New battlelines drawn on the road to Mandalay
Delhi needs to tweak its policy in light of the gains made by the Three Brotherhood Alliance against the junta
Not since 1949 has the Myanmar army faced an existential crisis as it does today. On October 27, the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA) comprising the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army launched a joint offensive codenamed ‘Operation 1027’ across northern Shan state. Since then, Naypyidaw has lost control of its main border crossings with China, as well as Rihkhawdar, a town bordering Mizoram, in addition to being bogged down in Kayah state and facing harassment in Sagaing and the southern Tanintharyi belt. Such is Naypyidaw’s desperation that Myanmar’s president is worried that the country risks “breaking apart” if the military fails to defeat this offensive.
The pace at which the army’s units are collapsing, or surrendering without a fight, signifies a qualitative shift in Myanmar’s battlefield that will reshape India’s near-east for decades. Lack of public support for the coup, Naypyidaw’s crackdowns, and regional powers (including India) enabling the junta, are realities of post-coup Myanmar. But two changes in the institutional make and warfighting capabilities of the resistance and the junta, coupled with a developing shift in China’s stance triggered this blitz.
The first aspect is significant. In contrast to the often levelled charge that the resistance ails from inter-ethnic disunity, organisational limits, and political short-sightedness, Operation 1027 demonstrates unprecedented inter-group coordination and military effectiveness. To maintain operational secrecy in a war with multiple moving parts is not easy. But to do so in coordination with numerous armed outfits with the tactical aim of stretching the junta beyond its limits and a singular strategic objective of expediting its collapse is breathtaking. If these offensives continue to succeed, it will compel regional stakeholders to revisit their assumption that the junta is the core around which Myanmar’s politics revolves.
What caused such inter-group cohesion? More than China’s limited aid to ethnic armies, or the State Administration Council’s (SAC) widespread unpopularity, it was international apathy or complicity, and the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to curate a credible dialogue that created the conditions for serious inter-ethnic military collaboration. The fact that these groups were raised and trained together aided operational synergies. Faced with the dual crisis of domestic persecution and international isolation, these groups had nothing but themselves to support. By entering into ceasefires in Rakhine or mounting pressure in Chin and Shan states, these groups bided their time while nurturing the illusion that Naypyidaw was winning.
So powerful is this illusion that 10 days before the 1027 offensive, India’s deputy national security advisor, Vikram Misri, visited Naypyidaw to commemorate the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. China and Thailand were the only other international participants at the ceremony meant to showcase Naypyidaw’s continuing desire to dictate the terms of negotiations with ethnic armies. But the ground under SAC chairman Min Aung Hlaing’s feet had shifted. This brings us to the second aspect; i.e., if inter-ethnic alliances became enduring and effective in the last two years, the junta’s institutional strength and fighting abilities declined in the same period.
Naypyidaw’s reliance on artillery and airpower, which privilege distance over proximity in combat, has been both effective and useless. Indiscriminate bombing killed and displaced civilians and prevented the resistance from holding ground. But fighting from a distance denied Naypyidaw political control. Instead, the junta incurred heavy losses in more intimate contacts or witnessed large-scale defections. Though manageable, such losses become a drain in the light of stunted recruitment propelled by both a lack of interest among the young to join the armed forces and the junta’s limited interest in refilling the ranks given its dependence on airpower and artillery.
Such pressures began to reveal cracks in the SAC. The support that Min Aung Hlaing marshalled after the coup has somewhat dwindled recently. In early October, the junta purged two top officers on corruption charges after similar arrests in September. Arguably, this does not mean much given SAC vice chairman Soe Win’s support for his chief. But the problem is not loyalty.
The SAC is reportedly so corrupt that to single out a few officers is risky. The officers charged were caught in a complex web of complaints by Beijing against a multi-billion dollar scam city in the Kokang region, and the decreasing ability of these officers to ensure command and control — critical to retain the territories from where they run illicit enterprises. The institutional erosion of the Myanmar army since the coup has been immense.
What triggered these dual trends to translate into the 1027 offensive was, most likely, the recent killing of Chinese and Thai citizens, including undercover Chinese operatives, in a scam compound owned by the junta-backed Kokang border guard forces. This incident allegedly made China informally green-light the offensive. Critical of Min Aung Hlaing’s performance, Beijing may have begun to view the resistance forces as more reliable in stabilising the border than Naypyidaw.
But just as the junta’s power was overestimated, there is a risk of canonising the resistance now. To assume that 3BHA’s battlefield gains imply the junta’s collapse could be premature. Most regions where the junta has collapsed are ethnic minority-dominated areas. Though troubled, the Burman heartland is still under Naypyidaw’s control. To topple the junta, the 3BHA will need to step out of their comfort zones and take the fight into central and lower Myanmar. This is impossible without an understanding with the National Unity Government (NUG) — with whom the 3BHA is not allied — and the promise of overt support by Beijing.
But a sudden psychological and actual collapse of the junta in other regions could offer the resistance a lot more agency than currently exists. Such a meltdown could compel China and India to alter their Myanmar policies.
It will leave India in an awkward position: Though desiring stability in Myanmar, New Delhi will fail to influence the terms of such stability. India has privileged the junta over the resistance even though many of its infrastructure projects fall under resistance-held territories. This is an error that must be rectified.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) The views expressed are personal