The Myanmar Military Is Facing Death by a Thousand Cuts
Events in Myanmar’s renewed civil war took a dramatic turn these past three weeks, reminding us not to forget about the world’s longest running conflict. Just prior to the break of dawn on Oct. 27, 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army launched a surprise assault — called Operation 1027 — on junta forces in northern Shan State. Within a couple of weeks, the three ethnic armed organizations have reportedly seized over 150 military outposts and several key towns astride a strategic road to the Chinese border, as well as highways crisscrossing Shan State. With operations continuing to expand, this marks a significant battlefield defeat for the increasingly overstretched military junta.
While the fog of war demands analytical caution, Operation 1027 carries important implications for the future of Myanmar. First, the Myanmar military is increasingly overstretched despite its airpower and artillery advantages. Second, the Three Brotherhood Alliance potentially aligning itself more openly with the pro-democracy movement — at least militarily — highlights the resistance’s determination and coalition-building efforts. Third, China’s turn toward the junta has proven a poor bet. Considered together, the Myanmar military is more vulnerable than at any time in the past half century. Now is the moment for Myanmar’s pro-democracy resistance to push hard and for their international supporters to crank up the pressure on the junta. The resistance should continue to build momentum with operations across the country, while international backers like the United States should increase the tempo of sanctions and redouble their diplomatic efforts to convince the junta that it cannot prevail.
The Junta Is Bleeding
Since overthrowing the democratically elected government of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military has fought an expanding coalition of longstanding ethnic armed organizations, the pro-democracy parallel National Unity Government, and a variety of People’s Defense Forces. Facing a fluid and complex battlefield situation, the Myanmar military junta has largely held onto the cities and towns while suffering substantial losses to guerrilla fighters operating in rural areas.
Deeply unpopular, brutal to civilians, and performing poorly at the tactical level, the Myanmar military relies upon airpower and heavy artillery to prevent the resistance from taking and consolidating its hold over populated areas. For example, the Karen National Union and several local People’s Defense Forces units launched an offensive in October 2022 to take Kawkareik near the Thai border. Initially successful, the military pulled back before junta forces retaliated with airstrikes and heavy artillery, ultimately dispersing resistance units into the countryside.
However, Operation 1027 represents perhaps the most significant battlefield victory thus far in the renewed civil war. Taking the town of Hsenwi in particular cuts the primary road to China through the border at Chinshwehaw, which the Three Brotherhood Alliance also captured. Almost $300 million in trade passed through it from April to July 2023, according to a junta mouthpiece. Resistance forces are now attempting to surround other strategic towns such as Laukkai and Nawngkhio and seize other locations along the border On a strategic level, the loss of these routes cuts off the junta from one of the larger border crossings to its most important international backer, Beijing. Spurred by the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s success in Shan State, People’s Defense Forces units assaulted and seized Kawlin, a district-level town in Sagaing Region in a first for them, as well as Khampat near the Indian border. Fighting this past week in Chin, Kayah, and Rakhine States further herald that the junta is increasingly tottering.
The junta is closer to military-economic collapse than is often understood. As analyst Ye Myo Hein has demonstrated, the Myanmar military is badly undermanned, likely marshalling only about 70,000 combat-capable forces to pacify a population of 53 million. Due to the scarcity of manpower, the military relies upon rapid redeployments of its elite light infantry divisions to strategic flashpoints, such as recent fighting in Kachin, and retaliatory airstrikes to disperse resistance units and punish its opponents.
Importantly, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Junta convoys and supply lines are increasingly subject to ambushes. Its sudden loss of control of outposts throughout Shan State exposes the critical weakness inherent to the military’s overstretch: The military redeployed 3,000 troops out of Shan State to other parts of Myanmar earlier this year. It appears unlikely that they have the reserves to launch a concerted counter-offensive, and their air force is increasingly overtasked. Combined with the National Unity Government’s revenue denial strategy, Myanmar’s continued economic tailspin, and the increasingly tight U.S., U.K., and E.U. sanctions, the junta bleeds from a thousand cuts. The junta itself admitted earlier this year that it lacks control over almost half of the country.
