analyst Than Soe Naing also said that the speech, delivered by a haggard-looking Min Aung Hlaing, signalled tensions within the armed forces.

“He’s basically confessing that cracks have formed within the army. That’s the only reason he would have to keep reiterating the importance of internal unity,” he said.

Further evidence of instability was also offered by the fact that the military has had to replace its operations commanders in Chin State and Sagaing Region, where the armed resistance movement has been especially strong, he added.

There have also been a number of high-profile reassignments, including the replacement of the commander of the air force, since the coup.

High casualty rates among junta forces have also taken a toll on the military’s recruitment efforts, forcing it to call retired army officers back into active duty and deploy police officers for combat operations, according to Than Soe Naing.

The speech also warned ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) not to support the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) that have emerged around the country in response to the junta’s brutal crackdowns on anti-coup protests.

Saying that any armed group that joined the anti-regime resistance movement would be regarded as a terrorist organisation and targeted for eradication, Min Aung Hlaing also promised to hold peace talks with EAOs.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, a spokesperson for the Karen National Union (KNU), dismissed both the warning and the offer of talks as “a joke.”

“The only reason the PDFs were formed was because Min Aung Hlaing was stupid enough to stage a coup and kill innocent civilians,” he said.

He added that the PDFs have since proven that they can stand alone without the support of other groups.

Sunday’s ceremony was the second to mark Armed Forces Day—or Anti-Fascist Resistance Day, as it is called by opponents of the regime—since the military seized power last February.

On the same day last year, the junta unleashed a massive tide of violence against protesters, killing more than 100, including children, in towns and cities across the country.

It also carried out airstrikes in territory controlled by the KNU in retaliation for overrunning a military outpost on the same day.

Airstrikes were also reported in the same area on Sunday.

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