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Myanmar border clashes challenge junta's grip on power

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
November 1, 2023

Three ethnic armed groups have launched an offensive against the ruling junta. The military has responded with increased airstrikes.

This long exposure picture taken late on October 28, 2023 shows a missile fired from a Myanmar military base in Lashio township, northern Shan State
The Myanmar military has responded to the armed groups' attacks with increased airstrikes and shellingImage: AFP/Getty Images

Myanmar's military is facing a serious challenge to its grip on power in the northern Shan state, after three ethnic armed groups joined forces and launched an offensive to seize military targets in the region that borders China. 

The Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), calling themselves the Three Brotherhood Alliance, said they have seized sections of key roads to China — Myanmar's biggest trade partner — since the beginning of their offensive.

Shan is home to oil and gas pipelines that supply China and a planned billion-dollar rail link. It is part of Beijing's mammoth Belt and Road global infrastructure project.

The armed groups said on Wednesday they were in "complete control" of Chinshwehaw town on the China border and Hsenwi, which sits on the road to the China border, AFP news agency reported.

A spokesperson for the MNDAA claimed the alliance has so far captured at least 80 military-held bases, and that the junta has lost "hundreds" of soldiers.

"This is the most significant military action that the regime has faced since the coup and there's a number of reasons for that," said Richard Horsey, a political analyst who specializes in Myanmar politics.

Junta controls soldiers' lives

Ethnic armed groups and disparate interests

Myanmar's borderlands are home to more than a dozen ethnic armed groups.

Many of them have fought the military and the country's central government for decades over autonomy and control of lucrative resources.

The groups in the Three Brotherhood Alliance together control thousands of armed members, according to analysts.

Fighting between the army and many ethnic minority armed groups, including the alliance members, intensified after military leader General Min Aung Hlaing and his military forces seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.

Despite their joining forces now, each of the three outfits has their own purpose for fighting the junta, said Horsey.

"We've got to look at who's fighting and why they're fighting. And this isn't a big, joined-up fight against the regime to topple it and install a democratic government," he told DW.

"This is about these groups taking advantage of the regime being distracted elsewhere, and viewing this as a good time to push their objectives," he added.

Myanmar is home to people of multiple ethnicities, identities, and interests. Since it gained its independence in 1948, the Southeast Asian country has been splintered along ethnic lines.

The largest ethnic group — the Bamar — have dominated the nation's politics, although they have never managed to bring the entire national territory under their control. 

The Bamar mainly populate the central parts of the country, while various ethnic minorities have traditionally lived in the peripheral regions that surround the plains in a horseshoe shape.

Each of these ethnic minorities controls vast swathes of land.

In the past 75 years, no government has managed to unify the country.

Coup's impact on ethnic tensions

Ethnic tensions have worsened since the 2021 coup. It sparked widespread protests against the military junta, which launched a brutal clampdown on protesters and dissent.

Thousands are believed to have been killed since the coup, although reliable figures are not available. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 1.7 million people have been internally displaced, as of March 2023.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights watchdog based in Thailand, estimates that about 4,100 people have been killed by the military and over 25,000 arrested.

The ethnic conflicts and the fight against the People's Defense Forces (PDF), an anti-junta militia, have taken a toll on the Myanmar military. In February, the junta said that as many as 132 of the nation's 330 townships were not under their control at that time.

A major blow to the military?

Losing more territory in northern Shan will be a major blow to the military, Horsey said.

"It's quite a big deal. And so far, the regime has not yet launched a full counteroffensive. They have their hands full in other places, that complicates life for them."

Thomas Kean, a Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group, believes the armed groups' operation in Shan state shows the junta's vulnerability.

"I think the attacks are significant. It's probably the biggest single sort of offensive that we've seen since the coup," he said. 

"And the other thing is that both TNLA and MNDAA are cooperating with resistance groups. So they're fighting alongside PDFs [People's Defense Forces]. And also, there's reasonably a high degree of cooperation between ethnic groups and resistance forces."

Myanmar women key in resistance

Still, Kean shared Horsey's views on the disparate interests and goals of the various ethnic armed groups.

"I'm a little skeptical that this alliance would have a big impact on other areas because I think that the groups that are involved in the fighting have kind of ambitious, but limited objectives, like seeking to capture territory in some places to force the military out from strategic outposts," he pointed out.

"I don't think their objectives go really far beyond that," Kean stressed.

'Slowly losing ground'

The Myanmar military has responded to the armed groups' attacks with increased airstrikes and shelling.

Kean said how the junta tackles the challenge in the long run will give us a sense of its capability and the level of resources at its disposal.

"But I would say that I think it's going to be quite hard for the military to recapture some of these areas that it has lost."

The expert also believes that the junta is slowly losing ground in the overall conflict.

"I think the military is gradually losing more and more ground and that's what this offensive really shows us. In a lot of areas, it's basically an occupying power and it controls urban areas and outposts. But it's forces can't move around that safely," he said. 

"They're always vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. It is sort of death by a thousand cuts. It's been more of a chipping away at state and military control."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco