News from the Front: Observations from Myanmar’s Revolutionary Forces

In mid-October, the author traveled to Aizawl, India, and Chiang Mai and Mae Sot, Thailand, to meet with representatives of some of Myanmar’s major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), members of the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), and others. Through a series of semi-structured interviews, the author heard firsthand about the status of the conflict and learn what those individuals fighting for democracy would like the U.S. government to do to help them win their struggle. This commentary summarizes the findings of this trip and outlines key trends emerging in post-coup Myanmar.

The picture that emerged from these meetings is somewhat different from what is being portrayed in Washington. According to the author’s interviews, the forces of the State Administrative Council (SAC)—Myanmar’s military junta—are suffering from a serious lack of resources and morale problems, which are severely undermining their ability to fight. By contrast, joint EAO and PDF forces in northwestern and southeastern Myanmar are advancing into previously SAC-controlled territory. In some cases, the EAOs and PDF are setting up interim local governments as they secure sufficient control over the newly won areas.

As the prospect of victory over the SAC becomes more likely, each of the major EAOs is exploring how to create a new government for its ethnic state. These explorations are being done both individually and collectively, with the possibility of forming a new federal republic of their own design. While the self-described National Unity Government (NUG) is at times part of these discussions, it is not leading the process as far as the EAOs and PDFs are concerned. Among some of the EAOs and PDFs, the possibility of forming an independent nation is being considered, too.

Struggling SAC Forces

In June, the author wrote a speculative commentary pointing to indications that the SAC forces may have been on their last legs. Details from interviews conducted during the author’s trip provide additional evidence that the SAC forces are struggling to continue the war. Captured ammunition is marked with relatively recent production dates, possibly indicating that the SAC has used up its munitions stockpile and is relying on newly manufacturing ammunition to resupply its troops. Similarly, guns and mortars abandoned by SAC forces are reportedly poorly painted and finished, a possible sign of rushed production by the SAC’s weapons factories. Many of the bombs dropped by SAC aircraft are failing to explode, and when examined are found to have defective detonation devices. SAC aircraft conduct flyovers, but often do not drop any bombs. While this could be an attempt to terrorize the target population by creating uncertainty, it could also indicate that the SAC Air Force is trying to conserve its limited weaponry. Taken together, the EAOs and PDFs see these as signs that the SAC is having difficulty providing its troops with the weapons they need.

According to the EAO and PDF representatives interviewed, the SAC is also struggling to maintain troop strength. SAC companies that are supposed to have 120 soldiers actually field only 60–80 members. Units that have sustained casualties in combat are not being replenished with new troops and are being redeployed with reduced capacity. In some cases, the soldiers are being supplied instant noodles, rather than rice, in their food rations. The EAOs and PDFs see this as a sign that the SAC is also having trouble requisitioning food, which is contributing to the demoralization of SAC troops. One SAC battalion reportedly refused to carry out an assault on EAO units—another indication of morale problems.

Advances of EAOs and PDFs

The author’s interlocutors indicated that the EAOs and PDFs have shifted from their former defensive strategy to advancing into previously SAC-controlled areas. In the northwest, Chin National Front (CNF) and Chinland Defense Force (CDF) units are fighting alongside local PDFs in Magway and Sagaing Divisions. With the exception of portions of Hakha and Tongzang Townships, the CNF and CDF claim they control all of Chin State, as well as parts of Magway and Sagaing Divisions. In the northeast, the Kachin Independence Army is joining forces with local PDFs in Sagaing Division to push back SAC forces and gain control of new territory. In the southeast, the Karen National Union says it is still mostly defending territory but has been able to reclaim areas that it considers traditional Karen territory beyond the current borders of Karen (Kayin) State. These reported advances, and others in Arakan (Rakhine) State and Shan State, are reducing the area under SAC control.

Overall, the EAOs and PDFs interviewed described a picture consistent with that in the report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), with one notable exception. Whereas the SAC-M report portrays the NUG as a critical party to the war of resistance, these EAOs and PDFs seem to not see the NUG playing an important role in their revolutionary movements and do not indicate any reliance on the NUG for developing their military strategies or obtaining weaponry. The EAOs and PDFs expressed uncertainty about if and how they may work with the NUG after they have defeated the SAC forces.

Establishing Interim Governments

Amid ongoing conflict, EAOs and PDFs have turned toward considering how to form interim governments in the liberated areas of their respective states. The author was specifically invited by the CNF and CDF to Aizawl to offer some thoughts on how to create a Chin State government. Conversations with the Karen and Shan EAOs also focused extensively on issues in creating viable democratic state governments.

The discussions on forming state governments were quite broad and creative. This includes discussions on the role of ethnicity in selecting state representatives in Chin State, and examinations of the merits of a bicameral legislature in which one chamber is elected by district and the other elected by tribe. The EAOs and PDFs are also considering expanding their state to include portions of neighboring divisions that they view as part of their traditional homeland.

Federal Union or Independence?

In general, the EAOs and PDFs view the establishment of state governments as precursors for considering joining some form of federal republic or confederation with the other ethnic states, possibly including the Bamar. One critical factor in their decisions will be the division of power between the proposed central government and the newly established state governments. In the opinion of many EAOs, all of Myanmar’s constitutions since independence, including the 1948 constitution, delegated too much power to the Bamar-dominated central government.

At this time, three alternatives are being discussed. The first alternative would establish a federal republic with limited powers for the central government and a high degree of autonomy for the respective ethnic states. This federal republic would likely consist of the current seven ethnic states, a newly created Bamar state, and possibly new states for the Wa and other ethnic groups in Shan State. In this federal republic, each state would have equal power within the central government.

The second alternative is to create a confederation of states in which the central government would have very limited powers, such as national defense. This model has been reportedly proposed by the Arakan Army and the United Wa State Army and has its supporters among some of the other EAOs and PDFs.

The third alternative is to remain independent nations. Independence appeals to some Chin and Karen, but they recognize the challenges that independence would create for their new nation. Individuals interviewed were particularly concerned about obtaining recognition from the international community, including the United Nations and the United States.

U.S. Assistance

Interlocuters on this trip also discussed how to obtain greater assistance from the United States. The EAOs and PDFs were perplexed by the incongruity between the U.S. willingness to provide vast amounts of weapons and aid to Syria and Ukraine, but none to the people of Myanmar fighting for freedom and democracy. From their perspective, a relatively small amount of military assistance would be sufficient to defeat the SAC forces.

Besides military assistance, the EAOs and PDFs would like to see the United States provide more assistance to Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh, India, and Thailand, as well as aid to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons inside Myanmar. Given their effective control over the bordering ethnic states, the EAOs and PDFs think that U.S. humanitarian aid should be provided in coordination with the EAOs and PDFs through local humanitarian assistance organizations, rather than the NUG or SAC—neither of which can safely deliver aid to those in need.

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.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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