Myanmar has long been a complex landscape of armed organisations, ethnic groups and political organisations, each with their own histories, alliances and agendas. Since the February 2021 coup, this bewildering array of actors and the alphabet-soup of acronyms by which they are known has only grown, making it almost impossible for even the most dedicated analyst to keep track of them all. More taxing still to track are the ever-shifting alliances, agreements and interactions of these various groups – making solid predictions about Myanmar’s future into a precarious business. In this article, Alex Smith examines the challenge of Myanmar’s multi-party conflict, its myriad armed groups, and what the future is likely to have in store for the country.
It is now more than two years since the Union Solidarity Development Party’s (USDP) humiliation in the November 2020 elections, and almost exactly two years since the Myanmar military (commonly referred to as the Tatmadaw, or to be more politically correct, the Sit-tat), much to the surprise of at least one fitness instructor, staged a coup and formed the State Administrative Council (SAC) junta led by senior General Min Aung Hlaing. To recap, the ousted democratically-elected government, composed primarily of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other disenfranchised elements, then formed the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government-in-exile that professes to represent the people of Myanmar. Suu Kyi and other NLD figures were imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and mass demonstrations were met by brutal crackdowns by the military and police, including weapons fire, abductions, torture and executions.
This led to grassroots insurgent organisations – many with flamboyant sounding names – to form, becoming known as People’s Defence Forces (PDF). Many youths from the Bamar ethnic majority took to the hills, literally, to seek training and arms from some of the many Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) in the uplands and periphery of the country. While these forces were initially expected to be crushed by the Sit-tat, they have grown into a credible insurgent force, staging constant attacks on junta forces and taking the fight to parts of the country that were comparatively untouched by conflict in previous decades and causing any number of problems for the SAC and its allies.
Following two years of fighting and little meaningful progress by either side, some are asking where Myanmar can go from here. While China and India have been reticent to condemn the junta – each being more interested in pursuing their own agendas – the U.S. has been slow to wade in. The E.U. has recognised the NUG, and the United Kingdom has huffed and puffed at the UN, but most of the ASEAN nations would simply like for the issue to just go away. Indeed, few international actors seem to have any appetite to apply meaningful effort towards resolving the conflict, either through diplomacy or material support.
Tides of War
Armed resistance to the junta is not as simple as PDF and EAO vs the Sit-tat. Following the early crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations, groups formed to initially protect demonstrators but rapidly became insurgent groups, adopting guerrilla or terror tactics against the junta and their forces. EOAs such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karen National Progressive Party (KNPP) have been instrumental in training these fighters in Mon and Kayah states, alongside other groups in Shan and Arakan states. There are now hundreds of PDF groups varying in size and capability. While the NUG estimated there were between 50-100,000 fighters, more recent analysis from the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) puts the figure at 65,000. An increasing number of these PDFs are affiliated to some degree with the NUG, who claim a coordinating role through the establishment of the Central Command and Coordination Committee (C3C) and Joint Command and Coordination (J2C) alongside their EAO allies. The NUG claims the loyalty of many of the PDF groups, while other significant groups such as the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and Karenni National Defence Force (KNDF) cooperate via the C3C but are not otherwise affiliated with the NUG. In 2022 the NUG and its allies announced the formation of three Military Division Commands (MDC) to coordinate the war, and the NUG is claimed to be the founding organisation behind the PDFs, their training and equipment.
Alongside the PDFs are the People’s Defence Teams (PDT). These are smaller units that specialise in areas such as training or, more visibly, the urban warfare and terror tactics that target junta forces away from the countryside in the major cities. In addition there are several hundred Local Defence Forces (LDF) which are not associated with the NUG, although some have transitioned to becoming PDFs. These groups are generally smaller and less well armed, and operate at a more local level than the PDFs.
Over the course of the conflict these forces have evolved to a pattern of guerilla tactics in the countryside and terrorism in the cities. PDFs frequently exhibit an ability to coordinate between themselves and combine with each other and allied EAOs to carry out attacks on junta outposts and ambush convoys. Largely lacking heavy weapons and air support, these groups often use hit and run tactics and have shown tactical innovation, such as the use of commercially available drones with cameras to drop mortar rounds or improvised bombs on police and military outposts. In the cities and towns, particularly Yangon and Myanmar, IEDs targeting military and police have been common. Targeted assassinations against Pyu Saw Htee members and local officials, usually in the form of shootings by two-man teams on motorcycles, have also become a preferred tactic.
All these tactics have been practised and refined, and PDF forces and their allies appear to be gradually gaining control of territory, albeit tenuous. The NUG also appears to be doing a good job of uniting Myanmar’s disparate forces under its banner and orchestrating a cumulative strategy to wear down the junta, and indeed the junta does appear to be struggling to maintain its strength according to some observers.
