2 Years of Turmoil: Myanmar’s Grinding Stalemate

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2 Years of Turmoil: Myanmar’s Grinding Stalemate

The military says things are under control, while the resistance insists total victory is just around the corner. But the state of the battlefield suggests otherwise.

2 Years of Turmoil: Myanmar’s Grinding Stalemate

Anti-coup protesters gesture with a three-fingers salute, a symbol of resistance during a demonstration in Thaketa township Yangon, Myanmar, Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo, File

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part series about Myanmar’s escalating political crisis. The first part offered an overview of the conflict, and the state of the humanitarian emergency and economic crisis affecting post-coup Myanmar. The second part analyzes the overall conflict and the status of the two sides, while the third will explore ignored undercurrents that provide a fuller picture of the civil war.

Myanmar’s conflict is currently locked in a bloody stalemate: The State Administration Council (SAC) junta and the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) pretend they can stamp out their armed opponents, while the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and its affiliated People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) have spoken of imminent final victory ever since the coup of February 2021. The morbid reality is that Myanmar’s worsening civil war will be drawn out and everybody will ultimately lose.

The two sides are in no frame of mind to de-escalate or manage the conflict. The international community continues to call for a peaceful resolution, but neither camp is interested. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who had hoped that their Five-Point Consensus would temper the crisis are increasingly exasperated and can only watch as their black sheep writhes in self-mutilation.

The regime has shamelessly abnegated its own commitments to de-escalation made to ASEAN while its opponents talk of a “blood debt” stretching back to 1988 that leaves no room to off-ramp the fighting. Labeling each other “terrorists,” both the SAC and the resistance insist on militarily vanquishing their respective foes, sowing the seeds for a conflict that will likely continue for decades.

The junta underestimates its opponents’ resolve, built on decades of injustice, and believes that elections will magically resolve the country’s problems, most of which it had a hand in creating. The globally condemned executions of prominent activists Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeyar Thaw were intended to shock its opponents into submission and demonstrated the military’s bunker mentality, which blinds it to the breadth and depth of public animosity and defiance.

Conversely, the resistance, having romanticized war as clean and quick, overestimates the public’s appetite for conflict amid the growing hardships of daily life. Justified outrage at the junta’s excesses has made the public uncritically accepting of aspirational or wildly improbable promises from resistance sources and aligned personalities, so much so that NUG Acting President Duwa Lashi La warned the resistance against raising “false hope.”

Overall, the conflict remains low-intensity, with intermittent bursts of fierce fighting. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, citing local and resistance-aligned sources, indicates a slight decrease in both aggregate battle deaths and clashes since mid-2022, but it is difficult to suggest a trend. Seasonal factors play a role, with the monsoon often bringing a lull in fighting while the dry months from November to May are referred to as “fighting season.”

The battle lines snake through patches of divergent control but no solid frontline exists where clashes are sustained beyond a few days. The two sides love to show off captures of enemy camps or fortified hillocks, and the weapons hauls seized. In highly contested areas in the northwest, resistance tollgates are said to be within sight of Tatmadaw checkpoints. Huge chunks of Sagaing and Magway regions have devolved into islands of competing control with villages aligning themselves with one side or the other based on pre-coup leanings or the simple question of who mobilized first.

For all their claims, the two sides do not have much staying power. Tatmadaw formations supported by allied local militias still seem able to flush out resistance positions, often indiscriminately killing and torching homes in the process. However, they are unable to consolidate their gains and generally pull back, after which resistance groups quickly return and the cycle restarts. Logistics remains a major challenge for the anti-SAC forces and limits their ability to sustain operations or head-on engagements.

Competing Claims

Given the messy nature of the conflict, the two sides have advanced competing claims of territorial control. Both the SAC and the NUG project themselves as having the upper hand in order to garner international acceptance. As a result, they throw about numbers that need to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

The junta controls the main cities and economic corridors but has to rely on helicopters to link towns in resistance strongholds like Chin State and western Sagaing Region. In resistance-controlled “liberated areas,” the NUG and PDFs have introduced local administrations, brick and mortar schools, sports events, and township courts, but these remain on the move or vulnerable to SAC attacks.

In his speech in late January extending the nationwide state of emergency, SAC leader Min Aung Hlaing claimed that out of Myanmar’s 330 townships, 198, or 60 percent, were “peaceful”; 67 (20 percent) required an “emphasis on security”; and 65 (20 percent) needed “effective provision of security.” The regime has tried to squeeze out as much positive news as it can from contested areas, such as highly-choreographed official visits, to prop up its claims.

