A screen grab from a video provided to AFPTV from an anonymous source and taken on May 23 shows a People’s Defense Force fighter shooting during clashes in Moebyel in Shan state, in which dozens of Myanmar security force members were killed and a police station seized, according to rebel fighters. Photo: Handout via AFP

Five months after the military coup in Myanmar, resistance to the anti-democratic takeover is evolving and intensifying.

In the old capital Yangon, groups of mostly young people appear for brief moments in the streets, shouting slogans and flashing the three-finger salute, the symbol of the pro-democratic struggle. They then disperse as quickly as they had appeared to avoid arrest.

Upcountry, people are also showing their anger at Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab, with most protests taking place in Mandalay, Sagaing and Tanintharyi Regions. Demonstrators from across the country have expressed solidarity with each other.

When clashes occurred between protesters and security forces in urban areas in Mandalay in early June, people in Yangon staged a demonstration chanting “Stay strong Mandalay, we, Yangon will be with you.”

More militant elements have taken to throwing low-grade bombs and grenades at government buildings on a near-daily basis, while police, suspected military informants and leading members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party are being targeted for assassination.

Moreover, a loose alliance of local resistance forces known as the People’s Defense Force (PDF) was formed in May in response to the coup. Officially, it is the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG), which is made up of MPs who were deposed in the February 1 coup and other anti-junta activists.

The evident aim is to topple Min Aung Hlaing’s government by military means.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing faces massive popular resistance to his coup. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

Judging from what happened in February, when millions of people in virtually every city, town and major village across the country marched against the coup, it is plausible to assume the NUG and PDF may have widespread popular support and getting recruits would not be a major problem.

But more than that will be needed in order to wage a successful armed struggle. The first would be access to weapons, then fall-back areas and, preferable, safe havens across the borders of a neighboring nation from where supplies could be sent to forces inside the country. It will also need money to sustain its activities.

On the surface, the PDF doesn’t appear to have any of the above.

According to a May 23 Myanmar-language NUG announcement, the PDF is made up of five divisions, each having at least three brigades. Each brigade consists of five battalions which, in turn, are divided into four companies, the announcement said.

That sounds like a formidable military force but, in reality, it’s so far only on paper. Groups of urban dissidents have taken refuge in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Union (KNU) ethnic armed organizations.

Reports from inside sources indicate that the urban guerrilla warfare that Myanmar is now experiencing is an outcome of that alliance. Indeed, the well-planned attacks have been daring and dramatic.

On June 18, for instance, an army truck with regime soldiers on board was blown up in Yangon’s Tamwe township. The Irrawaddy cited witnesses who said they saw soldiers on board the truck, which was parked outside an office of the USDP. The blast also occurred within walking distance of the township’s police station, the Irrawaddy reported.

Both the KIA and elements of the KNU, which disagree with their leaders’ signing of an earlier, ineffectual Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), have since the coup also carried out widespread attacks in their areas of operation. The KIA in particular has hit Tatmadaw targets all over Kachin state.

Rebel soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 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
Rebel soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 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

But elsewhere in Myanmar, armed resistance appears to have been launched by local groups which may or may not have any links to the NUG and the PDF. That is especially true in now restive Chin and Kayah states, parts of the country that have not seen any large-scale insurgency for decades.

The PDF’s prospects look initially bleak. Decades of experience show that neither side in Myanmar’s many, mainly ethnicity-based civil wars can win solely by military means.

The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has been unable to defeat the rebels and none of the ethnic armed groups has had enough strength to force any central government to agree to their demands for self-rule or autonomy.

The International Crisis Group sums it up as such in a June 28 report on Myanmar’s new emerging armed struggle: 

“The resistance has taken on an increasingly revolutionary character, with most dissidents no longer aiming for restoration of the status quo ante, but for the Tatmadaw’s disbandment and its replacement by a new armed force that is not dominated by the Burman ethnic majority.”

That, the ICG concludes, would require the “Tatmadaw’s defeat or capitulation” – a remote possibility in today’s Myanmar.

The most recent attempt at finding an alternative, political solution to the civil wars was made by Thein Sein, a former Tatmadaw general, shortly after his appointment as president in 2011.

Talks between his government, the Tatmadaw and a variety of ethnic armed groups were held and resulted in eight of them signing the NCA in October 2015.

The problem, however, was that only two of those groups — the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) — had any armed forces to be reckoned with. The rest were tiny, largely irrelevant groups whose signatures were required to solidity the credibility of the NCA.

None of the major groups, among them the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army or the United Wa State Army (UWSA) which, along with their respective allies, represent more than 80% of all armed rebels in the country.

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

The PDF will add to the Tatmadaw’s troubles. Unable to identify the new rebels, who unlike other ethnic insurgents are not dressed in uniforms with insignia showing the name of their army and their ranks, the Tatmadaw has resorted to firing indiscriminately into villages, causing widespread destruction of civilian homes and properties.

As a result, an estimated 230,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar because of violence, fights and insecurity, according to a June 24 statement by Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

Myanmar’s “new rebels”, with or without collaboration with older, ethnic armies, may be able to inflict heavy casualties on the Tatmadaw. But even the older armies are facing similar problems as the new ones.

In the past, Thailand’s grey weapons market was a treasure trove for any group looking for weapons, but, as relations between the Thai military and Tatmadaw have improved, that is no longer the case.

Informed sources say they are struggling to keep even their own soldiers with guns and sufficient ammunition. And Myanmar’s largest and best-equipped ethnic armed group, the UWSA, has shown no interest in arming or even sheltering urban dissidents and other pro-democracy activists.

That could be explained in the context of the UWSA’s close relationship with China’s security services on the other side of the border. While democratic countries all over the world have condemned the coup, China, along with Russia, have come out in support of Min Aung Hlaing’s junta.

Myanmar’s soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country’s 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP / Thet Aung

The future for Myanmar thus looks bleak, with only a split within the Tatmadaw likely able to bring about fundamental change. But there are no signs yet of that happening as Myanmar’s resistance shifts from peaceful protests to more violent means.

The most the “new rebels”, alone or together with ethnic allies, may be able to achieve would be to disrupt its efforts to consolidate its grip on the country. In other words, Myanmar is back to square one in the history of its decades-long civil wars where neither side can win.

That can only mean more suffering for the people with villages being torched and civilians killed — and refugees gathering in the jungles and mountains or trying to escape to neighboring countries. Myanmar will remain a source of instability in an otherwise relatively prosperous part of the world.