The Junta’s Divide-and-Conquer Strategy Is Failing
The reason that the junta felt it could safely redeploy 3,000 soldiers from Shan State despite periodic skirmishes with the Three Brotherhood Alliance is its confidence in a divide-and-conquer strategy. The two key elements of this approach are the junta’s air force and China’s growing economic and political support.
Myanmar is home to hundreds of armed actors, and a pan-ethnic coalition was always the military’s greatest post-coup threat. However, forging such an alliance is an immense task given the deep divides existing between the Bamar majority and the numerous historically oppressed ethnic minority groups. Initiatives like the National Unity Consultative Council aim to address these challenges by bringing a diverse range of actors together to talk, but it remains slow going. This is particularly so as a result of deep wounds stemming from the Aung San Suu Kyi government’s failure to incorporate ethnic voices or advance federalism. While the movement’s explicit goal is to create an inclusive, federal democracy, getting everyone on board and actually doing so are easier said than done. For instance, a unified command and control system is still a work in progress.
The Myanmar military’s strategy therefore aims to force a wedge between the National Unity Government and the minority ethnic armed groups, particularly those that are formally allied with the pro-democracy movement such as the Chin National Front, Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Union, Karenni Army, and a few others. This is possible because the ethnic armed organizations historically pursued autonomy or de facto independence in their conflicts with the military, while the National Unity Government and the pro-democracy forces seek to seize the central state apparatus and reform the national-level government. The junta again believes it can coerce or placate the ethnic armed organizations to give it the breathing room to crush the People’s Defense Forces and the National Unity Government piecemeal.
Buying off or isolating rival factions and groups is the military’s historical playbook in dealing with opponents to its authority. For example, the military convinced a faction within the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army to revolt in 2009, which proceeded to split and form the now regime-aligned Kokang Border Guards Force. More recently, the Arakan Army agreed to an informal ceasefire with the junta in Rakhine State in 2022, allowing the junta to focus elsewhere. In the current fighting, the Myanmar military employs an airpower compellence strategy against opposing ethnic armed organizations and “Four Cuts” operations targeting civilians and villages with indiscriminate violence to intimidate the population. The junta’s objective is to drag out the war, exhaust the population, split the ethnic minorities along the periphery from the Bamar of the interior, and then pick them off one by one over time.
However, the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s entrance into the war coupled with stronger strategic coordination between the diverse actors making up the anti-regime movement signal that the junta’s strategy has failed to close the resistance’s window of opportunity. In particular, the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army had until now sought to support the anti-junta resistance from a distance. They trained and armed some of the People’s Defense Forces while occasionally clashing with the junta. But they also resisted moving too far beyond their territory or joining the fight outright. That they are now launching an all-out offensive against the junta in Shan State, and likely now in Rakhine, demonstrates greater strategic cooperation between resistance forces. It is likely that the Three Brotherhood Alliance sees the hated military’s weakness as an opportunity to secure their long-desired autonomy and that painstaking efforts to build trust across anti-regime factions are finally bearing fruit.
A recent statement from the Three Brotherhood Alliance declared: “We are dedicated to eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship, a shared aspiration of the entire Myanmar populace.” Shortly after Operation 1027 began, the National Unity Government’s ministry of defense issued its own statement announcing it will “join forces with the Brotherhood Alliance in Operation 1027. We will actively engage in the required operations to collaborate effectively in their endeavors.” The surge in fighting in Shan State comes amidst intense and continued warfare between the junta and the Kachin Independence Army farther to the north. A variety of People’s Defense Forces units are cooperating with the Three Brotherhood Alliance, and the Karen National Union and Karenni forces in the southeast launched strikes against Kawkareik and Loikaw respectively, reportedly seizing several facilities in both towns. Fighting has also reportedly surged in the Chin State, Magwe, and Sagaing Regions. The capture of Kawlin represents a serious advance in the People’s Defense Forces’ ability to take towns. If Loikaw falls to resistance forces, it will be the first state capital taken.
