A Myanmar anti-coup activist undergo basic military training with a weapon at the camp of Karen National Union, an ethnic rebel group in Karen state after people fled major Myanmar cities due to military crackdown and sought refuge in rebel territories. Photo: AFP

When four bomb blasts killed two police near the military’s General Administrative Office in Yangon on Friday, it was the latest sign the nation’s long-running armed conflict is spreading from frontier to urban areas.

The blasts and other recent attacks on military soft targets, coupled with the junta’s killing of over 800 street protesters, have given the impression to some that Myanmar’s violence is escalating uncontrollably towards a failed state scenario.

But while many analysts and observers believe Myanmar could be on the verge of a debilitating Syria-like civil war — replete with massive violence, bloodshed and refugee flows — certain mitigating factors should forestall a complete state collapse.    

Violence in ethnic areas long plagued by civil war is accelerating coincident with the junta’s lethal crackdown in urban areas that has sparked an increasingly militant protester response.

A period of relative ethnic area calm was shattered on March 25 when the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) overran the Myanmar Army’s strategic Alaw Bum outpost. The attack was followed by fighting across Kachin and northeastern Shan state and the capture of more Tatmadaw camps by ethnic armies.

That was followed a few days later by an attack by the 5th Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) that seized an important outpost on the Salween River in Kayin (Karen) state.

The KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), overran at least two more camps along the Salween River in Hpapun Township, although fighting has remained sporadic in other areas of southeast Myanmar where the KNLA operates.

Ethnic Karen fighters take part in a parade for the 70th anniversary of the Karen revolution at a remote base on the Thai-Myanmar border in December 2019. Photo: AFP / Karen National Union

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have also recently launched attacks on Myanmar security forces’ outposts in northeast Shan state. So, too, has the until now mostly dormant rebel Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) in eastern Shan state.

But it’s the urban-based attacks launched by anti-coup protesters that have fueled speculation of a Syria-like scenario.

In cities across central Myanmar, initially non-violent protesters have started to organize and arm themselves with slingshots, homemade air rifles, Molotov cocktails and low-grade improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In another violent turn, protesters have apparently started assassinating government officials and people they believe to be state informants.

It’s not just in the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay where protesters are shifting from the defensive to the offensive.

In Chin state and Sagaing Region in the country’s northwest, where insurgency was never widespread even during the worst years of civil war, villagers have organized self-defense militias armed with homemade percussion-lock hunting muskets and started ambushing Tatmadaw units.  

In a sign of growing linkages between civilian defense groups and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), two military airbases were hit with rocket fire in Magwe and Meiktila.

Neither city has seen insurgent activity in decades. While the rockets were surely provided by ethnic armies, they were either fired by civilians or EAO fighters guided by them. On May 15, another airfield at Toungoo was hit with rocket fire.

The self-styled National Unity Government (NUG), the newly formed parallel opposition administration, has lent legitimacy to the new militias through its May 5 creation of a so-called People’s Defense Force (PDF), which aims broadly to protect civilians from security forces.

This handout photo taken and released by Dawei Watch on May 10, 2021, shows protesters wearing signs in support of the People’s Defence Force during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei. Photo: AFP / Dawei Watch

Since then, almost every day has seen the announcement of new regional-based PDFs across Myanmar. Many are in Bamar majority regions, but some have formed in ethnic states. Moreover, many protesters have made their way to Myanmar’s borderlands and are receiving military training from various EAOs.

The stage would thus seem set for a nationwide civil war that will bring together anti-coup protesters with the many decades-old ethnic conflicts into one big bloodletting aimed at overthrowing the Tatmadaw once and for all.

But while the geographical spread of the conflict is widening and the number of armed fighters is growing, there are several reasons to be skeptical that such an apocalyptic conflict is in the cards.

One reason is the Tatmadaw itself. While it has shown it remains a brutal force with an appetite for killing civilians, so far its response in many rural areas has been somewhat restrained in a historical sense.

Rather than the large-scale counterinsurgency “sweep operations” for which it is notorious, the Tatmadaw has opted instead for retaliatory airstrikes against civilian targets in Hpapun Township in response to the KNLA 5th Brigade’s temerity in attacking its camps along the Salween River. The Tatmadaw has also launched more focused ground and air attacks to retake the Alaw Bum outpost in Kachin state.

If EAO and PDF offensive operations continue in the northwest, Kachin state, northeast Shan state, and Karen state, there is a strong likelihood the Tatmadaw will step up its response and organize one or more “sweep operations” in the months to come.

The Tatmadaw is increasingly using drones in urban areas of central Myanmar and in the northwest to pinpoint and target the new PDFs for its ground troops, though these operations have so far been relatively small.

Larger Tatmadaw operations will surely be met by more severe responses from the EAOs and PDFs. It is here where the mitigating factors against a full-blown civil war will likely come into play.

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw flexes in an Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw, March 27, 2021. Photo: Agencies

Neither the EAOs nor the NUG-PDF likely have enough arms and ammunition or foreign patrons with safe cross-border sanctuaries to support sustained offensive or defensive fighting against the much better-equipped and supplied Tatmadaw.

