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Myanmar: Could rebel offensive topple ruling junta?

November 10, 2023

An alliance of Myanmar rebel forces recently launched an offensive called "Operation 1027," which has made big gains and is set to expand. Analysts say the junta's grip on power is under threat.

TNLA rebels in Shan state, pictured in March 2023
Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) rebels are among three groups currently allied in an offensive against the TatmadawImage: AFP

Myanmar's ruling military junta, the Tatmadaw, is facing a major challenge as a three-member alliance of rebel militant groups continue an offensive against junta-held bases in the country's northern Shan State. 

The so-called "Three Brotherhood Alliance" comprises rebel groups based in different regions, mainly in northern Myanmar. On October 27, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA), launched "Operation 1027," named after the offensive's start date.

On Wednesday, the alliance issued a statement vowing to launch "more effective, joint operations along with other armed revolutionary groups throughout the country," the Irrawaddy newspaper reported.

Since the Tatmadaw seized power in a February 2021 coup, ethnic rebel groups based mostly in Myanmar's peripheral regions, have organized armed opposition to the junta.

Analysts say the current offensive poses the biggest threat to the junta's grip on power since the 2021 coup. 

The operation has so far been swift and successful with at least seven towns and 125 Tatmadaw positions captured in two weeks, according to the MNDAA.

These include crucial trading posts on Myanmar's border with China. Hundreds of Tatmadaw troops are believed to have been killed so far.

'Watershed' moment for Myanmar?

Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst, said the success of the offensive across the northern Shan State "marks a critical watershed in the conflict."

"Aside from the huge quantities of munitions that have fallen into opposition hands, the offensive has denied the military regime access to key trade hubs on the Chinese border and the revenue derived from them, but in broader psychological terms served to burst the bubble of military invincibility," he told DW.

"This offensive and its wider spill over into central regions of the country has made it entirely clear that the war in Myanmar is not locked into some purported stalemate that sooner or later will demand negotiations," he said.

"It actually has the potential to bring down a regime that is already facing deep economic and political crises," he added.

The February 2021 coup also sparked an organized civil disobedience campaign, along with armed resistance to the Tatmadaw's rule.

There are varying estimates of how many civilians have been killed since the coup, but all estimates are in the thousands. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based human rights watchdog, 4,100 civilians and pro-democracy activists in Myanmar have been killed since the coup, with over 25,000 people arrested. The UN estimates over 1 million have been displaced.

Along with ethnic militias, the National Unity Government, comprising ousted former democratically elected leaders, has an armed wing called the "People's Defense Forces."           

Myanmar's revitalized resistance

Up until recently, some Myanmar observers had forecasted the fight between the Tatmadaw and its opponents to be a stalemate with no real end in sight.

A Myanmar rebel receives a buzzcut
People's Defence Force (PDF) in Karen State seen at a training camp in 2021Image: REUTERS

Before the October offensive, the biggest development on the battlefield this year was an increase in airstrikes, with the deadliest killing at least 168 people in Sagaing State in April.

Operation 1027 looks to have revitalized the opposition. Not only has the operation aligned several opposition groups, but the speed of the gains has given hope to other groups throughout Myanmar.

Local media report the resistance is now turning its attention to Myanmar's Sagaing Region, which borders India.

On November 7, Karreni resistance forces launched "Operation 1107" in the southeastern Kayah State and captured at least two military bases.

"It would almost certainly be a mistake to imagine that the collapse of the military regime will occur domino-style in the coming days or weeks," said analyst Davis. "Given severe manpower constraints there is little to no chance that a counter-offensive in Shan State will succeed in retaking lost ground."

"At the same time, military pressure in other key regions of the country where powerful resistance coalitions already operate will only increase in the dry season ahead.  As a result of Operation1027, the writing is now very clearly on the wall," Davis added.

Ye Myo Hein, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, recently warned on X, formerly Twitter, that the Arakan Army potentially breaking a cease-fire with the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State, would be a "nightmare" for the Tatmadaw.

Junta warns Myanmar could 'split'

In response to the offensive, the junta has conducted heavy air and artillery strikes. The Tatmadaw has always maintained it is the best choice to maintain national unity, despite decades of land and religious hostilities between armed ethnic groups.

Rocket fire seen at night
Tatmadaw rockets being fired in northern Shan State on October 28 amid heavy fightingImage: AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the junta-appointed president, Myint Swe, warned that Myanmar would be "split into various parts" if the government "did not effectively manage the incidents happening in the border region."

"If the government does not effectively manage the incidents happening in the border region, the country will be split into various parts," said Myint, who leads the Myanmar military's State Administration Council (SAC).

"The entire people need to support the Tatmadaw," he added.

In February, the SAC claimed that over one third of Myanmar's 330 townships were, at the time, not under its control.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, told DW that the coordinated offensive is a "very significant development."

"For the first time, the Three Brotherhood Alliance is fighting offensively in conjunction with the National Unity Government. They had only fought in self-defense, previously," he said.

"The question is if the SAC can launch a counteroffensive.  The joint operations mean the junta will have to respond. But the significance remains to be seen, Abuza said.

"The bigger issue for me is how the junta acts internally. Will [Tatmadaw leader] Min Aung Hlaing be seeking scapegoats? How will the brass respond? I expect this coordinated offensive to continue," the professor said.

China seeks border stability with Myanmar

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 


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