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

CHIANG MAI – Myanmar’s army has unleashed yet another wave of aerial bombings in the country’s spiraling post-coup civil war, a change in traditional counterinsurgency tactics that points more to military weakness than strength.  

Russian-made Hind-type attack helicopters fired rockets and machine guns once again this month while jet fighters dropped bombs on what appeared to be mainly civilian targets in eastern Kayah state where resistance to the coup has been particularly robust.

One of the helicopters reportedly carried General Soe Win, number two in the junta and considered even more hardline than his boss, coup-maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

As many as 170,000 villagers have fled their homes and are seeking shelter in remote parts of the state that abuts the Thai border in a situation that threatens to tilt towards a new-era refugee crisis.

Recent attacks by local resistance forces are believed to have motivated the Tatmadaw’s bombing campaign, which at the same time has raised hard new questions about the fighting ability of its increasingly stretched ground forces.

Ground attacks with air support are common in counterinsurgency campaigns elsewhere in the world, but until now have not been used much by the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s decades-long ethnic wars.

In Kayah state, as in other parts of the country including Sagaing Division and Chin state, the military’s infantry was deployed first but was quickly withdrawn when it suffered heavy casualties. Then came random Tatmadaw bombings on villages and other population centers.

To be sure, Myanmar military atrocities committed during campaigns in ethnic minority areas are nothing new. At the same time, the Tatmadaw was actually quite poorly armed despite having a battle-hardened and largely effective light infantry force.

Its troops were constantly on the move during past conflicts against the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in the northeast, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north, and the Karen National Union (KNU) and other rebel groups along the Thai border.

A Karen insurgent soldier holds a rocket launcher while standing guard at Oo Kray Kee village in Karen State near the Thai-Myanmar border in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul
A Karen fighter holds a rocket launcher while standing guard at Oo Kray Kee village in Kayin state near the Thai-Myanmar border in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

All that changed after a nationwide uprising for democracy in 1988. The main fear at the time was that disgruntled soldiers might join the pro-democracy activists.

Consequently, in order to prevent a split in the ranks, Myanmar’s top military leaders did everything in their power to keep at least the officer corps satisfied and loyal.

Beginning in 1989, the then-ruling junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, spent more than a billion dollars procuring new, more sophisticated military hardware.

It came primarily from China but also from Pakistan, Singapore and Israel. Most of it was materiel that would be of little use in counterinsurgency operations in remote and mountainous ethnic areas such as missile systems, huge tanks, armored vehicles, naval patrol boats, frigates and various kinds of radar equipment.

Equally important was a decision to scrap the previous, unpopular system of constant rotations of regional commanders, a move implemented to ensure that no officer would build up his own power base in a certain part of the country.

Myanmar’s military leaders also had to make sure that the urban dissidents did not link up with the ethnic rebels. Thousands of them did, but the KIA and KNU did not have enough weapons to share with the urban newcomers.

But then came a mutiny in the CPB and the old mostly Burman, orthodox communists were driven into exile in China. The mutineers formed new ethnic armies, the strongest being the United Wa State Army, and the possibility of the kind of alliance that the Myanmar military feared became a reality.

Talks between the ex-CPB mutineers and other ethnic groups did happen, but the Myanmar military moved faster and with more determination.

Ceasefire deals were struck with the UWSA and other former CPB forces according to which they could retain their arms, remain in control of their respective areas and engage in all kinds of business as long as they did not attack the Myanmar military or share their weapons with other groups.

By the mid-1990s, about 20 major and smaller ethnic armies that had depended on the CPB for arms supplies also made peace with the military government. The threat from the border areas had been neutralized.

United Wa State Army soldiers in a collective salute. Photo: Twitter

Those ceasefire agreements lasted for more than 20 years, meaning that an entire generation of Myanmar soldiers has no real combat experience. They are, as one in-the-know source said, better at parades showing off their new uniforms and guns than at actual combat.

The officer corps was also given ample opportunities to earn money where they often accepted bribes and entered into dealerships with the country’s newly-rich businessmen who became infamously known as “the cronies.”

That changed again when, in June 2011, the ceasefire with the KIA broke down. For the first time in more than a decade, major battles were fought in ethnic minority areas. Casualties were extremely heavy as the advancing infantry soldiers, who were poorly trained and had zero combat experience, were mowed down by KIA guerrillas.

It became so bad that the Myanmar military had to withdraw its infantry and rely instead on helicopter gunships, attack aircraft and heavy artillery fired from a safe distance. That is what is happening again in Kayah state and other war zones that have mushroomed across the country since the military’s disastrous February 1, 2021, coup.

As old and new conflicts spread and rage, old questions about the actual manpower strength of the Myanmar military are taking on new relevance. Australian Myanmar watcher and specialist on military matters Andrew Selth examined the issue in a piece published by the Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute on February 17.

He quotes figures as high as 500,000 and even 600,000 that appeared in post-1988 think tank reports, but argues that they “were mistakenly based on theoretical projections by ambitious Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] planners.”

It is beyond doubt that the Myanmar military embarked on an expansion and modernization campaign after 1988, when the total strength of the Myanmar military was believed to be around 186,000. By 2021, however, more realistic estimates were at around 300,000-350,000 — or perhaps as low as 250,000, or even 200,000.

But according to Selth: “The key element here is not the total number of men and women in uniform, but the number of combat soldiers that the junta can put into the field. Most estimates cite 100,000-120,000.”

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

In addition to that are 80,000 or so members of the national police, which, Selth writes, “has about 39 paramilitary security battalions, many of them made up of former soldiers.”

By any measure, however, the Myanmar military now finds itself stretched thin on many fronts, including areas in the country’s central region that have not seen any serious combat since the 1970s.

It is clear by now that the Tatmadaw cannot decisively defeat the scores, if not hundreds, of small and not-so-small resistance armies that have sprung up across the country since the coup.

The possibility of a battlefield victory for those fervent but often rag-tag armies is also remote. They may have widespread popular support but are poorly armed and don’t seem to have a common, well-planned strategy beyond inflicting as many casualties on the Myanmar military and its junta officials as possible.

For its part, the Myanmar military appears to be waging a war of attrition against resistance forces that aims ultimately to wear down their inexperienced and outgunned fighters. But given the grit and determination of the resistance, that is unlikely to be a winning strategy.

What is more likely is that the wars will rage on for the foreseeable future, with the Myanmar military increasingly resorting to haphazard air power that will only cause more human suffering and dislocation among an already angry and disenfranchised population.

The aerial bombardments in Kayah state will likely be replicated in other inflamed parts of the country in a counterinsurgency strategy that underscores the Tatmadaw’s underlying weakness and ensures more popular support for fast-rising anti-coup forces.