Gauging the Strength of Myanmar’s Anti-Coup Resistance Forces

Since the February 2021 coup, People’s Defence Forces operating in the northeast have been backed by the Kachin Independence Army to oppose the junta. (Image source: Paul Vrieze)

In the weeks after Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on 1 February 2021, its increasingly violent crackdown on peaceful protesters saw street demonstrations quickly evolve into an armed insurgency. New resistance forces, assembled to oppose the junta installed by army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, have since proliferated across the country, adding to an already complex set of ethnic armed groups that have battled the military for control of remote border regions for generations.

Post-coup, war is no longer restricted to Myanmar’s mountainous hinterlands and has come to its central plains, which are predominantly home to the majority Bamar population and had previously been free of rebellion. The new resistance, taking in People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and other local militias aligned with the exiled National Unity Government (NUG), is stretching the resources of the military. But how strong really is Myanmar’s armed resistance, and can it threaten the junta’s rule?

Conflict in Bamar heartland

The post-coup resistance began to take shape in May 2021, when the NUG—composed mostly of elected parliamentarians from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD)—announced the formation of PDFs, later declaring a “defensive war” against the junta. As of June 2022, it claimed that more than 500 such groups were affiliated with the parallel government—though others have opted to remain independent, including local defense groups that operate in cities and rural areas.

For those that are affiliated, the NUG has tried to unify them through a central command structure. These groups receive funding from the government-in-exile, and according to its defense minister U Yee Mon consist of 50,000–100,000 fighters. The NUG claimed in September that resistance forces and ethnic armies collectively controlled over half of Myanmar. Yet that does not equal governance or uncontested authority in many regions, instead reflecting a degree of local control. PDF presence in particular can quickly be eroded by military offensives, making territorial claims difficult to assess.

What does represent a noticeable change from before the coup is the widespread presence of anti-government resistance forces in the central regions of Magway, Mandalay, and Sagaing. The Bamar majority that populates these areas was “pacified” to a large extent in the years prior to the military takeover due to its broad support for the NLD government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which the army ruled alongside for five years. As soon as her administration was toppled by the coup, any tolerance of the military among NLD voters evaporated and the ensuing crackdown led many to take up arms.

PDFs in central Myanmar have proliferated rapidly and now pose a major problem logistically for the military, denying it a previously safe route to transport soldiers, weapons and equipment to confront armed groups operating in ethnic states in the north (Kachin), east (Shan) and south (Kayin). Convoys are now at high risk of ambush, and junta resources are stretched more thinly as troops battle PDFs.

A mismatch in capabilities

The military is, however, still far stronger than the resistance. It has up to 356,000 active troops and another 107,000 serving in paramilitary units, and is assisted by pro-regime Pyusawhti militias which have become more active in response to the anti-coup backlash. Regime soldiers have the weight of a large conventional army behind them, with access to automatic rifles, tanks and armored vehicles.

Police and military forces loyal to junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing have been stretched by the uprising by People’s Defense Forces in Myanmar’s central plains. (Image source: Adam Jones)

NUG-aligned forces have come up against this using mostly improvised weapons—with only a small proportion of PDFs supported by large ethnic armies in the northeast having access to modern rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Across much of the country, PDF members have worked in makeshift factories to construct their own basic weapons from locally-available materials—learning primarily from videos shared on social media and from rebels with existing knowledge and skills. It is dangerous work and many have died in accidents while assembling or testing explosives or firearms.

Weapons commonly manufactured by PDFs include slingshots, crude single-shot firearms, remotely-detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and landmines. Some claim to have produced mortar and artillery systems with a range of 2–9km, firing shells filled with lead and scrap metal, though the reliability and effectiveness of such weapons is unproven. Rebels are also reported to have captured firearms from the army and in some cases have developed 3D printed guns to use in guerilla attacks.

Battle for Myanmar’s skies

As the conflict has intensified, PDFs have begun to launch more ambitious front-foot operations, in particular using drones re-fitted to drop explosives on junta positions. This tactic minimizes the risk of rebel casualties while allowing PDFs to engage in more strategic rather than reactive warfare, as has been the case for much of the insurgency, with camera-fitted reconnaissance drones also used to identify army outposts and track troop movements. The NUG recently established its own drone unit, “Federal Wings,” to centralize operations. It views this as a precursor to an eventual air force.

The military has responded by installing anti-drone guns and signal jammers at vulnerable outposts, while deploying surveillance drones of its own and mimicking the tactics of the PDFs by using drones to drop bombs. In this area though, it has so far been the tech-savvy rebels who hold an advantage.

Yet despite this ingenuity, the military retains its overall dominance in the skies, boasting an arsenal of fighters jets and attack helicopters mostly supplied by China and Russia. This includes MiG-29, K-8, Yak-130, and Nanchang A-5 aircraft, and Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters. The military has also deployed tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor rebel movements ahead of strikes. An air attack on a music concert organized by a major ethnic armed group in Kachin state in October, which killed 60 people, exemplifies the junta’s deadly supremacy from the air. Schools and monasteries allegedly used as PDF bases have also been targeted, with the junta employing largely indiscriminate tactics.

The junta’s escalating air campaign looks set to continue unimpeded. Rebels lack access to surface-to-air missiles needed to shoot down attack jets, while no outside actors will support the imposition of a “no-fly zone.” The West is preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and sees little strategic interest in Myanmar, while ASEAN has stayed out of the conflict in line with its principle of non-interference. Neighboring powers India and China have effectively supported the junta’s rule and would object to internationalization of the conflict on their borders, meaning that PDFs are essentially on their own.

Ethnic armed organizations

One element that could tilt the balance is the position of Myanmar’s major ethnic armed groups, of which there are more than 20. While a few—notably the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the far north and the Karen National Union (KNU) in the south—have provided training and shelter to PDFs and even fought alongside them, most have stayed out of the post-coup conflict and are reluctant to work with the Bamar-dominated opposition, given the historical marginalization of ethnic minorities.

Conflict erupted in Bamar majority areas after the army deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and violently cracked down on street protests. (Image source: MgHla)

The most powerful ethnic armies, including the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) which controls territory along the border with China, have prioritized keeping stability in their own areas of interest. The smaller groups—some of which had inked a nationwide ceasefire with the military prior to the coup—have also adopted a broadly neutral position, while holding out for a future peace deal. In August, the weaker ethnic armies rejected a call by the military regime to become part of a border guard force, arguing that self-determination and ethnic minority rights must first be secured through negotiations—there is little hope for that, with the coup essentially having ended the peace process.

War in a fragmented nation

Myanmar now faces an escalating and deeply intractable multi-fronted armed conflict. PDFs will be able to deny the military effective control over large swathes of the country through a resolute and widespread guerilla insurgency, while lacking capacity to defeat a larger conventional military force. Meanwhile, ethnic armed groups retain their dominance in the northeast and other border regions, where state presence has been further weakened as junta resources come under increasing strain. In a fragmented land of many homelands, and with a large segment of the Bamar ethnic majority at war with the military, it is hard to see a way out. Only an eventual negotiated solution, resulting in a federal system that grants power and a tangible sense of quasi-nationhood to ethnic minorities, will keep Myanmar intact as a governable state. There is no doubt that the Tatmadaw is the major block to this eventuality—which is ironic as it has long claimed to be the protector of Myanmar, a unifying force. Its ill-judged coup has served only to ignite violence and fuel more widespread internal strife.

A version of this article was first published on Asia Sentinel.

Tatmadaw Coup Leaves Myanmar’s Peace Process on a Precipice

A delegate attending the first Union Peace Conference under NLD rule, held from 31 August to 4 September 2016. Another three rounds of talks have since been held. (Image Source: UN)

The military coup in Myanmar, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders detained in pre-dawn raids on 1 February, marked an abrupt end to ten years of democratization which had propelled the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. The Tatmadaw takeover has also dashed hopes of peace in border regions home to ethnic minorities, where rebel groups have fought the Tatmadaw for decades. Since seizing power, the army has moved to scrap the civilian peace negotiating mechanism.

It is true that the peace process was already faltering under Aung San Suu Kyi. Five years of discussions had resulted in only vague principles being agreed between Naypyidaw and ten ethnic armies based in the south. Major issues related to autonomy and self-governance remained untouched, while the most powerful armed groups in the north and west remained outside of a national ceasefire agreed in 2015. After decades of Tatmadaw oppression, peace under the new Junta now looks further away than ever.

