Myanmar’s military junta is facing its biggest challenge since it overthrew the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, is currently weakened by the ongoing coordinated offensive by the Brotherhood Alliance near the borders of China, India and Thailand. According to some analysts, this was the biggest threat to the military regime since the Junta seized power.
Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, since then more than a dozen ethnic minority armed groups have fought the army at various times in the country’s bordering areas. The conflict in Burma began with the rebellion of the Karen National Union (KNU), which began on Jan. 31, 1949. For more than 70 years since independence, Myanmar has been subject to internal armed conflict and it is still ongoing. In the 1990s, temporary ceasefire agreements were signed in Kachin, Kayah, Mon and Shan states. But at that time another 20 new armed ethnic groups emerged. These groups continued their struggle during the ceasefire from the 1990s to 2010. Eight Ethnic Armed Organization’s (EAO) signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015, and in February 2018, two more EAO joined the ceasefire under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, bringing the total number of 10 EAOs to the agreement.
After assuming power, the military government convened three rounds of peace dialogues with ten EAOs from May 2022 to February 2023, and these peace talks resulted in four general agreements. A total of 121 peace talks were held in this process from February 2021 to September 2023. On 15 October 2023, the military government invited representatives of EAOs to mark the eighth anniversary of the signing of the NCA. The event was the first such formal gathering with the military government and ethnic minority leaders since the military seized power. The three signatories, the KNU, Chin National Front (CNF) and All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), opposed to the current military-backed regime and boycotted the event. In a joint statement they said they will not join the NCA peace talks until the government stops the ongoing violence.
In late October 2023, three EAOs, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Tang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA), formed a coalition called the Brotherhood Alliance. They launched a joint offensive against the junta forces across northern Shan State to seize key trade centers along the Chinese border under the control of the Myanmar military. The Brotherhood Alliance captured the border town of Chin shwe haw, known as the Sino-Myanmar trade hub. They blocked two important trade routes to China and seized a key border crossing. Later they launched a concerted attack across the country. As a result Myanmar’s junta has been suffering heavy casualties on an almost daily basis in every state and region except Ayeyarwady.
MNDAA captured Konkyan Township in the north of Kokang Autonomous Region.The city was under junta control for over 30 years. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and PDF attacked a military checkpoint at Mon in Kyaukkyi Township in Bago Region, causing heavy casualties on both sides and large numbers of junta soldiers surrendering to resistance forces. The city connects Yangon to Mayawadi, the second busiest border trade hub of Myanmar’s six official border crossings with Thailand. The Brotherhood Alliance is fighting the army on the outskirts of the capital of eastern Kayah state near the Thai border. An attack by the Brotherhood Alliance led to the fall of Khampat in Tamu District, Sagaing on 7 November. The city resumed functioning under civilian administration from December 3, with markets reopening and peace restored in the city. CNF captured the Indian border town of Reh Khaw Dah in Falam township on 12 November after capturing the junta-controlled Indian border town, located on India’s main trade route in North Chin State. In November, the AA attacked five locations in three townships in Rakhine, violating an informal ceasefire that had been in place since 2022. The AA is fighting against the army in the towns of Pauktaw, Minbya, Rathedaung and Maungdaw in Rakhine State. The government has lost control of nearly 20 towns and over 303 outposts due to the escalating attacks. Hundreds of junta soldiers surrendered, including entire battalions.
The combined resistance in Sagaing, Mandalay, Magway and Chin states has inspired the ouster of military rule from northern Shan State. PDF, supported by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), captured at least three towns in the Sagaing region. The KNLA and allied resistance forces captured Mone Town in Bago region on December 3. Resistance forces from Chin State have captured at least seven towns as of December 8. Brotherhood Alliance has captured more than 300 bases and 20 towns in three states and two regions since Operation 1027 began on October 27. They captured eight towns in northern Shan State from the junta as of December 8. The AA has captured 45 Military bases and outposts in Rakhine and Chin states.
The Myanmar military had been struggling with the EAOs for decades. The Military believes that its primary responsibility is to maintain the country’s sovereignty. They will not support any action that would split national unity and break up the Union. Despite the junta government’s efforts to create a wedge between the revolutionary forces and the civilian population, many residents of the country’s key cities of Yangon and Mandalay continue to support the EAOs.
