What is Myanmar’s Three Brotherhood Alliance that’s resisting the military?

The alliance has seen recent gains over military troops, but its successes are limited.

This photo taken on December 12, 2023 shows members of ethnic minority armed group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) standing guard in a temple area of a hill camp seized from Myanmar's military in Namhsan Township in Myanmar's northern Shan State.
The Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) is part of the Three Brotherhood Alliance [File: AFP]

The Arakan Army (AA), an armed ethnic group in Myanmar, said it seized control of a strategic trade town in the west this week, dealing a blow to the generals who led a coup in 2021, and adding to a list of recent army defeats in the country’s continuing civil war.

Paletwa in Chin State lies along the Kaladar river close to the borders of both India and Bangladesh, and is part of a multimillion-dollar sea port project that could soon link India to Myanmar.

“There is not a single military council camp left in the entire Paletwa area,” the AA said in a statement.

Myanmar’s military seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi nearly three years ago, triggering mass protests that turned into armed resistance after the army responded with brutal force.

The Three Brotherhood Coalition or the 3BHA, a collection of armed groups including the AA, launched a major offensive at the end of October, and has since overrun dozens of military outposts and taken control of several towns in the north near the border with China.

Here’s what we know about the group:

Who makes up the alliance?

The Three Brotherhood Alliance is made up of ethnic armed groups: the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

  • Arakan Army: Founded in 2009, the Arakan Army is believed to have some 30,000 soldiers. It says it is fighting to restore the sovereignty of the multi-ethnic Arakanese in the western state of Rakhine. The group has recruited troops from the Rohingya, a minority mostly Muslim group from Rakhine, who were the target of a brutal military crackdown that is now the subject of a genocide case at the International Court of Justice.
  • Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA): The MNDAA operates near the Chinese border in northern Shan state. The group says it is fighting for autonomy for the Kokang people, a Han-speaking ethnic group. MNDAA controlled Shan for about 20 years as a special region of Myanmar, during which the narcotics trade boomed. Armed conflicts between the group and the military broke out in 2009 after it was ordered to become a border force, and give up control. MNDAA said earlier this month it had taken control of Laukkai, a town notorious for transnational human trafficking and online scams, that it lost in the 2009 conflict.
  • Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA): The TNLA is the armed wing of the Palaung Self Liberation Front, a political organisation founded by Tar Aik Bong and Tar Bone Kyaw, both former fighters from the fringe Ta’ang minority group. Its latest incarnation was formed in 1992 and says it is fighting for “real federalism” in Myanmar. The TNLA claims to have 5,000 fighters, although it has been linked to forced recruitment campaigns in rural villages.

What is the alliance’s military record?

The three ethnic armed groups banded together in 2019. Initially, the alliance focused on launching attacks on military troops in the MNDAA and AA strongholds of Shan and Rakhine states.

Following the February 1, 2021, military coup and the crackdown that followed, the alliance released a statement condemning the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters calling for the restoration of civilian rule.

Since then, the alliance has launched several attacks, sometimes allying with the People’s Defence Forces (PDF). The PDF is a group of loosely structured resistance cells that were set up by the National Unity Government,  a civilian administration made up of activists and politicians who oppose the coup. The NUG has popular support in Myanmar, and is recognised by the European Union. It also has representative offices in the United States, United Kingdom and South Korea.

The 3BHA recorded some successes over the Tatmadaw in 2021, including in December, when they forced government troops to retreat from the city of Namphan, an MNDAA stronghold.

But its biggest victories came in 2023. On October 27, some 10,000 alliance fighters launched coordinated, large-scale assaults on the military, police and government-allied militia locations across Shan state. More than 100 military posts fell as the military retreated and left heavy weapons and significant ammunition behind.

Chin Shwe Haw and Mong Ko, major towns on the border with China have fallen to the alliance. The group also claims to have captured Hpawng Hseng, Pang Hseng, and Hsenwi villages. Lashio, the biggest town in Shan, has seen rebel attacks, while bridges and highways connecting Myanmar to China have been destroyed.

The continuing offensive is being dubbed “Operation 1027” – after its launch date.

Can the alliance overturn military rule in Myanmar?

Operation 1027 has given renewed momentum to the armed campaign to restore democracy to Myanmar.

In one incident in November, soldiers raised white flags, surrendering the township of Kawlin, a district capital in central Myanmar, and allowing PDF forces to take over. It marked the army’s first defeat in a capital district, and also, the first success of resistance groups, which had been largely limited to border areas, in central Myanmar.

The military has responded with force against anti-coup forces, launching air raids indiscriminately, deploying ground troops, and inflicting heavy losses on some of the newly formed resistance cells. Schools, hospitals and displacement camps have not been spared, as it continues a long-held policy known as “four cuts” that aims starve resistance groups of food, funds, intelligence and recruits by going after their civilian support base.

Massive displacements have occurred as a result. Between October 26 and December 8, more than 578,000 people were newly displaced on top of nearly 2 million who were already displaced before the October offensives, according to the United Nations. At least 363 civilians have died and 461 have been injured since late October.

Still, the armed coalition’s recent gains, and its social media presence, could be denting the military’s reputation. It has already given wind to opposition groups like the NUG, which has praised the alliance and even claims to have established governance in some of the areas overtaken by the PDF.

Some experts claim that the alliance has the backing of China, based on the scope of Operation 1027. However, Beijing has in the past brokered peace deals between the military regime and groups like the MNDAA operating on the Chinese border, as fighting has affected trade and has forced thousands of refugees into the Yunnan province.

On January 12, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said its had brokered a ceasefire agreement between the military and the alliance.

A December agreement quickly collapsed.

The taking of Paletwa suggests the fighting will continue.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies