Myanmar’s widening war headed for junta’s heartland – Asia Times

Myanmar’s widening war headed for junta’s heartland - Asia Times

The wide and deeply disturbing contours of turmoil for the remaining of 2024 and into 2025 are now taking shape, even before the end of a clean season that has considerably altered the defense balance in Myanmar.

Recent months have seen large swathes of the nation’s borderlands fall under the control of powerful ethnic minority armies amid cascading defeats suffered by State Administration Council ( SAC ) military forces.

However, the war will almost certainly be waged at an increased level in the country’s highly populated cultural Bamar heartland and will be a really unique fight in the upcoming rainy season and beyond.

Short of a political implosion of the embattled regime in Naypyidaw– a conceivable but however unlikely scenario – the now discernable shift of major hostilities toward the center of national power promises a much less organized and more savagely destructive conflict than anything seen to date with certainly dire humanitarian consequences.

In the worst case scenario, there might be a rise in killing and population displacement in Southeast Asia that has n’t been seen since the Indochina wars of the 1970s.

The scale of the army’s recent battlefield losses and its impact on morale offers some ground for hope that the coming phase of the war might, if nasty and brutish, at least be short and that a” strategic offensive” announced by the opposition National Unity Government ( NUG) last December will push a weakened SAC regime toward collapse or break the military’s cohesion. &nbsp,

It remains to be seen how much criticism- led estimates of government decline are justified but the omens are at best combined.

The three distinct campaigns launched by ethnic resistance organizations ( EROs ) in Myanmar’s dry season ended in May have, if ever, effectively redrawn the military and administrative landscape in a way that a struggling SAC regime will not be able to reverse.

Launched by the joint Brotherhood Alliance of racial Palaung, Kokang Chinese and Rakhine rebel forces, the” Operation 1027″ that second opened on October 27 last year and finally swept across the northern of Shan state, seizing cities from SAC power and severing the most important business vessels to China.

A potent insurgent front has been formed by MNDAA, TNLA, and AA ethnic armed groups. Image: Facebook

Operation 1027 merged with an equally well-prepared and still ongoing campaign spearheaded by the Brotherhood’s numerically largest force, the Arakan Army ( AA ), which seized the majority of the state’s Rakhine on the Bay of Bengal in a slew of fierce assaults from mid-November.

And, in early March, it was the turn of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA ) to launch a strategic offensive, which in less than two weeks relieved pressure on its” capital” of Laiza on the China border and rolled up a string of army bases along the strategic road between the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina and the Ayeyarwady river port city of Bhamo.

Rebel blows that cause havoc

SAC forces continue to hold out in major urban centers, notably Lashio in Shan state, Sittwe in Rakhine and Myitkyina in Kachin. However, these insurgent campaigns ‘ ferocious success, which were the result of months of planning and preparation, had historically dealt the army with never-before-seen losses in munitions, morale, and manpower.

Assessments of battlefield casualties in Myanmar have more to do with informed guesswork than statistical certainty but it is reasonable to conclude that since late October the army has lost at least 8, 000 and probably more than 10, 000 men killed or captured.

This toll comes from a conservative breakdown of losses that were likely caused by the overrunning of two divisional-sized Military Operation Command headquarters ( MOC 16 in Hsenwi, Shan state, and MOC 9 in Kyauktaw, Rakhine state ), as well as at least 30 battalion bases, a sizable military training complex in Minbya township, and a number of smaller army and border police posts. &nbsp,

The more than 4, 000 soldiers who were given the go-ahead to a Regional Operations Command ( ROC ) in Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region in Shan state, are not included in the list. If in the coming weeks the ROC at Sittwe and another MOC in Buthidaung in Rakhine were also to fall, this toll would obviously rise further.

