Two weeks ago the Three Brother Alliance launched a coordinated military operation against the key strategic and trading route between eastern Myanmar Shan state and southern China. The operation was code-named 1027. The alliance is made up of Kokant (or Burmese-born Han Chinese minority), Rakhine and Ta’ang or Pao resistance organizations, all of whom are battle-seasoned, well-armed and well-funded through cross-border trade. The operation is reportedly assisted by other ethnic resistance organizations including the Kachin Independence Organization, Bama People’s Liberation Army and the Karen National Union.
The stunning success the 1027 Op met with includes the seizure of 14 townships in the vast Shan plateau, cutting off completely the coup regime’s supply lines, captures of caches of arms and munitions including some tanks, the surrender of the entire battalion. The battalion commander and his deputy were also killed in the fighting.
This is the biggest territorial and military loss which the coup regime of Min Aung Hlaing has sustained since it came to power in a universally opposed coup of February 2021, which ousted the re-elected National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar junta has indeed lost its control of a vast region vital for Chinese-Myanmar border trade. This development promoted the regime to hold emergency meeting of its National Security Council yesterday, where the coup leader talked about the real threat of the break-up of Myanmar.
While foreign experts and Myanmar watchers sounded the alarm of Balkanization the resistance groups are confident that their military successes do not represent the sign of Myanmar’s disintegration. Their objective is to bring an end to the coup regime’s monopoly control over the country’s politics and state, while building up alternative federated state with loosely aligned autonomous regions.
This analysis below zoom in on the military and overall situation of the eastern Shan state now under effective control of the resistance’s Three Brother Alliance.
Backgrounder: THE STRAITS TIMES, Nov. 10, 2023, “Myanmar in crisis: Are the generals finally buckling?” Ravi Velloor
In the face of multiple recent setbacks, the junta may be finally ready to talk, but the opposition may be in less of a hurry.
It has become painfully obvious in recent months that as the coup that toppled the government of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi approaches its third anniversary, things are not going well for Myanmar’s military rulers. Signs are pointing to fundamental shifts in the power struggle on the ground that bear a closer watch for what it means for the future of Myanmar and the region.
Huge swathes of territory in the border regions with China are falling into rebel hands, including areas where Chinese-influenced ethnic organisations that had generally maintained peace with the military junta. Lately, these groups have ignored pressure from their handlers across the border and turned on the regime, which goes by the name of State Administration Council (SAC).
Reports suggest four towns and some 110 military posts in Shan state, which borders China, have been overrun. This follows rebel action elsewhere; in late September, the Karen Peace Support Network reported that the SAC lost dozens of military camps in south-east Myanmar due to offensives by the Karen National Liberation Army and its allies.
On Tuesday, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military ruler, reportedly held an emergency meeting with top commanders. This was prompted by the Shan infantry divisional commander being killed near the Chinese border in a drone attack by the Arakan Army, which, along with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, constitute the core of the militant Brotherhood Alliance.
For the rebels, the killing of the infantry colonel was their biggest score since they launched Operation 1027, so named for the concerted push against the junta they launched on the day.
Meanwhile, on the western flank bordering India, the situation is not dissimilar.
More and more territory is being ceded by the Myanmar military in Sagaing, the scene of shocking violence in 2022 when several corpses of rebels were found with what looked like signs of extreme torture. The rebels seem to be gaining ground in Chin state as well.
Even the capital Naypyitaw may not be safe for too long. Asian diplomatic sources say a large number of military families are seeking safe passage out of the city.
At the annual Asean Media Forum organised by the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta last week, held under Chatham House Rules, A key non-media participant suggested that this strategically placed Indo-Chinese state could be on the brink of Balkanisation – SAC controlling the big cities, and rebels controlling states and areas bordering Thailand and China.
When this Balkanisation thesis was put to a seasoned Myanmar watcher who once served there as his nation’s ambassador, the reply was that a three-part division would be an optimistic outcome; there might be more splinters.
“The 2021 coup is not like what happened in 1988. The army will not come out on top this time,” the former envoy said, referring to the time when a student-led national uprising was crushed by the military.
More than 3,000 people were killed in 1988. General Saw Maung removed the military-backed Burma Socialist Programme Party and established the State Law and Order Restoration Council. Although Myanmar later held multi-party elections that were swept by Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the generals rejected the result.
Leaving aside the inevitable exaggeration of those too close to the conflict, or who feel strongly about it, there is no question that not just Asean, but also all of Asia, faces a worsening quagmire in Myanmar.
For one thing, Myanmar is at the heart of mainland Asia’s geopolitics.
Impact on Neighbours
Three neighbours – China, Thailand and India – exert influence in the benighted country, each pursuing its own interests. And until the recent change of government in Bangkok, all three had seen merit in aligning with the junta in order to pursue their strategic goals.
For China, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor gives it strategic access to Myanmar’s ports to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal, critical in case of a blockade through southern passages such as the Malacca Strait. Myanmar also figures significantly in its Belt and Road Initiative plans.
To the south, Thailand can never be unaffected by events in its most important land neighbour, the biggest among continental ASEAN states.
Indeed, some observers say that corrupt elements in the former Thai government of Prayut Chan-o-cha profited from the cheap labour that emanated from Myanmar as a steady stream of refugees fled the nation, and sought employment in Thailand at any price.