But all may not be as clear cut as the NUG would like us to believe. While reporting from the Special Advisory Council – Myanmar (SAC-M) places the NUG at the centre of the resistance movement, regional experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) casts doubt on the strength of the NUG’s hold over the PDFs, and point out that the NUG has no authority over the EAOs which remain the most credible forces fighting the junta. Indeed, many significant EAOs and PDF groups are reported as seeing the NUG as irrelevant to their resistance, either in strategic direction or equipment – an area in which the NUG has been criticised for being deficient and showing favouritism.
Arrayed against these forces are the Myanmar military, augmented by the usual police and security organs and further reinforced by the Pyu Saw Htee militia. These militiamen are often ex-military or USDP-supporting civilians that receive weapons and some training from the Sit-tat to act as local-level forces providing intelligence and support. They have also been implicated in many of the recent atrocities carried out in the Bamar majority areas of Sagaing and Magwe regions. Further adding to the junta forces, although more indirectly, are the so-called Border Guard Forces (BGF). These are former EAOs or possibly narco-militias that have at some point aligned themselves with the Sit-tat through a ceasefire agreement and been allowed to continue their operations, albeit under the umbrella of the central government.
Together their tactics have been brutal. Military and Pyu Saw Htee militia have burned hundreds or even thousands of villages in a bid to discourage support for the PDFs and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. Abductions, torture and execution have been documented throughout Myanmar, but especially in the Northern regions such as Sagaing, where the junta has struggled for control despite the region being of Bamar majority. Junta tactics have also come to rely increasingly on their overwhelming strength in air power and artillery, with seemingly indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes used to both gain an edge in combat and punish civilians after attacks on junta forces. Where the junta has gone on the tactical offensive it has generally not fared well, with forces struggling to maintain supply lines in Myanmar’s rugged hinterlands.
Overall the military appears to be in a situation where, despite its material strengths and the continued arms sales from countries such as Russia and India,the sheer ubiquity of the resistance forces leave it unable to concentrate its forces to achieve decisive results. Where in previous decades the fighting was largely confined to the periphery against various EAOs, the growth of the current resistance to include many of the Bamar majority in the central regions has left the military facing manpower shortages.
Divide and Rule
To counteract this to some degree the junta has been employing their age-old tactic of playing the EAOs off against each other wherever possible. As well as the on-again off-again ceasefires with the Arakan Army (AA) that has allowed the group to largely take control of Rakhine state while the Sit-tat dealt with other problems, the junta has offered carrots to EAOs and BGFs to fight on their behalf. One businessman recently sealed a deal to provide the Kokang BGF with commercial helicopters, no doubt as an incentive to keep them fighting their old foe the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Northern Shan state.
There are certainly plenty of fault lines for the junta to exploit. An illustrative example of the sort of conflicts within conflicts happening in Myanmar is the case of the ongoing rivalry between the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), with their respective armed forces, the Shan State Army – North (SSA-N) and the Shan State Army – South (SSA-S).
While the Shan State Army was founded in 1964 and its political wing the SSPP in 1971, the RCSS has a more convoluted lineage going back to the break-up of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Mong Tai Army (MTA) of opium kingpin Khun Sun. In 1995 a breakaway faction from the MTA formed the Shan State National Army (SSNA), signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta-of-the-day, and formed an alliance with the SSPP. In 1996 the MTA leaders surrendered and swiftly saved themselves – with some members being granted militia status but many fighters finding themselves jobless. Some of these remnants formed the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) and, after failing to form a pan-Shan organisation with the other EAOs, and with a Sit-tat offensive devastating the region, the SURA forces set up in the South of Shan state and became the RCSS. In 2005 they were joined by the remnants of the SSNA, which had been pushed out of their Northern base after years of pressure from the Sit-tat and other EAOs, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the bitter rival of the defunct MTA.
In 2015 the RCSS were one of only eight EAOs to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) put forward by the government of U Thein Sein, effectively making peace between them and the central government and seemingly granting the RCSS a freedom to operate without Sit-tat interference. At the same time, the central government put increasing pressure on the SSPP to sign the NCA (or the 21st Century Panglong Agreement, as it was now called) or become BGF, and several units laid down their arms, although the SSA-N was still able to fight off a Sit-tat offensive in 2015.
With the SSPP and the SSA-N weak, the RCSS (possibly with Sit-tat assistance) began extending its influence into the North. However, clashes soon began between the RCSS and the SSPP, followed by SSPP allies the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) from the mid-2010s. However, the 2021 coup led to the NCA falling apart and the SSPP and its allies seeing a chance to move against the RCSS, driving it out of its recently acquired northern territories back towards the Thai border in the South. These SSPP and TNLA forces seem suddenly well equipped with heavy weapons such as artillery, leading to speculation that the UWSA stands behind them, and behind the UWSA stands China, with which it has strong and enduring links back to the time of the CPB.