The impact of this scandal, which unfolds in a matter of weeks, has undoubtedly shaken confidence at command levels and almost certainly contributed to the decision to institute a national conscription law with a call-up process starting in April. &nbsp, &nbsp, &nbsp,

The sheer volume of munitions and equipment lost in these repeated defeats was no less threatening. In addition to huge quantities of small arms and light weapons, the army has lost scores of heavy 122mm and a few 155mm howitzers and at least 50 armored fighting vehicles. Given the ethnic armies of the Brotherhood’s traditional capabilities, which they have never previously had.

Superimposing these human and material losses on a map of Myanmar reveals a politically and economically bankrupt regime encircled to the east, west, north and southeast by aggressively assertive ethnic opposition forces committed to its overthrow while at the same time facing relentless popular resistance across the military’s traditional powerbase in the national heartland.

Military logic suggests that the current coup regime’s defeat is the only way this forces-force correlation can be resolved strategically. The essential issue is how long this process may take and what cost it will exact.

Coming bloody battle

Expectations that recent advances in the borderlands have triggered a “tipping point” that can translate into a nationwide strategic offensive are almost certainly premature and need to be set against psychological and material factors that suggest the possibility, even likelihood, of a very bloody and long- drawn- out struggle across the central regions of the country.

In the first place, it would be foolish to ignore a ruling military caste’s peculiar psychoses, which show how, after seven decades of power, privilege, and impunity, it has come to view itself as the unavoidable protector of its soul.

The military elite’s messianic obsession with national salvation and an ingrained xenophobia never far beneath the surface merge easily enough into a more down- to- earth fight for institutional and personal self- preservation.

The story of a depleted and besieged Tatmadaw that stood firm and ultimately prevailed against insurgent forces then ravaged the Bamar heartland serves to reinforce these mindsets and unquestionably appeals to some regime supporters.

For most army rank and file, however, instinctive discipline, a paycheck and the defense of family and comrades undoubtedly hold greater psychological sway than any misconstrued reading of history.

Myanmar’s soldiers march in a formation during a parade to commemorate the nation’s 74th Armed Forces Day on March 27, 2019, in Naypyidaw. Photo: Asia Times Files / AFP / Thet Aung

It is also important to realize that the army’s losses since October have been significant but not decisive in terms of material.

According to one intelligence source’s tentative assessment, the army still almost certainly numbers around 70, 000 troops supported by militarized police and militia units organized under a unified command structure. This ballpark estimate is supported by a wider consensus among independent analysts.

Furthermore, at least some of these heartland forces constitute the praetorian core of military rule.

Most are typically paraded out on the March 27 Armed Forces Day parade and fall under the Naypyidaw and Yangon Regional Military Commands ( RMCs ), which include special forces companies and airborne-trained battalions. Others are assault battalions drawn from centrally commanded– but now badly mauled – Light Infantry Divisions ( LIDs ) based around the heartland in key garrison cities such as Meiktila, Magwe, Pakokku and Bago.

These loyalist units are made of well-equipped, disciplined troops with a high esprit de corps and an undeniable willingness to escalate the conflict with their backs now facing the wall, much like the Waffen SS of Nazi Germany.

As fighting spreads across the central plains in the months ahead, these units will be supported by artillery and air power that events over the past year indicate will have no compunction in leveling entire urban communities where popular resistance forces operate or seek to take control. They may also be supported by armored units, which have so far played virtually no part in the conflict.

Ranged on the other side of Myanmar’s now starkly existential divide are newly formed Peoples Defense Forces ( PDFs ) that since mid- 2021 have proved increasingly adept in guerrilla operations across wide swathes of central Myanmar, most notably in Sagaing but also in Mandalay, Magwe, Bago and southern Tanintharyi.

However, PDFs in the Myanmar heartland fight as loose coalitions of lightly armed guerrillas that, for the most part, have learned on the job, in contrast to the ethnic armies that have deployed trained and equipped battalions and brigades in carefully planned strategic offensives since October.

Operating mostly without strategic direction and with tactical command- and- control that is often weak, these armed bands still lack the organization and equipment for sustained offensive operations against conventional forces maneuvering in strength. In summary, if ethnic armies are prepared for” strategic offensive” prime time, their PDF allies are undoubtedly not.