The anti-regime coalition looks stronger than ever, and the odds of the junta buying off or coercing some of the ethnic armed organizations are diminishing. Unlike past instances, the military is visibly weakened in a manner unseen since the mid-20th century, with battalion-sized formations now surrendering to resistance forces. Crucially, the Bamar majority now largely opposes the military even in the historically pro-military heartland of Sagaing and Magwe, which are now two hotbeds of armed revolt. Although coalition-building efforts between the National Unity Government, the ethnic armed organizations, and other actors within the resistance have a long way to go and distrust remains high, the ethnic armed groups fighting the regime appear convinced that the current moment is a real opportunity to make gains against their military foe.
Deep Flaws in China’s Myanmar Policy
The junta has recently received a diplomatic boost from China, which cautiously reengaged the military regime in Naypyidaw over the past year. This threatens to rehabilitate it internationally and give the junta diplomatic and economic succor.
During the coup’s early days, China adopted a pragmatic stance by hedging its bets. It engaged the junta publicly but kept its distance, maintaining ties to the ousted National League for Democracy party as well as friendly ethnic armed organizations along the border.
However, because it misperceived U.S. support for the pro-democracy movement through a Cold War lens, Beijing has swung toward the Myanmar military over the past year, albeit not completely. China sent its foreign minister to Myanmar, conducted a high rate of bilateral visits, ramped up Belt and Road Initiative projects, and warned the resistance behind closed doors to not get too close to the United States. It has also deployed a special envoy to attempt negotiations between the junta and the ethnic armed groups on the border.
China’s mediation efforts specifically targeted the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which it has long backed publicly and privately. Indeed, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army are ethnically Kokang Chinese and closely tied to China and authorities in Yunnan Province. Beijing has historically supported the border ethnic armed organizations and armed them via the United Wa State Army, the largest and best-equipped group. China often tries to play broker in peace talks.
However, China’s influence on the Three Brotherhood Alliance is apparently less than it once seemed. Although the United Wa State Army has cooperated with China in publicly cracking down on growing human trafficking and cybercrimes along the border, including by giving up high-ranking officials, the Three Brotherhood Alliance has evidently decided that the military in Myanmar has to go. For China, this is a clear setback and sign of diminished sway over these groups. Instability along the border is a problem given China’s strategic interests in Myanmar and the risk of refugees crossing into Yunnan. Indeed, Beijing confirmed Chinese nationals have been killed in the recent fighting, and a junta artillery shell struck the Chinese side of the border.
The Three Brotherhood Alliance’s statement indicates that it is hoping to secure Beijing’s backing. The three ethnic armed organizations announced that “our commitment extends to combatting the widespread online gambling fraud that has plagued Myanmar, particularly along the China-Myanmar border.” By taking an explicitly anti-crime stance and reportedly raiding criminal networks, the Three Brotherhood Alliance is directly appealing to Beijing’s interests. During fighting outside the border town of Laukkai, where many criminal networks operate, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army was careful to argue that the Myanmar junta was protecting local criminal leadership from China’s crackdowns. The Three Brotherhood Alliance hopes to draw a contrast with the Myanmar military junta, which has dragged its feet on cracking down on such a lucrative illicit funding source. Operation 1027 is also targeting the Kokang Border Guards Force, a militia aligned with the junta that is notorious for its ties to criminal networks.
China’s response to the past weeks’ fighting is ambiguous, but it appears to lean toward the junta by calling for a ceasefire, as has its closest proxy, the United Wa State Army, which vowed to continue its neutrality in the civil war. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called for “relevant parties to cease fire as soon as possible, settle disputes in a peaceful manner through dialogue and consultation, avoid escalation of the situation, and take effective measures to ensure the security and stability of China-Myanmar border areas.” A week later, Chinese authorities expressed “strong dissatisfaction with the escalation of the armed conflict and the casualties caused to Chinese personnel,” lodging “solemn protest with relevant parties.” Concurrent to the fighting, the junta defense minister met with a Chinese Central Military Commission vice chairman for a previously scheduled visit to Beijing, during which they reportedly discussed the border. China’s Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong reportedly traveled to Naypyidaw and also raised the issue of the recent fighting during a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing. From Nov. 3–5, Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong visited Myanmar’s capital for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meeting, urging the junta to cooperate on border security.