Meanwhile, the NUG in April 2022 asserted that it controlled half the country but refused say where such areas were. That September, the pro-NUG Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) reported that the junta only controlled 72 townships (22 percent of the total) with the resistance poised to control half the country including major cities by 2023. In late February of this year, Duwa Lashi La said that resistance forces controlled more than half the country and that the NUG has formed administration teams for 154 townships. All the while resistance leaders continuously speak of imminent blitzes by which they will take over the country in one fell swoop.

All these pronouncements are highly questionable. The junta placed 40 additional townships under martial law in February to “restore stability and peace” but these places instead saw an upsurge in fighting. The NUG claimed to be in full control of these 40 townships, with resistance forces’ capture of Thantlang in Chin State lending some credence to its claims.

Resistance platforms claim complete dominance over certain areas and say that the junta is on its last legs, yet at the same time report Tatmadaw troop surges in such places. The SAC-M has stated that the junta’s control was collapsing in downtown Yangon and Mandalay when the junta has actually solidified its grip on major urban centers, barring assassinations.

Casualty figures are impossible to ascertain. The Tatmadaw never publishes figures, though it has admitted losses. To date, the NUG has said that resistance forces have killed over 20,000 junta troops while sustaining around 2,000 losses, based on PDFs’ self-reporting. Others estimate that over 10,000 military personnel have defected. Popular PDF commander Bo Nagar opined early this year that the SAC only had 40,000 soldiers left. However, sober assessments see these numbers as embellished for propaganda purposes and advise caution.

The NUG publishes daily SAC casualty reports based on PDFs’ self-updates that often show lop-sided battlefield performances where a few resistance fighters are reported killed while the junta suffers dozens of deaths. These claims are amplified by resistance-aligned platforms and widely shared on social media, but the veracity is highly questionable. Notably, better-armed and well-experienced ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have reported less-skewered regime casualties in their many clashes with SAC forces.

In their respective echo chambers, the junta and the resistance both say they are winning. The state mouthpieces cover armed incidents by purporting that security forces “crushed” PDF cells or were in “relentless pursuit” of PDFs who “fled in disarray.” Pro-military Telegram channels regularly gloat and publish photos purportedly of resistance fighters’ corpses or screengrabs of their funerals to crassly dispel the resistance’s assertion of decisive victories.

Meanwhile resistance-aligned media act as the PDFs’ stenographers and town criers and help paint bullseyes around targets. PDFs continuously tally high regime losses, but videos of most incidents provided by these outfits cannot corroborate the numbers. Videos of PDF drone attacks are very popular on social media and are touted as effective and fear-inducing on regime troops, but on closer examination, show questionable efficacy or verifiability.

Incompetent Goliath

While the Tatmadaw outguns its opponents, it is undeniably overstretched. Soldiers, remilitarized police, and “Pyu Saw Htee” militias are spread thin not just across active conflict hotspots, but are also required to guard key installations, checkpoints, government offices, civil servant housing compounds, and utilities, as well as military-owned businesses often targeted by resistance attacks. In certain areas, the SAC has strengthened allied EAOs to counter PDF incursions while the revival of a gun ownership law and the regime’s peace parleys with other groups are interpreted as signs of desperation.

The resistance and commentators are closely monitoring the Tatmadaw’s cohesiveness and hope that unit-level defections will occur, and help turn the tide. The military is holding townhouse meals to maintain loyalty among the rank and file. It is also resorting to soldiers’ wives and retirees to plug manpower gaps, having lost access to its traditional recruiting grounds in the Bamar heartland that are now hotbeds of the resistance.

The regime is also turning to air power to counter resistance forces, launching hundreds of air strikes. These have had mixed efficacy but have killed an estimated 300 civilians, according to the NUG. There have been a few notable tragedies in which a single sortie kills scores of civilians, such as in A Nang Pa, Let Yet Kone, and most recently, Pa Zi Gyi. On the other hand, a rights group tallied eight militants killed and six civilians injured by a total of 53 sorties over Chin State in two months, indicating the air force’s questionable capacity.

The military has been slow to adapt, sticking with outdated and indiscriminate tactics. Soldiers continue to patrol in light trucks or civilian vehicles along frequently mined roads. Regularly attacked checkpoints and outposts remain lightly defended with bamboo fences and shade netting, probably out of hubris. And police officers and local government functionaries keep getting assassinated in tea shops, despite numerous precedents.

Nonetheless, the SAC has been brutal in flushing out PDF cells and interdicting their supply routes. There are regular reports of arms seizures, arrests, and executions of PDF guerrillas, though the resistance counter that those nabbed and killed are often innocent bystanders. At one point, the regime made great fanfare out of supposed PDFs “returning to the legal fold” but only a few hundred did so by the regime’s own tally and resistance groups naturally rubbished the defections as fiction.

