A Soldier’s Story: My escape from Hell

Burma army soldiers

Forcibly recruited, Maung Lwin Soe served 10 years before he escaped from the Burma army.
He tells Karen News reporter, Chamu, his story.

In 2002, Maung Lwin Soe (not real name) from Bo Ga Lay town, in the Irrawaddy Delta visited his aunt who lived in Rangoon. When he arrived in Rangoon he was stopped by a plainclothes officer and asked for his identity card. Maung Lwin Soe explained that he was going to visit his aunt and showed his card. The police destroyed his card and threaten him with jail for not having an Identity card.

Maung Lwin Soe was taken to Da Nyin Kone military recruitment base. He stayed there for a week and then transferred to Tha Hton for four months training.

After the training, he was taken by the Light Infantry Battalion 202 at Hpa-an city. Maung Lwin served as a guard on the battalion’s main checkpoint. While he was there he saw three or four child soldiers.

“I believe those kids were under 18 and forced to become soldiers by the army.”

According to Maung Lwin Soe, most of the sergeants within his battalion were respectful but the senior military officers did not treat the soldiers well. He said they would find mistakes with the soldiers and yell or swear at them. Maung Lwin Soe, said senior officer, often beat them with the edge of their gun and kicked them.

Maung Lwin Soe says his starting salary was 3,500 kyat (US$3.50) a month it then increased to 9,500 kyat and his salary before escaping was 45,300 kyat . However, whilst this was his official salary, he never received the whole amount as the officers in the base would take cuts from the soldiers’ salaries for donations to the Dharma team, office stationery and other social occasions. By the time he got his salary it had been reduced to about 41000 or 42000 kyat. If the soldiers ever broached the subject of the missing money with their senior officers they were told that they would rectify it, but they never did.

According to Maung Lwin Soe the salary scale for soldiers within the Burma Army is as follows:
New soldier – 4,000 kyat (the government increase this depending on experience)
Battalion commander – over 200,000
Deputy Commander – 230,000
2nd Lieutenant(Du Bo) – 100,000
Lieutenant (Bo) – 120,000
Major (Bo Mu) – 130,000
Sergeant (3 chevrons) – 53,000
Sergeant (2 chevrons) – 50,000
Sergeant (1 chevron) – 47,000

A private soldier’s salary is not enough to support a family so some of the soldiers wives try to get jobs outside of the battalion, but it’s not easy because if they want to work outside they have to get permission from the military base authorities. Usually the military base authorities do not give this permission because the battalion officers want the soldiers’ wives to stay in the camp. Their reluctance is due to the fact that when the soldiers go to the front line the soldiers’ wives are responsible for guarding 5 or 6 people per group on behalf of the battalion camp security. On top of this the soldiers’ wives work in the military base doing menial work such as clearing weeds and cleaning. If a soldier’s wife is sick, the soldier has to work days without pay as substitution.

The military provides rations to the soldiers – rice, yellow beans, tinned milk and sugar -but they are often sub-standard. Maung Lwin Soe says the rice and yellow beans were often infested with worms and only one in three tins was edible.

“The salt that was provided is already moldy and as black as mud. Nobody would willingly become a soldier for the Burma Army and put up with the conditions. This is why the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) soldiers do not want to become part of the Border Guard Force. Nobody does.”

At the battalion base camp officers fix the rations for the soldiers’ families, the cost of arranging the rations is deducted from the soldiers’ salary. Soldiers’ children’s education, the military command based authority provides a very limited support every year. For example: 10,000 kyat for a university student, 2,000 kyat for a basic primary or high school education.

“It is simply not enough to provide a good education for a child”,

It is a well known that in the schools in Burma teachers collect money for the general upkeep of the school from the students, they use this money for such basics as water pots and brooms for the classroom.
After three months in the battalion, Maung Lwin Soe was sent on patrol on the front line at Tat Li Meh Poe Kay on the Thai Burma border. His battalion was attacked. Maung Lwin Soe tried to open fire but was unable to as his gun got caught in the mortar that he was also carrying. When he put the weapons down as they were unusable his sergeant beat him badly.

Maung Lwin Soe spoke of an incident that happened in 2009 when he was on a combined operation with a DKBA troops led by Bo Chit Thu’s, on a month long offensive against the Myay Aye Gu camp of the KNLA. At that time the Burmese army were supporting the battle field based DKBA offensive with long range heavy weapons. Maung Lwin Soe says that they worked together as a team with the DKBA but then one of the DKBA’s commanders, Bo San Pyoak, was assassinated and the relationship between the two groups degenerated. This was due to question marks over who carried out the assassination – the KNLA denied involvement and Maung Lwin Soe says suspicion hung over the Burmese Army.

Maung Lwin Soe says it was common for the Burmese Army to extort money from villagers. Maung Lwin Soe experienced this when the military front line base camp in Thay Baw Boh Operation Command set up a check point and taxed the villagers for every truck and small tractor that passed the checkpoint with the promise that the money collected would be used to construct a better road, a bridge and to rebuild the school.