These public moves would seem to benefit the junta with shows of confidence, but Beijing also appears to have avoided weighing in privately against the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s efforts. Although analysts debated the possibility that China greenlit Operation 1027, the rapid collapse of junta forces and ensuing instability, coming so soon after Beijing’s public support for the regime this past year make it seem unlikely. As such, it remains to be seen how China will respond in the long term. It could quietly shift back toward a more balanced position or double down on the junta due to its misguided belief that only the military can keep Myanmar together. In either case, it will continue to maintain its leverage over Myanmar’s diverse range of actors.
Finishing Off the Myanmar Junta
Many of Myanmar’s neighboring countries hold the view that the renewed civil war is simply the latest outbreak of chronic post-independence fighting — that it is nothing new and unlikely to topple the junta, which remains the only force holding the country together. The past weeks’ fighting should dispel the misplaced notion that the military in Myanmar can prevail or hold the country together.
With the junta on its back foot, now is the time for the international community to pressure the military and convince it that victory is impossible. Only then will the junta contemplate coming to the negotiating table. China, India, and Thailand should cease their efforts to rehabilitate the faltering junta. Meanwhile, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations member states that are opposed to the military coup, particularly the organization’s outgoing chair Indonesia, should move beyond quiet diplomacy and meet publicly with the National Unity Government and other pro-democracy actors and ethnic armed organizations.
The United States can help push for negotiations by burying the junta in economic sanctions, hampering its access to international markets, arms, and revenue, and preventing it from attaining diplomatic recognition. On Oct. 31, the United States issued sanctions on Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, the junta’s most important remaining revenue source. This follows sanctions this past summer that severely restrict the military’s access to foreign reserves and jet fuel.
However, U.S. sanctions have remained cautious and highly targeted to avoid alienating regional allies and partners like Thailand. More vigorous efforts, coupled with fulfilling the provisions of the BURMA Act, would put further pressure on the junta. Backdoor U.S. diplomacy can also play a key role in convincing Beijing and others in the region that supporting the junta is the wrong move and a return to democracy will benefit their interests. The United States should emphasize privately and publicly that reversing the coup in Myanmar is not solely about democracy but also regional stability: the military has served as the primary destabilizing force throughout Myanmar’s post-independence history and has shown little willingness to address Myanmar’s growing cross-border crime problem. Finally, U.S. diplomatic efforts should also include facilitating and supporting political cooperation within the resistance coalition.
Inside Myanmar, political cooperation across the resistance coalition still faces serious challenges, specifically on what the “day after” will look like. Indeed, it remains to be seen to what extent the Three Brotherhood Alliance cooperates politically with the National Unity Government and other pro-democracy actors following Operation 1027, and whether it shares their vision for federalism. Importantly, many in the People’s Defense Forces and civil society are increasingly frustrated with the National Unity Government and the political old guard. As the Sagaing Forum shows, the anti-military popular resistance is a bottom-up movement with real revolutionary goals and a genuine desire to move beyond the old ways of doing things, particularly Bamar-dominated centralized hierarchies. A framework that incorporates and satisfies ethnic minority, youth, and civil society demands for and differing visions of an inclusive and federal democracy is crucial for creating the stability that has eluded Myanmar since independence. This is particularly true for the National Unity Government, which needs to persuade the ethnic armed organizations and many younger citizens that they will not repeat the disappointments of the previous democratic transition. A “day after” political framework in Myanmar is an extremely difficult task but a necessary one given the resistance’s rapidly snowballing successes.
Although the war is far from over and it remains unclear what a future Myanmar will look like, events are moving fast, and we are likely facing a turning point in the conflict. The resistance’s limited strategic cooperation during the first two years appears to have been replaced by a series of well-planned, country-wide offensives that caught the junta on its back foot. The resistance is doubtlessly planning further offensives, targeting isolated outposts, strategic border roads, and small towns with the goal of expanding their territory. With the junta bleeding from a thousand cuts, now is the time to ramp up pressure both inside and outside Myanmar.
Lucas Myers is the senior associate for Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.
The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.
Image: Wikimedia Commons