Western pressure on Myanmar has continued since the beginning of the current military rule. Although China, Russia and India have supported Myanmar in various ways, this situation has affected their trade and economy, and popular support for the government has decreased as inflation, currency devaluation has affected public life. The ongoing conflict has halted cross-border trade and deprived the cash-strapped junta of tax and foreign exchange exports. Border trade is in jeopardy and people across the country are suffering from panic, food shortages and inflation. The number of displaced people is increasing across the country, casualties and sufferings are increasing.
Unable to resolve the conflict through repression, the Myanmar government has been thinking of solving the problem politically by avoiding the path of conflict. Myanmar’s junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing called on ethnic armed groups to find a political solution to the crisis without much response. According to some analysts, the fight will continue, as the revolutionary forces are now fully determined to remove the military dictatorship and restore democracy in Myanmar. UN reports shows that more than 500,000 people have been displaced across the country, since the offensive began in October 2023.
The support of Myanmar’s pro-democracy populace, particularly the majority Bamar population, has bolstered the Brotherhood Alliance’s strength in this struggle. Declining support of the country’s core Bamars for the army and reluctance of Bamar youth to join the army have adversely affected the situation. They lost hope and aspiration after the military takeover and many joined the armed struggle.
In Myanmar, the support of Buddhist monks to the military has been instrumental in boosting the morale and capabilities of the military for decades. Due to the division among Buddhist monks and the loss of unilateral support for the military, many ordinary people also withdrew their support for the military. Many leading monks believe that if the Ma Ba Tha monks had been active in the development of Rakhine without spreading extreme nationalism and hatred, the quality of life of the people would have improved and peace would have reigned in the country. In the ongoing context, monks have been protesting, building their own non-violent resistance and taking part in resistance organized with students in the forests bordering Burma under the name All Burma Young Monks Union.
So long, the armed groups could not do anything collectively due to the lack of consensus, trust and unity among the groups struggling with the army. This is the first such coordination among EAOs in Myanmar’s history. In current conflict the army is losing the ground battles and to gain control they increased air strikes. As a result, casualties and the number of displaced people are increasing. International pressure on the junta government is also growing as the news of atrocities is spreading rapidly to the outside world through the media. Currently the army is fighting on many fronts. The massive scale of the ongoing armed resistance has seriously worried Myanmar’s military rulers. In recent battles entire units have decided to surrender or flee. The number of casualties in the army continues to rise due to the violence that has been going on throughout the country for almost two years. On the contrary, not being able to recruit new members on time, failure to fulfill quotas has affected the army’s capacity. Acting President of Myanmar, Myint Swe said that, if the pressure of the EAOs continues the country will be divided into several parts. He requested the people of Myanmar to stand by the military in such a delicate situation. But people did not listen to his request. Rather, the majority of Myanmar’s total population is rejoicing in the army’s defeat.
Amid the ongoing conflict in Myanmar, three Chinese navy ships have arrived at Yangon’s Thilawa port for joint exercises with Myanmar’s navy. Myanmar and Russia also conducted a three-day joint military exercise in the Andaman Sea. Despite ongoing crisis, China and Russia have shown their support through this presence, and their naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean has also made clear their interest in the region. China has strategic interests in Myanmar. China is keen to maintain a balanced relationship with all parties to safeguard their huge investment in Myanmar. China will not tolerate any harm to its interests. The junta forces have already lost the ability to provide security for this vast border. In this situation, China has adopted a policy of compromise with the EAOs which boost their morale.
Myanmar’s conflict zone is an important area for regional communication and trade. As a result of the ongoing fighting, the economy has collapsed. Foreign investors are leaving the country. The reserve is almost exhausted. Land trade at the troubled borders is now closed. Despite all these, it’s too soon to speculate on what Myanmar’s future holds given the current state of affairs. It would never be right to think that capability of Tatmadaw will decline rapidly due to this current situation. It is natural that the Myanmar Army will change its tactics and strategy to overcome the current situation. In any case, Institution like Myanmar army should not collapse, at the same time the people of Myanmar should enjoy the freedom, peace and prosperity. Nonetheless, the Myanmar Army has never seen a situation like this before. Their ability to handle this crisis will surely be visible in future days. It is premature to make any statements on Myanmar’s future till then.
[Photo by Mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Brig Gen (Retd) Hasan Md Shamsuddin, ndc, afwc, psc, MPhil, is a researcher on Myanmar, Rohingya and ASEAN affairs.