Maung Lwin Soe insists that the money was used to line the officers’ pockets. When the operation command moved to a different camp the promises they had made disappeared along with them but the new command continued to impose the taxes on the villagers.

Punishment in the Burma Army

“If a soldier did something wrong they were not punished on the front line, they were arrested and taken as a prisoner to the military base where they were punished. They were also punished if they refused to carry out orders that they believed to be ethically wrong. Rather than question these orders, the senior officers simply punished the privates for not following them. Sometimes the more senior officers would make awkward orders that the private wouldn’t want to follow, the private would then be beaten by the officers and sometimes he’d be put into a cell for a week or ten days.”

Motivation within the Burmese Army

Maung Lwin Soe says that most of the soldiers had not joined the Burmese army voluntarily and only followed orders because if they didn’t they would be punished.

During his time patrolling on the frontline Maung Lwin Soe found that some battalions used porters and mules, but when they were in Dooplaya District they forced the villagers to carry their rations and took their tractors to transport their supplies from camp to camp. Sometimes the army used up to five tractors a day without paying the villagers. Maung Lwin Soe says.

“It should have been the responsibility of the operation commander to make these payments but he did nothing for the villagers”.

In Dooplaya District, Karen State, the operation commander ordered Maung Lwin’s battalion to set up heavy weaponry including an MA-7, a 2 B 100 and a machine gun at various vantage points above the villages. Maung Lwin said that the senior army officers would order the privates to open fire randomly to the point where some of the villagers did not live in their houses, choosing instead to live under their homes.

Escape – worth the risk?

Maung Lwin Soe says soldiers try to escape from the military base, if they are caught they are arrested and taken to the main military base where they spend two or three months in a military cell before being transferred to military prison. In the military prison the soldiers are sentenced to a punishment of 18-months in jail. After serving his sentence the soldier cannot return to civilian life and must return to the army where, upon his return, will forgo his first three or four months salary.

Officially compensation paid to the family of a soldier killed in service should be one full year’s salary. In reality the military authority does not pay out anything, in addition they evict the family of the dead soldier from the command base camp, leaving them homeless. It is reported that this situation has meant some of the widows have turned to prostitution as a way of solving their family’s struggle for survival.

Maung Lwin Soe says it is also common knowledge soldiers wives have been known to turn to prostitution within the command base camp as they can’t survive on the salary they receive from the military, often because they have debts and children to support.

Information in the Army

Maung Lwin Soe says.

“Whilst in the military we were allowed to listen to the radio. Some of the sergeants would say that the information we heard was true but the more senior officers said that the media was spreading propaganda and that they want to create dissent between the military and the Burma population.”

Maung Lwin said he had enough of fighting.

“I don’t want anymore fighting between the ethnic factions in Burma, I just want to live together in an understanding way”

Maung Lwin’s opinion on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her politics is that.

“She is doing everything right, if I had the chance to talk with her I would stand by her side.”
Maung Lwin Soe says most private soldiers thought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was right, but that the senior officers said that since she was freed from house arrest she has been doing bad things.

“For me though, I see her doing good things that no member of the current government would do such as consoling AIDs patients. The main reason that the senior officers don’t like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is that she married a western man.”

When the army recruited Maung Lwin Soe, there was an agreement made that if the newly recruited soldier was not happy in the military he could resign and return to being a civilian.

Maung Lwin Soe ended up serving 10 years with the Army. After five years of service he asked to resign, but his senior officer told him, ‘you cannot resign from the army alive, but you can leave as a dead man.’
To scare the soldiers of escaping an officer told Maung Lwin Soe .

“If you escape to Nga Pway (KNLA soldiers) they will kill you and not in a quick way, they will slash you with bamboo and pour salt in the wounds.”

Maung Lwin Soe did not believe him as he did not believe from what he had heard that the KNLA behaved like that. However the same could not be said for the army, Maung Lwin Soe said.

“I know that if the army arrested KNLA soldiers they tortured them in many ways and didn’t feed them.”
Maung Lwin Soe says the reason he escaped from the military are numerous. Primarily his military salary was not enough to provide for his family, this made him particularly unhappy as the more senior officers earned much higher salaries than the privates, but it was the privates who put their lives in danger on a daily basis.

Maung Lwin Soe escaped from the military on 11 June 2011 at 10am and stayed in a farm hut of a villager in Thailand. On 12 June 7am LIB-204 Win Min Than and some soldiers came to Maung Lwin to force him to come back to the military base but Maung Lwin Soe jumped into the Thaung Yin [Moei] River. The soldiers opened fire on him but he was not hit.

Maung Lwin says he made the decision to escape because he wants to work towards a better future for his family. Maung Lwin Soe feels it was inhumane of Captain Win Min Than to order his colleagues to open fire on him, despite having worked side by side with them for many years.

Maung Lwin Soe says soldiers and sergeants – some with as much as 20 or 30 years experience in the military – would like to escape but they can’t because are too worried about the consequences for their families living on the military base.

My Future

“When I think about my future all I can say is that I want to work hard and support my family. I believe that the army thinks they are doing the best for their country but actually the opposite is true.”

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