Military is Weaker Since Coup and Momentum is With the Armed Resistance
By The Irrawaddy 24 June 2022
Ye Myo Hein, the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a public policy fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Asia Program, recently published a research report: “One Year On: The Momentum of Myanmar’s Armed Rebellion.”
The report explores the development of conflict in Myanmar, its trends and potential outlook.
“People staged peaceful protests when the military seized power. After violent crackdowns, those peaceful protests transformed into armed rebellion. People’s Defense Forces (PDF) emerged and the National Unity Government (NUG) declared a defensive war. Conflict theaters emerged and serious armed conflicts broke out,” writes Ye Myo Hein in the report.
He recently talked to The Irrawaddy about his research.
What do you think is the most significant development in Myanmar since the February 2021 coup?
The most significant thing is that, according to our data, there were firefights and clashes in 266 townships out of the 330 townships in Myanmar. The number and magnitude of clashes may vary from place to place. But, on the whole, the armed rebellion is happening countrywide.
The magnitude of the ongoing armed rebellion is quite large. And it has gained considerable momentum over the past year, which is totally unexpected.
Previously, observers said the military will win in the end. But they have changed their tune lately and now say that there is a possibility that the Myanmar military might lose. The defensive war has gained momentum in the year since the coup. That might be the most significant development.
Your report names Anyar [central Myanmar] as the most crucial region where armed revolution is taking place. Why?
The Anyar theater covers the plains including Sagaing, Magwe and Mandalay regions. It is a long time since armed conflict tool place in Anyar, where the majority of people are Bamar. Since the Communist Party of Burma’s base in Bago was destroyed in 1975, armed conflicts have only taken place in the borderlands that are home to ethnic minorities.
Previously, the Myanmar military was referred to as a Bamar army by the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) it was fighting. But now Anyar Thar [ethnic Bamar people living in central Myanmar] are fighting the military in a region where the Bamar people make up the majority of residents. This means all the country’s ethnic groups are rebelling against the military and the coup. Historically, Anyar has always been the main source of recruits for the military. Now it’s a stronghold of the armed resistance to the junta. That fact makes the Spring Revolution different from previous conflicts in Myanmar.
Anyar is also strategically important from a military point of view. Some observers say Anyar is an important place that can link the Kachin and Chin theaters with Rakhine State. A corridor of resistance will emerge in northwest and west Myanmar if all those regions are linked.
Some analysts compare such a corridor with the Ho Chi Minh Trail [a military supply route running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam] in the Vietnam War. These are the reasons I gave priority to Anyar in my study of the different conflict regions in Myanmar.
Initially, the PDFs were armed with homemade and traditional weapons. Now they have modern arms and are waging more effective guerilla war. Is that because of the support of EAOs?
Before answering your question, we need to talk about PDFs and their weaponry first. At present, there are the PDFs which are under the command of the NUG. Then there are resistance groups that are known by the Burmese acronym Pa Ka Pha, as well as Local Defense Forces (LDF), which operate independently.
There are 259 PDF battalions nationwide, as well as 250 Pa Ka Pha groups in 330 townships, according to the NUG’s defense minister. We are making a list of LDFs, but they are springing up across the country and it is difficult to count them. The NUG’s defense ministry says that there are 401 LDFs, 354 of them with links to the NUG. The NUG says that it has been able to transform 100 of them into PDFs and placed them under its command.
The NUG defense minister said there are between 50,000 and 100,000 PDF fighters countrywide. According to the data we have gathered, there are around 100,000 resistance fighters around the country. But only 15,000, or less than 20 per cent of them, have been armed.
Driven by the need for arms, the resistance has tried to manufacture its own weapons. But they still can’t manufacture advanced weapons. So domestic arms production is already in place but, overall, less than 40 per cent of armed groups have been armed.
Some groups are supplied by the NUG. Some purchased arms with donations made by the people or their own money. And some are armed by EAOs. Resistance groups have undergone military training provided by EAOs. And they also go on joint operations together. Thanks to those joint operations, newly-formed armed groups have grown strong and their military capability has improved.
EAOs can be divided into three groups. The first group belongs to those that support the ongoing armed revolution and are fighting the military dictatorship, in particular, the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Union, the Chin National Front and the Karenni National Progressive Party.
The second group belongs to those that are getting close to the regime, in particular, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the New Mon State Party and other groups that recently met the junta leader. Most of them are signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
The third group belongs to those that take neither side. They are groups that are pushing for their own political objectives and interests, especially the United Wa State Army and the Arakan Army. It is difficult to say if they support the NUG. They meet the regime, but they don’t take sides with it. These are groups that are pushing their political objectives forward in the space between the NUG and the regime.