Ceasefire signatories suspend talks

The day after the coup, the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST)—comprising the ten rebel groups that are party to the nationwide ceasefire—met virtually. After the meeting, Secretary General of the Karen National Union (KNU), Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, said initially the groups would ‘‘work together to find a solution’’, and would stick by the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to keep the peace talks alive. At the same time, a PPST statement condemned the coup and called for the release of elected leaders.

In the days before the coup, the Tatmadaw had extended its own suspension of military operations in some areas until the end of February on the pretext of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and released a statement urging ethnic armies to continue on the path of dialogue with the government. Taking events that followed into account, the timing was likely aimed at reassuring ethnic armed groups and reducing tension in Myanmar’s volatile border regions, in anticipation of a tense post-coup scenario developing.

Events have quickly unraveled, ending hopes that the peace process might continue unimpeded. On 8 February the Junta disbanded the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), which had been led by Aung San Suu Kyi as the coordinating peacemaking body in Naypyidaw. Going forward, ethnic armies are permitted to negotiate only with a Tatmadaw-formed peace committee, led by Lieut.-Gen. Yar Pyae. The PPST responded by announcing after a second emergency meeting, held on 19–20 February, that its members had ‘‘unanimously’’ voted to suspend all political talks with what it labelled the ‘‘coup Junta’’.

More than 20 ethnic armed organizations have fought the Tatmadaw in border regions since Myanmar secured independence from British colonial rule in 1948. (Image Source: pxhere)

The PPST later declared ‘‘we strongly support all public mobilizations, including the civil disobedience movement’’, vowing its armies would ‘‘collaborate with all national and international actors, including the international community, to end military dictatorship and to seek a durable solution to the current political crisis’’. The strong rebuke reflected concerns by ethnic leaders, including chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) Col. Khun Okkar, that participation in talks with the Tatmadaw would ultimately risk granting legitimacy to Junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his military regime.

FPNCC and Northern Alliance position

Ethnic armed groups outside of the NCA process have largely remained silent on the coup. Neither the seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC)—led by the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) based along the Chinese border—or the four-member Northern Alliance have issued a statement. Members of these alliances had refused to participate the last major peace conference with the NLD last August after the Arakan Army (AA)—a group based in Rakhine that has engaged in clashes with the military since 2018—was labeled as a ‘‘terrorist group’’ by Naypyidaw.  

A statement by the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—an influential member of both the FPNCC and Northern Alliance—on 17 February, indicates that informal dialogue with insurgents outside of the NCA process might also be disrupted. KIA General Secretary La Nan was quoted by VOA Burmese as having said anti-coup protests reflected the ‘‘will of the people’’ and were ‘‘on the side of truth’’. He added it would be ‘‘impossible to discuss issues such as peace and a ceasefire’’ in light of recent events.

Ethnic autonomy and democratization

As an eventual end point of the peace process, ethnic armies envision administering autonomous, self-governed regions within a new federal system. Under the NLD, there was at least a degree of hope. The peace initiative run by the government—dubbed the 21st Century Panglong initiative—was named after an accord signed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, and ethnic minority leaders shortly before his assassination in 1947, which pledged autonomy in border regions and respect for minority rights. Upon taking power, the NLD had promised to make resolving conflict a priority of its five-year term in office.

Four Union Peace Conferences were held under the NLD government from 2016-2020, yet only two further ethnic armed groups signed a nationwide ceasefire. (Image Source: Htoo Tay Zar)

But with the Tatmadaw at the helm, ethnic minorities are fearful. During the period of Tatmadaw rule from 1962–2011, troops routinely raped, tortured and killed ethnic minority civilians as well as fighting armed groups. Such abuses persisted against the Rohingya and others, even under the NLD. The effect of decades of hostility and mistrust makes a peace deal with the new Junta near-impossible to foresee, while brutal crackdowns on protestors in recent weeks demonstrate the authorities’ willingness to use force. The use of water cannon and rubber bullets has quickly progressed to instances of live gunfire.

Ethnic minorities, despite mostly aspiring to self-governance rather than democratization, have joined demonstrations as protests have spread from major cities like Mandalay and Yangon to border regions. Signs of growing solidarity between ethnic minority groups and the Bamar majority are evident, and in rallying against a mutual enemy in the Tatmadaw, the protests offer a chance to foster a broad alliance across traditional ethnic divisions. This might, in a nation where elites in both the armed forces and the NLD have long viewed minority rights as a side issue, do more to advance peace than talks ever could.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.