‘A Decisive Year in Terms of Trajectories’ in Myanmar
By Igor Blazevic 7 March 2023
In this second installment of an interview, human rights campaigner Igor Blazevic asks security analyst Anthony Davis what changes we can expect to see this year in the Myanmar resistance’s armed campaign against the junta, as well as likely developments on the international front.
Blazevic: How effective are the resistance attacks on the stockpiles of arms and fuel? Can that be an effective tactic for the resistance?
Davis: Obviously ammunition supplies and aviation fuel are the lifeblood of the military. Without them a war cannot be sustained. The military understands that, and ammunition and fuel dumps will be extremely well protected, not only on the ground but also from drone attack. So, are they worthwhile targets? Absolutely, and I would hope that various ethnic resistance organizations and the Defense Ministry of the NUG are mapping very carefully where these dumps are and how effective security precautions are. There will always be weak spots. Identifying them may take weeks of covert surveillance but taking out a major fuel or ammo dump is a huge coup, materially and psychologically.
At this stage in the war, I’d be surprised to see this type of operation but it’s not impossible, and certainly a worthwhile objective.
Let me add one more aspect. Between fuel and ammunition dumps and various fronts, there are lines of supply along highways and rivers and that is really where the resistance can and must become more effective. That’s where the real vulnerability lies. But to hit supply convoys—and I know this from personal observation—you need well organized units of 20 or 30 men equipped with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and machine guns in addition to IEDs and assault rifles. Plus a level of resistance which is confident about operating along those lines of supply. If you look at the main roads between Yangon and Naypyitaw or Mandalay and Myitkyina, the resistance is probing those areas, but it doesn’t yet have either the confidence and/or probably the logistic support that would allow it to operate in strength. This probably comes further into the war.
Blazevic: What is the role of pro-junta militia? How important are they for the army and can they successfully add manpower to the military?
Davis: The military is putting a lot of stress on recruitment of these militia forces, so clearly they are regarded as important. Why? Because in the countryside, particularly in Sagaing and Magwe, they provide the military with eyes and ears. Many battalions have little or no familiarity with the township in which they operate. So, in terms of local intelligence, the Pyu Saw Htee militia and the villages they operate from are seen as adding to overall capability. How effective they are in purely military terms is another matter. They’re mostly untrained and poorly armed so in some areas may even be more of a liability than an asset if they require army troops to help them out.
Blazevic: How do you evaluate the NUG and resistance chain of command and coordination capacity between the PDFs and ethnic revolutionary organizations? Do you notice any improvement? Is command and coordination getting better or is the resistance still not achieving a sufficient level of coordination?
Davis: That’s an extremely important question and sitting in Bangkok I don’t have as clear an answer as I would like. But I would say that compared to this time last year, there has been significant improvement. We can see that particularly in Karen and Karenni [Kayah] states and also in southern townships of Kachin where they abut northeastern Sagaing. Is this sufficient to produce a strategic impact at this stage in the war? Not yet. One must hope that incremental, gradual success will accelerate matters. There is an old saying in English, “success breeds success,” and it’s very true.
It is obviously critically important that the NUG and its Defense Ministry is liaising regularly with allied ethnic military organizations—Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Chin—and maybe with others that are not direct allies. I believe that is the case already, but that liaison and confidence building must move forward.
At this stage in the war, this cannot and should not be about attempting to organize grand coordinated offensives involving different parts of the country which end up in disappointment and mistrust. It’s ideally about confidence building and sharing experience and best practices. Where improving battlefield coordination is really important is at the township and district levels. Achieving results there will involve ethnic forces with better weaponry and long experience extending operational and tactical command-and-control over new and inexperienced PDFs. This is a lot easier said than done, but it is still worth saying.
Blazevic: What could be the turning point in Myanmar?
Davis: An impossible question to answer, I don’t have a crystal ball. No one knows. Talking about the coming year is more useful and in that time frame personally I don’t foresee any dramatic turning points, more of a long, hard slog, a progression in which the resistance becomes more effective and hopefully better connected while the military finds it increasingly difficult to solve growing problems—military, economic and political. That would be my prediction for this coming year.
That process might be accelerated if there were policy shifts by external players. I’m thinking the United States, India and possibly Thailand, after the May elections. These are key players and it is not inconceivable that ongoing erosion of the military’s capabilities on the battlefield will encourage a corresponding shift in the policies of external actors towards the NUG and the resistance more generally—not overnight changes but slow shifts. To a degree this is something which is already happening on the diplomatic and aid fronts: no dramatic turning points but definitely shifting dynamics.
Blazevic: On several occasions Myanmar people have called for a no-fly zone. Is that something that can happen?