But under the current situation, those groups are the strongest now. Their position significantly affects the ongoing armed revolution. It will tremendously affect the armed revolution if or when they take a side in the conflict.
What stage is the armed resistance movement at now?
Speaking of the stages of armed struggle, there are basically three stages based on the principles of Che Guevara. The first stage is strategic defense. The second is achieving equilibrium with the enemy and the third is confronting and crushing the enemy.
Guerilla warfare was launched and based in rural areas and, in my view, it has gained momentum.
The NUG said the PDFs and EAOs, if combined, now have control over 50 per cent of the country, especially rural areas. It is difficult to say if they actually have control over 50 per cent of the country, but we found that the military regime can’t exert authority over half of the country.
So guerilla warfare is based in rural areas and it has gained strength. Especially in Chin State, revolutionary forces now have considerable control over rural areas. But to answer your question of what stage the revolution has reached, it is still in the first stage of strategic defense.
How do you foresee the future? Will the PDFs continue to grow and become a professional army, a federal army, under a unified chain of command?
In my view, the armed struggle will gather momentum and the fighting will intensify in the future. Secondly, the resistance who are now building the strategic defense will perhaps be able to reach an equilibrium with the enemy in the upcoming rainy season.
Perhaps the PDFs backed by the NUG will be able to further strength their defense. To what extent they will be able to build properly, we will have to wait and see.
According to theories, the first stage is the gathering of revolutionary forces, the second is fighting guerilla warfare and the third stage is forming an army and annihilating the enemy. At present, the PDFs and revolutionary forces have passed the first stage.
Mao Zedong said that if revolutionary forces have passed the first stage and also won 15 to 25 per cent of public support, it is quite difficult to quash their revolt. His assumption was based on historical events.
Now revolutionary forces have passed the first stage and they also enjoy a certain level of public support. On Resistance Day [Armed Forces Day], the regime vowed to crush the PDFs. From a theoretical point of view, it has been very difficult for the regime to crush the PDFs.
Among the other important factors for PDFs are public support and political strength. Their leadership is also immensely important. The capability of resistance group members, the type of training they receive and their organizational structures also matter.
It is also important to strengthen the chain of command. Combat effectiveness, availability of weapons, knowledge of terrain and mobility also matter a lot.
The resistance has gained certain momentum over the past year, but not by forming and fighting as large battalions. It has gained momentum with resistance groups operating as a network. In some places, resistance groups were not operating as part of a network. They were fighting separately, but they have now grown as there are a large number of them fighting at the same time. To move to the next level, the chain of command is crucially important. A lot of research indicates that an armed revolution that has a chain of command has a higher chance of success than an armed revolution carried out by a network of groups.
For the revolution to reach the next stage, there are three major factors that we need to examine. How much more public support will the resistance be able to win? What sort of political strength will they be able to build? How strong a chain of command will they be able to build? I think those three factors are crucially important.
The resistance is still in the process of building a central command and coordination committee (C3C). When C3C is stronger, the NUG’s three military regions will be able to launch offensives.
For the C3C to get stronger and reach the stage of a federal army, political consensus is important. I think much more remains to be done in that regard.
Some observers assess that both the morale and military capability of the junta forces are declining, citing heavy casualties and desertions. Can the military be defeated?
My view is that the military currently faces seven huge challenges. The military was said to be a strong institution. In fact, that was because it has been involved in politics for many years. The basic institution of the military is rotten inside. And that was clearly exposed when it was faced with a real challenge.
Also, the military is under an unprecedented level of international pressure. It has not yet won legitimacy on international stage.
The third challenge is that they also have to fight with the people after the coup [as well as the EAOs]. Subsequently, they are overstretched. This is the fourth challenge. It has become a burden for them as they have to fight on multiple fronts. They can’t use large numbers of troops in a single place, but have to spread their forces across various regions. This has become a big challenge for the military.
The fifth challenge is that some soldiers are already questioning the leadership of the junta chief [Senior General Min Aung Hlaing].
A sixth challenge is that, since the coup, the military has continuously committed mistakes including brutal crackdowns on anti-coup protesters and violence against civilians. The way they have treated the people negatively affects their military objectives.
The seventh challenge is something we didn’t expect. PDFs have sprung up strongly and, at the same time, EAOs have grown stronger. As those things constitute strong challenges, it is now difficult for the regime to put the entire country under its control.
As the regime becomes weaker, it has become crueler. Throughout history, the Myanmar military had committed cruel acts whenever its military objectives can’t be fulfilled. From its ongoing brutal violence, we can conclude that the military has become weaker.