Myanmar's military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Facebook

As army units fan out across Myanmar’s major cities, the sense of déjà vu is almost palpable.

Fed by the relentless demands of a 24-hour news cycle, media in Myanmar and globally have been waiting with a mix of fascination and dread for a replay of grainy images from 1988 and 2007 etched in collective memory: lines of infantrymen marching rifles raised towards crowds of civilian protesters, the use of live ammunition, bloodied bodies in the streets.

The wait may be in vain. Two weeks into the Myanmar military’s latest war against its own people, it is becoming clearer by the day that another classic Tatmadaw-style crackdown involving widespread coordinated violence is unlikely.

With no indications of rifts in its command echelons and time arguably on its side, the 350,000-strong military appears to have neither the interest nor the appetite for another bloodbath.

Confronting the power of globally disseminated livestreamed images and the street fury of Myanmar’s Generation Z, the Tatmadaw is adapting fast to the challenges of a very new and more demanding battlefield with new strategy and new tactics.

It appears the generals have every expectation of emerging from the political rubble of their February 1 coup with some version of a victory and power firmly in hand.

“Never underestimate just how good the Myanmar military are at what they do,” notes a Thailand-based Western military analyst with years of experience monitoring the Tatmadaw. “If you fail to understand that, you’re simply burying your head in the sand.”

A Myanmar lawyer living in Yangon and on the streets daily echoes that bleak assessment: ”These guys definitely have the experience, skills and resources to prevail.”

Not that the tiger has changed its stripes. In its fundamentals, the Myanmar military remains entirely the same institution of old: the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s soul and the sole arbiter of its interests and destiny.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is firmly in charge. Photo: Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency via AFP

A warrior caste largely divorced from the social mainstream, contemptuous of free politics and riddled with corruption in is upper echelons, the Tatmadaw continues to hold unflinchingly to its core mission: forging a united and powerful state through a process of top-down praetorian democracy and force-fed Burmanization in which the nation’s ethnic minorities are gradually assimilated into the ethnic Bamar-dominated national mainstream.

But following a decade-long period of accelerated military modernization driven by current commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, thinking, tactics and organization have undergone significant change.

“This is no bunch of knuckle-dragging old men,” notes the Yangon lawyer. “They may be ruthless, but they are smart and have built a loyal corps of officers whose wellbeing is tied to their ascent in the army.”

That much has been apparent in its campaigns against ethnic pocket armies around the nation’s remote borderlands. In bitter wars with ethnic rebels in northeastern Shan and western Rakhine states, the Tatmadaw has turned to increasingly well-integrated combined-arms campaigns integrating operations between infantry, artillery and air power underpinned by information technology and supported by drones. 

Even if still rudimentary by the standards of advanced militaries, these evolving tactics have marked a significant advance for an army traditionally centered on infantrymen supported, if lucky, by some artillery and logistically reliant on human porters.

A similar capacity for innovation, coordination and willingness to learn on the job is being displayed on today’s battlefields in downtown Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw and a score of other urban centers.

Tatmadaw leadership has almost certainly been blindsided by the sheer scale and scope of popular protest which has brought scores of thousands of people from all walks of life onto the streets in a massive campaign of protest and civil disobedience reinforced by an international outcry.

Strikingly, though, the military’s nerve, discipline and cohesion have all so far held, and in a sharp break from the reflex violence of 1988 and 2007 top command has opted for a strategy of slow attrition aimed at waiting out the storm and restoring a degree of normality and economic stability as soon as possible.

At the most basic level, one statistic illustrates the strategy and arguably highlights its prospects for success: over two weeks of tumultuous confrontation at a watershed juncture in the nation’s political trajectory there have been only two critical casualties – a young woman shot in the head in Mandalay last week and a policeman the junta has reported was killed. 

Protesters block a major road during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 17, 2021. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

Three key factors have underpinned the war of attrition. At street level, the protest movement’s insistence on non-violence has been central. Articulated by National League for Democracy (NLD) party leaders and observed by demonstrators with remarkable discipline, non-violence has secured the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) the moral high ground.

Equally, however, it has played to the military’s objective of waiting out the crowds without spilling blood, setting up a contest that turns on time and resolve to decide which side can outlast the other.

Military restraint has also turned on a second factor, the absence of which would almost certainly already have demanded swift and brutal crowd dispersal: peace in the borderlands.

The critical importance of avoiding war on two fronts and balancing conflict with the array of ethnic armies ranged around Myanmar’s frontiers has been an enduring element of Tatmadaw strategic thinking for decades.

