Is Myanmar’s Military on Its Last Legs?

There are growing signs that Myanmar’s military is in a serious struggle to survive. Since its leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup on February 1, 2021, the nation has descended into a multifront civil war. Rather than securing the stability and security of Myanmar, the coup has created the possibility of the country fragmenting into several separate sovereign states. For Min Aung Hlaing and his top officers, the civil war may also result in the dismantling of their military.
Every week, several credible news accounts report that Myanmar’s military has sustained serious casualties during their battles with Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) across the country, including in Chin State, Magway Division, Sagaing Division, Karen State (or Kayin State) and Karenni State (or Kayah State). These casualties, which often include senior officers, have significantly depleted the military’s troop strength and morale. In Kachin State, the military’s soldiers reportedly do not venture outside of their bases because they fear being killed by EAO or PDF forces.
The Myanmar military also faces a difficult time retaining existing soldiers and obtaining new ones to replace the dead and wounded. Hundreds of soldiers, including a few majors, have gone absent without leave or joined one of the EAOs or PDFs. Recruiters are apparently struggling to meet enlistment needs, with some allegedly recruiting child soldiers. In Magway Division and Sagaing Division, places that previously provided the military with many recruits, young people are instead joining the PDFs.
As a result, many Myanmar military units are below their usual unit size. To make up the difference, the military is compelling Myanmar police officers to provide military support. Unsurprisingly, some of these police officers have resigned to avoid combat missions.
The Myanmar military is also trying to increase its troop levels by forming Pyu Saw Htee militias, often comprised of military veterans and pro-military Buddhist extremists. The Pyu Saw Htee militias frequently target villagers thought to be members or supporters of PDFs using tactics designed to terrorize the local population.
Despite drawing on these various resources to continue its military campaigns against the EAOs and PDFs, the Myanmar military is losing control over the country. According to sources monitoring the civil war, approximately 40–50 percent of Myanmar is under the control of EAOs or PDFs. The Arakan Army claims to administer most of Rakhine State, and has set up its own government independent of the military’s State Administrative Council (SAC). A coalition between the Chin National Front and the Chinland Defense Force is making plans to establish a new government for the “liberated” areas of Chin State. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and their allied EAOs have expanded their control in Kachin State and Shan State. Meanwhile, the SAC is finding it difficult to find people willing to work for its government in Karen State, Karenni State, Magway Division, and Sagaing Division.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another factor placing the future of the Myanmar military at risk. Russia is one of the military’s main suppliers of weapons. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the delivery of weapons has reportedly slowed. China is another major weapons supplier to the Myanmar military, but it also provides weapons to several of the major EAOs as part of its policy of maintaining good relations with both sides of the conflict. The military does have its own weapons manufacturing facilities, but it is unclear if they can produce enough to keep its troops adequately supplied.   
Min Aung Hlaing’s appeal to the EAOs to join “peace talks” is more evidence that the Myanmar military is in danger. During Myanmar’s previous period of military rule (1962–2011), Myanmar’s military would often attempt to negotiate “ceasefire agreements” when it was having difficulties in its military campaigns against EAOs. Sometimes, the military would begin talks with one EAO in order to free troops to launch an offensive against another EAO. The military eventually broke virtually all of those ceasefire agreements, so it is not surprising that most of the major EAOs rejected Min Aung Hlaing’s appeal.
Perhaps the military’s weapons problem partially explains the consistency of the independent military requests made by representatives of several EAOs and PDFs. According to their assessments, a supply of 50–100 Stinger-like missiles and a few thousand military-grade M4 automatic rifles would be enough for them to overthrow the military junta. It would cost less than $30 million to supply the requested weapons to each EAO or PDF. Depending on which EAOs and PDFs were supplied weapons, the total cost could be well below $1 billion—a small fraction of the military aid the Biden administration is currently supplying Ukraine.
However, it seems unlikely the Biden administration will offer the EAOs and PDFs the military support they seek. President Biden remains committed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s Five Point Consensus, and has repeatedly called for a global arms embargo against the Myanmar military. As such, supplying weapons to the EAOs and PDFs would appear contrary to his current policy. Similarly, it is unlikely that the European Union is going to provide the EAOs and PDFs with the necessary weapons to defeat the Myanmar military.
As a consequence, pro-democracy forces in Myanmar will continue their struggle with whatever firepower they can acquire, and the civil war will continue. Some of the EAOs, such as the KIA and the UWSA, have the ability to produce some weapons, but apparently not enough to supply all the EAOs and the PDFs. An informal international network of supporters is attempting to procure weapons for the EAOs and PDFs, but it faces financial and legal problems. For the people of Myanmar, it means their suffering will continue as the civil war rages on.
Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program