Numerous reviews and reports have covered the recent losses suffered by the Myanmar military in the northeast of the country. On October 27, the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) – consisting of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA) – initiated Operation 1027, simultaneously attacking junta military bases across northern Shan state.
Over the following three weeks, the Alliance’s military success surpassed expectations, capturing a significant portion of territory, including over 130 military outposts and strategic bases, and gaining control of several towns. Notably, the Alliance now controls the main highway linking central Myanmar to the Chinese border, effectively disrupting cross-border trade and commerce. Since Operation 1027 began, a Myanmar military Light Infantry Division commander was killed, and two battalions surrendered en masse without resistance. Captured equipment includes arms, ammunition, heavy machine guns, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and two multiple rocket-launching systems – an impressive haul. This was then followed by a smaller “Operation 1111” in Karenni (Kayah) State, initiated on November 11, which has come close to capturing the state capital Loikaw.
Some have suggested that this offensive could not have occurred without tacit approval from China, which has reportedly been upset with the junta’s inaction regarding online gambling and cyber scamming activities in China-Myanmar border towns controlled by the Kokang Border Guard Force, which is aligned with the Myanmar junta.
The historical ties between China and the members of the Three Brotherhood Alliance may have played a role, but it doesn’t fully explain the rapid collapse of the junta forces. The EROs’ prior engagements with Myanmar military columns were defensive in nature in contrast to the Operation 1027 offensive. When the MNDAA and its allies attacked the Myanmar military in February 2015 near Laukkai, it faced a disastrous defeat.
The old saying “timing is everything” seems to be the main reason for the surprising success of Operation 1027. Today the junta is extremely vulnerable, stemming from nearly three years of losses since the unpopular coup of February 2021, coupled with decades-long internal rot created by corrupt and self-serving senior officers.
Historically, the junta has employed divide-and-conquer tactics to pacify the country, fighting one ERO at a time while maintaining temporary peace agreements with others. That’s how it crushed the Karen National Union (KNU) forces in the mid-1990s while maintaining a truce with the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA). However, it is now stretched thin across multiple fronts, facing resistance not only from ethnic armed groups but also from the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) that have emerged in the heartland Bamar regions, many of which are now consolidated under the chain of command of the National Unity Government (NUG). The small arms-wielding PDFs have been ambushing junta forces daily, particularly in Sagaing and Magway regions, which were relatively peaceful prior to the coup.
Even before Operation 1027, the military was engaged in battles with other EROs, such as the KNU, KIA, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Chin National Front, resulting in significant troop losses. Many PDF troops were initially trained by these EROs and now fight alongside them. The junta has virtually no public support and is universally opposed by the populace, leading to a significant drop-off in recruitment. Battalions are severely understaffed and burnout among troops that must be deployed for long stretches of time is rampant.
This lack of morale and the downward spiral of junta forces did not occur in isolation. The State Administrative Council (SAC), the junta administration, has also faced severe challenges on the financial and diplomatic fronts since the coup.
Diplomatically, the SAC lacks international recognition, being supported only by Russia, China, and some autocratic Southeast Asian regimes. Even China’s patience seems to be wearing thin, as evidenced by the exclusion of junta leaders from its Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in October 2023. In contrast, the NUG, representing the opposition, has gradually gained higher-level engagements with various Western administrations. The NUG’s Foreign Ministry has opened a branch office in Washington, D.C., with the opening ceremony attended by U.S. Undersecretary of State Uzra Zeya. It now has six offices around the world.
The global Myanmar diaspora has played a significant role in supporting the NUG financially and politically, pooling savings and contributing to fundraising efforts. Diaspora groups have also become savvy enough to form advocacy groups in dozens of countries that lobby for Myanmar to respective elected officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
On the financial front, recent sanctions by the United States, combined with ongoing military expenditures, are affecting the junta’s finances. Meanwhile, the NUG, which has not received any financial support from any government or NGO, has implemented innovative fundraising strategies, selling bonds, conducting lotteries, making advance sales of land and mining rights, establishing an online bank, and creating a cash app for supporters.
However, the conflict is far from over, and both the international community and the people of Myanmar, both within and outside the country, must continue to dig in and work even harder. Geographically, China’s proximity makes it a crucial player in Myanmar’s affairs, as it seeks to maintain and broaden its access to the Indian Ocean. Recognizing its heavy reliance on imports via the Malacca Strait, China has been building highways, a railroad, and an oil pipeline between Yunnan province and Kyaukphyu port on the coast of Rakhine State. Western administrations, including the U.S., need to pay more attention to Myanmar’s geopolitical significance.
Yet many Western administrations, including the U.S. harbor some cynicism about the possibility of defeating the military, while outsourcing the Myanmar issue to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This sentiment and the inner workings of how U.S. policy toward Myanmar is framed and executed were divulged in a recent article by a veteran Washington analyst of Myanmar. To be fair the U.S. is squarely on the side of the Myanmar democracy uprising and has taken many helpful measures to drain the financial coffers of the military junta through rounds of effective sanctions.
However, American attention continues to focus on other crises such as Ukraine and the Middle East. Despite the passage last year of the BURMA Act, legislation that encourages more funding and sanctions, the actual political will to implement the bill has been lacking. It would be a mistake for the U.S. not to step up engagement with Myanmar’s democratic forces and let Myanmar drift into China’s orbit completely.
The NUG also needs to enhance its image and presentation. The absence of a single charismatic leader and a lack of clear communication and assurance about cooperation with EROs and ethnic factions pose challenges. The NUG needs to show its vision of what the end game for Myanmar is. Photo-ops do not substitute for policy direction. The same applies to the Myanmar activists meeting elected representatives in Western countries. The constituent meetings should be focused, with well-defined objectives.
Despite the need for international support, the outcome of Myanmar’s struggle will depend on the performance of on-the-ground players. The political and military Rubicon was crossed when the uprising decided to take the route of armed struggle. Developments in Myanmar during the past few weeks were long in the making and the military’s downfall, if it comes, will primarily come from inside. The fall of major urban centers may be the last thing to occur, but once the domino effect begins, it could unfold rapidly, akin to the fall of Saigon or Kabul. The U.S. should increase its support to the democratic forces and position itself as a friend to the emerging Myanmar that may arise from this conflict. And the opportune time for the U.S. to take action is now.