It was most famously demonstrated in the series of ceasefire pacts thrown together between 1989 and 1991 as the military struggled to deal with the fallout from its crushing of the 1988 uprising in central Myanmar.

The same mindset was on display in the run-up to the military’s latest power-grab.

In retrospect, there can be little doubt the Tatmadaw’s surprise decision last November to agree to an ad hoc ceasefire with the Arakan Army (AA) in western Rakhine state pointed to contingency planning for a possible coup to remove the NLD government after the crushing electoral defeat inflicted on the military’s interests and long-term agenda.

Setting aside already well-advanced preparations for a dry season offensive that would normally open in December, the post-election ceasefire secured peace in a theater of operations that since 2019 has tied down nearly half of the army’s mobile reserves, allowing thousands of troops to be redeployed between January and early February to the country’s heartland.

Myanmar troops have been redeployed from ethnic territories to the urban areas. Photo: bMyat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto via AFP

The importance of peace in the borderlands was further underscored in one of the coup regime’s opening statements that pointedly stressed its interest in pursuing the stumbling peace process within the context of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). 

And, to date at least, neither the bloc of NCA-signatories nor, far more importantly, the powerful alliance in northern Myanmar led by the Chinese-leaning United Wa State Army (UWSA), has shown any inclination to distract the military from its focus on containing the challenge of democratic forces in the ethnic Bamar heartland.

Finally, beyond the borders of Myanmar, even the Tatmadaw — renowned for deep (and invariably misguided) paranoia over external threats – can have been broadly confident of a permissive international stage on which to launch a coup.

Boilerplate support at the United Nations from Russia and China, a characteristically flaccid reaction from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Western agonizing over a response that balances moral outrage with apprehensions over pushing Myanmar into the arms of China have all combined to shape a favorable international environment for a blatant seizure of power.

Against this strategic backdrop, the Tatmadaw’s tactical response at street level has centered on rules of engagement (ROEs) mandating minimum use of force. Even in the case of often inadequately trained and overstretched police, manning the frontlines for the first two weeks of the crisis, these ROEs have been observed for the most part with striking discipline.

Minimum force has translated into a range of less than lethal measures and systems used only sparingly. These have included water cannons, tear gas and non-lethal baton rounds typically fired from shotguns.

On the streets of Mandalay, troops have also been spotted armed with air guns with telescopic sights, apparently intended to target – if necessary – protest leaders. As one military expert explained: “These are not enough to punch a hole in someone but certainly enough to make them stop whatever they are doing.”

Beginning overnight on February 14 and 15, the deployment of military units in key cities reinforced but did not significantly change the dynamic established by the police. A new and important tactic though was introduced with night-time internet shutdowns between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Myanmar soldiers patrol during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. Photo: Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto via AFP

Without unduly inconveniencing daytime commercial activity, the shutdowns have permitted army troops – mostly mechanized infantry units from the Tatmadaw reserve of Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) — to deploy under cover of an information blackout and, in coordination with police, to step up arrests of protest leaders with over 500 now detained according to UN sources.  

The military has also turned to drones, already used extensively in rural counterinsurgency campaigns for surveillance of the urban battlespace and movement of large crowds. Likely to follow in the coming days will be the invisible imposition of a security grid and a tightening squeeze on areas of population density.

“What you’ll probably see is a division of urban areas into sectors and districts with operational responsibility assigned to different battalions, companies and platoons,” noted the Western military analyst who was briefed on similar operations by the Thai military in Bangkok in 2010.

“Over 10 or 15 days they’re going to be identifying protest organizations, groups and leaders. Then at night-time they’ll clean it up, making arrests, intimidating, beating people up,” he said.

“So, first the Civil Disobedience Movement faces a loss of leaders at the mass level. Then it’ll come down to the tactical street level. And once leaders have disappeared, either detained or gone into hiding, there’ll be a real personal impact on individuals in different organizations.”

To be sure, the struggle for Myanmar’s cities and its political future is anything but over. The combination of a hugely popular civil disobedience movement and a general strike crippling banks, commerce, transport and many government organizations has so far been a powerful weapon in a once-in-a generation confrontation.

Soldiers are pictured outside the Central Bank of Myanmar as people gathered to protest against the military coup, in Yangon on February 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

Whether anger and courage will be sufficient to break the cohesion and focus of a sophisticated, well-organized and ruthless military machine, however, is far from obvious.

“Frankly, it’s going to be tough to topple this,” the Western military analyst reflected. 

“When the hope of the great dial-back (to a reinstated NLD government) is lost you’re going to see people migrating towards the regime to see what they can get out of it for themselves or for their organizations. People have got to eat.”