Myanmar's military has failed to mop up newly formed People's Defense Forces as the disparate groups consolidate an edge in rural areas. Photo: Facebook

In Myanmar, where the May onset of the southwest monsoon typically heralds a stand-down in the country’s forever brush wars, rains already sweeping the central plains and enfolding hills will bring little respite this year.

As popular resistance to Naypyidaw’s coup regime grows in numbers and experience, and the national military, or Sit-Tat, backs into a political cul-de-sac of open war against its own civilian population, a widening conflict has entered a critical phase of seeming no return, throwing into question long-held assumptions over the ultimate survivability of military rule.

Following a bitterly contested dry season which saw fighting escalate country-wide displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians, two stark realities have emerged that will shape the war over the coming months and determine its longer-term trajectory.

First, concerted offensive operations by the military have failed to contain, let alone crush, anti-regime resistance forces in the nation’s ethnic Bamar heartland. Indeed, a counterinsurgency campaign that has descended into the burning and looting of entire communities across much of central Myanmar appears to have further galvanized armed opposition.

Second, even if operating only at a township level, local People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) opposed to Naypyidaw’s coup-installed State Administration Council (SAC) have become more numerous, better organized, and, to a degree, better armed.

Neither of these shifts bodes well for an already economically and diplomatically embattled coup regime which has focused on elections scheduled for August 2023 as its best political off-ramp. Polls under new military-friendly electoral rules and the stability required to hold them are Plan A in any attempt to install a government of civilian front men and claw back a modicum of international legitimacy. No Plan B is visible.

It would almost certainly be a mistake to view as desperate a military leadership not given to self-doubt and long accustomed to viewing the institution of the armed forces as both the guardian of Myanmar’s sovereignty and the embodiment of its national soul.

But the current convergence of events on the battlefield and beyond suggests that the SAC is increasingly unnerved by a tunnel of deteriorating security with no apparent light at its end.

Dry season chaos

Making military sense out of the chaotic violence that swept much of the national heartland over the dry season since late 2021 is challenging.

Coherent analysis is complicated by the sheer frequency and spread of small-unit clashes and attacks across a vast swath of the country, and by a striking lack of impartial news reporting from the frontlines of a civil war largely shielded from the outside world.

Monitoring of daily incidents does indicate clearly, however, that the broad epicenter of conflict has been a strategically critical zone of western Myanmar comprising Sagaing and Magwe regions – both traditional hearths of support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government which extends into central Mandalay Region.

Much of the fighting has flared in townships along key road and riverine arteries linking garrison cities on the plains – Mandalay, Monywa, and Pakokku – to hill country dominated by ethnic minority resistance forces, notably Chin state to the west and Kachin state to the north.

Hostilities that with greater or lesser intensity have erupted daily across this zone have been intensely localized and turned on an interplay of violence that has made it difficult to separate military cause and effect.

Smoke rises from fires in Thantlang in Chin State, where more than 160 buildings were destroyed in late October after shelling from junta military troops, according to local media. Photo: AFP-JIJI / Twitter

Based on township centers and major garrison commands, security forces have launched repeated punitive raids on village communities believed to be supporting PDFs, arresting and killing civilians, and burning homes associated with resistance fighters.

These operations have been mostly undertaken by company-strength columns (in the Myanmar Army units of between 50-100 troops) backed frequently by local militia known as Pyu Saw Htee, composed of army veterans, hardline nationalists and loyalists of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s parliamentary proxy. 

On rare occasions, security forces have launched airmobile insertions of heliborne troops to target identified PDF bases or concentrations. But a shortage of aging Polish-built Mi-2 and more modern Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters has limited what in counterinsurgencies waged by more modern forces would be a standard tactic.

For a country-wide range of resupply, transport and casualty evacuation missions, the air force fields fewer than 30 serviceable utility helicopters and even these are sometimes also drafted into combat roles to reinforce a dedicated ground-attack wing of just 11 Russian Mi-24/Mi-35 gunships.

To harass army forays almost all PDFs have relied primarily on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) of varying size and effectiveness. The ability to confront the military directly has turned predictably on firepower and numbers.

Poorly armed groups have typically melted away from army raids or focused efforts on aiding fleeing civilians. In very different scenarios, better-armed PDFs have clashed with invading troop columns in engagements that last year might have lasted a few minutes but in recent months have often stretched out for hours – a telling pointer to a shifting battlefield dynamic.

On occasion, army units have been pinned down requiring air support or reinforcements by ground forces, which frequently are then themselves ambushed. Such resistance successes have then triggered further retaliation against nearby villages in spirals of escalating violence.

Analysis of this constantly shifting fragmented violence over the dry season suggests four broad conclusions.

First, while military raids have succeeded in disrupting PDF activity, occasionally overrunning camps and seizing weapons, the army has consistently failed to hold ground, let alone reimpose a civil administration that largely collapsed last year.

Apart from a handful of village communities on key roads dominated by Pyu Saw Htee militia families, a military facing critical manpower shortfalls as it struggles to garrison an entire nation has lost the rural hinterland.

Indeed, in many conflict-impacted townships that hinterland is increasingly dominated by resistance forces, able in some areas to establish embryonic structures of alternative government in the shape of Peoples Administrative Organizations, some with financial support from the National Unity Government’s (NUG) shadow administration.

Secondly, hard lessons learned have forged a better organized military response. While there appears to have been little consolidation among a plethora of separate groups, PDFs that proliferated last year have frequently succeeded in forming ad hoc coalitions capable of fielding hundreds of combatants. This dynamic appears to be unfolding regardless of whether groups are affiliated with the NUG or have remained independent.

