Myanmar’s military rulers are fast losing control over many parts of the country, especially in its east, north and west.
The country’s Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) and People’s Defence Force (PDF), which are fighting the junta that staged a coup in February 2021, have gained control over vast swathes of Rakhine, Chin, Sagaing, Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Kayin provinces.
Earlier this week, the Arakan Army (AA), a member of the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BA) that has inflicted heavy losses on junta forces, posted spectacular victories in Chin state where it took over major military bases and Paletwa town.
The AA captured 24 bases of the Myanmar army (called the ‘Tatmadaw’), including the headquarters of a light infantry battalion in Paletwa, and arrested an army Brigadier General who was in command of a crucial communications centre in the province.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — the two other constituents of the 3BA — have also registered huge successes in the eastern provinces of the country ever since the alliance launched a joint offensive codenamed ‘Operation 1027’ on 27 October last year.
Since the launch of ‘Operation 1027’, EAOs and PDFs have seized 33 towns not only across Shan, Kachin, Sagaing, Chin, and Rakhine provinces but also a couple in the southern Kayah and Bago provinces.
The 3BA was assisted in its offensives by other EAOs, including the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force, the Bamar People's Liberation Army (BPLA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Chin National Army (CNA), the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
All these EAOs are very powerful in their respective provinces. The PDF, which is the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG) — the country’s government-in-exile comprising all anti-junta political parties in the country — has also notched up major successes in its battles with the Tatmadaw.
Junta On The Backfoot
The losses and crushing defeats suffered by the junta forces across the country has demoralised the country’s armed forces. A spate of surrenders and defections to the ranks of the EAOs has shaken and weakened the Tatmadaw.
Over the past week, about 2400 soldiers, including 200 officers, six brigadier generals among them, have surrendered to the EAOs. Many other officers, including senior ones of the rank of colonels and lieutenant colonels, have deserted and joined the EAOs.
A lot of military hardware — tanks, armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft guns and other artillery, sophisticated firearms and ammunition as well as other supplies like bulletproof vests, night vision scopes, field rations etc — have fallen into the hands of the EAOs and PDF.
The junta has completely alienated the country’s civilians with its harsh crackdowns and arrests. The use of air power to crush rebels — the junta has often deployed helicopter gunships and fighter jets to bomb areas captured by EAOs and PDF, killing thousands of innocent civilians — has turned all Myanmarese against the junta.
So far, nearly 5000 civilians, including several hundred women and children, have been killed by the Tatmadaw and nearly 26,000 people have been arrested.
The recent successes of the EAOs and PDF will motivate them to intensify their attacks on the junta forces. That will inevitably result in more towns and military bases being captured by the rebels.
Faced with severe setbacks, the junta is battling with an internal crisis triggered by strident calls for its chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, to step down. Hlaing is being blamed for the mess, and even the junta’s ardent supporters are calling for his replacement.
The battle has reached the doorsteps of the country’s capital — Naypyidaw. PDF, trained by EAOs, has launched guerilla attacks on junta forces in the outskirts of the capital as well as other major cities like Mandalay and Yangon.
What Happens If Junta Is Defeated:
The immediate outcome of EAOs and PDF defeating the Tatmadaw and taking over the entire country is very uncertain.
Myanmar, in fact, faces the grave prospect of Balkanisation if the EAOs — many of them want to break away from Myanmar — and the NUG fail to arrive at a broad understanding of the future of the country.
The NUG is politically aligned with some EAOs like the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and Chin National Front (CNF), but it has a rather loose alignment with the 3BA constituents. Other EAOs are not aligned with the NUG.
All the EAOs have their own areas of influence based on the loyalties of the ethnic groups and sub-groups they represent. In the absence of a clear-cut national agenda arrived at by consensus, fragmentation of the country is a distinct possibility if and when the junta falls.
Right now, all anti-junta forces — the EAOs and the PDF — are united in their common goal of defeating the junta. But after achieving that immediate goal, there is absolutely no clarity or consensus on what will happen.
While some of the EAOs favour a federal democratic setup, some others want semi-autonomous regions within the country organised in a loose federal union or a confederation of states. Some EAOs are against democracy, preferring a one-party system in the areas they seek to control.
