Myanmar: Anti-junta rebellion enters new stage

World Saturday 20/April/2024 16:43 PM
By: DW
Myanmar: Anti-junta rebellion enters new stage

Naypyidaw: Myanmar's military is stretched thin and facing multiple defeats across the country, analysts have told DW, after a crucial town near the Thai border fell to pro-democracy forces.

The town of Myawaddy was captured by the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed rebel wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), part of Myanmar's broad anti-junta alliance.

The loss of Myawaddy is perceived as both a symbolic and economic defeat for the military regime. The battle saw the KNU and its allies force the surrender of over 600 soldiers and their family members.

At the same time, Myawaddy is vital to trade between Thailand and Myanmar, with billions of dollars worth of goods crossing the border each year.

Rebels are also pressuring forces controlled by the junta's State Administration Council (SAC) in other parts of Myanmar.

"On the ground the SAC is in retreat in multiple locations, in Kachin, Arakan, and Karenni and Shan," independent Myanmar analyst David Scott Mathieson told DW.

The protests against the military coup in February 2021 first escalated into an armed insurgency and then a full-blown civil war as various political and ethnic groups in Myanmar took up arms against the junta.

In October 2023, an alliance of opposition forces launched a large offensive in Myanmar's northern Shan state. Dubbed "Operation 1027," for the date it was launched, the counterattack saw the capture of dozens of townships and hundreds of junta-held posts. The offensive has lent momentum to other opposition groups, with fighting escalating nationwide.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who focuses on Southeast Asia politics and security, said the multiple battles are stretching the junta.

"Opposition forces are fighting across eight distinct battle zones across the country. It's not that any one group is that strong or sophisticated, but the military is spread thin, unable to divide and conquer," Abuza told DW.

"That has allowed the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), AA, KNU, and other ethnic groups to make significant territorial gains. The military has [been] significantly attritted and there have been significant breakdowns in logistics, which make rapid troop redeployment and resupply very difficult," he said.

"The military has not been able to recapture any significant amounts of territory that it has lost since Operation 1027 began, though they have focused their efforts in the Bamar heartland of Sagaing and Magwe. That remains their priority; the ethnic regions are secondary," Abuza added.

In Rakhine, the Arakan Army (AA), the armed wing of the United League of Arakan ethnic group, has made gains after a previous cease-fire agreement ended in November. The AA have captured at least six townships in the state and continue to fight for more territory.

Even before the fall of Myawaddy, rebels controlled over 60% of the country, according Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG), the anti-junta organization, which claims to be Myanmar's legitimate administration.

And this is likely to increase if the rebels take the fighting to urban areas previously unscathed by the conflict. This month, they launched rocket and drone attacks on Naypyidaw, Myanmar's heavily fortified capital, hitting a junta base near the city's airport.

"Attacks in Naypyidaw are meant to show that there is no place where the generals are safe. I think it will be important for opposition forces to increase the number of attacks in urban areas," said Abuza.

With the conflict putting the military on the backfoot, the junta is scrambling to boost its ranks and armed personnel. It has recently reintroduced conscription, which will see men and women called up into the military for at least two years. Out of a population of 56 million, 14 million qualify for military service.

The military aims to draft 60,000 new recruits a year, and 5,000 by the end of April. This potential influx, together with the junta's significant firepower, means that the regime is not out of the fight yet.

"The military has a large country to retreat into, with a network of bases and arms production. They may be losing but this doesn't indicate they're finished just yet. This is a regime that has always seen scorched earth tactics as ordinary behavior, not an extreme measure." Mathieson said.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, a spokesperson for the KNU rebel faction, admitted being wary of the military response expected to come after the capture of Myawaddy.

"We need to be very concerned from SAC side. Whenever they have lost like that, usually they make a heavy retaliation with the airstrikes. They always say that, whenever you take a place, it doesn't matter — we just have to destroy the place so you can't set up your administration."