In past decades, EAOs were able to rely on Myanmar’s neighbors for political, geographic, and logistical support. This is no longer the case, however.

Thailand and China have little interest in fueling greater instability in neighboring Myanmar. China, especially, has broader strategic interests at stake with its planned Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and strategically important oil and gas pipelines running nearly the length of Myanmar connecting to the Indian Ocean.

Since 1988, Thailand has progressively withdrawn support from EAOs along its western and northern borders as it sought to build economic ties with Myanmar in what has been characterized as a “battlefield to marketplace” policy.

It is unlikely to support a return to border instability that caused large refugee inflows, attacks on border villages, and promoted a large cross-border narcotics trade. Nor is Bangkok likely keen to see a renewed proliferation of political opposition offices in places like the border town of Mae Sot.

Without these two important neighbors on board, it is almost impossible for EAOs or the NUG-PDF to seek material support from farther afield, especially from the Western powers. Without cross-border sanctuaries and little access to weapons or ammunition, two key ingredients for active and effective insurgency are removed.

Myanmar’s ethnic-based insurgencies rely heavily on arms and ammunition channeled through black markets in Thailand and China. Yet without at least the tacit approval of Bangkok and Beijing, these arms deals will be very difficult.

Rebel soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army manning rifles on a supply route from Laiza, a KIA-controlled stronghold in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state on the border with China. Photo: AFP / Patrick Bodenham

To be sure, the regional black market will satisfy enough of these needs to keep a low-level insurgency active for years, but it will not power the large-scale and widespread destruction and devastation seen in civil war-hit places like Aleppo, Syria or Mogadishu, Somalia.

Without networks of their own, the NUG and its PDFs are almost wholly dependent for munitions on the EAOs and what they can capture from the Tatmadaw. 

Many of the EAOs may have developed stockpiles over the last ten years or so, but without sympathetic friends across the borders, these stocks will likely be rapidly depleted at the current tempo of offensive operations.

This is especially the case if they hope to retain enough arms and ammunition to defend their gains against Tatmadaw offensives. This also means there will be precious few remaining arms to share with the PDFs.

A more likely scenario for long-term armed conflict is the development of a certain order akin to the situation in Myanmar between 1989 and 2011.

The period saw many of the EAOs agree to bilateral ceasefires with the then-military government. At the same time, others continued to fight but were increasingly hemmed into smaller and smaller enclaves along the Thai border.

Then, an alliance of EAOs was hamstrung by the ceasefires of key members, the KIO in 1994 and then the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and its armed wing in 1995.

In an ironic twist, this time it is the KIO that is fighting while the KNU remains mostly committed to its ceasefire, with the exception being its lone aggressive 5th Brigade in Hpapun township of Kayin state.

Many of the smaller EAOs are unlikely to join a wider conflict if larger EAOs in adjacent territories choose to keep their ceasefires. This is particularly the case in southeast Myanmar where Mon, Karenni, Kayan, and Karen groups would be unable to manage independently without the support of the KNU and RCSS.

Both the KNU and RCSS made strong initial statements against the coup, arrest of elected officials and violent crackdowns on unarmed protesters. Although they have provided some military training to dissidents who fled to their “liberated areas”, neither organization has apparently since done much more.

Sustained small-scale guerrilla operations against the Tatmadaw by both the EAOs and PDFs can be expected. This will probably entail some form of urban guerrilla actions involving pinpoint assassinations or bomb attacks similar to those of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other urban-based guerrilla movements.

These will surely elicit draconian Tatmadaw reprisals and an even heavier military presence in Myanmar’s cities. However, there is unlikely to be the same kind of heavy street fighting and destruction of whole neighborhoods by shelling and other combat seen in Syria, Somalia, Chechnya and elsewhere.

Army supporters carry a banner showing a portrait of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during a rally in Naypyidaw on February 4, 2021, following a military coup that detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: AFP

Many EAOs, particularly those involved in the now-suspended Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), have been adamant in statements that they will not negotiate on political issues until there is a “legitimate” government in Naypyidaw.

Yet negotiation with a military dictatorship did not stop them from talking – and some agreeing to ceasefires – with the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) in 1963, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1989-1995, or the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 2004-2005.

Nor did the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and General Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government’s close links to the Tatmadaw hinder a peace process and signing of the NCA between 2011 and 2015.

There are, however, important caveats. The first is that this time around Thailand is likely to place more stringent restrictions on its border, particularly the town of Mae Sot, hindering the establishment of a center for ethnic and democratic opposition groups.  A second major point is that a peace process involving political discussions is much more advanced.

While Myanmar may be entering into a more brutal stage of conflict in the immediate term, it is hard to see how Myanmar’s many civil wars will develop into the type of anarchy seen elsewhere. With the Tatmadaw unlikely to split and the EAOs and NUG-PDF with limited arms supplies and room to maneuver, Myanmar’s civil war will spread and burn but within hard limits.

Brian McCartan is an independent analyst working on conflict and governance issues in Myanmar