Fighting in Myanmar between the military junta and an alliance of ethnic armed groups has intensified since late October after an unprecedented offensive in the country’s north exposed the junta’s struggles on the ground. The UN called for all sides to respect international law in a statement on Friday, saying that more than 70 civilians had already been killed and some 200,000 displaced by the upsurge in violence.
“It’s the biggest challenge that the military junta has had to face since the coup d’état of February 1, 2021,” said Thomas Kean, a specialist on Myanmar at the International Crisis Group, an NGO that monitors global conflicts.
Fighting erupted over the weekend in Shan, Kachin and Chin states in the country’s north as well as in Rakhine State in the west, where an informal ceasefire had been in place for almost a year until early last week. Armed groups have taken the fight to the Tatmadaw in Kayah State in the country’s east, according to Kean. more than 200,000 displaced, according to a UN statement released Friday., including children, have been killed since the fighting erupted in earnest on October 27, and more than 90 wounded and
Dubbed “Operation 1027”, the offensive began on October 27 in northern Shan State on the Chinese border. Three armed groups – the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – have joined forces under the Three Brotherhood Alliance moniker.
Myanmar’s borderlands are home to dozens of ethnic armed groups that have fought against the military on and off since the country’s independence in 1948. Since the Tatmadaw toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government in a February 2021 coup, some of these groups have been active in training the People’s Defence Forces that emerged to resist the putsch.
“Helped by resistance groups formed after the coup, hundreds of experienced and fairly well-armed fighters managed to simultaneously attack key junta sites. They seized several towns and villages in the region, took control of military outposts and cut off important trade routes to China,” Kean said, adding that the attack had been “the junta’s biggest setback in the field for a long time”.
Officially, the aim of the joint offensive was to crack down on the criminal activities that have proliferated in these borderlands, particularly in the Chinese-speaking region of Kokang. Kokang has been dominated since 2009 by a pro-junta militia that has grown wealthy through drug production and other kinds of illegal trafficking, including sex work and online fraud operations. The Chinese government has increasingly been pressuring governments across Southeast Asia to clamp down on the flourishing cyber-scam industry, in which gangs have held thousands of Chinese nationals captive in crowded compounds and forced them to target people across mainland China and beyond with online scams.
“Since May, Beijing has been asking the Myanmar military to step up control of its border militia, to no avail,” Kean explained. “So the Three Brotherhood Alliance has taken advantage of this junta inaction to launch its attacks under the guise of fighting crime.” It’s a way, he said, for the alliance to carry out its assault without risking a negative reaction from China.
“It was also a way to strike a, a traditional ally of Beijing,” said Kyaw Win, director of the UK-based Burma Human Rights Network. Not long after the attack, Beijing had shown “its strong dissatisfaction”, deploring the Chinese casualties in Kokang.
“And China is supposed to be building a major rail link through Kokang as part of its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. So it wants stability on its border,” he added. “Now, faced with this offensive, the junta no longer seems able to guarantee it.”
The Three Brotherhood Alliance’s offensive in the north seems to have set off a chain reaction across the country. “These victories have, in a way, galvanised the country’s armed groups,” Kean said.
On November 6, armed groups announced that they had seized control of Kawlin, a town of 25,000 people in the Sagaing region. The next day, resistance forces said they had taken Khampat, a town in the country’s west.
“And so the fighting gradually spread, with fronts in several regions,” Win said. “Today, according to figures put forward by the various ethnic groups, the army has lost around a hundred military posts and control of some fifty towns and villages. The ethnic groups have also managed to seize numerous weapons and vehicles.”
The campaign has not gone unanswered. By November 2, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing had promised to launch a counter-attack in the country’s north. “We will take the necessary action to counter acts of terrorism,” he warned, announcing an emergency meeting with his military leaders.
But faced with a war on many fronts, the Tatmadaw seems to be exposing its weaknesses rather than its much-vaunted military might.
“As has often been the case since the beginning of the civil war, it retaliates with air strikes, but its mobile forces on the ground appear limited and overwhelmed,” Kean said.
The Tatmadaw has been grappling with a shortage of fighters seizing power in February 2021. In an analysis published in May, researcherthat “the army currently has around 150,000 personnel, including 70,000 combat soldiers”. According to his estimates, at least 21,000 soldiers have been killed or else deserted or defected.
“What the current situation shows is that the pressure on the Burmese army is stronger than ever,” Win said. “Today, it lacks men and resources. Every day, it loses ground in the countryside and is gradually confined to the big cities like Yangon and Mandalay.”
“The Tatmadaw can now collapse,” he said, calling the international community to action. “The time is now or never to act and restore peace to Burma.”
A turning point?
Kean was more cautious in his appraisal of the situation.
“It’s true that recent events show that the military is at a critical juncture. Until now, it had never lost so much ground or even entire towns”, he said. “But it has already shown in the past that it is capable of reversing the trend. The question over the next few weeks will be whether or not it will be able to recover the lost territory.”
Before seeing the regime “surrender”, “it is more likely that the army will redouble its efforts to regain the upper hand, and that this will lead to an increase in violence and bombing”, Kean said. “The country risks sinking into an ever more brutal spiral where civilians will pay a heavy price.”
There is one actor, though, that could turn the tables at any moment: China.
“Even if Beijing has so far largely let the fighting take its course in Shan State, this may not last,” Kean said. “Beijing has far more influence over events on its border than any other international actor. China can just as easily put pressure on ethnic groups as on the junta to end the fighting and bog down the conflict in a status quo.”
This article has been adapted from the original in French.
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