Myanmar’s Revolution Has Entered a New, More Complicated Phase

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Myanmar’s Revolution Has Entered a New, More Complicated Phase

As the military junta’s losses mount, the resistance faces growing challenges of cohesion and coordination.

Myanmar’s Revolution Has Entered a New, More Complicated Phase

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military council, salutes on stage during a parade to commemorate Myanmar’s 79th Armed Forces Day, in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Thein Zaw

Myanmar’s revolutionary war has taken a significant new turn as the fight for a key town on the Thai border vital for trade and morale continues.

Opposition forces, comprised of Myanmar’s shadow government and ethnic armed groups, have allied together in the past year in efforts to defeat military rule.

The conflict since the military coup over three years ago has now entered a new phase, analysts say, following a series of recent junta defeats.

When Myanmar’s military leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his forces removed the country’s democratically elected government in February 2021, it’s likely they weren’t expecting the level of resistance that has developed since. Myanmar has seen its share of political uprisings, most notably in 1988 and 2007, but up until now those revolutions were always quashed with severe and violent force.

For two-and-a-half years after the coup, many believed history was repeating itself. Even the most optimistic of observers described the conflict as a battle of attrition that could not be won. Indeed, the military crackdown has seen thousands of protesters, activists, and civilians arrested and killed.

Unlike previous uprisings, however, the current struggle has persisted and intensified, despite the brutal crackdowns launched by the military junta, which officially calls itself the State Administration Council (SAC). Now Myanmar’s opposition – comprised of activists, ousted politicians, civilian-led People’s Defense Forces, and long-established ethnic armed groups – is engaged in an armed struggle for the country’s future. The resistance aims to overthrow the SAC, establish a genuine federal democracy, and remove the military permanently from the country’s politics.

Among the most recent successes of the resistance, in early April the Karen National Union (KNU) announced the capture of Myawaddy, a town on the Myanmar-Thai border in Kayin (Karen) State. The border crossing between Myawaddy and the Thai town of Mae Sot, the largest of the six official border crossings between the two countries, sees several billion dollars’ worth of trade pass through each year.

The victory for the KNU and its anti-junta allies saw 617 military personnel and family members surrender before Infantry Battalion 275, the last remaining force in Myawaddy, comprising 200-300 soldiers, retreated some days later.

But the KNU’s success in Myawaddy only lasted a brief time. The junta launched airstrikes around the town and managed to regain some partial control, as thousands of civilians fled temporarily into Thailand. The KNU chose to withdraw from the town on April 21, and junta soldiers reoccupied the Infantry Battalion 275 headquarters with the aid of a Karen militia formerly allied with the military. In recent days, military reinforcements have also advanced on Myawaddy, with renewed heavy fighting expected as the struggle for control of the town continues.

The military has succeeded in staving off a humiliating defeat – at least for now. But Anthony Davis, an expert on Myanmar’s military based in Bangkok, believes that there is a lot hanging on the outcome of the junta’s operations in Myawaddy.

“The success or failure of the military’s ongoing campaign to retake the Myawaddy border trade hub will have major implications for how fast conflict spreads beyond Karen state to threaten key national communication and transport arteries from Yangon north to Naypyidaw and southeast to Mawlamyine. The war is now close to spilling into Myanmar’s heartland,” he told The Diplomat.

Naypyidaw, the capital, has also come under unprecedented attack. In early April, a dozen resistance drones breached the city’s defenses and attacked military facilities across the sprawling city. Days later opposition forces fired several rocket attacks which hit a junta airbase next to Naypyidaw’s International Airport.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C. who focuses on politics and security in Southeast Asia, said that the attack on the capital will have dented the junta’s morale.

“The drone and rocket attacks on Naypyidaw have caused little physical damage or casualties, but they have caused psychological damage; it is their fortress capital, and the physical manifestation of the bubble that the generals live in,” he said. “Attacks in Naypyidaw are meant to show that there is no place where the generals are safe.”

The confidence of resistance forces to fire on Myanmar’s capital and their ability to capture a crucial trade hub, albeit temporarily, suggest that Myanmar’s conflict has entered a new phase. But the opposition may have not succeeded to this extent were it not for a series of previous successful campaigns to seize junta-held territory.

In October, at the start of the dry season, a three-pronged alliance of opposition forces launched a large military offensive in northern Shan State. Named Operation 1027, the campaign saw the capture of dozens of towns and several hundred of junta outposts, including several important border crossings with China. The rapid successes of Operation 1027 prompted other opposition groups to launch their own attacks on junta-controlled areas.

In Rakhine State in western Myanmar, the Arakan Army (AA), the armed wing of the United League of Arakan, has intensified its attacks on the Myanmar military since the breaking of a ceasefire agreement in November. The AA has captured at least six townships in Rakhine, with fighting continuing in other parts of the state.

As for the opposition’s next move within Myanmar, much will depend on the success of the junta’s counteroffensives to retake lost territory, said Ye Myo Hein, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“The military has reportedly sustained significant casualties, and its chances of successfully regaining control of Myawaddy appear limited based on recent developments,” he told The Diplomat. “Since the inception of Operation 1027, many analysts have discussed the junta’s potential to launch successful counteroffensives. However, this has not materialized due to the junta’s significant weakening in terms of fighting capabilities and manpower.”

Today, Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), which is coordinating the nationwide resistance, claims that 60 percent of the country is under the control of resistance forces.

That doesn’t mean the military’s collapse is imminent. The junta still has an advantage in firepower and is seeking to boost its military ranks through the activation in February of a military conscription law, which will see military-aged men and women called up for at least two years of military service. The regime is aiming to conscript 60,000 new recruits per year, and 5,000 by the end of April. Soldiers from the Rohingya ethnic minority group, who were victim of atrocities by the Myanmar military that saw at least 10,000 killed and 700,000 displaced in 2017 – have also been recruited.

“The Burmese military is losing in humiliation on all fronts of the war, including Kachin, Rakhine, and Karen,” said Aung Thu Nyein, the director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar. “But it still holds a commanding structure to air forces, and its regional commands. Some parts of the military are still strongly defending their posts, despite limited logistic supplies.”

Myanmar’s military has long had a reputation for extreme attacks, from the razing of villages, along with their civilian populations, to scorched earth tactics and aerial assaults.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, a spokesperson for the KNU, said that whenever the military loses territory, it uses airstrikes to retaliate. “They always say that, whenever you take a place, it doesn’t matter – we have to destroy the place so you can’t set up your administration,” he said.

Even absent such attacks, setting up administrative institutions in newly-conquered territories is complicated, said Aung Thu Nyein.

Closely related to this are questions about the cohesion of the country’s multifarious resistance movement. The NUG, made up of ousted elected politicians and regional leaders, claims to be Myanmar’s legitimate administration and has widespread support throughout the country. It has assumed leadership of the loose coalition of opposition forces that are waging war on the military administration, and is collaborating to varying degrees with the ethnic armed groups resisting military rule.

But these partnerships aren’t ironclad. With multiple organizations involved, who will decide who controls any newly captured territories? As individual ethnic armed groups come close to attaining their political goals, will the alliances hold?

Aung Thu Nyein says that the coming phase of the war could be tricky, and that more junta defeats could paradoxically divide the country further. He says the NUG remains popular in Myanmar among the general population but some of the ethnic groups are moving away from its leadership, forging their own paths and pursuing their own political agendas.

“The problem is a common agenda against the common enemy and building an alliance to fight together,” he said. But “the ethnic armed organizations can’t do that, and the National Unity Government can’t lead that.”