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Gauging the Strength of Myanmar’s Armed Resistance
Despite widespread resistance, Tatmadaw has the upper hand
By: Michael Hart
In the months since Myanmar’s February 2021 coup, war is no longer restricted to the mountainous hinterlands and has come to its central plains. New resistance forces, assembled to oppose the junta installed by army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, have proliferated across the country, adding to an already complex set of ethnic armed groups that have battled the military for control of remote border regions for generations.
The plains, predominantly home to the majority Bamar population, had previously been free of rebellion. The new resistance, taking in People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and other local militias aligned with the exiled National Unity Government (NUG), is stretching the resources of the military. But how strong really is Myanmar’s armed resistance, and can it threaten the junta’s rule?
Conflict in Bamar heartland
The post-coup resistance began to take shape in May 2021, when the NUG—composed mostly of elected parliamentarians from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD)—announced the formation of the people’s defense forces, later declaring a “defensive war” against the junta. As of June 2022, it claimed that more than 500 such groups were affiliated with the parallel government—though others have opted to remain independent, including local defense groups that operate in cities and rural areas.
For those that are affiliated, the NUG has tried to unify them through a central command structure. These groups receive funding from the government-in-exile, and according to its defense minister U Yee Mon consist of 50,000–100,000 fighters. The NUG claimed in September that resistance forces and ethnic armies collectively controlled over half of Myanmar. Yet that does not equal governance or uncontested authority in many regions, instead reflecting a degree of local control. PDF presence, in particular, can quickly be eroded by military offensives, making territorial claims difficult to assess.
What does represent a noticeable change from before the coup is the widespread presence of anti-government resistance forces in the central regions of Magway, Mandalay and Sagaing. The Bamar majority that populates these areas was “pacified” to a large extent in the years prior to the military takeover due to its broad support for the NLD government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which the army ruled alongside for five years. As soon as her administration was toppled by the coup, any tolerance of the military among NLD voters evaporated and the ensuing crackdown led many to take up arms.
PDFs in central Myanmar have proliferated rapidly and now pose a major problem logistically for the military, denying it a previously safe route to transport soldiers, weapons and equipment to confront armed groups operating in ethnic states in the north (Kachin), east (Shan) and south (Kayin). Convoys are now at high risk of ambush, and junta resources are stretched more thinly as troops battle PDFs.
A mismatch in capabilities
The military is, however, still far stronger than the resistance. It has up to 356,000 active troops and another 107,000 serving in paramilitary units, and is assisted by pro-regime Pyusawhti militias which have become more active in response to the anti-coup backlash. Regime soldiers have the weight of a large conventional army behind them, with access to automatic rifles, tanks and armored vehicles.
NUG-aligned forces have come up against this using mostly improvised weapons—with only a small proportion of PDFs supported by large ethnic armies in the northeast having access to modern rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Across much of the country, PDF members have worked in makeshift factories to construct their own basic weapons from locally-available materials—learning primarily from videos shared on social media and from rebels with existing knowledge and skills. It is dangerous work and many have died in accidents while assembling or testing explosives or firearms.
Weapons commonly manufactured by PDFs include slingshots, crude single-shot firearms, remotely-detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and landmines. Some claim to have produced mortar and artillery systems with a range of 2–9km, firing shells filled with lead and scrap metal, though the reliability and effectiveness of such weapons is unproven. Rebels are also reported to have captured firearms from the army and in some cases have developed 3D printed guns to use in guerilla attacks.
Battle for Myanmar’s skies
As the conflict has intensified, PDFs have begun to launch more ambitious front-foot operations, in particular using drones re-fitted to drop explosives on junta positions. This tactic minimizes the risk of rebel casualties while allowing PDFs to engage in more strategic rather than reactive warfare, as has been the case for much of the insurgency, with camera-fitted reconnaissance drones also used to identify army outposts and track troop movements. The NUG recently established its own drone unit, “Federal Wings,” to centralize operations. It views this as a precursor to an eventual air force.
The military has responded by installing anti-drone guns and signal jammers at vulnerable outposts, while deploying surveillance drones of its own and mimicking the tactics of the PDFs by using drones to drop bombs. In this area though, it has so far been the tech-savvy rebels who hold an advantage.
Yet despite this ingenuity, the military retains its overall dominance in the skies, boasting an arsenal of fighters jets and attack helicopters mostly supplied by China and Russia. This includes MiG-29, K-8, Yak-130, and Nanchang A-5 aircraft, and Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters. The military has also deployed tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor rebel movements ahead of strikes. An air attack on a music concert organized by a major ethnic armed group in Kachin state in October, which killed 60 people, exemplifies the junta’s deadly supremacy from the air. Schools and monasteries allegedly used as PDF bases have also been targeted, with the junta employing largely indiscriminate tactics.
The junta’s escalating air campaign looks set to continue unimpeded. Rebels lack access to surface-to-air missiles needed to shoot down attack jets, while no outside actors will support the imposition of a “no-fly zone.” The West is preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and sees little strategic interest in Myanmar, while ASEAN has stayed out of the conflict in line with its principle of non-interference. Neighboring powers India and China have effectively supported the junta’s rule and would object to internationalization of the conflict on their borders, meaning that PDFs are essentially on their own.
Ethnic armed organizations
One element that could tilt the balance is the position of Myanmar’s major ethnic armed groups, of which there are more than 20. While a few—notably the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the far north and the Karen National Union (KNU) in the south—have provided training and shelter to PDFs and even fought alongside them, most have stayed out of the post-coup conflict and are reluctant to work with the Bamar-dominated opposition, given the historical marginalization of ethnic minorities.
The most powerful ethnic armies, including the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) which controls territory along the border with China, have prioritized keeping stability in their own areas of interest. The smaller groups—some of which had inked a nationwide ceasefire with the military prior to the coup—have also adopted a broadly neutral position, while holding out for a future peace deal. In August, the weaker ethnic armies rejected a call by the military regime to become part of a border guard force, arguing that self-determination and ethnic minority rights must first be secured through negotiations—there is little hope for that, with the coup essentially having ended the peace process.
War in a fragmented nation
Myanmar now faces an escalating and deeply intractable multi-fronted armed conflict. PDFs will be able to deny the military effective control over large swathes of the country through a resolute and widespread guerilla insurgency, while lacking capacity to defeat a larger conventional military force. Meanwhile, ethnic armed groups retain their dominance in the northeast and other border regions, where state presence has been further weakened as junta resources come under increasing strain.
In a fragmented land of many homelands, and with a large segment of the Bamar ethnic majority at war with the military, it is hard to see a way out. Only an eventual negotiated solution, resulting in a federal system that grants power and a tangible sense of quasi-nationhood to ethnic minorities, will keep Myanmar intact as a governable state. There is no doubt that the Tatmadaw is the major block to this eventuality—which is ironic as it has long claimed to be the protector of Myanmar, a unifying force. Its ill-judged coup has served only to ignite violence and fuel more widespread internal strife.
Michael Hart has researched for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), and is publications consultant at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.