Davis: No, a no-fly zone is not going to happen. Period. Even if the Myanmar Air Force were to conduct major strikes against urban areas captured by resistance forces resulting in the deaths of hundreds, even thousands of civilians—something entirely in their playbook—a no fly zone will still not happen. Why? Because only the United States could enforce one and that would necessitate moving an entire carrier battle group into the Bay of Bengal at a time where the US Navy has its hands more than full in the Asian theater. Even more importantly, it would provoke a very severe reaction from China, diplomatic consternation in ASEAN, and imply US responsibility for the future of a post-Tatmadaw Myanmar at a time when Myanmar is nowhere near the top of US government priorities. Bottom line: this is not the post-Cold War era of the 1990s. We can forget it.
Igor: Let us look at other outside factors. What impact can Western sanctions have? Can the positions of Thailand and India be shifted? It doesn’t look promising so far.
Davis: Sanctions are important politically and symbolically. They reflect the interest of any given state or in the case of the EU, a group of states, to make clear that they are opposed to the military’s attempt to take over Myanmar. Sanctions play a symbolic role but it would be a big mistake to think that sanctions are going to have any real impact on the battlefield in Myanmar in the coming year or two.
Regarding Thailand and India, you said that things don’t look very hopeful. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case if the resistance, PDFs plus ethnic armed organizations can achieve a degree of military momentum. This year is going to be an important, even decisive year in terms of defining trajectories—who’s going up, who’s going down. It won’t be about final victory, but if the resistance can demonstrate military momentum in the right direction that will necessarily impact the policies of important neighbors like India and Thailand. There are unlikely to be official statements, but things will likely shift on the borders in a way that reflects the changing dynamics inside Myanmar. So the military dynamic inside Myanmar is key: that’s what will influence what foreigners think and do, not the other way around.
Blazevic: Can the Myanmar resistance get some military support from outside? Is the US slowly shifting in that direction or is that an unrealistic expectation for the time being?
Davis: It is important to define the terms here. If you’re talking about an arms pipeline, a process of resupply over a period of time with a military objective in mind, I don’t believe there is any possibility of any external player looking to institute such a pipeline.
However, what I am suggesting is that as the military dynamic in Myanmar shifts, you may see states on Myanmar’s borders—Thailand and India most importantly—becoming more inclined to “look the other way” to what weapons are crossing the border courtesy of the “private market”. I’m not suggesting either of those states would agree to join with the West in moving truckloads of weapons to the resistance—even assuming the West were interested in providing weapons. But as they realize the Myanmar military is slowly sinking in this quagmire, they may gradually look to hedge their bets and ask themselves whether the internal conflict dynamics are changing the map? How does that impact our border security? Who do we need to be talking to and dealing with?
Blazevic: Could that include MANPADS—man-portable air defense systems?
Davis: It’s difficult to see that happening. MANPADS are extremely problematic at a range of levels—political, logistical, and in broader security terms. And the resistance as a potential beneficiary is itself far too fragmented. Even assuming an external actor were interested to supply them, to make a difference on the battlefield the resistance would need a supply chain: one or two would achieve nothing. And then you have the problem of where they end up. If you can shoot down an air force jet with a surface-to-air missile, you might also possibly sell it to somebody who wants to shoot down a civilian airliner taking off from Don Mueang airport outside Bangkok. So, risks at every turn. What has happened in Ukraine—and there is no shortage of risk there—is almost certainly not going to happen in Myanmar.
Blazevic: Can Russia be the game changer in Myanmar? Or is Russia simply too weak because of the war in Ukraine to play a game-changing role as it has done in Syria.
Davis: Even without the Ukraine war, Russia was never going to be a game-changer in Myanmar. It would be near impossible to imagine Russia intervening militarily in support of the Naypyitaw regime as it did in Syria, where it had real strategic concerns. But beyond that it’s a solid marriage of convenience in which both parties need the other. We understand the diplomatic and geopolitical implications of Russia’s problems. For its part, the Myanmar military already relies heavily on a range of Russian equipment and is diplomatically thrilled to have at least one admirer.
Practically though what more can this marriage produce? The Myanmar Air Force might benefit from spare parts and perhaps Russian advice in niche areas like air mobile operations, where their record has been unimpressive. But beyond that, actual Russian systems they might need more of—such as attack helicopters or additional Mi-17 transport helicopters or even basic Kamaz trucks—the Russians clearly need themselves. When it comes to fixed-wing aircraft, the Myanmar Air Force can certainly make do with what it has.
At the end of the day, the military is struggling to prosecute a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign against their own population, not a high-intensity conventional war. And as we already discussed, their problem is fundamentally about manpower and potentially logistics, not a lack of big-ticket equipment be it from Russia or anywhere else.
There’s also a lot of talk about economic and nuclear cooperation, and even tourism, which unless you’re a Russian male looking to avoid a one-way ride to the front in Ukraine, is something of a joke. But all this talk presupposes that the Myanmar military can reestablish a credible degree of security in the country, which in the coming years is unlikely. So, everything in the non-military sphere is probably more talk than substance.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security consultant and analyst with extensive field experience on a range of armed conflicts across Asia. He writes primarily for Janes, a security and defense publishing house.
Igor Blazevic is a senior adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer of the Educational Initiatives Program.