The Latest on Southeast Asia: January 18, 2024

The Brotherhood Alliance, consisting of the Kokang-led Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army, launched an unprecedented offensive across Myanmar’s northern Shan State on October 27. Dubbed “Operation 1027,” the offensive is a potential watershed in the country’s civil war, leading to the capture of key towns, border crossings, and military outposts in northern Shan and beyond. The operation inspired other EAOs and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) to launch renewed offensives in other parts of the countries. These advances pose the greatest threat to the junta’s stability since it took power in a 2021 coup.

Resistance forces continue to gain ground more than two months into the offensive, albeit at a slowing pace. On January 6, the Brotherhood Alliance captured Laukkai, capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone along the border with China. This completed the MNDAA’s reconquest of the zone 15 years after being driven from it by the Myanmar military. The town fell after a negotiated surrender of thousands of junta troops who were allowed safe passage out of the Kokang region. The TNLA, meanwhile, has taken control of the neighboring Palaung (Ta’ang) Self-Administered Zone and is expanding into other areas of northern Shan. In addition to aiding its allies in northern Shan, the Arakan Army has launched fresh offensives in northern Rakhine (Arakan) and southern Chin states. On January 15, the Arakan Army took control of Paletwa in Chin, close to the border with India and Bangladesh. Paletwa housed a key logistics base for junta outposts near the border.

Operation 1027 has also reverberated beyond the areas in which the Brotherhood Alliance is operating. Resistance forces in Sagaing Region and Chin State have taken several important towns, while those in Karenni State launched a sustained assault on the state capital, Loikaw. That battle is ongoing despite significant casualties for the Karenni resistance. If Loikaw falls, it would be a major strategic setback for the junta.

The Myanmar military, already stretched thin, has not had the manpower to effectively respond to offensives on so many fronts. Instead, it has relied on airpower and artillery to try and halt resistance advances while indiscriminately punishing civilians. This scorched earth response is deepening the country’s humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands internally displaced since the start of Offensive 1027. Retaliatory measures in Rakhine State have destroyed entire villages, while in Kachin State, junta forces have kidnapped civilians to use as human shields.

On January 12, the junta and the Brotherhood Alliance agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Chinese diplomats in Kunming. But in less than 24 hours, the alliance accused junta forces of violating terms and relaunched offensive operations.  This was the second time in as many months that Beijing mediated talks on a ceasefire only to see it immediately break down. Those failures highlight China’s important but ultimately secondary role in northern Shan State.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), meanwhile, has proven an even less successful arbiter. Since issuing its Five Point Consensus on the conflict in April 2021, the grouping has shown little ability to influence the junta and little appetite to meaningfully engage resistance forces. On January 10, Laos as the 2024 ASEAN chair appointed veteran diplomat Alounkeo Kittikhoun special envoy to Myanmar.  But he is unlikely to have any more luck than his predecessors in reviving the moribund Five Point Consensus. Events on the ground have moved well beyond that now.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative