By Mathieu Yap
At a speech in late September 2023, Myanmar’s military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing declared, “At present, the whole country is stable, except for some terrorist attacks”. Little more than three months later, to say that the political and military situation in Myanmar is very different would be a vast understatement. Even at the time of Min Aung Hlaing’s comments, describing the deaths of over 3,000 junta troops in six months across thousands of small-scale battles simply as the result of “some terrorist attacks” might strike many as inaccurate. The Myanmar military (known as the Tatmadaw) has been increasingly beset by mass desertions, low morale and even defections to rebel groups, which have been boosted by anti-junta ethnic militias entering the civil war. Given the success of recent rebel offensives, some are now daring to ask: is the tide of war finally turning?
With international attention currently consumed by the war in Gaza, it is easy to forget the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. The conflict traces its roots to long-running insurgencies fought between the Tatmadaw and ethnic militias (such as the Kachin Independence Army) aiming to win greater autonomy or independence from the Bamar ethnic majority. However, these insurgencies have greatly increased in both ferocity and coordination following the military coup in February 2021. This saw the Tatmadaw forcibly removing Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic government and arresting its leadership, after accusing her party, the National League for Democracy, (without evidence) of using mass voter fraud to win the 2020 election. Fatal repression of anti-coup demonstrations led to tens of thousands of civilians forming the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), led by the National Unity Government (formed by NLD members), or joining anti-junta ethnic militias. The coup ignited three years of brutal civil war, which until recently showed no sign of nearing an end, with the Tatmadaw retaining control of major population centres thanks to its monopoly on combat aircraft, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery, while rurally based insurgent groups limited themselves to ambush tactics using small arms and improvised-explosive devices (IEDs). The fighting has had disastrous humanitarian consequences, with over 41,959 people killed and over 2,005,200 internally displaced.
However, there have been increasing signs that the military junta’s grip on the country is weakening. In October 2021, the Tatmadaw launched a punitive offensive against ethnic militias in Chin State: its first major operation since the coup. With aims to prevent ethnic armies from supporting the newly formed NUG, demonstrate its power to those unwilling to negotiate with the new regime, and expand its territory, the offensive was notable for its failure to achieve any of these. Instead, ethnic militias began to withdraw from ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw and tentatively ally themselves with the NUG, including by training and equipping its People’s Defence Forces. Fast-forward to this year and it is now the anti-junta forces who are on the offensive. On 27 October 2023, three ethnic militias - dubbed the Three Brotherhood Alliance - launched an offensive against the Tatmadaw in Shan State. The offensive, called Operation 1027, has reportedly seen over thousands of Tatmadaw soldiers killed and several towns seized near Myanmar’s strategically important border with China, including roads through which 98% of all border trade with China occurs. Worse still, January 2024 saw the first of the junta’s 12 regional military commands falling to rebel forces: the military headquarters in Laukkaing and its garrison of 2,389 soldiers surrendered after the 7 battalions under its command collapsed. The result is that over 42% of Myanmar is now controlled by anti-junta groups, with an overstretched Tatmadaw only able to field 70,000 combat troops (out of an official strength of 150,000 personnel) to control a country with a similar size and population to France.
More worryingly for the junta is the fact that the operation couldn’t have been launched without the consent of China, which has been providing the regime with diplomatic support and weapons. Reports indicate that China has also been supplying rebel militias with small arms, which have in turn promised to crack down on Myanmar’s many scam centres. In these, hundreds of thousands of people engage in telecom fraud daily, mainly targeting Chinese nationals and providing the Tatmadaw with a crucial source of revenue amidst Myanmar’s sanction-hit economy. It has been suggested that China has allowed this rebel offensive to proceed to signal its displeasure with the junta’s protection of these centres, which forcibly employ over 100,000 Chinese citizens lured across the border by false promises of jobs, as well as inaccurate artillery fire causing injuries in China’s Yunnan province.
While it remains uncertain as to whether China’s official position will shift further against the junta, it is undeniable that Myanmar’s civil war has entered a new stage. Regardless of its existing advantages in heavy weaponry, the Tatmadaw is under siege or in retreat in many states, beset by an increasing number of casualties or surrenders to anti-junta forces which are ever-growing in numbers, equipment and momentum. While the recent success of rebel forces in Shan State is encouraging, whether the tide of war in Myanmar turns irrevocably in their favour depends on whether militias in other states can replicate the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s level of coordination and success, or better still, form a single coherent fighting force across Myanmar’s seven states. China’s position on the conflict is also crucial: while its current hedging between the two sides may protect trade and stability along its border with Myanmar, it is arguably also prolonging the war. A cutoff in Chinese weapons deliveries to either side would be a significant blow, but especially so to the Tatmadaw, due to its reliance on Chinese vehicles and heavy weapons. If events continue in their current trajectory, however, the international community should not expect a rapid end to the conflict anytime soon, only a steady erosion of the Tatmadaw’s territory and power. If anything, the recent success of the rebel offensive can perhaps be most accurately described with the same words Winston Churchill used following Britain’s victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
IMAGE: BBC News