Is the Myanmar Army losing the plot?

For the first time in its 75-year history, the military has lost large swathes of territory to ethnic groups. The Three Brotherhood Alliance that accomplished this victory consists of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army.


February 2, 2024

KATHMANDU – Since December 2023, the Myanmar Army has seen a reverse in its control of the crucial border region, with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) gaining the upper hand by expelling the Tatmadaw—as the Myanmarese military is known. The rebels captured Laukkaing, the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone bordering China. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which consists of the Kokang minority, a Han-speaking ethnic group, took the lead in this operation supported by its other two partners. Laukkaing is a border town that controls much of the lucrative illicit trade that flows to Myanmar.

China is concerned about these illegal networks and human trafficking that have lured Chinese citizens to get involved in online scam in Myanmar. Fearing backlash from China, the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA), which controls the Shan state after expelling the military, has also pledged to act against these illicit industries.

Rebel alliances

The Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA) that accomplished this spectacular victory consists of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which joined hands in 2019. In the operation in the Shan state to wrest the border town, the MNDAA was helped mainly by the TNLA. Both these groups have overlapping interests in this region. The Bamar People’s Liberation Army (BPLA) and the Mandalay Peoples Democratic Front (PDF), the pro-democracy militias affiliated with the National Unity Government inspired by military success, joined the TBA to fight the military.

Together, these EAOs have caused casualties, and the Myanmar army has nearly lost 200 outposts since the operation started on October 27, 2023. This attack has brought other groups whose main aim is to remove the junta through multiple attacks in many areas where individual groups have a strong presence.

The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) fought under the banner of the PDF and took over the administrative town of Kawlin in Sagaing Region, and many from the Myanmar military surrendered to the rebel group. Similarly, Operation 1111 was launched in Kayah State by the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force and the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front—groups aligned to the PDF—to capture the state capital, Loikaw.

The Arakan Army, however, has continued its fight on the western border, the Rakhine State. It has controlled large areas of the Chin and Rakhine States near the Bangladesh border. In November, several Myanmar Army soldiers sought refuge in India after the 2021 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was broken by the Kuki Independent Army, the Kuki National Army and the Chin Land Defence Force, who overran the camps. There are around 600 Myanmar Army soldiers who have taken refuge in Mizoram. They are being successfully repatriated. Earlier, the Myanmar Police, who defied the Army, also sought refuge in India in 2021.

The fighting has led to the displacement of around 60,000 civilians who are escaping the junta’s attack using mortars and bombing civilians using air force and cutting food and fuel supply chains to the civilian areas.

Ceasefire: Temporary relief?

Despite China brokering a ceasefire in December 2023, the alliance was determined to throw the country’s ‘dictatorship’, and this ceasefire did not hold ground, forcing China to negotiate another ceasefire in January 2024. The fighting and artillery attacks had destabilised the border and displaced people living there. Border trade with China has also been affected, putting pressure on Myanmar’s economy. The ceasefire in the Shan state holds for the time being. China has a strong influence on the Myanmar Army, as well as with EAOs operating near its border. China has also issued arrest warrants against four Kokang families involved in ‘electronic fraud crimes’.

Wither Myanmar Army?

Many argue that Min Aung Hlaing’s hold over the Army is loosening, and retired officers have called for his accountability for losing to the EAOs and bringing shame to the Army. This is the first time Tatmadaw has lost large swathes of territory to the EAOs in the last 75 years of Myanmar’s history. At the same time, no second-rung leadership can challenge the general’s authority.

In mid-January this year, ultranationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Ariawuntha called for his resignation while speaking in a pro-military rally and suggested that he should hand over power to Vice-Senior General Soe Win. There are reports that Gen. Hlaing and Gen. Soe Win have severe disagreements on military operations. Though the monk was arrested, he was subsequently released to arrest the dissension within the Army.

For now, the military has remained united despite losing their strongholds, which the rebel group has captured. The rebel groups are freeing the surrendered soldiers and allowing them to leave. These six brigadier generals who surrendered were handed death sentences by the military court to stop other soldiers from following their path and leaving the battlefield. Reports show that many armed forces personnel are not ready to fight after conceding territory to the EAOs. The use of mortar and helicopter gunships to bomb villages reveals that the Myanmar Army is in a desperate state.

Furthermore, Myanmar’s political space would remain fractured. Fragmentation within the Army and the ongoing civil war will have repercussions on Myanmar’s neighbours. It is already adding to the fragmented ethnic fault line in India. Similarly, the conflict will spill over to Bangladesh, which has provided refuge to the Rohingyas. Myanmar needs to find a solution in consociational democracy that perhaps suits the aspirations of several ethnic groups who live in Myanmar.

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