Anti-coup protesters used slingshots against approaching security forces in Yangon, March 2021. Myanmar's conflict is becoming increasingly urban-oriented. Image: Screenshot / BBC

Myanmar’s recent return to judicial executions has raised the specter of revenge attacks in the strife-ridden nation’s main cities and towns.

Prominent activist Ko Jimmy, former ruling National League for Democracy party lawmaker and hip-hop star Phyo Zayar Thaw and two other members of the anti-military resistance, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were sentenced to death by a State Administration Council (SAC) military tribunal in January and executed in July.

Myanmar’s civil war is raging in the countryside and the hinterlands, especially the “new” wars in Sagaing and Magwe regions where armed conflict was all but absent for many decades.

But how much of the fighting has impacted cities and main towns? Will we see an increase or intensification of fighting in urban areas? How many of the urban resistance cells are “independent” People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and how many are under the direct command and control of the National Unity Government (NUG) and therefore under the guidance of the Ministry of Defense and beholden to NUG rules of engagement?

By its nature, clandestine urban warfare is opaque and operational secrecy and use of cell structures for organization make a clear picture almost impossible to discern.

On Wednesday, the US Embassy in Yangon issued this specific warning to its citizens inside Myanmar: “It is strongly recommended to stay away from security forces and prepare for targeted assassinations and IED attacks against known regime sympathizers and security personnel. Although there is no specific threat against foreigners, the threat of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a primary concern, especially since the calls for violence are from People’s Defense Forces (PDF) based throughout the city.” 

But how much more sophisticated are underground urban guerilla groups becoming? In early July, it appeared as if urban warfare was waning and many people in Yangon and Mandalay reported relative calm apart from the occasional checkpoint. Yet in recent weeks, attacks have escalated, and a number of resistance organizations have announced new urban operations that seek to target only members of the security forces or their close collaborators.

The Nann Htike Aung Operation allegedly began soon after Operation Swallow, and according to the NUG has involved 91 attacks with 80 SAC security personnel and their civilian supporters killed and around 80 wounded. The shadowy groups involved are known as Special Task Agency of Burma and Anonymous Urban Guerillas.

They have targeted several courthouses, shot and killed a judge and military administers, and in one attack in the industrial suburb of Hlaing Thayar killed alleged members of the Thwe Thouq (blood drinkers) pro-SAC vigilantes.

Protesters wearing signs in support of a People’s Defense Force (PDF) during a demonstration against the military coup in the city of Dawei. Image: AFP

In early July, one group called Civil Guerilla Force (CGF-Yangon) issued a statement claiming to disband due to the mass arrest of their supporters, but this presaged a significant uptick in attacks. One of the most high-profile targets has been SAC dictator Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s sister’s home in Yangon in a bombing attack on July 11.

Much attention has rightly been directed at the spreading rural war zones, the use of heavy weaponry against civilians and the humanitarian disaster of over one million internally displaced people. But analysts and observers must not forget the intense street battles in Yangon, Bago, Mandalay and many other cities and towns in Myanmar a year ago.

In the street battles in Bago on April 9, 2021, the SAC murdered 82 people in heavy, if lopsided, fighting. Asymmetric barricade warfare may demonstrate the courage of the resistance but it also underscores the folly of such an urban approach to warfare.

The brutal crackdown on protestors was likely designed to deter future urban uprisings, but the possibility of sustained urban attacks against security forces in the future, or even a resumption of major protests seizing parts of towns and cities, cannot be ruled out completely.

There is also the phenomenon of peri-urban warfare, attacks that come on the outskirts of cities or towns. These include the killing of five pro-junta Pyu Saw Htee militia members in late June by the Ye Balu (Ye Ogre) resistance group at a checkpoint outside of Ye Town in Mon State, according to the group’s leader Kyat Mel (Black Chicken).

Another such attack was the June 14 double-tap bombing of a security vehicle outside of the military capital at Naypyidaw, just nine kilometers from the airport.

Similar to rural resistance, there is a risk that further violence becomes personalized or commodified: in other words, vendetta and profit-seeking drives targeting over clear military opponents. But this messiness is always a feature of conflict and existed before the coup in many conflict areas.

