In May 2022, a draft opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a historic law that legalized abortion was leaked. The whole episode caused the US justice system public embarrassment for the content itself and the fashion of how classified information was leaked. An investigation was launched into the 100-staff team. Although it failed to uncover the culprit, a point was made that whoever had leaked the information is considered a bad actor by the justice system regardless of the intention of the leak and the appreciation that the public showed towards knowing the information in advance. Such actions must not be repeated.
Whistleblowers or spies or good Samaritans; whatever you call them. In Myanmar, we consider them heroes.
Watermelon is a nickname for people in the military or government staff under the control of the military who secretly support the resistance movement. Watermelon: the green on the outside represents the color of the military uniform, and the red on the inside represents the color of the National League for Democracy (NLD) or the revolution depending on whom you ask. Hence, friends of the resistance in the force or the government offices are called watermelons for their discreet aid toward the people’s fight. Generally, watermelons can be categorized into three types: a) those who plan to defect and join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM); b) those who remain in the force and leak important information to the public through the media; and c) those who would carry out missions such as explosions, plots inside the military or the government office. The article will focus on the second type.
Since the early days of February 2021, those friends under the roof of the military have helped the anti-coup movements in various ways. Many people have escaped from the junta’s arrests thanks to the information leaked from them. In October 2022, Khit Thit Media released a list of people whom the regime had intended to abduct for contributing funds to the resistance. Their bank accounts and detailed addresses were also written beside their names in a classified document/order. Because Khit Thit Media was able to collect the information in time and shared it on its social media page, many of those who weren’t aware of their warrant status had the opportunity to prepare for their escape. A friend of Myat was one of those names on the paper who was on a visit overseas when the list was made public. Thanks to the leak, she was able to extend her stay and plan her future. It was still difficult for a woman to settle on foreign soil without any forethought but if it weren’t for the leak, she would have gone back to the country where she would most likely be detained at the airport. Many cases like this had taken place both before and after this particular incident. It shows how significant a piece of information is from the inside.
On the significance of such news, Paing, an experienced journalist said, “In this climate, news or information from watermelons is paramount. Journalists can no longer cover news on the ground as most of us have had to flee the country and report from the neighboring countries.” He added that if it weren’t for those friends aka watermelons, there would be no way of knowing how the military is distributing aviation fuel, the location of weapon-production factories, the corruption of military officers, etc.
In November 2002, another important piece of inside news was shared by Khit Thit Media that showed the military’s plans for aerial attacks on the command center of the Chin National Front (CNF). The airstrikes did not come until January 2023, but awareness was made. At the very least, it was encouraging to know there were still a few good people in the force.
In terms of the motive behind those leaks, Paing thinks intelligence from the government offices may be the retaliative efforts by the loyal servants of those departments toward newly promoted military officials. The military tends to assign its officers to the high ranks in the civil government offices when they are no longer fit to serve in the force, and it has always upset the long-serving staff although they would never be allowed to complain. Hence, it is logical to think that they may have a valid motive to act as whistleblowers; in addition to the obvious moral duty, one must feel in this circumstance.
When it comes to the leaks from the military itself, they are even more fascinating. The military, the oldest institution in the history of Myanmar, is best known for being a close-knit community, distorting reality with propaganda both in and outside its camps. Never once in our lives, had we thought it was possible to get a peep at the inner circle of how things worked. Now with military targets and arrest lists being circulated in social media, how do we make sense of it? It’s a known fact that no matter how close-knit it is, Min Aung Hlaing’s military is an institution built on bullying juniors, backstabbing equals, and kissing up to seniors. When one cannot survive in that cycle, one is out of the corporate ladder and destined to retire miserable and poor. Such a vicious pattern gets worse post the coup, we witnessed many divisions in the junta’s administration; where Min Aung Hlaing keeps removing, installing, and removing again collaborators he thinks he could trust. The same goes down in the lower ranks as well. When the soldiers can no longer trust each other and are wary of a colleague stabbing them in the back, they start to grow a mentality that is “If I go down, you all go down with me”. This is what Paing thinks is a motive for those in the force in leaking intelligence; and of course, in addition to the obvious moral duty, one must feel in this circumstance.
But how many are there and how high are their positions? It may be impossible to know, and it’s very likely we will never find out regardless of the outcome of the resistance, according to Sayar Than Myint Aung, the founder of May May Yin Khwin, an association helping the police and soldiers on CDM. He said that although his association had been helping the CDM staff for a long time, it was still challenging to maintain relationships with those in the high ranks. A colonel approached him at some point last year for defection, but they did not carry on the conversation due to the lack of trust from the colonel’s side, he must have thought the stakes were too high if something went wrong. Somebody like him could have been continuing with the everyday tasks and feeding information to the media.
Sayar Than Myint Aung quoted a general, “We rather catch one watermelon than 100 soldiers”, signifying how much those leaks are hurting the force. And how many of those watermelons have lost their lives in the interrogation without being made public? Again, we may never find out. Given that most PDF rangers and some of the civilian detainees face extreme torture in the regime’s most notorious interrogation centers and do not make it alive, without question the watermelons will face an even worse fate if they are ever compromised.
Of course, under the control of the military, nobody is safe. Let alone PDF rangers, CDM staff, and civilians, the coup leader would not even think twice about preying on his own troops if his grip on power is at risk. There was a police chief named Than Hlaing, who was demoted for failing to control Sagaing Region and now nobody knows what happened to him. Likewise, after a military intelligence officer was assassinated by the resistance forces earlier this month, staff from his own office were taken by the regime’s interrogation facility and no news has been heard of them since. It is indisputable that many friends or watermelons have also been sacrificed discreetly behind the scenes.
“The National Unity Government (NUG) must find out how many have fallen after being disposed of as an informer to the resistance. And it must seek justice for them, and hail them as martyrs one day”. Paing concluded.
Today, the junta’s crackdown on the freedom of expression grows, its abductions increase and so is the fight back from the people. As the resistance is set to scale up, the regime is bound to tighten up its own fence and impose the maximum discipline (read: torture) on those who leak information to the other side. Newer technology has been installed to monitor its own people. However, people are still hopeful and positive that those leaks will continue to come in, and there will always be a person with a good heart even in the worst institution in the whole world. In fact, many including the NUG officials believe that the resistance may take a better turn if just a few brave men from the military decide to take matters into their own hands, carry out another coup and return the power to the people before bringing the army back to the barracks where it belongs. It may sound idealistic, but it is still one of the most viable and bloodless resolutions one could think of at this point. And people have called out for such courage since the beginning of the Spring Revolution.
Going back to the story at the beginning, even the likes of the U.S. Supreme Court with the best legal system and technology could not prevent a leak. “People – we’re the weakest link,” said Lanterman, chief technology officer at the firm Computer Forensic Services. “They could invest millions of dollars in the federal judiciary’s cybersecurity, but all it takes is one person with a motive to leak.”
The situations may not be more different, but we consider it an encouraging thought that one person with a motive could overcome the most cunning threats and latest technologies especially if it contributed to the betterment of society. Not many will but a few good men or watermelons might. Hope is a beautiful thing, after all.
- Reuters: Leak probe highlights U.S. Supreme Court’s problems protecting information By Nate Raymond and John Kruzel
- Myanmar NOW: Myanmar military carries out airstrikes near Indian border By Khin Yi Yi Zaw