Against the ominous question mark hanging over Myanmar’s remarkable encounter with COVID 19 – no recorded cases to date — it’s easy to view the country’s ethnic conflicts as mere off-stage business-as-usual.
In western Myanmar, an area that brings India and China’s strategic interests face-to-face, that would be a serious mistake.
Whatever the toll of the virus in the coming months, the sharp deterioration of the military situation in Rakhine and neighboring areas of Chin state will shape in a far more profound sense both Myanmar’s political future and India’s plans to push back against growing Chinese influence.
The gravity of the crisis was plain to see on March 10 and 11 when the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, suffered its most stinging reverse to date at the hands of the Arakan Army (AA), the most aggressive of a range of ethnic forces demanding autonomy after seven decades of centralized Bamar-dominated misrule.
Early in the morning of March 10, a battalion of the Myanmar army’s crack 77th Light Infantry Division (LID) was inserted by parachute drop to relieve pressure on an embattled outpost near the east bank of the Kaladan River in Chin state’s Paletwa township.
The operation unfolded as a desperate throw of the dice in an escalating battle for control of the river – a vital transport artery – and the remote township that serves as both an AA rear base and a springboard for operations in adjacent Rakhine state.
The Tatmadaw’s experience of parachute operations is extremely limited and what appears to have been one of its first-ever insertions into a hot drop-zone quickly went disastrously wrong. Either as the unit landed or shortly afterwards, it was cut off by superior AA forces and then cut up.
By the time the fighting had died down the next day, the unit had lost at least 20 troops killed with a further 36 captured, including the battalion commander whom the AA later identified as Lieutenant Colonel Thet Naing Oo.
This debacle almost certainly marked the heaviest losses suffered in a single action since fighting in the Kokang region of northeastern Shan state in early 2015.
Whether any of the unit which might have numbered up to 100 troops managed to fight their way out of the encirclement was not clear.
Under a largely effective news blackout and internet shutdown, conflict-affected areas of Chin and Rakhine are off-limits to both Myanmar and international media.
Beyond conceding that contact with the battalion had been lost on March 10, the military made no statements over the scope of the defeat. But details released by the AA regarding names, ranks and numbers of killed and casualties along with supporting images suggested that the claims of the rebels were broadly reliable.
So, too, did the extent of the Tatmadaw’s retaliation.
Even before the battalion was overrun, Myanmar Air Force jets and artillery had been conducting strikes against several villages along the banks of the Kaladan, not least Mont Than Pyin and Pyaing Tine, in an apparent attempt to soften up AA positions before paratroops were dropped.
Following the decimation of the battalion, air strikes were ratcheted up against other villages further east killing over 20 civilians and forcing an estimated 2,000 to flee their homes.
This blood-soaked snapshot of the longer and wider struggle for control of the Kaladan River highlighted several increasingly salient realities of the war in western Myanmar.
First, the Tatmadaw — which has committed an estimated 15,000-20,000 troops to the theater — is critically starved of tactical intelligence in a battle-space where it enjoys virtually no popular support.
Certainly, there is no other way to explain a disaster in which a battalion-sized unit jumps directly into an encirclement that sees it losing scores of men, killed and captured, including its commanding officer.
As a key plank in efforts to address an increasingly pressing problem, the Tatmadaw is currently looking to upgrade at speed its fleet of obsolescent Chinese CH-3 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), according to Asia Times sources in Yangon. To date those efforts have apparently been unsuccessful.
Second, large-scale surrender in a crack unit of Naypyidaw’s rapid response force of ten centrally-commanded LIDs points to a potentially serious morale problem.
As news of the debacle spreads within army ranks that vulnerability can only become more pronounced, especially in locally recruited battalions under the military’s Western Command.
Video footage released on social media by AA sources in late February showing army troops captured in earlier jungle-fighting revealed glimpses of strikingly young soldiers, many still likely in their teens.
Thirdly, the combination of weak intelligence and brittle morale appears to be driving a growing reliance on elements that can be counted on: helicopter gunships, new Russian ground-attack jets and, wherever possible, artillery.