And if all that wasn’t convoluted enough, the plot thickens further when you consider that the area in which a great deal of the fighting between these groups has occurred is prime real estate for large Chinese investments in Myanmar, not least the oil and gas pipelines running through Shan state and linking the Chinese province of Yunnan to the Indian Ocean.
More illustrative of the junta’s divide and rule strategy, however, are the developments in late January. After being accused of facilitating the RCSS’ encroachment North in the late 2010s, and further – unsubstantiated – rumours of aiding the SSPP in its push back South, junta forces have been reported moving into towns around the SSPP headquarters in Wan Hai, Kyethi township. Just days before, jets buzzed the town in what may well have been an intimidatory exercise. Added to this the recent meeting in Nay Pyi Taw between the junta and RCSS leaders and it appears that another switch of Sit-tat support could be on the cards. It would certainly make sense for the junta, as so long as the Shan EAOs are fighting each other they are unlikely to cause trouble for the Sit-tat.
Partly due to the war in Ukraine, and no doubt partly due to a lack of Western interests in Myanmar, relatively little appears to have been done on the international stage to resolve the conflict. Concerned about Myanmar-based insurgency movements operating across the border into its Northeast, and jockeying for influence with China, India has stuck with its decidedly realpolitik approach and refrained from condemning the coup. Instead, it has effectively sealed its border with Myanmar’s Chin state and continued to provide the Sit-tat with weaponry.
China, while no doubt a little put out by the coup given its extensive business deals made with the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, has simply carried on business as usual. With significant infrastructure investments, not least the trans-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, China will continue to do business with whomever sit in Nay Pyi Taw. China also seems to enjoy an influential relationship with some powerful EAOs, especially those who trace their lineage back to the CPB. Myanmar is also a cash cow for any number of shady Chinese companies extracting minerals, jade, timber and rare earth elements at tragic environmental cost to feed the ceaseless global demand – a sin for which many of us are perhaps unwittingly culpable.
Japan, one of the few other countries to have had significant investments in Myanmar in part to counter Chinese influence, saw most of its companies pull out in the months after the coup, leaving them with little leverage.
With top-cover from such regional powers, the SAC doesn’t seem to be in any danger of bowing to political pressure, but even its smaller neighbours seem reluctant to exert any pressure. Thailand – itself run by a Prime Minister and ex-general who came to power in a coup – has a close relationship with the Sit-tat, despite recent embarrassments, and other members of ASEAN such as Cambodia seem to be content to just let the situation continue. Indeed, should the SAC succeed in their planned sham elections – which a recent law has excluded the NLD from contesting – it seems likely that that will be all the legitimacy some Southeast Asian nations need to carry on their relations with Nay Pyi Taw. Admittedly, this view is not universal, and Indonesian leadership of ASEAN which starts this month could see a more decisive agenda with regards to Myanmar, but you would be a fool to hold your breath for ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus to be implemented.
How Does This End?
How does this end? Probably not soon, is the answer. There appears to be a fair chance that the overstretched Sit-tat could crumble – given enough time and pressure from the PDF and other resistance groups. Given the general lack of heavy weapons though it is hard to see a path towards a more even confrontation to attack the Sit-tat’s centre of gravity without a significant external sponsor for the resistance movement. Should this occur and the NUG step in to fill the political void it is uncertain exactly how much loyalty they would command, both with Bamar PDFs and LDFs and with the allied EAOs. Indeed, if the struggle wears on it is possible to imagine new leaders emerging on the battlefield whose credibility with those fighting exceeds that of the remote NUG, even if the NLD remains popular. Would Aung San Suu Kyi be wheeled out of prison to lead another government, and if not who would replace her?
One suggestion mooted by an Indonesian minister while he attended the WEF in Davos was for Min Aung Hlaing to step down and let more “qualified” people run the country, drawing parallels with his own country’s experience in the late 1990s. Given the Sit-tat’s apparent belief in its divine right to rule, the personal benefits their dictatorship brings to many senior figures, and the fact that they tried a muted democratic transition in 2010 that ultimately got out of control, such a transition seems very unlikely. One overlooked point is that, having brutally oppresses and murdered not just the ethnic minorities but also their own Bamar majority, it is hard to imagine 65,000 PDF, PDT, LDF and EAO fighters just rolling over to allow another election under a dictated constitution that sees the military continue its influence just because the NUG tells them too. Were the NUG or similar to replace the military there would need to be a serious push towards a federalised Myanmar or the new government would face the wrath of some powerful EAOs, who would justifiably feel they had been betrayed yet again.
One thing does seem certain – whatever happens in Myanmar, its end-state will not be decided at some diplomatic conference. The alphabet soup has too many guns.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Myanmar’s Enemy Within (Francis Wade)
- The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century (Thant Myint-U)
- Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (David Brenner)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2023 reading list
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Alex Smith is the senior analyst for East Asia at a UK-based intelligence firm. He is a graduate of King’s College London Department of War Studies and has worked in Hong Kong in corporate security for the banking sector.
Photo: Christopher Michel