Resistance to military rule in Myanmar has been defined by optimism.
When the military first seized power on February 1, 2021, the mass peaceful protests that emerged were reminiscent of a jubilant street party. Demonstrators sang in the streets, wore silly costumes and carried humorous signs.
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There were no illusions about what might come next in a country where the armed forces have a history of brutality against those that oppose them. One protester said they were prepared to suffer 100 or even 1,000 deaths to see the military defeated.
Two years on, some civilians have taken up arms and joined forces with ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for greater autonomy for years. The country now appears embroiled in a fully-fledged civil war and the military is increasingly using air power and heavy weaponry against their poorly-armed opponents.
Some estimates put the 2022 death toll at more than 20,000, including civilians and fighters – second only to Ukraine – but those determined to push the generals from power remain hopeful.
“Some of our comrades have died in battle but giving up now is not an option,” said Albert, a battalion commander for the anti-coup Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), which primarily operates in Kayah State and southern Shan State, near the Thai border.
“There will be a breakthrough in 2023 if we can keep current momentum.”
New analysis (PDF) released on the eve of the coup anniversary by Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, found there had been some 10,000 attacks and armed clashes between the military and opponents since the coup, and violent incidents in at least 78 percent of townships between July and December 2022.
While that suggests the regime is no closer to cementing its grip on the country, it does not look to be on the verge of collapse either.
“A new equilibrium has emerged. There must be significant developments on either side to change the current stalemate,” said Min Zaw Oo, executive director at the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, who has years of experience on conflict in Myanmar.
“The landscape has remained the same in overall 2022,” he said, adding that the military has failed to revert most theatres to “a pre-coup status quo”, while the resistance has been unable to “secure strategic areas”.
Anti-coup forces have sought to take control of several key urban centres – like the towns of Moebye in southern Shan State, and Kawkareik and Kyondoe in Kayin State. But while they are often successful at driving the armed forces out, the military’s increasing use of remote artillery and air power is making it hard to hold onto the territory they gain.
“Airstrikes have a big impact on this… We want to take control of cities and urban areas but without air defence, it is quite difficult. Even if we can seize an area, it’s difficult to control it without air defence,” said Taw Nee, spokesperson for the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s oldest and most powerful ethnic armed groups, which has allied with the pro-democracy resistance broadly known as People’s Defence Forces (PDF).
Min Zaw Oo also pointed out that the success rate of attacks on “fortified positions of the military” is about 40-45 percent, but resistance groups are often unable to hold and defend seized bases or outposts. Instead, they often opt to destroy them, as illustrated by the recent burning of an outpost in Kayah State’s Bawlakhe Township.
“The nature of the opposition’s strike is still a guerrilla attack,” Min Zaw Oo said.
Some conflict analysts have argued that resistance groups should continue to whittle away at the regime via guerrilla attacks, rather than trying to seize territory. Anthony Davis, a security analyst with the publication Jane’s Defence, warned in November against “attempting prematurely to transition from guerrilla tactics to semi-conventional operations”.
Shifting the balance
Min Zaw Oo said there are four “obstacles” for the resistance to overcome, including better access to weapons (he estimates only 10 percent of resistance fighters have automatic weapons), securing the backing of more powerful ethnic armed groups and an improved chain of command.
He says support from neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand is also necessary.
“Without overcoming these obstacles, the oppositions would not be able to make a shift in their favour,” he said.
While some major ethnic armed organisations have thrown their weight behind the pro-democracy movement – like the KNU, Chin National Front (CNF), Karenni Army and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – others have been more cautious.
The country’s most powerful non-state armed group, the United Wa State Army, has instead taken advantage of the military’s weakened position to demand more formal recognition of the territory it controls. But in a potential game-changer, two other influential groups have increasingly shown signs of cooperating with anti-regime forces.
Albert says he has seen improvements for the KNDF in 2022 compared with the year before, including a more established chain of command, better access to modern weapons and more professional military training.
But he says there have also been setbacks, such as losing the early element of surprise, when the regime was caught off guard by widespread armed uprisings to its rule.
“In the past, the junta underestimated us… now they are well prepared. They plant many landmines around their bases. It takes weeks for reconning to attack them now,” he said.
“And we have to attack it quick and retreat because after 30 or 45 minutes… military jets will come.”
In recent months, the military has escalated its air campaign, shifting from its usual policy of mostly using air attacks to support ground troops or terrorise civilian communities it believes to be aiding resistance fighters.
Now, it is more regularly bombing high-level targets, often in the absence of ground fighting, such as a KIO event in November, the CNF headquarters in early January and a PDF base in late January.
Anti-regime armed groups and human rights activists have repeatedly called for the international community to declare a no-fly zone or impose an embargo on supplying aviation fuel to Myanmar. An Amnesty International investigation last year showed that even fuel sent to Myanmar ostensibly for commercial use was being accessed by the military.
Even in the face of this powerful onslaught, the resistance’s optimism remains apparent.
“We hoped the military would use airstrikes on us one day,” said Myo Thura Ko Ko, spokesperson for the mixed command Cobra Column, which operates under KNU and PDF leadership. He sees the regime’s increased reliance on air attacks as evidence it is losing ground.
“The military uses air strikes when their troops are losing on the battlefield or when their morale is low,” he added.
Htet Ni, a spokesperson for the CNF, agrees.
“We have to continue our revolution even if the worst happens. There is nothing else to say. The stronger the revolution becomes, the more the military’s airstrikes will come to us,” he said.
Htet Ni says the increased reliance on air attacks has only driven the established ethnic armed groups closer to their new PDF allies.
“It has created more unity among us… There will never be any retreat. This is our chance to overthrow the military, so we will go into battle with the people.”