In pro-democracy uprisings around the globe—from the Philippines’ People Power Revolution to the collapse of Indonesia’s New Order to the fall of the Pinochet regime in Chile—defection of military and security forces to the side of the people has proven pivotal in weakening authoritarian regimes. These shifts in loyalty signaled to the public that cracks were forming within authoritarians’ support base and made it operationally challenging for their regimes to continue the mass repression needed to maintain power.  

In Burma, military defections gained momentum following the February 1, 2021, coup, but have declined since late 2022. According to recent estimates by Burma’s National Unity Government (NUG), 12,327 members of the security forces—3,236 soldiers and 9,091 police officers—had defected as of February 2023, peaking at an estimated 100 defections per month in 2021. By late 2022, that rate had fallen to an estimated 10 per month, and we have not yet seen the kind of mass or senior-level defections that typically swing the balance of power in anti-authoritarian uprisings. Encouraging and supporting defectors and ensuring Burma’s democracy movement is equipped to maximize their intelligence and rhetorical value should be central to the victory strategy for the movement.   

Barriers to Defection 

Primary research on defections from Burma’s military reveals that while ideological and ethical considerations provide an impetus to leave, the lack of safety net is making would-be defectors stay. Three significant internal and external barriers are behind the dwindling number of defections: 

Reducing Barriers and Facilitating Safe Defection 

Encouraging and facilitating defections should be central to the democracy movement’s victory strategy. Any successful plan should include: 

Conclusion: Supporting a Democratic Trajectory   

Defections are a strategic imperative for Burma’s democracy movement. Defectors deny the junta manpower, weaponry, and munitions, and provide crucial intelligence on military operations, raids, and airstrikes that can both save lives and improve the effectiveness of armed resistance forces. For Burma’s democratic resistance, victory is likely impossible without defectors, and defection is impossible without providing incentives to soldiers to accept substantial risk and join the cause. Timely and strategic international assistance can both help make these incentives more attractive and ensure that defectors become assets that contribute to the eventual success of the democracy movement.  

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