The fighting in Loikaw in Kayah state in late 2021 is another indication that urban warfare is now a phenomenon in the post-coup conflict, more than at any time in Myanmar’s history. This is likely the first time ever a state or regional capital in the country has been bombed from the air – and on multiple occasions. This in itself speaks to how intense the post-coup fighting has become.

At the same time as heavy fighting in Loikaw, there were anywhere between 150 to 200 shootings and bombings in Yangon in December 2021 alone, according to NUG estimates, in the so-called “Southern War Zone” (as opposed to the “Northern Zone” of conflict in the northwest and southeast of the country.

Operation Pyan Hlwar Aung (Operation Swallow), conducted between September 2021 and April 2022, reportedly targeted 587 military personnel, 443 SAC administrators and 98 military-connected businesses and allegedly killed 253 people while injuring nearly 300, according to NUG estimates.

None of these figures can be independently verified with any degree of accuracy, but Myanmar media reports reflect a steady tempo of shootings and bombings.

A photo published by military-controlled Myawaddy TV shows Ko Jimmy kneeling before allegedly seized weapons and ammunition. Image: Screenshot

Take the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Jimmy and Zeyar Thaw, which came roughly in the middle of Operation Swallow.

According to a callous state media article on July 29 titled “Behind the Capital Punishment”, the SAC claimed that Zeyar Thaw “was arrested together with 169 arms and ammunition, 231 homemade guns, six homemade mortars, 18,810 rounds of ammunition, 43 40- mm grenades, 175 homemade grenades/rockets, 48 grenades, 16 various types of mines, 1,099 homemade mines and other related materials.”

If even part of this alleged haul is to be believed, and obviously none of the SAC’s claims should be, this is both a sizeable arms cache and potentially a major blow to the underground resistance if it was all captured.

Operation Pyan Hlwar Aung ended in April with the killing of Major Kaday Phyo Aung, a SAC official in Lanmadaw Township who was trained in Russia and a former military-appointed member of the Yangon Regional Parliament.

He was gunned down on April 10 on the street, indicating how brazen the assassins can be, as also seen in the attempted assassination of the Central Bank Vice Governor Daw Than Than Swe at her home in Bahan Township.

Countering urban resistance is a heavy pursuit, a mixture of police work, human intelligence (HUMINT) and electronic surveillance and communications interdiction (SIGNIT).

From the routine numbers of arrests in Yangon and Mandalay over the past year, including the arrests in November of Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zayar Thaw, the mixture of intelligence work likely infused with the torture and ill-treatment of detainees has been so far partly successful but has not completely quelled the resistance.

Improved surveillance capability empowered by Chinese-supplied CCTV cameras and face-recognition software, including wars provided by telecom giant Huawei, has likely substantially augmented the SAC’s capacity to identify and apprehend anti-junta activists and fighters.

The use of the messaging app Telegram to spread anti-NUG and resistance propaganda has also accelerated in recent months, with multiple channels being used to discredit the opposition, promote the military’s “righteous” war against “terrorists” and pour scorn on independent media, often with messaging similar to radical Buddhist nationalist groups such as Ma Ba Tha.

It may also be used as a form of “target acquisition”, with some groups highlighting suspected members of the public as PDF fund-raisers or sympathizers for the Thwe Thouq to assassinate them.

Myanmar’s military regime is on a rights-abusing rampage: Image: Twitter

And when hi-tech doesn’t work, brute force is deployed, with the SAC razing slums in parts of Mandalay, Yangon and Bago, allegedly to make urban resistance mobilization more difficult – although simply punishing communities they know despise them is also an element of the strategy, as is naked greed for development or commercial projects.

Not to be overlooked in the analysis of the violence is the continued use of “flash strikes” and small-scale rapid demonstrations, often staged with face masks, a banner and a smoke grenade, to keep the spirit of peaceful resistance alive.

Like much of the war in Myanmar, it is impossible to predict where the conflict is headed but attacks in recent weeks suggest it is descending even deeper into all-out carnage.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues in Myanmar