On November 13, about 18 days after its inception, Operation 1027 opened a new front in western Myanmar, breaking a year-long informal ceasefire with the Myanmar military. The initial attack was carried out by the Arakan Army (AA), which attacked at least two junta outposts in northern Rakhine State. Operation 1027, which has made rapid gains in northern Shan State and has since expanded to other areas of the country, has now reached the previously quiet west of Myanmar. This expansion presents a significant challenge to the junta’s forces, already stretched thin by coordinated attacks by numerous ethnic revolutionary groups and resistance forces in other parts of the country.
Operation 1027 was launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA), which comprises the AA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Kokang group, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, aims to combat the junta’s armed forces and allied militias in northern Shan State, along the Myanmar-China border. The alliance is believed to have deployed approximately 20,000 troops for the operation.
The 3BHA and its allies have also successfully overrun more than 150 military outposts and bases, as well as capturing nine significant towns, including six in Myanmar’s north and three in the northwest. The rapidity and coordination of the attacks is unprecedented since the early years of the country’s independence in 1948.
In response to the ongoing loss of military bases, junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has vowed to launch counter-attacks against the resistance forces. The junta has so far resorted to a series of air strikes and other heavy artillery in a bid to stymie the offensive, including artillery shelling that reached the Chinese border, resulting in damage to civilian houses.
On November 8, Myint Swe, the president of the junta’s State Administration Council, warned during a National Defense and Security Council meeting that Myanmar faces the threat of fragmentation due to Operation 1027. He further cautioned that without effective management of the crisis in the border region the country was at risk of breaking apart, and called on the public to support the junta’s efforts to restore order.
Three days later, the junta council declared martial law in eight cities in northern Shan State, almost all of which are now under control of the resistance alliance. Even prior to Operation 1027, the council admitted that at least 132 of 330 townships are beyond its control and imposed martial law on at least 44 townships across nine states and regions. The hold of the military junta that seized power in February 2021 is gradually slipping.
Informal Truces in Western Myanmar
On the morning of November 13, the second “humanitarian” truce between the AA and the junta forces in Rakhine State was broken by an attack from the AA. The initial attack targeted two locations in Minbya and Rathedaung townships. In addition, the AA contacted the police officers via phone and told them to “fight or join with the AA.” The police station in Kyauktaw township and at least 22 officers followed its approach, surrendering without a fight.
Despite a period of relative peace in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh to the west, facilitated by this second truce, the region was devastated by Cyclone Mocha in May of this year. The storm affected approximately 1.5 million people and caused partial or complete damage to more than 400,000 buildings, including hospitals, schools, and camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), in many of the state’s townships.
The second truce was established in late November 2022 after approximately four months of intense fighting in Rakhine between the AA and junta forces. An earlier ceasefire was brokered in November 2020, facilitated by Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special envoy for Myanmar’s peace process, three months before the 2021 coup, after a prolonged period of intense armed conflict that began in late 2018 and lasted almost two years.
During the early post-coup period, the AA refrained from initiating warfare on the western front, choosing instead to focus on achieving its objective of extending administrative control over the areas of the state under its control. Merely six months following the coup, the United League of Arakan, the AA’s political wing, claimed to have de facto control over two-thirds of the state.
Soon after the devastation caused by Cyclone Mocha, tensions between the AA and junta forces grew. The AA frequently advised the Rakhine people to construct bomb shelters and to avoid going near the junta’s military bases and outposts. In the first week of November, regime forces conducted door-to-door searches in urban areas for ULA/AA members, interrogating households about the activities and whereabouts of AA fighters. Meanwhile, junta forces held live weapons tests in several townships across Rakhine. On November 8, the AA detained at least eight junta police officers in Mrauk-U township, though they were later released following an apology request from the junta administration.
Deciphering the Three Sceneries from the Junta Response on the Western Front
In the four months of fighting leading up to last November’s truce, there were at least 100 battles between the junta forces and the AA in Rakhine State. Of these, more than 15 were classified as fierce battles, based on the intensity of the engagements. The clashes primarily occurred in four townships: Maungdaw, Buthedaung, and Rathedaung in northern Rakhine, and Paletwa in neighboring Chin State. Additionally, less frequent small-scale armed clashes and mine explosions were reported in central and southern townships, including Kyauktaw, Mrauk U, Minbya, Myebon, Taunggok, and Ann.
Given that the junta forces have suffered significant territorial losses to the 3BHA and other resistance groups across the country since the beginning of Operation 1027, the opening of a new front in western Myanmar could be potentially crippling for the Myanmar military. That said, the junta forces are expected to employ the three strategies that led to the cessation of war and a humanitarian ceasefire in November 2022.
First, it is undeniable that the junta will conduct a series of arbitrary arrests among the people of Rakhine, under the pretext of affiliation with the ULA/AA. During the four months of fighting prior to the November 2022 ceasefire, the junta forces arrested more than 200 civilians, though the number of those still in detention remains unknown. Among those detained by the junta, at least 29 were members of the junta’s administrative apparatus, including school teachers, doctors, and staff from the General Administration Department. They were accused of paying taxes or donating money to the ULA/AA. The detainees also include social workers who were accused of aiding AA members and assisting civilians displaced by the conflict.
Second, it is certain that the junta will not only block all major roads, including the highway connecting Yangon and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, but also restrict access for local and international humanitarian aid organizations. Since the fighting erupted in late July of last year, the junta blocked all highways and roads between Yangon and Sittwe, and the northern Rakhine towns of Rathedaung and Maungdaw. It also restricted the United Nations and international NGOs from accessing six townships in northern Rakhine State. Consequently, residents, particularly thousands of IDPs, have faced shortages of food, shelter, and other relief items. And, the U.N. noted also that the situation in Rakhine was “of particular concern” and that more than 17,400 people, including Rohingya, had been displaced by the fighting.
Finally, the junta will undoubtedly rely more heavily on airstrikes, in particular by targeting civilian populations in Rakhine who are believed to support the ULA/AA. During the four months of fighting from July to November 2022, nearly 60 civilians, including children and elders, were killed, and more than 100 were injured. On November 16, 2022, in a single day, junta artillery attacks in Maungdaw and Kyauktaw townships killed at least 15 civilians and wounded at least 30. Ten days before, junta soldiers from the military’s Ponnagyun-based Light Infantry Battalion No. 550 also shot and killed at least nine civilians, mainly elderly people including a 92-year-old woman, and burned at least 10 houses in Hsininngyi village, Ponnagyun township. To sum up, in the six days from November 10 to 16, artillery shells resulted in the deaths of at least 17 civilians and injuries to at least 50 in northern Rakhine.
Given the rising military tension in western Myanmar, and the breaking of the year-long informal truce, the humanitarian impact of this ongoing conflict must be considered, in particular, the pathways to deliver aid to civilians in need by humanitarian groups. The junta’s strategies, including arbitrary arrests and blocking humanitarian aid, are likely to lead to widespread suffering among civilians. With large numbers of people displaced and facing shortages of essential resources, the situation remains dire. In political terms, the opening of a western front, at the time that the junta is losing control over significant territories to the resistance forces, could mark a potential turning point for the country’s post-coup conflict.
Despite nearly a year of relative stability in Rakhine, even notwithstanding the devastation of Cyclone Mocha, civilian casualties are once again expected to rise, and the humanitarian situation across the state is likely to steadily worsen.