This stark disparity raises the prospect of a potentially protracted and savage war across the crowded heartlands of Myanmar with far heavier losses in resistance ranks than seen to date accompanied by levels of civilian displacement that could well dwarf an estimated 2.3 million already driven from their homes.

Chaos avoiding

Two critical variables may serve to mitigate or perhaps even avoid a descent into open- ended, anomic chaos.

The most pressing concern is posed by military capability, as well as how well-equipped key EROs are to increase training and logistical support for heartland PDFs and, in some theaters, how much personnel they may even commit to their own.

The framework for such cooperation already exists on various fronts where EROs, most notably Kachin, Karen and Ta’ang, have trained, equipped and mentored affiliated PDFs since the early days of armed resistance to the coup.

However, a much greater level of support will be required to increase the capabilities of PDFs over the upcoming months and into the following year, which will require a lot more coordination between an ERO” coalition of the willing” and the NUG’s Defense Ministry.

Specifically, it will demand a willingness to mobilize and equip regular PDF units with heavier weapons– particularly anti- aircraft heavy machine guns and mortars – drawn from the cornucopia of munitions captured over recent months. &nbsp,

Against the backdrop of a traditionally fraught relationship between ethnic minorities and the dominant Bamar, the political and financial impediments to such a strategic initiative are significant. However, it’s conceivable that” crunch time” for making difficult decisions now has arrived rather than the past.

China’s role will also be important, if not critical. China’s intentions regarding using its influence over the Brotherhood to restrain large-scale support of PDFs under the NUG’s control or, alternatively, whether it has come to regard the Brotherhood allies as valuable proxies in defending its own interests in the Myanmar heartland and even more broadly in a post-SAC future. &nbsp,

A second variable hinges on PDF forces adopting a more unified military strategy. The dangers of a” strategic offensive” were amply demonstrated during the previous dry season at Kawlin, a district center of no significant strategic importance in Upper Sagaing, which was supported by the KIA on November 6 at the heady height of 1027 euphoria. &nbsp, &nbsp,

Members of the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF) are pictured in this photo, which was taken on July 7, 2021, undergoing military training at their camp in Kayah state near Demoso. Photo: Asia Times Files / AFP / Stringer

Kawlin was hailed by the NUG as a model for a liberated administration, but it was shelled, bombed, depopulated, and finally retaken by the military in February, which is a clear indication of why it was seized in the first place if there was no longer a better plan.

More recently, in early March, the same opportunistic approach was adopted at Kani, a town on the Chindwin River also in Upper Sagaing where PDFs joined forces in a determined attempt to overrun the center only to have to withdraw under intense army pressure ten days later.

Moving to seize towns at this point of the war prompted a concerted counterpunch that PDFs are unable to withstand, as both cases demonstrated. If these reverses could happen in Sagaing where PDFs have made hard- won battlefield progress, similar forays in Mandalay or Magwe regions would also certainly be repelled.

A strategic strategy with significantly better chances of success, rather than an uncoordinated and expensive opportunism, might focus on arteries of communication and resupply. Progressively asserting control along highways and restricting military movement between towns has two obvious benefits.

First, it forces the army out of urban bases into exhausting road opening operations, which eventually turn out to be prohibitively expensive. This dynamic is already visible on the Asia Highway to the Thai border at Myawaddy where the Karen and allied PDFs have essentially taken control of the road east of Kawkareik town.

Second, a primary offensive focus on roads and railways provides time and space for building better-organized PDF units at battalion and brigade levels, forces that in the context of wider strategic planning will eventually be able to take and hold urban centers in the face of constant guerrilla harassment that extends into urban areas.

Neither the improvement of PDF capabilities nor the adoption of a strategic approach to operations in the heartland can or should be taken for granted. Indeed, the NUG at the center of a terrifyingly disorganized battlespace arguably militates against them given the political and logistical strains they impose on them.

The alternative to progress on both crucial fronts, however, may well be a descent into years of increasingly chaotic and costly violence with regional repercussions that are impossible to predict.