If Myanmar’s security landscape was devilishly complicated before the February coup d’etat, the growing national-level armed resistance to the military-formed State Administration Council (SAC) junta has rendered it almost incomprehensible.
In recent weeks, veteran ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) have ramped up attacks on the military, or Tatmadaw. Peasant revolts using flintlock rifles and muskets in the hills of Chin state have likewise seen locally raised defense forces inflict major casualties on army units.
In Kayah and Kayin states, EAOs have trained and worked with locally raised defense forces, while in western Sagaing Region such forces have attacked Tatmadaw and police units with lethal effect. In main cities such as Yangon, bombings and shootings targeting security forces have surged in recent weeks, as have vigilante assassinations of suspected security services’ informants.
Into this carnage now comes Myanmar’s latest “nationwide” military force.
On May 5, the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government formed to overthrow the SAC, formed the People’s Defense Force (PDF) citing “the responsibility to end the civil war of over 70 years, implement effective security sector reforms and establish federal democratic armed forces by controlling and ending the violent actions, military aggression and hostilities of military council.”
The NUG announced on June 7 that it has designated the Myanmar military and its affiliated organizations as “terrorist organizations.” Yet a series of working documents on the NUG-PDF’s framework reviewed by Asia Times underlines the major challenges the PDF will face in mobilization and combat effectiveness against the Tatmadaw.
The PDF’s 35 “Defense Policy Principles” say it will be “aligned with democracy and human rights standards…federal values namely equality and self-determination.”
The NUG Defense Department will be led by civilians and be under “civilian governance” including for setting the defense budget and further principles. The force will follow provisions of the Geneva Conventions in armed conflict. The principles also promise “no ethnic or religious discriminations while assigning positions…or gender/sexual discrimination.”
One document includes impressive organizational charts and “key principles” that promise “Psychological Operations will be our prioritized strategy” and “PDF(s) will have people security unit(s), commanded by Chief of People’s Security to avoid collateral damage.”
A NUG-PDF “Code of Conduct”, meanwhile, provides guidance for compliance with the laws of armed conflict and treatment of civilians. PDF Directive 1/2021 of May 17, which outlines the broad objectives of the force, says potential recruits “…shall attend the designated military training course and shall serve in one of the battalions under the respective military division.” Recruits are obliged to serve a two-year minimum.
Much of the PDF’s training is being conducted in areas controlled by EAOs in Myanmar’s east and north. The NUG-PDF will form five operational division areas: Northern, Southern, Central, Eastern, and Western Division. (The Tatmadaw has 14 Regional Commands).
Within each command, there will be a divisional PDF, divided into three brigades, and each brigade will include three battalions of light infantry, one artillery battery, and one special forces unit (special commando battalion) then broken down into company, platoon and squad size.
Based on the lowest unit strength, a squad of ten soldiers, the overall size of a divisional area can be roughly calculated at 4,860 personnel. Therefore, the overall rough projection troop strength of the entire NUG army is some 24,300 soldiers, not counting command, support and logistics and auxiliary forces.
In comparison, the real strength of the Tatmadaw is impossible to gauge, but most balanced estimates are at around 350,000 for all three branches including army, navy and air force, along with 80,000 in the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) and several thousand Border Guard Forces (BGFs) and People’s Militia units.
The NUG-PDF may be able to find and “train” 25,000 people, but it then will need to arm and sustain them in armed conflict. But does the PDF have the leadership to achieve this?
A report in local news outlet Myanmar Now claimed this week that of the estimated 800 Tatmadaw defectors to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), some 75% have joined or planned to join the NUG-PDF. That could assist with military training but more senior leadership will be needed to take the fight to the Tatmadaw.
The NUG’s Minister of Defense, Yee Mon (aka Tin Thit), is a seasoned activist and poet imprisoned by the military during the 1990s, He won a narrow victory in the 2015 election in the capital of Naypyitaw, ironically against the former defense minister in the Thein Sein administration, Wai Lwin.
As a senior member of the toppled National League for Democracy (NLD) and spokesperson of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), Yee Mon may have seniority, but he has no military experience and is reportedly in ill-health.
The Deputy Defense Minister, Khin Ma Ma Myo, is a well-known academic and director of the Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security Studies (MIPSS). Her think tank is not to be confused with the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS), a lavishly Western-funded organization whose former deputy director, Dr Salai Andrew Ngun Cung Lian (an American citizen), was appointed to the SAC Advisory Board soon after the coup.
Khin Ma Ma Myo was a prominent pre-coup workshop convener on security sector issues in Myanmar, but is often criticized for her incomprehensible academic jargon (in English and Burmese), heard in her rambling presentation at the NUG online press conference on June 4.
She is also guilty, like several senior NUG members, of racist statements against the Rohingya minority over the past several years.
The PDF’s fate will be decided ultimately by its actual field commanders, not its titular political overseers. Yet its formation raises more questions than there are concrete answers.
What logistical limitations will the PDF face in raising an armed force in multiple areas across Myanmar? What will be the approaches of the PDF to both rural armed resistance and pursuit of urban warfare? Will the PDF include training women and will women be permitted to have combat roles?
How will the NUG-PDF seek cooperation with EAOs who have stayed silent or ambivalent to the coup, such as the powerful Arakan Army and United Wa State Army? These and several other questions were submitted by Asia Times to NUG Deputy Defense Minister Khin Ma Ma Myo in recent weeks. No response was received at the time of publication.
What kind of warfare will the NUG choose? Will a new generation of city-kid insurgents be subjected to jungle warfare? That didn’t work out too well for the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), with many succumbing to malaria and other illnesses, military ineptitude, homesickness, internecine squabbles and most notoriously in 1992, a violent purge of its members unfairly accused of being Tatmadaw informants.
At least 80 were tortured, 30 of them to death, and 15 sadistically executed in that paranoid jungle purge.
Or will the NUG-PDF take a multi-path approach of a hinterland standing army slowly trying to absorb the plethora of other PDFs around Myanmar into a coherent Federal Army allied with many EAOs and seek a classical revolutionary strategy of rural mobilization that gradually surrounds the cities and key towns, whilst also pursuing urban sabotage against SAC targets?
That hasn’t been tried in decades in Myanmar, not since the Communists’ attempt in the 1950s and the KNU’s disastrous 1991 attempt to open a new front in Bogalay in the Ayeyarwady Delta.
Most locally raised PDF’s, from Mindat in Chin State, to the Ayeyarwady Delta, Sagaing and many other locations throughout Myanmar are unlikely to pledge allegiance to, let alone operational command of, a weak and incompetent parallel government trying to form a “national” army from scratch.
An ethnic Bama-dominated PDF will likely not be welcome in many ethnic communities subjected to decades of vicious violations by the Tatmadaw.
The NUG-PDF, despite its fledgling planning, manifold challenges, obvious shortcomings and the initial appearance of a theoretical exercise gleaned from textbooks and toy soldier dreaming, has nevertheless emerged as one of many aftershocks of an illegal seizure of power and months of extreme violence by the Tatmadaw.
It has already become cynically de rigueur to dismiss the NUG, and now its PDF, but is this premature?
We live in a post-predication Myanmar, and elite pontificating about Syria scenarios saps attention away from understanding urgent unfolding events. Myanmar’s will not be like other conflicts; it will be a more complex and violent version of Myanmar.
The NUG and its new armed wing will be one armed actor in a kaleidoscope of violent protagonists, all vying for legitimacy, resources and dominance. How it fares against a Tatmadaw that lost almost all legitimacy in the eyes of most Myanmar citizens is thus anyone’s guess.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace, human right and humanitarian issues on Myanmar