A Myanmar protester holds a bullet as protests against the military coup and detention of elected government members continue in Hlaing Thayar Township, Yangon, Myanmar, March 15, 2021. Photo: Stringer / Anadolu Agency via AFP

CHIANG MAI – Another military airbase has come under rocket attack in central Myanmar, a shadowy but strategic assault that even tightly censored, military-controlled media felt compelled to report.

On May 15, three 107mm rockets were fired at Toungoo airbase, situated just 95 kilometers from the capital Naypyitaw, according to the state mouthpiece Global New Light of Myanmar. The rocket attack follows similar assaults on air bases at Magwe and Meiktila in late April.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they come after recent Tatmadaw aerial bombardments in Kayin and Kachin states, where ethnic armies are battling the military and anti-coup protesters have recently taken refuge from rising, lethal military violence in urban areas.

Myanmar’s civil wars, until now confined mainly to relatively remote ethnic frontier regions, are now spreading to the country’s heartland and urban areas. Rather than ethnic army fighters, recent attacks have more likely been launched by new-age militants from the ethnic Bamar majority.

Shadowy attacks on military soft and hard targets are mounting. On May 18, a local junta-appointed official was assassinated in Yangon’s Lanmadaw district after two bomb blasts at his office. According to Yangon-based sources, the official was known to be a key military informant and his actions had led to the arrest of several pro-democracy protesters.

Bombs have also detonated in various towns in Sagaing and Mandalay Regions and in Shan, Mon and Chin states. When the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, visited Sagaing City on May 18 a bomb exploded even there despite tight security.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing attends the Armed Forces Day parade in the capital Naypyidaw in late March. Photo: Myawaddy TV Screengrab / AFP

A clear example of this new resistance to military rule was recently seen in Mindat, a town in Chin State but close to the border with the central region of Magwe. The Chinland Defense Force (CDF), a newly formed local militia, took over the town and retreated only after heavily armed Tatmadaw units counterattacked with artillery and helicopter gunfire.

Before those reinforcements arrived, local militants armed with only hunting rifles and homemade bombs killed several Tatmadaw soldiers. Until now, Chin state is the only ethnic state in Myanmar that has not seen widespread insurgency. (The ceasefire Chin National Front was never a formidable force.)

What began as peaceful, even joyful demonstrations against coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s democracy-suspending February 1 coup is now morphing into shadowy armed resistance across the country. The list of anti-military counterattacks is growing by the day.

For instance, a bomb exploded at the Daik-U township’s education office in the Bago Region on May 16. That same day, another bomb detonated at the Mogok township general administrator’s office in the Mandalay Region.

On May 17, the Htone Bo Ward administration office in Sagaing township was burned down. On May 18, a truck carrying food supplies for Myanmar army soldiers was torched on the Mogaung-Tanai Ledo road in Kachin State.  

The shift from peaceful to violent protest came only after demonstrators were violently and lethally attacked by soldiers and police, with snipers shooting teenagers and even killing children as young as five, according to news reports.

Nearly 800 people have been killed by the police and Tatmadaw since Min Aung Hlaing seized power from an elected government. Close to 5,000 have been arrested, including politicians, journalists, lawyers and community workers. An unknown number are now in hiding or have fled to border areas or across the border into exile.  

A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on March 3, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Yangon residents say the persistent unrest appears to be taking a toll on the mental health of front-line police and soldiers who are ordered by their superiors to use lethal force against the general population.

“They are staying inside hospitals, schools, police stations and secluded compounds and when they venture out of those, local activists inform their comrades in other parts of Yangon,” one Yangon-based source said.

Three and a half months after the coup, anti-coup demonstrators are still marching in the streets in defiance. Many others, sources say, are getting ready for more violent action.

They say the assassination of the official in Lanmadaw is probably only the beginning of what could quickly turn into urban warfare scenarios in major cities nationwide. According to some reports, automatic weapons and grenades have already been sent to activists in Yangon.

Myanmar may not become a full-blown failed state — much of the economy is and has always been run underground and thus not measured in official statistics — but the nation is definitely now a failing state.

Tens of thousands of health workers and teachers have been fired for taking part in the so-called Civil Disobedience Movement. Banks are reportedly running out of cash as people — if they are lucky — withdraw their savings. Many have imposed fees of 8%-9% to withdraw funds or imposed outright limits on the amount that can be taken out.  

A brain drain has also begun as many well-educated people have leveraged various channels to leave the country. What happens next is not clear, but Min Aung Hlaing’s power-grab is measuring up as perhaps the most unsuccessful military coup in modern Asian history.

This photo taken and received from an anonymous source via Facebook on March 29, 2021 shows mourners making the three-finger salute during the joint funeral of three protesters, who were shot dead the day before amid a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations against the military coup, in Monywa, Sagaing region. Photo by Handout / various sources / AFP

To be sure United States (US) and European Union (EU) sanctions have so far had no deterrent effect on the military’s onslaught. The severest action that can be taken by the United Nations (UN) would be a resolution calling for an “immediate suspension” of weapons transfers to the junta.

Although recently introduced by the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein, which is not an EU member, and supported by the EU, UK and US, it will inevitably be vetoed at the UN Security Council by permanent members China and Russia.

What is clear, however, is that Min Aung Hlaing has ruined his chance of becoming a credible political leader. As military commander-in-chief, he traveled more widely than any of his predecessors on what the Tatmadaw called “goodwill missions.”

According to a study compiled by the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, a Yangon-based think tank, his trips took him to China, Russia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Belarus, Serbia, Brunei, Pakistan and even Belgium, Austria, Germany and Italy.

He won’t likely be welcome again in many of those countries. His future standing in Myanmar is also on shaky ground, with critics and commentators saying he has single-handedly destroyed his legacy as an armed forces commander while making the military even more an object of contempt in the public’s eye.  

But even if the Tatmadaw moved to oust him from his positions of power in a face-saving counter-coup – for now, more wishful thinking than likely scenario – there is no guarantee that his military successors would be in favor of the kind of openness Myanmar enjoyed from 2011 until this year’s disastrous coup.