Myanmar’s ruling junta, which seized power in February 2021, finds itself on shaky ground. In fact, there is a real threat now of the military regime collapsing.
Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), the military wing of the National Unity Government (NUG)—the government-in-exile comprising political parties—have notched major gains over the last three weeks.
A large number of towns and military bases have been captured by the rebels in the eastern Kachin and Shan states bordering China, the western Sagaing and Chin provinces bordering India, Kayah and Kayin bordering Thailand and the central Magwe province.
Military positions, including battalion headquarters, have come under attack even in the Mandalay province that was believed to have been under the firm control of the junta. Mandalay province houses the country’s capital Naypyitaw.
The junta has lost control of vast swathes of the country, and, with the ethnic rebels as well as the pro-democracy fighters (belonging to the PDF) keeping up the offensive, the military is expected to lose more ground over the next few days.
What’s bad news for Myanmar’s military dictators is that junta soldiers, and also lower and mid-ranking officers, are losing morale and surrendering to the rebels.
Myanmar, of course, has a long history of armed ethnic conflict. Armed outfits representing many ethnic groups like the Karennis, Shans, Kachins, Mons, Chins, Kayans, Rakhines, Ta’angs, and Karens have been waging insurgency against the military, called the ‘Tatmadaw’ in the country, for the past many decades. They have been fighting for greater autonomy and even secession from Myanmar.
The insurgency was kept at manageable levels by the Tatmadaw through a carrot and stick policy. Some rebel groups had signed ceasefire or suspension of operation (SOO) agreements with the Tatmadaw.
But things changed after the military seized power on February 1, 2021, by countermanding results of the November 2020 elections that was won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s ).
The deposed NLD and other political parties formed the National Unity Government (NUG) with its own armed resistance called the PDF made up of civilian volunteers. The PDF volunteers were trained by some of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).
Within a few months, the EAOs and the PDF started launching coordinated attacks on Tatmadaw positions in Sagaing, Chin, Shan, and other provinces. Fierce fighting broke out between the junta and rebel forces, and more than 10,000 civilians have been killed and an estimated five lakh people displaced since then.
Faced with reverses, the junta launched air strikes on rebel bases and even villages and towns suspected to be harboring the rebels. The Tatmadaw deployed helicopter gunships and even fighter aircraft to strafe and bomb civilian areas.
Matters had reached a bloody stalemate and though intermittent attacks kept the junta on its toes, the EAOs and PDFs failed to pose any grave threat to the junta.
But things changed dramatically with the formation of the ‘Three Brotherhood Alliance’ between the , the (TNLA), and the (AA) late last month.
The three outfits launched coordinated attacks on junta camps and bases, police stations and security establishments in Shan, Kachin, Sagaing, and Chin provinces on 27 October. Many strategic towns and junta bases, especially along the borders with India and China, fell to the rebels.
‘Operation 1027’ (codenamed after the day it was launched—October 27) has resulted in huge losses for the junta. The rebel groups have seized even battalion and division headquarters of the Tatmadaw and are holding a number of soldiers and senior army officers hostage.
Since then, the fighting has metastasized across the country with other rebel groups, emboldened by the success notched up by the ‘Three Brotherhood Alliance’, launching successful strikes on junta camps and bases in other parts of the country.
The junta, led by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, has retaliated with shocking brutality. Apart from bombings and strafing by the country’s air force, the junta has also deployed artillery to indiscriminately attack civilian areas that the rebels took control over.
But the junta’s offensive has been ineffective. That’s because it has not only lost control over vast stretches of the country but also lost its ability to retaliate effectively. The Tatmadaw cannot reach most areas that the rebels have captured, and the junta’s firepower has become severely limited with the rebels seizing a lot of military hardware, including battle tanks and field guns.
Fighting has also broken out in the long-disturbed and conflict-ridden Rakhine state that shares a border with Bangladesh to its north. Apart from the Arakan Army, Rakhine is also the base of the (ARSA).
The fierce fighting that has engulfed nearly the entire country is a nightmare for the Tatmadaw, say security experts. Never before has the Tatmadaw faced so many threats from so many fronts.
The Tatmadaw is badly stretched and has no reserves now. The morale of its soldiers and officers is low due to continuous reverses it has suffered at the hands of the rebels over the past few weeks. Also, the junta’s soldiers and officers have become battle-weary—the bruising fight with the rebels has gone on for over 26 months now.
Also, due to decades of bloody operations against its own people, the military finds itself completely beleaguered and a much-hated entity in the country.
But while some Myanmar watchers predict a fall of the junta, others point out that the junta still possesses a lot of firepower. It has a lot of weapons and fighting machines supplied primarily by Russia, China, and Pakistan, and also by India, Thailand, and Singapore.
Some experts say that despite covertly supporting some of the rebel groups, China will ultimately prop up the junta and prevent its collapse to protect its own interests in Myanmar.
But what is clear is that if the rebels—the EAOs and PDFs—continue to make more headway and inflict losses on the Tatmadaw, the junta will find the ground slipping from beneath its feet. As things stand today, the trajectory of the conflict has shifted steeply in favor of the anti-junta forces.
The Challenge for India:
India had, in its own national interest, taken an ambivalent position on Myanmar. Unlike many other countries (especially the western nations), New Delhi never condemned the February 2021 coup or the junta.
New Delhi has also shied away from expressing unequivocal support for the NUG and pro-democracy forces. That has left India’s traditional friends in the NLD and other parties disappointed.
India has also engaged closely with the junta, hosted junta leaders including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and supplied arms and military equipment worth US $51 million (Rs 422 crore) to the junta since February 2021.
New Delhi is driven by its concerns over insurgent groups of Northeast India who had established bases in the Sagaing and Chin provinces of Myanmar. The Northeast Indian rebel outfits, including Naga, Kuki, and Meitei outfits, had developed very close links with the rebel outfits in Myanmar and had set up bases in the areas controlled by the Myanmar EAOs.
A few years ago, the junta launched an offensive on such bases and destroyed them. A large number of militants belonging to the NE India rebel outfits were captured and handed over to India or driven out of the country (Myanmar).
India also engaged closely with the junta in order to prevent Myanmar’s generals from becoming China’s pawns and also to put a check on China’s expanding footprints in Myanmar.
India has also been keen on advancing its connectivity projects, especially the and the project. Maintaining good ties with the Tatmadaw was crucial for the advancement of these mega projects.
But the NLD and other democratic parties, as well as the prominent EAOs, have been critical of India’s close ties with the junta.
If the junta collapses, India will have to deal with the NUG’s constituents as well as the EAOs. And the collapse of the junta will also envelop Myanmar in acute uncertainty, something that could easily go against India’s interests.
A disturbed Myanmar, with NE militant groups closely aligned with the EAOs in that country, will become a major security challenge for India.
Given the uncertainty that has gripped Myanmar, New Delhi would do well to urgently re-establish ties with the NLD and other parties and reach out to the prominent EAOs as well so that India’s interests (in Myanmar) are safeguarded.
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