Myanmar Ethnic Armies Launch Major Offensive in Shan State

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Myanmar Ethnic Armies Launch Major Offensive in Shan State

The Three Brotherhood Alliance has launched coordinated attacks aimed at dislodging the junta and its allies from strategically important regions of Shan State bordering China.

Myanmar Ethnic Armies Launch Major Offensive in Shan State
Credit: Depositphotos

On Friday morning, an alliance of ethnic rebel groups launched a coordinated offensive against the military junta and its allies in northeastern Myanmar, potentially opening a major new front in the country’s civil war.

In a joint statement, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – which includes the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – stated they had begun “Operation 1027,” aimed at dislodging pro-regime forces across the northern part of Shan State.

Pro-military Telegram channels stated Friday that Alliance forces were attacking 12 towns and settlements across a front of around 100 kilometers, the AFP news agency reported.

In its statement (an unofficial translation of which is available here), the Alliance said that the operation was “driven by our collective desire to safeguard the lives of civilians, assert our right of self-defense, maintain control of our territory, and respond resolutely to ongoing artillery attacks and airstrikes” from the Myanmar military.

“Furthermore,” it stated, “we are dedicated to eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship, a shared aspiration of the entire Myanmar populace.”

The specific targets of the operation are pro-junta militias and the junta-aligned Border Guard Force (BGF) that runs the Kokang Special Administrative Zone (SAZ), which has become a hub of criminal activity. The groups said that they intended to crackdown on the cyber scam operations that are currently flourishing in the Kokang SAZ, an issue that “has plagued Myanmar, particularly along the China-Myanmar border.”

According to Frontier Myanmar, the operation seems to have been spearheaded by the MNDAA, which launched a series of predawn raids on regime positions on Friday morning. Battles were reported in the townships of Kyaukme, Kutkai, Lashio, Laukkaing, Muse, and Namhkan in northern Shan State.

The group has since claimed that it has seized a number of “important strategic positions,” including military outposts on the outskirts of Lashio, a major town on the highway between Mandalay and the Chinese border.

The MNDAA says that it has seized control of the Myanmar-China border crossing at Chinshwehaw in Laukkaing township, while fighting also was ongoing at Mong Ko in Muse township, another town on the Chinese border. There are also reports that resistance forces have seized an important tollgate along the main Mandalay-Muse highway – the country’s main artery of trade with China. In response, the junta military resorted to air strikes and heavy artillery attacks in a bid to beat back the offensive.

Two days after the commencement of Operation 1027, an observer noted that food prices are skyrocketing in the Kokang SAZ, prompting the well-heeled to seek sanctuary across the Chinese border.

Operation 1027 could be the harbinger of an upswing of conflict across the country. The Ministry of Defense of the National Unity Government (NUG), which is spearheading the national anti-junta resistance, said in a statement that it welcomed the offensive and that it would “join forces with the Brotherhood Alliance” to defeat the military regime.

“The moment has arrived for all revolutionary organizations, the forces of the Spring Revolution, and the people to fully engage in the elimination of the military dictatorship and wholeheartedly commit to the establishment of a Federal Democratic Union,” it stated. According to The Irrawaddy, the Alliance offensive has been accompanied by smaller resistance attacks in other parts of the country. The Bamar People’s Liberation Army, which was established after the coup, has also taken part in the operation.

While the Three Brotherhood Alliance is not formally allied with the NUG, it has been broadly supportive of its revolutionary goal of toppling the military dictatorship and extirpating the armed forces from the country’s political and economic life.

The Kokang BGF and its affiliated crime syndicates have responded to the offensive by accusing the MNDAA of destabilizing the China-Myanmar border region, and calling on the people of the Kokang SAZ to come together and defeat the MNDAA. It claimed that the MNDAA would soon enter the “dustbin of history.”

While the battle in northern Shan State has significant implications for the struggle against the military junta, it dates back nearly 15 years. Kokang, a small territory in northern Shan State with a large ethnic Chinese population, was under the MNDAA’s control until 2009, when its leader, the late Peng Jiasheng, refused to convert his forces into a Border Guard Force (BGF) under Naypyidaw’s control. The Myanmar military responded by launching attacks on the MNDAA and drove Peng into exile in China.

As detailed in a 2021 report from the United States Institute of Peace, the Myanmar military subsequently cut a deal with the MNDAA’s former deputy commander, Bai Suocheng, to set up a Kokang BGF under the military’s control. The territory was renamed the Kokang SAZ, and has since become a hub of criminality that has helped fund the BGF and strengthen its control over the region.

In 2015, Peng reassembled the MNDAA and attempted to retake Kokang, along with the AA and TNLAA. (The three groups would announce their Three Brotherhood Alliance the following year.) While the Tatmadaw held onto the region, the MNDAA has been fighting the Myanmar armed forces intermittently ever since; according to a report by Frontier Myanmar, Peng’s forces have “remained a constant threat to stability, frequently attacking the casinos and homes of senior Kokang officials, particularly those linked to the faction that ousted Peng in 2009.”  This offensive seems like an attempt finally to finish the job that the MNDAA began in 2015.

Things have only intensified since the 2021 coup, which has inflamed opposition to the military regime across most of the country, even in ethnic Bamar majority areas of central Myanmar that had previously been relatively peaceful.

During this period, the Kokang SAZ has emerged as one of the country’s major concentrations of cyber scam operations, part of a regional archipelago of digital fraud that has led to the trafficking of thousands of people, and which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime believes has generated billions annually.

While most of Myanmar’s scam compounds have been identified in BGF-controlled areas of Karen State and in areas of Shan State under the control of the United Wa State Army, the UNODC claims that “other scam compounds have been identified in Laukkaing Township, Kokang.”

Given the degradation that these operations have wrought, and their importance as a source of funds for the Kokang BGF, an important component of the military’s rickety regime of control in Shan State, it is no surprise that they have been a target. The loss of these areas and the closure would potentially deal a significant blow to the junta in northern Shan State, as would the severing of the major arteries of trade with China.

While the situation is fluid, and the ultimate outcome of Operation 1027 is uncertain, the Alliance’s offensive shapes as one of the most significant to have taken place since the military coup of February 2021. Whether they can hold these areas in the face of the junta’s use of heavy artillery and air strikes remains unclear.

The one thing that is certain is that the fighting will have a significant humanitarian impact. The MNDAA offensives in 2015 drove tens of thousands of refugees into China, as did the military’s attacks in 2009. As one observer stated yesterday, “Large scale displacements in Northern Shan are likely imminent.”