While much of the global attention is focused on Ukraine, an equally brutal war is being waged by the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar military against its own people which has received scant attention. Civilian casualties amidst brutal slash and burn tactics used by the military have been extensive in Myanmar
The military seized power in a February 01, 2021 coup on the plea of flawed elections and one year since then has been attempting to gain control of the state with multiple militancy in the form of people’s resistance expanding each day and a vibrant civil disobedience movement.
Why then is the “civil war,” in Myanmar being overlooked while Ukraine has received all the attention?
For one, Myanmar is far removed from the geopolitical landscape of primary interest of power – Europe. Perched between India, China and South-East Asia, geopolitical contestation is relatively mild unlike the one between Russia and the West even though China is a factor, but the Chinese role in the civil war has been limited.
Principles of violation of state sovereignty is not involved while a charismatic leader as the Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not leading the resistance.
Daw Aung Suu Kyi who heads the National League of Democracy (NLD) the party which swept the elections in Myanmar held on November 08, 2020 is under house arrest and thus has no access to the media unlike President Zelenskyy, thus she is not able to muster the level of support that Ukraine has.
Ms Suu Kyi a Nobel Peace Laurette lost much of the moral ground when she supported the Myanmar militaries massacre of the Rohingya in 2017 which led to large scale migration to Bangladesh.
Little did Suu Kyi realise that her supporters will be victims like the Rohingya four years later.
State of Violence
The violence in Myanmar however is as brutal as in Ukraine though in a rural setting.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet in the first report on state of human rights in Myanmar after the military coup last year on February 01 has indicated extensive violations in the country. “The appalling breadth and scale of violations of international law suffered by the people of Myanmar demand a firm, unified, and resolute international response,” Bachelet said.
The Report states, “Situation of human rights in Myanmar since 1 February 2021” by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has underlined that “Myanmar is caught in a downward spiral of violence characterised by the increasingly brutal repression of individuals actually or seemingly opposed to military rule, by violent resistance to the coup and by several active non-international armed conflicts”.
The report recommends that “Action must be taken to stem the pace at which individuals are being targeted by the military authorities and stripped of their rights, their lives and their livelihoods”.
1,670 civilians are alleged to have been killed since the army seized power in February last year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group that monitors arrests and deaths. These numbers may not be accurate as it is difficult to collect data from the conflict zone.
Military’s Brutal Tactics
The Myanmar army’s practice of razing homes and villages, particularly in ethnic states, has been well documented during the more than seven decades of civil war prior to the 2021 coup.
David Eubank, director of the Free Burma Rangers and a former US Army Special Forces and Ranger officer heading the humanitarian relief organisation, told The Associated Press that military’s jets and helicopters are carrying out frequent attacks in eastern Myanmar where the agency operates to provide relief to the civilians caught in conflict.
“Air strikes, not like one or two a day like they do in Karen State, but like two MiGs coming one after the other, these Yak fighters, it was one after the other,” said Eubank. “Hind helicopter gunships, these Russian planes, and then just brought hundreds of rounds of 120mm mortar. Just boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Use of indiscriminate artillery fire is also forcing civilians to flee. There are videos of repeated airstrikes by Myanmar military aircraft in Kayah State –also known as Karenni— causing a number of civilian deaths.
The military offensive is also intense in the North in the Sagaing Region and Chin State. According to sources with knowledge of the plan, the Myanmar junta is planning a ‘kill all, torch all’ policy in Sagaing Region to crush People’s Defense Forces (PDF) there.
Lieutenant General Than Tun Oo replaced Lt-Gen Than Hlaing as head of clearance operations in northwestern command in March to intensify operations Chin state and Sagaing and Magwe regions. An internet blackout is imposed on most of Sagaing Region prior to the operations.
The Myanmar Army has also raised the “people’s militias”—or Pyu Saw Htee, deployed across the country which is accused of terrorising locals and looting property. Pyu Saw Htee is well equipped by the military and receives support for operations.
Organisation of Resistance
Myanmar resistance has been organised in multiple layers. The most active confronting the Tatmadaw are the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), these are volunteer civilians who have picked up arms to fight the military to uphold their freedoms. They are essentially self organizing militia motivated for sacrificing “blood and guts,” for freedom.
Another layer is the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) who have been fighting Myanmar State for many decades. The EAOs are presently active in the Kachin, Karen and Karenni states in the North and the East.
There is synergy between the PDF and EAO, with the latter providing training, equipment and logistics support to the newly converted guerrillas, however this is not uniform in all the States and Regions.