As for India, it has always viewed with concern the porous borders between Myanmar and its restive north-eastern states. Indeed, post-independence Myanmar’s first case of outside intervention came in 1948, when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent a planeload of arms to save the fledgling government of U Nu as Karen rebels encircled Rangoon’s Mingaladon airport.
Today, drugs, and arms, from Myanmar – particularly flowing into Manipur state – are a huge source of worry for New Delhi. Much like China, India, too, seeks to use Myanmar’s ports as an access point to the sea for its landlocked north-eastern states.
A loosening of the regime’s grip, therefore, means unbridled opportunity for not only the big geopolitical players, but also more worryingly, criminal syndicates involved in everything from drugs to online scams targeting people across Asia, including China.
Laos, next year’s ASEAN chair, is all but overwhelmed by a deluge of methamphetamine emanating from Myanmar, making it both a destination and transit point for the drug. Talk in Laos is that meth today is cheaper than food and water. Part of the drug money fuels the arms trade into Myanmar.
Meanwhile, online scams are already so prolific that Jakarta is fretting that Indonesians have been trafficked by syndicates through Thailand to Myanmar to assist in such fraud. A United Nations report published in August found that an estimated 120,000 people had been trafficked into the industry in Myanmar.
Indonesia holds the ASEAN chair until the end of 2023, and its emissaries are said to have had more than 150 contacts with various stakeholders in Myanmar over the past year. So far, progress has been painfully slow, although its officials say their intervention has helped the passage of some humanitarian aid through conflict zones, parts of which are held by the regime, and elsewhere by rebels.
In 2024, as the chairmanship passes to tiny Laos, the worry is that the junta will be even less open to reason. Many Myanmar people affect a sense of superiority when it comes to their smaller Indo-Chinese neighbours.
In January 2022, Cambodia’s then Premier Hun Sen became the first head of state to visit Myanmar after its February 2021 military coup. Saying he did not wish to see a repeat of the Cambodian killing fields of an earlier era, he came to press the regime to heed Asean’s Five Point Consensus, which includes the immediate cessation of violence, restraint on all sides, and constructive dialogue among all parties concerned.
No sooner had Mr Hun Sen departed than the junta ordered air strikes on the capital of Kayah/Karenni state and executed four pro-democracy activists, including a Member of Parliament, in the first political executions in decades.
It was a direct insult to Mr Hun Sen, who had pleaded with Gen Min Aung Hlaing that their lives be spared. Indeed, then Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah criticised the Cambodian leader for making the trip, reminding him that it was one thing for him to go there as head of government but quite another when he was also the ASEAN chair.
In August, Timor-Leste’s top diplomat in Myanmar was ordered to leave at short notice for holding a meeting with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), who include elected lawmakers of Parliament ousted in the 2021 coup. Some countries, particularly in Europe, continue to regard it as the legitimate government of the country.
And yet, things are different this time. Events in Shan state underscore the reality that the SAC is losing its grip with even actors friendly to it.
The military itself seems stunned by the reverses it has endured over the past year; its logistics routes to Karen state, for instance, have been disrupted by Karen ethnic forces operating jointly with the NUG’s People’s Defence Force.
What’s more, the NUG’s fighters, the Kachin Independence Army, Karenni Nationalities Defence Force and Bamar People Liberation Army are also coordinating operations with the Brotherhood Alliance.
Dwindling Options for the Military
There’s trouble at the top as well; in October, an officer of the rank of lieutenant-general who once was tipped for the top job was jailed for corruption. So was another officer two levels junior.
With their backs to the wall, the military is increasingly using artillery strikes and air attacks rather than infantry to attack the rebels, indicative of a serious drop in morale in the 150,000-strong military, about half of whom are combat soldiers.
The Bamar-dominated military is also finding that it is fast losing support among heartland Bamars. At an Aug 22 press conference, military spokesman Major-General Zaw Min Tun spoke of “Bamar people killing each other” – a rare public acknowledgment of the chaos in the heart of Myanmar.
There are faint indications that the military has finally come to realise the magnitude of its vulnerability, and run out of options. Thailand’s new leaders aren’t as sympathetic to the SAC as previous ruler Prayut, who came from the military.
After so-called Track 1.5 talks facilitated by the Thais – most recently in end-September – there is even word of a draft proposal crafted with the junta’s concurrence that talks of a limited ceasefire by SAC and the opening of humanitarian corridors to provide aid to thousands of affected people.
An Indonesia-appointed diplomat is believed to be poised to meet the leadership of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which ranks with Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD as the top parties of Myanmar.
USDP founder Thein Sein, a retired general who served as Myanmar’s president from 2011 to 2016, still keeps an interested eye on developments, and a line of thinking goes that it is worth attempting a deal that would replace the current harsh regime with one more influenced by Mr Thein Sein.
On the other hand, there is also a sense that Myanmar needs to start over on an altogether clean slate with a truly federal Constitution that would limit both military and Bamar influence on the nation’s politics.
The junta is thoroughly discredited. To a lesser extent, so, too, is Ms Suu Kyi whose self-entitled behaviour during her time at the helm contributed in no small way to the developments that led to the current crisis.
In other words, even if the generals stand ready to blink in order to retain power, it might be too late in the day.
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Ai Sai (Mao Land)
Banner image: Northern Myanmar coalition forces take full control of Dam Du. The Kolkang, Facebook