Myanmar junta in ‘serious struggle to survive’ as insurgency gathers momentum

Military regime is failing to contain armed resistance movement that is attracting recruits

Htet Myat served 15 years in Myanmar’s military, rising to the rank of captain before defecting to the opposition months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was toppled in a coup.

A year later, he is still in contact with serving soldiers but now works for a group offering training and logistical support for men who want to defect to the armed resistance fighting the junta.

“Compared with last year, we are now in a better situation,” he said of the “People’s Defence Force”, anti-regime fighting units that have sprung up since the putsch.

“We are getting stronger by the day,” he added. The PDFs have grown so powerful that some analysts believe the regime’s survival is now under threat.

Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief, overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in February last year after her National League for Democracy party won a second term in office.

The coup ended the country’s decade-long democratic transition and within days, Min Aung Hlaing faced mass protests that the regime crushed with lethal force, driving the opposition underground – and unleashing a civil war.

Htet Myat said the army was struggling to find new soldiers. “These days, young and educated people don’t want to join the military, so they recruit homeless people, people who don’t have food or somewhere to sleep,” he said. “There are lots of people like this in the military right now.”

The claims made by resistance groups cannot be independently confirmed in a country where journalists are not allowed to report freely. The junta has disrupted internet and phone services in the central regions of Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway, where some of the fiercest clashes between the PDFs and regime troops have taken place.

However, foreign conflict analysts – including some who predicted the military would wipe out the PDFs quickly after the coup – said the guerrillas were gaining recruits and weaponry.

At the same time, the capabilities of what used to be one of Asia’s strongest militaries were fraying, they said.

“The military have in the last dry season given it their best shot, and they have failed to contain – let alone crush – the resistance, which appears to be spreading, becoming more organised, more effective and to a degree better armed and equipped,” said Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Janes.

“I think they are indeed in trouble, and if the opposition can organise on strategic lines, then there is a real possibility of this regime failing – as in falling.”

With Russia’s war in Ukraine capturing the attention of the world’s foreign ministries, Myanmar’s civil conflict has mostly fallen off the diplomatic agenda.

“The international community and the media need to know what is actually happening on the ground,” said Sithu Maung, an NLD MP who fled underground after the coup. “We want them to support us the way the world is supporting the Ukraine war.”

This week, a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said the military was “in a serious struggle to survive” and was “losing control of the country”.

Myanmar’s military has battled ethnic armed groups in upland ethnic minority states since independence.

However, since last year’s coup, they have also faced armed resistance in the plains inhabited by the Burmese-speaking Bamar majority. Some Bamar PDF militias are allying with ethnic groups in minority areas including Karen and Kachin states to receive training and arms.

The military has been further weakened by local insurgencies in recent months in the western Rakhine and Chin states, analysts said.

“The Tatmadaw [army] has never been weaker than now,” said a Yangon-based conflict expert who asked not to be named. “The Tatmadaw must soon choose to combat either the insurgency in vast rural areas like Sagaing” or ethnic areas.

The death toll from the fighting is unclear. The Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an advocacy group, said more than 2,000 people had been killed by the regime since the coup. However, it only reports confirmed deaths, and keeps no similar count for security forces. The PDFs claim to have killed scores of soldiers.

According to multiple sources in Thailand and Myanmar, the anti-regime rebels, after beginning their insurgency with homemade guns, hunting rifles and improvised bombs, are now wielding automatic weapons and sophisticated hardware bought in Thailand and India or seized after attacks on military targets.

Davis said that while early clashes between the PDFs and regime soldiers were typically over in minutes, recent attacks and ambushes have lasted for hours. He said a conservative estimate of more than 50,000 combatants were fighting “with access to some level of lethal weaponry”.

Bo Bo, a university student from near Yangon, joined the resistance last year after the military’s deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters forced them into hiding. His journey provides an insight into how the movement has evolved.

He said he initially joined a group that assassinated civilian authorities reporting to the regime, carrying out three successful hits.

After informants and soldiers began foiling such attacks, his group targeted troops with timed explosive devices assembled from materials such as fertiliser, diesel and PVC pipes. They learnt bombmaking techniques from internet videos or militants in “liberated” areas.

He later underwent commando training from fighters in Karen state and faced Tatmadaw troops in direct fighting in five battles over 15 days.

“They don’t have any strategy at all,” he said of the regime troops. “They just use lots of artillery and mortar fire.”

Bo Bo is adamant that the anti-regime resistance will prevail because, he said, “everyone in our country supports us. The civilians are on our side, so I believe we can win.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022