It is notoriously difficult to track battlefield developments in Myanmar’s sprawling civil war. The conflict involves countless armed groups, broadly sorted into territory-holding ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the militia-like People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) loyal to the deposed National Unity Government, and an array of pro-junta militias and Border Guard Forces. Each of these groups, including the military regime itself, frequently claim victory in any given battle, making outside observers unsure as to the overall trajectory of the conflict.
However, insofar as there are few battlefield movements worth paying attention to, what has transpired over the past week in northern Shan State almost certainly qualifies. On the tactical level, the military regime appears to be on the backfoot, fending off attacks on seven towns and reportedly losing as many as 60 outposts and seven towns to the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a rebel coalition that launched a major coordinated offensive on junta positions on October 27. The Alliance now controls significant stretches of the border with China, with a proper junta counteroffensive yet to come.
The Road to October 27
Two years prior, in October 2021, the Myanmar military embarked on a punitive operation against influential EAOs in Chin State – its first major offensive against those resisting the military coup of the previous February. The offensive had two primary aims: first, to demonstrate its power to EAOs unwilling to negotiate with the new coup regime, and second, to prevent EAO support to the newly-formed PDF militias loyal to the National Unity Government, if not crush the PDFs themselves.
That offensive failed, which was especially notable considering the main target was one of the smallest territory-holding EAOs in the country. This set the tone for the junta’s subsequent offensives over the next two years, which have had middling success at best, against EAOs of comparable size.
However, if that did not prove the fragility of the military’s vaunted prowess, recent developments in northeastern Myanmar, particularly in northern Shan State and southern Kachin State, almost certainly have.
Since July, the Myanmar military has launched new offensives against the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The junta’s apparent goal is to force these smaller EAOs to the negotiating table and induce them to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The NCA was signed by a number of Myanmar’s major EAOs in 2015 but has largely collapsed since the coup.
Much like two years ago, however, the military junta has failed to achieve any of its goals.
Instead, since October 27, three EAOs collectively dubbed the Three Brotherhood Alliance, composed of the aforementioned TNLA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army, have launched their own offensive against the junta and its allies, seizing several key areas on the Chinese border over several weeks.
The offensive, known as Operation 1027, is remarkable in that the Alliance cannot have more than 20,000 soldiers in total in this area of the country, and the PDFs and smaller militias that are collaborating in the offensive are unlikely to be adding many more.
It is also remarkable in that it is directly threatening expanded EAO control over parts of the Myanmar-China border, embarrassing the military administration at a time when it is increasingly reliant on Chinese trade and desperate to establish more transportation links with its larger neighbor.
Beijing is watching developments in northern Shan State closely. China’s Foreign Ministry issued an official statement asking for a ceasefire, placing pressure on the military at a time when it is still insisting on contesting EAO control over the areas in question.
From the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table?
There is a lingering question over what the Three Brotherhood Alliance is aiming to achieve with this offensive. The publicly stated goals are varied, but one consistent message has been the desire for broadly-defined autonomy in EAO territory.
Beyond the purely military dimensions of the offensive, which need to be played out before further analysis, it would appear its timing and location is designed to strengthen the position of the Alliance ahead of possible future negotiations with the military, over an NCA or another ceasefire agreement that would freeze the junta and EAO control in the near-term. Since shortly after its coup in 2021, the military has pushed for a resumption of peace talks on its own terms, a goal that has become more urgent as the resistance to its rule has grown.
Sometime in the future – the current goal seems to be 2025 – the military administration is planning on holding (neither free nor fair) elections across all of Myanmar’s territory in order to legitimize its hold on power and normalize relations with the outside world. To achieve that, it needs EAOs to sign and abide by the NCA or another form of ceasefire.
To date, the military has identified some EAOs that are willing to adhere to the NCA – most especially the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), which currently remains the only notable NCA member still talking with the junta.
However, one of the more important developments over the past year has been the significant erosion of RCSS territory in Shan State by rival EAOs. The TNLA virtually drove the RCSS out of northern Shan State in January of last year. Following suit, the SSPP attacked the RCSS in southern Shan State throughout this past spring.
The military’s late-summer offensive against both of those groups appears to be related to these gains, since both the TNLA and SSPP have directly threatened EAOs that support the junta’s goals.
Yet none of the armed groups embroiled in fighting the junta this summer and fall are completely opposed to some kind of ceasefire. The Myanmar military has traditionally been able to “divide and rule” EAOs by offering concessions to some groups, while focusing on fighting others. What is transpiring now is a situation in which this practiced strategy of divide and rule is beginning to break down, and the EAOs are increasingly setting the terms for any future negotiations.
The targeting of the Chinese border is almost certainly related to that goal. By forcing China’s government to take note of the conflict, the Three Brotherhood Alliance has not only reminded the military that it is a force still to be reckoned with but also has reminded Beijing that as a benefactor to all sides it needs to exercise its potential power over the junta to bring about a peaceful settlement.
EAOs have admitted in the past that China has had significant influence in peace talks, either by cajoling the EAOs to meet with the junta or by convincing the military to scale back its military operations when they become too chaotic and endanger Chinese border towns.
The Alliance’s statements about the ongoing offensive seem targeted at China in particular, claiming that one of its aims is to eradicate organized crime along the Chinese border in Myanmar – something the Chinese Communist Party has been attuned to as of late. Regardless of the sincerity of those claims, the underlying message – that the offensive poses no threat to China and is only in its benefit – is clear.
Over the past year, Myanmar’s military junta has found itself unable to pressure reluctant EAOs to the negotiating table, either to have them put down their arms or at least cease support to the PDFs, and also proved itself unable to defend those few EAOs that have aligned with the junta and entertained peace talks.
Overall, the Alliance’s offensive appears to be a response to the military’s own flailing offensive over the course of late summer – so in some respects it could be called a “counteroffensive.” Considering the wider context, all sides appear to be trying to strengthen their positions in the negotiating process for forging Myanmar’s federal, or confederated, future by making important, if not expansive, battlefield gains.
In any case, prior assumptions about the Myanmar civil war may need to be updated. With the Myanmar military on the back foot, the EAOs are no longer susceptible to the junta’s divide-and-rule tactics. The military is no longer invincible. The PDFs have not been so easy to dislodge. They are increasingly participating in offensive operations, while coordinating with EAOs on the establishment of alternative governance structures in areas that undermine the junta’s claimed mandate to rule.
The military is now facing a year in which its negotiating position, no longer backed up by perceived military superiority, will slowly diminish. And Beijing may even press the junta administration to change its terms and lower its ambitions, given recent border fighting, which would only diminish the military’s position further. Given these developments, it may be as good a time as any for outside observers to revisit the civil war and reassess long-held assumptions.