Most striking in this context has been the deployment of long-range truck-mounted multiple rocket launch systems (MRLS).
Pioneered by the Soviet Red Army as it pushed west towards Germany in World War II, these weapons are designed for saturation bombardment of wide areas where conventional forces are assembled.
Their use in a counterinsurgency campaign is a striking reflection of the failure of a small-unit response and a disregard for the issue of civilian casualties in areas probably defined as already politically lost.
Mounting airstrikes against villages on the assumption that they may shelter insurgents will inevitably cause civilian casualties, as illustrated by events east of the Kaladan on March 14 and 15.
In response to queries from the on-line news magazine The Irrawaddy, Tatmadaw spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun subsequently noted “when we use the jets we take more care and aim only at the enemy’s location.”
The proposition that a military whose own lack of battlefield visibility has just cost it scores of captured and killed can gather accurate real-time information on an enemy presence in villages tens of kilometers away strains credibility.
The increasing targeting of civilians in the Rakhine-Chin theater allows for only two explanations. One, and arguably the more likely, is that the Tatmadaw is largely lashing out in desperation.
The other, which implies a level of long-term planning probably beyond Naypyidaw’s capabilities, is that it is embarked on a strategy of driving large numbers of the rural population into IDP camps around urban areas in order to drain the pool in which the AA swims.
The latter would sound an eerie and far more chaotic echo of the failed United States policy of “strategic hamlets” in South Vietnam in the late 1960s. But both reflect the stark absence of any realistic political response to the Rakhine crisis at military headquarters in Naypyidaw, where national security policy is decided.
The Tatmadaw’s insistence last year that the AA return to its original base area in northern Kachin state where the group was founded in 2009 as a precondition to a ceasefire is a self-evident non-starter.
To pursue the Vietnam analogy, this would be equivalent to a 1968 demand from Washington that all Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam regroup in North Vietnam.
In Myanmar’s context, this is nonsense that appears to commit the Tatmadaw to an open-ended war in Rakhine that is gradually escalating into a war on Rakhine, with potentially disastrous repercussions for the future cohesion of an already fractured country.
None of this can bring any cheer to New Delhi, where the struggle for Paletwa has suspended indefinitely a key leg of India’s vision for eastward economic connectivity – the inelegantly named Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) – and efforts to counterbalance China’s expanding influence.
First conceived in 2008, the scheme aims at linking Mizoram in India’s landlocked and underdeveloped northeastern region with the Bay of Bengal along the Kaladan, which flows out of India through Paletwa and into the Bay of Bengal.
Some progress has already been made in translating India’s decades old “Look East” policy, first articulated by a Congress Party government in 1991, into the Narendra Modi administration’s more muscular “Act East” policy launched in 2014.
In that direction, the construction of an Indian-financed deep-sea port at Sittwe has been completed along with an inland container terminal at Paletwa town.
The problem is everything in between and more. A new road link from the border at Zorinpuri south to Paletwa town is still under construction, subject to the vagaries of hostilities, disruptions to logistics and taxation that the AA may seek to levy in line with a directive issued last December by its chief Tun Myat Naing.
The onward riverine leg down the broad Kaladan from Paletwa to the sea bisects a war zone where the AA appears to be increasingly dominant and where supplies moving upriver to feed Paletwa town hinge largely on its approval.
The Act East gambit’s northern leg, a road link from Myanmar’s border with India’s Manipur to Mandalay and Thailand, has suffered from a crippling lack of focus on the part of both the Indian and Myanmar governments.
A sealed road from the border town of Tamu south to a new bridge spanning the Chindwin River at Kalewa gives way to a 140-kilometer dirt track across rugged terrain to Ta-ze north of Mandalay, navigable on an off-road trail bike but no super highway to the markets of Southeast Asia.
While to the east China prepares to begin work on a new 431-kilometer rail-link to Mandalay from the border trading hub of Muse, India’s much touted geo-strategic counterbalance is stalled by civil war and bureaucratic lethargy.