A member of the Karenni People’s Defense Force holds a homemade gun adorned with the words ‘Spring Revolution’ in Burmese script as he takes part in training at a camp near Demoso in Kayah state on July 7, 2021. Photo: AFP

At another important level, anecdotal evidence indicates the dry season months have seen an undeniable improvement in weaponry. As highlighted by recent appeals to the international community from the NUG’s Defense Ministry, modern weapons remain in critically short supply.

But for many PDFs, last year’s hunting rifles have been supplemented by captured assault rifles, jerry-rigged home-made rocket systems and a range of small arms reaching groups from adjacent ethnic minority-dominated regions, not least Kachin state where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has developed its own arms manufacturing capability.

Reports, now commonplace, describe PDF units attacking regime positions with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), 40mm grenade launchers and 60mm light mortars. The use of commercially available drones to drop ordnance on posts and bases is today a regular tactic that recently has forced the army to deploy Chinese-manufactured jamming equipment where it can.

Thirdly, while most hostilities take place in rural areas, PDFs have increasingly been able to take the war to their enemy.  Recent weeks have seen multiple reports of attacks on police stations and military posts in contested township centers such as Pale, Budalin and Pinlebu, and even in Monywa and Pakokku, headquarters of the army’s Northwest Regional Military Command (RMC) and 101st Light Infantry Division, respectively.

Finally, the torching of entire communities by bands of marauding troops and militia – which escalated dramatically through April and into May – has raised the question of whether population displacement has become an overarching military strategy rather than a byproduct of local-level retaliation.

Reports of army units deliberately using petrol to ensure that even stone buildings are gutted suggest that in some areas of entrenched resistance the military may have adopted a systematic scorched earth policy not merely to deter other communities from supporting the resistance but rather to impose logistical and organizational burdens on PDFs.

Against the backdrop of a conflict that is now clearly existential for both sides, the impending rainy season is unlikely to mark any real pause.

But as unsealed rural roads turn to mud and low rain clouds constrain air operations, the coming months will inevitably hamper army operations while favoring guerrilla forces that a year ago were in their infancy but today in many areas are relatively well established.

The result will almost certainly involve a shrinking of the regime’s operational footprint. Isolated strongholds such as Putao in the far north of Kachin state are already being resupplied by road and river before movement becomes difficult due to the rains. But more exposed outlying positions such as township police stations now taken over by the military must either be abandoned or risk being overrun.

The fall of an army base in Nyaungshwe township south of Taunggyi in Shan state, and another larger post near the Thai border, both in May, provide telling snapshots of what isolated, undermanned army positions can soon expect.

In theory at least the process of regime contraction over the coming months should permit popular resistance forces to better organize and train and begin harder-hitting offensive operations. And that, in turn, may mean a defining shift in the war foreshadowed by other modern guerrilla conflicts.

War in balance

Penned by Mao Zedong and Vo Nguyen Giap, the classic canons of revolutionary guerrilla warfare posit three stages in a successful rural-based insurgency.

An initial period sees popular resistance on the strategic defensive as an incumbent regime aims to crush it. A second intermediate phase follows involving a strategic equilibrium or balance during which the regime has lost the capacity to reassert control while the opposition seeks to develop the military and political wherewithal to unseat the regime.

A final period of strategic offensive typically sees opposition forces, no longer fighting as guerrillas but in larger semi-regular units, able slowly to throttle a regime confined to major cities and struggling to hold open key communication arteries.

As they unfolded in wars in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and other theaters, such phases are never neat and often overlap according to differing regional conditions. Typically, however, the period of strategic equilibrium is the longest and most complex as both sides reinforce zones of relative security – urban centers for the regime, rural strongholds for the opposition – while seeking to disrupt those of the enemy.

Myanmar soldiers on the march amid an anti-coup protest. Image: Getty via AFP / Hkun Lat

The phase of strategic offensive in which a regime is pushed towards military fragmentation and collapse is usually the shortest and conditioned as much by psychological as purely kinetic factors.

It may play out over a year or more; or, as in Cuba in 1959 and Afghanistan in 2021, it may accelerate across a few weeks as the morale of a militarily isolated and politically bankrupt regime collapses, its provincial forces surrender and its leaders flee.

To the extent this revolutionary tradition offers a prism through which to view the war in Myanmar, the rainy season of 2022 arguably marks a pivotal juncture separating a year-long period when resistance forces were on the defensive from a period of strategic equilibrium during which their survival is assured, and their consolidation and development becomes the order of the day.

Conversely, constraints on regime resources make it difficult to envisage a scenario in the dry season of 2023 in which the army will be able to bring to the fight the greater numbers, improved tactics and higher morale required to push the opposition back onto the defensive nation-wide.

How long Myanmar’s strategic equilibrium might last is difficult to gauge. Despite a stark crisis of manpower and emerging cracks in its morale, the military still retains significant organization and firepower, while resistance forces face an uphill struggle to organize, arm and coordinate a wider strategy.

What can be clearly stated, however, is that the role of ethnic armies – Karen, Kachin, Chin and Kayah – around the national borderlands will be critical. Continued or increased support for Bamar PDFs and coordination with the NUG would almost certainly see the period of strategic balance significantly shortened.

If the military regime’s currently precarious ceasefire with the powerful Arakan Army (AA) in western Rakhine state were to collapse, opening another opposition front with major implications for the national heartland, the strains on Naypyidaw’s already overstretched forces would be severe – and perhaps even decisive.

Conversely, the willingness of traditionally fractious ethnic forces to entertain concessions and peace offerings from a military that for decades has secured its stranglehold on power with divide-and-rule stratagems would almost certainly have the opposite effect, extending the conflict possibly for years.

Either way, the shifting contours of war over the coming months will throw into sharper relief a prospect that most of the international community has preferred to ignore or dismiss: Myanmar’s military may not be too big to fail after all.