New Stage for the Military Conflict in Myanmar?

The military conflict in Myanmar entered a new stage over the last month, one that may portend the future collapse of the country’s military and its nominal government, the State Administrative Council (SAC). For the first time since the military coup on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military is facing serious challenges on at least six different fronts.

The future of the SAC has been placed at risk primarily due to the sacrifices of tens of thousands of volunteers who have joined previously existing major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) formed after the 2021 coup. Although the self-professed National Unity Government (NUG) does finance a number of PDFs, it has not been a major military factor in the destabilization of the SAC.

On October 27, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a coalition consisting of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army launched a major military offensive, dubbed “Operation 1027,” in northern Shan State. The alliance’s forces quickly seized control of dozens of the Myanmar military’s bases and outposts in the region. On November 11, a coalition of Karenni EAOs launched a separate military offensive in Kayah (Karenni) State, named “Operation 1111,” with similar success. Then, on November 13, the AA attacked several Myanmar military posts in Rakhine State in apparent solidarity with the Three Brotherhood Alliance and the Karenni forces.

In addition to the three recent EAO offensives, the Myanmar military is also struggling with recent attacks in the states of Chin, Kachin, Kayin (Karen), and Mon that have resulted in the loss of military bases and outputs and have undermined SAC administrative control in those states. On November 30, various PDFs operating in Tanintharyi Region announced the formation of the Southern Brothers Army. As a result, the SAC has seen the territory under its nominal control shrink to a narrowing corridor running from Mandalay in the north, through the capital city of Naypyitaw, to Yangon in the south.

The situation around Naypyitaw may be of particular concern to the SAC, as EAO and PDF forces are approaching the city from the west, north, and east. The potential encirclement of Naypyitaw has been dubbed the “half moon,” or “ga nge,” in Burmese, after the letter that looks like a circle with an opening in the bottom. A similar encirclement of Mandalay is also taking place as different EAOs and PDFs expand their areas of operations.

Besides their pushes toward the major cities in central Myanmar, the EAOs and PDFs are also consolidating control of major transportation corridors to the bordering countries of Bangladesh, China, India, and Thailand, as well as taking over border operations. On November 15, Chin forces took over a town on the border of India’s Mizoram State. The Three Brotherhood Alliance has also taken control of several border towns near China. In Kayin State, the Karen National Union forced SAC supporters and their families to evacuate Myawaddy Township on the border with Thailand.

The astonishing success of the EAO and PDF offensives has expanded their control over all seven of Myanmar’s states—Chin, Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Kayin (Karen), Mon, Rakhine (Arakan), and Shan—as well as portions of the divisions of Bago, Magway, Mandalay, Sagaing, and Tanintharyi. The EAOs and their supporters in Arakan, Chin, Karen, and Karenni have announced plans to form interim governments to administer their “liberated” homelands, as well as hold discussions to draft constitutions. According to the author’s meetings with Chin, Karen and Karenni representatives, their hope is to establish democratically elected civilian governments as quickly as possible.

Sadly, the intensification of fighting has resulted in a massive increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in need of humanitarian assistance. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 335,000 people in 5 states and 4 divisions have been displaced since the outbreak of the Operation 1027. This is on top of the nearly 2 million IDPs already in Myanmar as of early October 2023, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ most recent report.

Congress and the Biden administration should seize this opportunity to rid the people of Myanmar of the scourge of the SAC and its supporters and help form new democratic governments that represent the will of the people. It is time to abandon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “Five Point Consensus” and efforts to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Instead, it is time for a significant shift in U.S. policy, including:

  • Establishing closer and open relationships with the major EAOs, in addition to the NUG;
  • Discussing the provision of military assistance to the EAOs and their affiliated PDFs, as well as arrangements for the safe and efficient delivery of humanitarian assistance;
  • Shifting the provision of humanitarian assistance to cross-border operations located in India and Thailand; and
  • Offering technical assistance on the establishment of interim governments and the drafting of constitutions for the “liberated” regions of the country.

If such a change were made in U.S. policy, there is a chance that the Myanmar military would be defeated and new, democratic governments would emerge in several states. Once those states are established, they can consider meeting with the NUG to discuss the possibility of forming a true federated democratic republic in Myanmar.

Michael Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program