Security forces are also accused of grotesque massacres and widespread torching of civilian properties in contested areas while the indiscriminate firing of heavy ordnance into nearby villages seems to be the preferred method of retaliating against resistance raids. In return, the PDFs have used the security forces’ propensity to shoot at everything in sight against the regime, launching attacks on public places as well allegedly luring troops into villages.

The purging of the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence apparatus back in 2004 crippled the Tatmadaw’s surveillance activities and it has ever since struggled to replicate the once-feared organ. Nonetheless, the regime appears to have reconstituted a functioning network that includes double agents and informants (“dalans”) bolstered by Chinese surveillance technology. The military has sparingly deployed drones despite having frequently boasted of them before the coup, again suggesting limited capabilities.

The Tatmadaw’s true strength has always been a guessing game, and commanders have long inflated numbers to pocket the extra pay and dispel pressure from above to meet expansion quotas. The army’s current effective combat strength has been estimated at anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000, not counting the sizable remilitarized police force and the much larger rear echelon manpower, retirees, and allied militias that are now being mobilized and can possibly double those numbers.

Determined Davids

Resistance forces are expanding their footprint and tactical capacity in major conflict zones despite the Tatmadaw’s Four Cuts Strategy. While they remain vastly outgunned, PDF outfits have adapted well to asymmetrical warfare, embracing 3D-printed guns, commercial drones, landmines, and jerry-rigged artillery shells, and making progress in producing firearms, albeit with mixed results. Resistance forces are also raiding military camps and convoys to make up for the armaments gap. Much-publicized defections and a steady drip of leaks suggest the resistance has sympathizers inside the military, often termed “watermelons.”

NUG spokesperson Dr. Sasa claimed in mid-July 2022 that there were 2 million resistance fighters while the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar (ISP-Myanmar) says there are over 200,000 PDF members. Other assessments estimate between 50,000 to 100,000 guerrillas, the majority of whom are unarmed. Most are fighting in “liberated areas” as well as across the country’s porous borders while cells remain active in major cities, despite the SAC’s closing nets.

Based on the axiom that the Tatmadaw cannot operate in more than one theater and taking a page out of earlier EAOs’ playbooks, different resistance forces are working to link up and open new fronts to basically play tag with the military in order to whittle it down. The NUG’s Ministry of Defense has established a chain of command and says it has brought most armed groups under its aegis, but a unified command structure remains absent, with the estimated 500-plus PDFs and Local Defense Forces (LDFs) units mostly acting on their own accord and with limited support.

Most PDF cells operate mainly by ambushing patrols or checkpoints and then quickly withdrawing. In areas with a strong EAO presence, there have been efforts to take the fight directly to the SAC, as seen in attempts to seize the Karenni State capital Loikaw in early 2022, Kyainseikgyi and Kawkareik in Karen State in late 2022, alongside frequent raids on Myawaddy to choke the border trade with Thailand, and the capture of the town of Thantlang in Chin State in February 2023.

Outside conflict hotspots, PDFs mainly operate by striking soft targets, particularly local administrators, dalans, and persons or businesses allegedly supporting the SAC’s ability to function (“dauktine”), though who or what constitute these two vague categories is interpreted liberally. Government offices and infrastructure such as power pylons, bridges, gas pipelines, and passenger trains have also been struck. These attacks demonstrate the SAC’s inability to fully govern even in its “safe areas,” and are intended to give the regime a taste of its own medicine.

Compared to the regime’s soldiers, the mostly young PDF guerrillas hailing from Generation Z are extremely motivated. Some have seen their friends and family killed on the streets or in the jungles, or their homes torched. Like many EAO foot soldiers, they are unpaid and live off the land with limited donations. It is an article of faith among resistance supporters that the creativity and revolutionary zeal of the youths will triumph over the junta’s vast resources.

Lastly, while resistance forces lament the lack of international support, they still hope to demonstrate viability and gain international assistance. The passing of the BURMA Act in the 2023 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act rekindled hopes of military aid flowing in from sympathetic countries, with NUG leaders saying that the right weapons will “end the war in six months.”

Absent this external support, the conflict shows no sign of abating. The junta claims things are under control while the resistance insists total victory is just around the corner, but the state of the battlefield suggests otherwise. Inebriated by their respective Kool-Aids, there are no current prospects for negotiations. There is also creeping fear that Myanmar may become the subject of a proxy war between Western countries and the autocratic regimes in Moscow and Beijing. Only time will tell how the quagmire proceeds, but by then, it will be too late for too many people.

An earlier version of this stated incorrectly that a recent briefing paper by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) asserted that areas controlled by the United Wa State Party and its ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army, were “fully administered by the NUG.” In fact, the SAC-M stated that these regions have been mostly autonomous since the signing of ceasefire agreements with the central government in the late 1980s.