It’s Time to Re-evaluate the Myanmar Military’s Intelligence Capabilities

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

It’s Time to Re-evaluate the Myanmar Military’s Intelligence Capabilities

Recently leaked documents suggest that intelligence operatives have successfully managed to infiltrate the anti-junta resistance.

It’s Time to Re-evaluate the Myanmar Military’s Intelligence Capabilities

State school students attend a ceremony marking Myanmar’s 75th anniversary of Independence Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

Last month, a classified presentation of internal reports from the Yangon branch of Myanmar’s Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs (OCMSA) was leaked and published by the local media. The leaked document was published alongside news about a January 22 ambush by the Bago People’s Defense Force (PDF), an anti-junta resistance group, that killed a lieutenant-colonel and sergeant of the Myanmar armed forces, along with two PDF double agents. As a result, the leaked document received relatively little attention from the public.

The partial documents, which consist of 32 PowerPoint slides dated September 16 of last year, cover intelligence operations carried out in 2021 and early 2022. In particular, they reveal details about the investigation that led to the November 2021 arrest of former National League for Democracy parliamentarian Phyo Zeyar Thaw, who was subsequently executed in July of last year. More importantly, the reports offered details on a number of military counter-intelligence missions, including sabotage operations, the installation of double agents inside the anti-junta resistance, and even the formation of urban underground networks designed to operate as fake PDFs.

Three issues stand out in this report. The first is that military personnel from the OCMSA have overseen the management of small arms for assassination and urban warfare missions. The military intelligence liaison on OCMSA also serves as a scout team member for the Special Task Forces during its various operations, which include fake attacks on military security checkpoints.

Second, it showed that OCMSA operatives have infiltrated the ranks of the urban guerrillas, controlling access to weapons stores and providing them with low-intensity IEDs produced by none other than the Myanmar Armed Forces’ Directorate of Defense Industries, which are intended simply to make a large noise rather than cause any substantial damage. Third, the OCMSA has created two fake PDFs, named the “Human Rights Defenders” and “Generation Z Defense Force,” to carry out full-fledged spoof missions.

According to the leaked documents, a critical part of OCMSA’s strategy is installing arrested PDF members as double agents. As it happens, these double agents played a role in the aforementioned ambush carried out by the Bago PDF last month. The extent of their involvement in the ambush remains unclear, as both individuals were killed after they were captured by the PDF. The PDF claimed in a later statement that they attempted to escape. As evidenced by the leaked document, the report for the third quarter of 2022 suggested that these double agents had already managed to infiltrate mission-critical positions in the anti-regime movement, implying that an intelligence network is already in place within PDFs and the resistance more broadly.

Since the purge in 2004 of Gen. Khin Nyunt and the powerful Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI) that he headed, Western analysts and even ex-intelligence officers have repeatedly stated that the Myanmar military’s intelligence capacity has been reduced due to limited human resources and experience. However, these leaked documents indicate that this is clearly no longer the case.

Nonetheless, unlike during the DDSI era, OCMSA is not in full control of the situation. The opposition has also obtained several leaked documents from the security apparatus, including mission briefings that have been leaked by military sources and administrators known as watermelons (green representing the military; red representing the resistance). All of these have demonstrated that the military government is still struggling to establish and maintain its control of the country.

There are a few questions that must be addressed. First, how far has the OCMSA succeeded in infiltrating the opposition since the period covered by the leaked report, which showed that it had already established a significant foothold at that level in 2021? Indeed, the documents show that the arrest of Phyo Zeyar Thaw was a direct result of these infiltration operations. Second, is there another strategic goal at play besides infiltration and arrest? Undoubtedly, simply arresting and providing intelligence for military operations is not the primary intent.

One case to consider is the bombing of a small Arakan Army (AA) outpost in Karen State on July 4, 2022, just meters from the Thai border. Even though several PDFs and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are based in larger camps in the surrounding region, as determined by various security analyses and easily visible from satellite photos and reconnaissance flights, the Myanmar air force ignored them and targeted only the hidden AA camp. Locating the smaller AA camps in Karen State would have been difficult without intelligence, potentially including double agents in the resistance.

This also offers clues as to why the State Administration Council (SAC) has thus far mostly refrained from launching air strikes on the larger PDF and EAO camps in Karen State and elsewhere in the country. Given that the military junta clearly had intelligence on the smaller secret AA outpost that it bombed last July, it is hard to believe that SAC forces are unaware of the existence of other larger camps. Indeed, reliable EAO sources have related to me that the lack of air attacks is not due to a lack of intelligence, but rather reflects a tactical decision geared toward the pursuit of larger, and as yet unclear, strategic goals.

Further evidence in this direction was provided by the junta’s recent targeted bombing of homes belonging to leaders of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) near Three Pagodas Pass on January 21 of this year. The DKBA is an EAO that has signed a ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s government and has otherwise good relations with the military. It is likely that this attack on the leaders of one of the regime’s few friendly EAOs was conducted based on intelligence showing the leaders’ involvement with the anti-regime resistance. This reinforces the above argument that the military has held back on bombing EAO and PDF camps not simply to avoid burning its bridges with the EAOs, since it has both the intelligence and capacity to pinpoint target the houses of EAO leaders, but for another reason.

Exactly what this reason might be remains unclear. One potential explanation for the SAC’s restraint is the notion of containment, in which the junta may be intentionally holding back on its attacks for a larger purpose. The motivations for the SAC’s behavior remain opaque, and it is important to continue to critically analyze the situation and evaluate potential explanations.

The OCMSA might have a grand strategy for containment of the resistance forces, as DDSI did in the early 1990s. DDSI played a significant role in reaching a ceasefire with the EAOs in northern Myanmar, which was critical in bringing about the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma and the rise of strong EAOs along the China-Myanmar border. This subsequently allowed the Myanmar military to launch a major offensive against EAOs in southern Myanmar in the mid-1990s.

Whether the OCMSA will follow in the footsteps of its predecessor depends on its ability to flex its political muscles and whether the military’s high command will allow it to expand to the extent that DDSI did under Khin Nyunt’s leadership. The DDSI episode continues to overshadow the leadership of the Myanmar armed forces, and may prevent the military intelligence apparatus from attaining its former reach and power. However, two years after the coup, there is growing evidence that it is clearly time to re-evaluate the Myanmar military’s intelligence capabilities.