­It is too early to write off Myanmar’s junta

Published : 17 Dec 2023 09:58 PM
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In late October, an alliance of three ethnic armed organisations (EAO) launched a major offensive against Myanmar’s military regime in the north of the country. Soon afterwards, other EAOs and militia groups, including members of the opposition People’s Defence Force (PDF), took advantage of the regime’s troubles by opening new fronts in western, eastern and southern Myanmar.

To the surprise of many, the junta’s armed forces (or Tatmadaw) suffered a series of major defeats. According to unconfirmed news reports, at least four military bases, up to 300 smaller outposts and several major towns fell to the insurgents. Important trade and communications links to China and India were cut. Large quantities of arms and ammunition, including some heavy weapons, were captured.

As Richard Horsey has written, these victories constituted ‘the biggest battlefield challenge to the military since the February 2021 coup’. Indeed, they may be the most significant setbacks to a central government in Myanmar since independence 

in 1948. 

As a result, there has been a strategic shift in the civil war, and in the balance of power in the country.

Inevitably, perhaps, these developments prompted a rash of stories in the news media and online, trumpeting the insurgents’ successes. Myanmar was said to be ‘at a tipping point’. Pundits, journalists and activists claimed that the junta was ‘mortally wounded’, ‘in a death spiral’, even ‘on the brink of collapse’.

There were also some statements to the effect that the junta had lost control of the country, which was ‘on the verge of disintegration’. The Council on Foreign Relations called on the US government to prepare for the end of the Myanmar Army, which one analyst predicted would ‘collapse in waves across the country’.

Other commentators pointed to recent cabinet reshuffles in Naypyidaw, the rotation of senior Tatmadaw positions and the arrest of a few corrupt generals, to describe a military regime that was ‘desperate’ and facing crippling internal divisions. The Washington Post warned that the US ‘should prepare for its collapse’.

Looking further ahead, a few observers suggested that it was ‘Time to start planning the post-war future of Myanmar’s military’. One academic even floated the idea of UN intervention, along the lines of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992–93.

Opposition supporters following events in Myanmar can be forgiven for feeling buoyed by the junta’s recent string of defeats. Some of their responses betray an element of triumphalism, but their optimistic prognostications are based on firmer ground than similar claims made in the past.

The EAOs, assisted by the PDF and other militias, have enjoyed a remarkable degree of success. There are still political differences between them, but they seem to have achieved an unprecedented measure of cooperation at the military level. This has permitted them to conduct joint and coordinated operations over two thirds of Myanmar, with dramatic results.

This level of cooperation between Myanmar’s insurgent forces is one of the junta’s worst nightmares. The Tatmadaw simply does not have the manpower to maintain a strong presence everywhere, or to conduct major operations in several places at once. Moving its mobile strike forces to key trouble spots leaves other vulnerable areas exposed.

All that said, predictions of the junta’s imminent demise are premature. Many are based on limited and often unverified sources, a fair degree of speculation and not a little wishful thinking. The junta has undoubtedly been gravely weakened, but it is too early to write it off. The recent operational losses, while significant, do not pose an existential threat.

As Anthony Davis has written, there are no good options for the junta. However, this does not mean that it is powerless to regroup and respond to recent developments. In the past, Myanmar’s generals have shown surprising pragmatism and an ability to survive even the most difficult circumstances. Their resilience should not be underestimated.

For all its problems, the Tatmadaw is a strong, well-armed and well-trained force that still poses a major obstacle to the opposition movement’s stated goal of a federal union. Many of the so-called ‘bases’ that were recently overrun, for example, were small, under-manned and outgunned by the insurgents. Not all Tatmadaw units would be defeated as easily.

Pundits, journalists and activists claimed

 that the junta was ‘

mortally wounded’, ‘in a 

death spiral’, even ‘on the brink of collapse’.

The armed forces still seem to be reasonably loyal and cohesive. There are internal tensions and other issues but, as Bertil Lintner has written, there has been no sign of a serious breakdown in discipline, a mutiny in a major combat unit or irreconcilable differences between elements of the state’s coercive apparatus, of a kind that would spell the junta’s downfall.

Also, there is a possibility that the insurgents will over-reach themselves, or once again fall prey to discord. As the Economist magazine wrote last year, there is a danger too that the resistance movement will start to believe its own propaganda. The recent rather exaggerated claims by its supporters and sundry commentators can only add to this problem

The Tatmadaw has struggled to fight a multitude of guerrilla forces scattered around the country and in the cities. Should the EAOs and PDF start conducting more conventional operations, however, employing larger formations and trying to capture, hold and administer territory, then they become more vulnerable. The junta’s air power, artillery and armour are most effective against such targets.

The momentum is currently with the opposition forces. However, time may be on the side of the junta. It has access to economic resources that the EAOs and PDF do not. Also, it has external allies to protect it, and to replenish its stocks of arms and ammunition. The EAOs and the shadow National Unity Government are more isolated, poorly resourced and divided over many issues.

As the US intelligence community has observed, for the junta this is an existential struggle. The generals have nowhere else to go. If they are determined and ruthless enough, they could last a long time, albeit at great cost to the country. The opposition movement too is looking for a total military victory. Neither side is contemplating a negotiated outcome.

All this argues for greater caution in evaluating the impact of recent insurgent victories.

Andrew Selth is an adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. His most recent book is A Myanmar Miscellany (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, in press). 

Source: East Asia Forum