For instance, in the south the Karenni National Defence Forces (PDF) works under the command of the Karenni Army (KA), a rebel group that has operated in the region for decades, rather than under the NUG.
Other resistance groups in the region–including those from Moebye, Sekhon, Demoso, Loikaw and Hpruso townships have formed official ties with the resistance government the National Unity Government (NUG).
However, there is a resource challenge for the PDFs of weapons and munitions as the parallel resistance government that has been formed after the coup, NUG is unable to supply them the requirements.
Naing Htoo Aung, the NUG’s defence ministry secretary, told Myanmar Now that supporting the nationwide armed resistance was a “priority”. “We are trying to provide more funds and weapons,” he said. “This is a priority as well as a challenge for the defence department of the NUG.”
“So far we have established the armed wing from funds donated by our people, at home and abroad,” U Yee Mon an NUG Defence ministry representative said.
Unlike Ukraine, which has received international military aid, the civilian minister said no other country has been provided any material yet. “However, the minimum requirement for weapons and ammunition will soon be met,” he said, adding that it would take longer to fully equip all the PDFs.
The NUG Ministry of Defense reported that since September last year it has received over US$30 million (53 billion kyats) from public donations, 85 percent of which is being used to purchase and produce arms.
For the PDFs to be effective to be able to beat the Myanmar Army, there is a necessity for formalising the chain of command, ensuring that they are adequately resourced and a chain of command is formalised of all the resistance groups.
Aung San Myint, the deputy secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party, the political wing of the KA, has highlighted the need for better organisation and streamlining of the resistance. “We need to have a step-by-step military plan,” he said. “The plan is very chaotic right now because the resistance groups are not under a single chain of command. That is the reason why we’ve lost so many people.”
The PDF tactics are typical guerrilla small operations of ambushing military convoys taking advantage of knowledge of the local terrain and intercepting the long military chain of supply such as in the Sagaing Region as the military has to supply forces fighting in Kachin State in the North. Apart from the roads, rivers are also made vulnerable for the military. For instance the Katha People’s Defence Force (PDF) targets military supply boats on the Irrawaddy
The military reaction to the ambushes is to carry out artillery strikes in the nearest village to the site setting fire to homes, civilian stores and property. Myanmar Now reports that in one such military retaliatory attack 192 homes were torched and killed 18 civilians killed in five villages in Khin-U in the Sagaing Region.
Can the Myanmar Resistance Prevail?
In one year’s intense fighting the PDFs have responded effectively causing numerous casualties to the Tatmadaw though these have not been independently authenticated.
Using local ground knowledge to effect the PDF can deny control to the Myanmar Army and is presently dominating the Chin State and Sagaing Region in the North and Karen and Karenni states in the South East.
On the other hand, the military is using brutal tactics of death and destruction to suppress the population through retributive air and artillery attacks that have raided villages and left many civilians devoid of their homes with refugees flowing into Thailand and India.
Myanmar military has also found ways to obtain arms and munitions even as Russia the main source is likely to be under pressure with sanctions stemming flows.
Alternate sources are Pakistan, Iran and Serbia apart from China. Pakistan has sent arms to Myanmar and a Pakistan delegation was reportedly in the country negotiating the provision. An Iranian delegation landed in Myanmar on January 13 was either the second or third to visit since the military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021.
The military leaders have support of the veterans a strong lobby in the country such as former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe and the Buddhist monk body the 47-member State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee.
Given these dynamics, it is not surprising that the outcome a year after is a stalemate.
Myanmar resistance forces have tremendous motivation and a spirit of sacrifice but lack unity of organisations, thus many of their “battles,” are individual skirmishes which does harm the
Tatmadaw but will not impact the overall campaign of resistance.
The NUG Ministry of Defence will have to establish a coordinating HQs to guide and mentor the PDFs for countrywide impact.
Coordination with the EAOs is also essential if the Myanmar Army is to be swayed to adopt a path of peace.
Arms and munitions are also scarce as the NUG lacks resources. There is no flow like in Ukraine where the United States, the UK, and other Western countries willingly provide first-rate air defence and anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian armed forces.
These factuals have to change on the ground in support of the PDF and NUG, else this will continue to be a long war with heavy losses to civilians, the rebel fighters and the military alike. Against this backdrop, economic sustainment of the State is expected to be penurious with sanctions by the West and neglect by international financial institutions.
Myanmar may be heading for a failed state in the near future.