Myanmar’s Resistance Slows But Doesn’t Stop

A former Myanmar military captain is calling through a loudhailer for troops at a besieged army base to surrender to resistance forces, filmed by a BBC crew who recently visited the front line in Karenni State. Nay Myo Zin, a self-described “online media/propaganda activist,” isn’t having much success. The 80 junta troops have been holed up in the base for a month. Then in response, they counterattack, forcing the journalists and their Karenni handlers to flee in vehicles, pursued by a drone spotting for increasingly accurate mortar fire.

The siege of this base in Karenni is a metaphor for a broader trend of the conflict, which began in February 2021 when the army ousted a democratically-elected government and implemented a strict crackdown on freedoms. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, the conflict has taken the lives of at least 50,000, including at least 8,000 civilians, and has displaced approximately 2.3 million people, according to the United Nations.

As the eclectic resistance makes significant gains in the hinterlands, they still face defiant resistance from some quarters of the Myanmar army who continue to fight to hold out, and have had no success penetrating central Myanmar. Seven months after the unprecedented Operation 1027 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BA) and their allies in Northern Shan State, the conflict is by no means a stalemate, yet nor is the widely-heralded collapse of the junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), coming anytime soon.

Operation 1027, mounted by the Arakan Army (AA), Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), captured scores of key locations, killed several hundred Myanmar army soldiers and forced the surrender of an estimated 4,000. The offensive broadened in scope to Karenni State, then Arakan State as the AA launched their own offensive, and included Kachin, Chin, and Karen States. Fighting in the area has declined, predominantly because the operation’s main objectives were achieved, especially by the MNDAA who seized back the Kokang enclave of Laukkai, about 1,000 km northeast of Yangon on the Yunnan border, and the TNLA who are emphasizing administration of their expanded territory now, partly because of ‘peace talks’ in China called the ‘Haigeng Agreement,’ and partly because the fighting has dramatically increased elsewhere.

A comprehensive analysis of Operation 1027 by Myanmar Peace Monitor in early May revealed the extent of the planning and strategic surprise achieved by the 3BA. But it also reveals that while armed resistance to the SAC has spread throughout the hinterlands, it hasn’t resulted in the coordinated alliance under the National Unity Government (NUG) that many predicted. Instead, hundreds of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), some aligned to the NUG, many others to the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), and an unknown number unaligned, have continued to fight the regime, their single unifying interest in the toppling of the dictatorship. There is no coordinated command structure, nor is there any firm political agreement. NUG leadership of the resistance forces is repeatedly overstated, and the past several months of fighting illustrate a disjointed resistance motivated by localized, not national, objectives.

By some metrics, the past several months have seen the capture of 55 towns around Myanmar by resistance forces. This is an irrefutably significant gain, seen most dramatically in Arakan State, as well as Karenni and Chin. Yet claims that the military controls less than 40 percent of the country, first made by activists in September 2022 in a widely criticized report, yet inexplicably repeated by the New York Times in a major frontpage spread in April, is distorting the reality on the ground. Central Myanmar, from the Irrawaddy Delta to Mandalay, remains in firm SAC control. Fighting in Sagaing and Magwe has yet to yield the territorial gains achieved by ethnic organizations, due to vastly different terrain, a multitude of competing armed groups, and the regime’s use of air strikes and punitive raids on villages.

There was premature jubilation in April that the Karen National Union (KNU) had liberated the key border trading town of Myawaddy in April. Yet under the real threat of SAC air strikes destroying the town, and likely pressure from Thai commercial and security interests, a compromise was struck whereby the regime still runs the town, but a pro-SAC militia rebranded as the Karen National Army (KNA) provides security. This frustrated many of the KNU’s PDF allies who craved the symbolism of seizing the town. The crossroads city of Kawkariek likewise didn’t fall to the KNU and their PDF allies. The Karen resistance may have expanded their operational area in dramatic fashion in the past three years, but they still fail to control key transport nodes and major towns.

One of the most dramatic but underreported theaters of the conflict is Kachin State, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting the military since 1964, has since March captured 100 military outposts including 11 battalion headquarters. The KIA has also gained control of key roads to the state capitol Myitkyina and the China border, surrounding the crucial Irrawaddy River town of Bhamo and the strategic territory that leads into Northern Shan State. The Kachin have also been adept at shooting down Air Force helicopters, with one reported downed last week.

Changing the nature of the conflict too is the use of drones, for surveillance, artillery, and airstrike spotting, and increasingly weaponized UAVs to target resistance forces across the country. Yet in that mélange of high and low tech that often characterizes Myanmar military operations, light transport planes manufactured in China, the Y-12, have been used in multiple locations to drop mortar rounds and other explosives on resistance forces and civilian areas. Air power isn’t a winning strategy, but it can inflict significant damage.

In Arakan State, the AA has made major headway in recent months, most dramatically with the capture of Military Operations Command 15 (MOC-15) in Buthidaung, with hundreds of troops surrendering. Major towns have been taken over by the armed groups, with many outposts overrun, but the SAC has been resupplying troops by sea, and air strikes and drone attacks have inflicted major damage on the civilian population. A major concern is intensified antagonism between the Arakanese and Rohingya communities, most dramatically in Buthidaung where deaths and destruction of Rohingya houses have been blamed on the AA, which in turn vehemently denies and claims SAC airstrikes are the cause. Forced, and in some cases voluntary, recruitment of Rohingya men into the Myanmar army has fueled these intercommunal tensions, which has the ability to potentially derail the AA military strategy. The SAC can always count on ‘divide and rule’ as the one immutable survival strategy.

But in Yangon and major towns, life is ‘normal,’ even as electricity supplies are at a minimum during a heat wave, and many young people fear forcible conscription from a military service law enacted in February. The post-1027 predictions of a sharp untick in urban attacks have failed to materialize. So too, the regime collapse in ‘three to six months’ that many commentators in the West touted has clearly expired. There is no imminent ‘tipping point.’ There is a disjuncture between contested hilltops in Karenni and exhortations of surrender with the apparent safe stability of most cities in Myanmar. The SAC might be inevitably doomed, but the conflict will be drawn out, with few decisive moments.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian, and human rights issues in Myanmar

source : asiasentinel

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