Good Rebels or Good Timing?: Myanmar’s MNDAA and Operation 1027

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Good Rebels or Good Timing?: Myanmar’s MNDAA and Operation 1027

The rebel group has shed its reputation as an opium trafficking syndicate and pledged itself to the Spring Revolution. Is its transformation more than skin deep?

Good Rebels or Good Timing?: Myanmar’s MNDAA and Operation 1027

Fighters from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) pose with captured arms after overrunning a military outpost in Kokang, northern Shan State, November 28, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/The Kokang

The Chinese idiom, “times make heroes,” aptly captures the current situation of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a Chinese-speaking rebel group in northeastern Myanmar. This ethnic armed organization (EAO) has tended to attract less attention than some of its peers, such as the well-equipped United Wa State Army and the long-standing Karen National Liberation Army. Even when it is mentioned, the focus has typically been on its negative aspects. However, over the past two months the MNDAA has gained renewed prominence as the spearhead of Operation 1027, the biggest military operation against Myanmar’s military regime since the 2021 coup.

Bad Rebels

Based in the Kokang region of Myanmar’s Shan State, known also as Special Region No. 1, the MNDAA was one of four groups that formed after the collapse of the Burmese Communist Party in 1989, and subsequently brokered a ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s central government. This came to a halt in August 2009, when the Myanmar military occupied the Kokang region after several days of fighting, expelling the MNDAA, which had earlier refused a demand from the military to become a Border Guard Force. Since then, the MNDAA has been eager to regain control of the Kokang region, which under its new junta-aligned leadership is known as the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ).

For a long time, this rebel group faced significant challenges to its reputation. First, the group was notorious for its heavy involvement in drug production and trafficking. After the initial peace agreement with the central state in 1989, drug production became the backbone of this insurgent group’s sustenance. The group’s founder, the late Peng Jiasheng, was identified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a major trafficker, leading the U.S. government to describe the MNDAA as a narco-insurgency. Although the MNDAA officially banned opium cultivation in 2002, this regulation was not strictly enforced in practice. The Myanmar military’s assault on Kokang in 2009 was ostensibly justified on these grounds. Even after the group retreated to the mountains, allegations regarding its involvement in the drug trade persisted. For instance, a U.N. report in 2022 asserted that the MNDAA continued to be implicated in the illicit drug trade.

Second, the MNDAA has often been perceived as a Chinese proxy in Myanmar, implying that it is being used by Beijing to shape the country’s domestic affairs. Persistent narratives suggest that it receives support in the form of arms, food, and medical care from China. Following its defeat in 2009, there were reports of MNDAA leaders seeking refuge in China, although it was the National Democratic Alliance Army, another ex-communist rebel group with kinship ties to the MNDAA, that sheltered them. Additionally, some have claimed that the MNDAA has received direct military support from China in past conflicts with the Myanmar regime. Despite a lack of concrete evidence supporting these claims, prevailing anti-China sentiments in Myanmar have led people to readily embrace these rumors, viewing the MNDAA as a puppet controlled by its northern neighbor, China, which undermined the peace process in Myanmar.

Furthermore, each “go home” battle initiated by the MNDAA has resulted in significant humanitarian disruptions, forced conscription, and the potential commission of war crimes. For instance, in 2015, the MNDAA collaborated with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) in a large-scale operation to reclaim lost territory. Despite the joint effort ending in failure, it had severe consequences, including a tenfold increase in local prices, the displacement of over 70,000 refugees into China, and the creation of a large population of internally displaced persons. MNDAA attacks on the Myanmar military have also led to civilian casualties on multiple occasions. In 2017, the office of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi attributed an attack in Shan State that resulted in the deaths of at least 30 people, including a primary school teacher, to the MNDAA.

Good Rebels

On October 27, the MNDAA, AA, and TNLA – collectively known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance –  initiated Operation 1027, a strategic offensive in northern Shan State with a primary focus on reclaiming control of the Kokang SAZ. The offensive has made impressive progress. As of January 4, the MNDAA had recaptured almost all of its lost territory, following reports of the surrender of the Myanmar military command in Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang SAZ. All told, Operation 1027 has posed the most significant challenge to the Myanmar military’s power since the 2021 coup.

Beyond its military accomplishments, the MNDAA has achieved a triumph in terms of its reputation. Public attention shifted away from its historical involvement in drug trafficking, with the organization now being viewed as a pro-democracy force that has injected new energy into Myanmar’s anti-coup resistance. It is safe to say that the National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s shadow government deserves credit for this transformation. For example, on October 30, the NUG issued a statement recognizing the MNDAA, AA, and TNLA as ethnic revolutionary organizations and declared its intention to collaborate with the Operation 1027 offensive.

Senior officials within the NUG, including Salai Maung Taing San, its minister of international cooperation, and Aung Myo Min, its minister of human rights, took to social media to commend and celebrate the success of Operation 1027. Ye Myo Hein, a famous pro-NUG activist based in the United States, believes that the NUG was the orchestrator of this operation, having engaged in consultations and preparations with the MNDAA over the preceding year. Whether the NUG has such material leverage on the MNDAA remains unclear, but the NUG on its official account on X (formerly Twitter) acknowledged Ye Myo Hein’s claim. True or false, the MNDAA would be happy to see that its international reputation has been rehabilitated by its close association with the NUG and the country’s resistance to military rule. The NUG’s followers are likely to believe this argument as well, as on the ground any rebel that collaborates with the NUG in helping overthrow the military junta is worth supporting.

On the other hand, as the conflict has escalated in northern Shan State, a humanitarian crisis has unfolded. By mid-December, the joint operation had forced nearly 120,000 people in the area to seek refuge from the violence. In Laukkai township, the epicenter of the turmoil, an estimated 50,000 individuals have been displaced, receiving only minimal assistance. Meanwhile, reports on social media have surfaced highlighting grievances related to the MNDAA’s mandatory conscription. In late December, the organization Human Rights Watch again accused the MNDAA of abductions and the forced recruitment of civilians during Operation 1027. In the post-coup era, however, these complaints have, regrettably, become perceived as necessary sacrifices in the ongoing struggle against the junta.

The MNDAA’s Transformation

Since the military coup of February 2021, marginalized EAOs have suddenly received a great deal of outside attention. The MNDAA is one of them, especially since the beginning of the recent offensive. Regardless of the MNDAA’s public justifications and external expectations for Operation 1027, its fundamental objective is unequivocally the restoration of its control over Kokang. Therefore, it is tempting to claim that this is little different from the preceding operations. However, the distinguishing factor lies in the broader context of the post-coup struggle to extricate the military from Myanmar’s political life. In this case, the MNDAA is arguably working for the greater good.

To conclude, today’s MNDAA has managed to transcend its historical characterization as an opium trafficking organization and assumed the mantle of a revolutionary force. It is no longer viewed by the NUG and its followers as a mere proxy of China but as an important part of Myanmar’s resistance movement. Still, the question lingers: after reclaiming Kokang, will the MNDAA emulate the United Wa State Army, which is envied by many EAOs, and settle down into its newly reconquered territory? Or will it choose to take greater risks and continue the fight for federal democracy alongside the NUG? While the outcome currently remains uncertain, it holds the key to determining whether, and for how long, the MNDAA can sustain its current “good rebel” status.