Few of the EAOs want a strong central government. And there is absolutely no agreement on what form such a federal government will take — will it be a parliamentary democracy, a presidential form of government or a nominal democracy?
Many in the NUG are against federalism and any degree of autonomy for the provinces because, they argue, such steps will boost centrifugal forces intent on breaking up the country.
Experts say a lot will depend on the ability and willingness of the NUG, which has Aung San Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) as its primary constituent, to artfully negotiate a settlement with the various ethnic groups and the EAOs who represent them.
Where India Stands In This Scenario
In its eagerness to contain China’s influence over the junta, New Delhi has engaged actively with Myanmar’s generals.
Apart from extending aid to the junta, India has also hosted junta chief General Hlaing and other top junta figures.
This has angered the NUG and the EAOs. The NUG has been repeatedly urging India to stop cavorting with Myanmar’s discredited junta and, instead, extend aid and overt support to the NUG.
But New Delhi has been playing it rather safe and has preferred to deal with the junta. New Delhi’s actions have been dictated by the desire to stop the junta, on which the western nations imposed debilitating sanctions, from getting too close to China.
India had good ties with the NLD, but those were allowed to deteriorate after the February 2021 coup. It was felt that maintaining those ties would displease Myanmar’s military rulers, a prospect New Delhi wanted to avoid.
But now, with the junta facing collapse, New Delhi has been left with virtually no leeway in Myanmar. Its ties with the NUG are very weak, and it will take a lot of time and effort to re-establish those ties.
New Delhi has virtually no ties with any of the powerful EAOs. China, on the other hand, has very strong ties with some of the EAOs. China has armed and trained some of the EAOs and regularly hosts their leaders. Senior figures of many EAOs regularly travel to China, especially its eastern Yunnan province.
How India Can Regain Lost Ground:
But innovative thinking by the foreign policy and intelligence establishments can drastically alter the situation and help India regain all the lost ground, and more.
Several insurgent groups of Northeast India, namely the ULFA, the various factions of the NSCN, the Kuki insurgent groups in Manipur as well as the valley-based insurgent groups in that state, and some other minor groups, have, or had, good ties with some of the EAOs.
These insurgent groups of the Northeast had taken the help of some of the Myanmarese EAOs, especially the Arakan Army (AA), Chin National Army (CNA) and other Chin rebel groups to establish bases in the Chin and Sagaing provinces of Myanmar. The Northeastern groups had also received training and even arms and ammunition from the EAOs.
Moreover, some factions of the NSCN, the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), Kuki National Army (KNA) and Chin National Army (CNA) operate on both sides of the international border.
Almost all these Northeast insurgent groups have signed ceasefire or suspension of operations (SOO) agreements, or final agreements to end their insurgency, with New Delhi.
They can be leveraged by New Delhi to establish working ties very quickly with the EAOs. Indian security and intelligence agencies that liaise closely with the Northeast insurgent groups that have reached ceasefire deals or final agreements need to ask their insurgent groups to establish links with the EAOs they have/had ties with right away.
This was done in the past by New Delhi. Former Mizoram chief minister Pu Zoramthanga, who was the second-in-command in the Mizo National Front (MNF) when the MNF was an insurgent outfit fighting for Mizo sovereignty (from the mid-1960s to 1986), had very good ties with the AA and a couple of other ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar.
New Delhi often sought Zoramthanga’s help in reaching out to the EAO, especially the AA, when required. New Delhi sought and acquired AA’s consent and cooperation in the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project.
Zoramthanga, on New Delhi’s request, used his ties with the AA to secure the release of four Indian engineers working on the Kaladan project who had been abducted by the AA in November 2019.
Zoramthanga, and the NE insurgent groups, should be requested right away to facilitate New Delhi’s access to the EAOs.
India needs to step up its stakes in Myanmar. Or else, it will find itself completely cut away from all equations and events in the troubled country.
It is also in India’s interests to prevent the Balkanisation of Myanmar. A fragmented Myanmar will be a perennial source of trouble for India. To prevent Myanmar from breaking up, New Delhi needs to have a strong influence on the major EAOs.
India also has to, at the same time, re-establish ties with the NLD and with the other constituents of the NUG.
New Delhi needs to shed its inhibitions about displeasing the Myanmarese junta and get back in the game in Myanmar right away. And in this, the NE insurgent groups can be its trump cards.
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