Myanmar Regime’s Reliance on Air Power a Sign of Weakness: US Security Expert

By The Irrawaddy 20 January 2022

Since December last year, Myanmar’s military junta has increased its air strikes against civilians, especially in Karen and Kayah states in the country’s southeast and Sagaing and Magwe in the northwest. All are anti-regime resistance strongholds where freshly trained People’s Defense Force fighters and local peasants with automatic rifles and homemade guns have been inflicting huge casualties on the junta’s ground troops for several months.

For all the regime’s air raids, it’s far from overcoming the enemy. Clashes have expanded to capitals like Loikaw in Kayah State. Amid the increasing air strikes, the greatest sufferers are civilians, whose villages are being hit. At the same time, the junta’s heavy reliance on air power reveals that it is struggling.

“The military’s overt use of air and going after the villages, that tells you they can no longer win on the ground,” said Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd,  a professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, US.

The Burmese-American and former US Army lieutenant colonel also pointed out that using aircraft imposed a significant burden on the regime as it was “very expensive”, especially for the already cash-strapped junta, which has been sanctioned internationally and faces popular boycotts at home of its companies’ products, from beer to SIM cards, over its coup last year.

“Over time, this is not sustainable. When you use an aircraft, you need a huge logistical chain behind it. It requires a lot of money,” she said.

“You would have to replace the aircraft. My understanding based on interviewing defected soldiers from the air forces, they say they are cannibalizing … parts. They don’t have those supplies ready,” she explained.

Based on the results of the airstrikes, Dr. Byrd told The Irrawaddy that the junta’s use of air power has turned out to be largely ineffective, killing civilians instead of resistance forces.

“When you are doing the airstrikes or artillery strikes, it is not precision. Also PDFs are on the move because they are using guerrilla tactics. So they can’t find them. When they are using artillery and air attacks, they are killing innocent civilians. They are not really killing PDFs,” she said, referring to the People’s Defense Force.

The former army officer with 28 years’ experience explained that one of the problems the junta’s soldiers are facing on the ground is that they are outsmarted by the resistance fighters, who are local and able to make the most of the geography, with which they are familiar. Unfortunately for the regime, most of the stronghold areas are hilly and fairly forested, among other geographical blessings. As a result, the PDFs know best where to hide and attack the junta’s convoys to inflict huge casualties on them.

She said the local resistance fighters were able to blend in and utilize the geography as advantages, whereas the military have to bring in people from outside, leaving them with no idea about the area they were moving in and simply unable to find the PDFs.

“If you can’t find people on the ground, you can’t find them from the air. So the only thing they can do is they are bombing the villages. Combat to combat, they are not able to fight, so what they do is they are going after the innocent civilians,” she remarked.

Dr. Byrd said the rise of the PDFs in Myanmar and their significant growth in less than 12 months was attributable to the military regime’s brutality against the people. The majority of the resistance fighters are young people who took part in peaceful protests in February and early March to oppose the regime and its coup, which many saw as having stolen their future.

When the regime brutally cracked down on the protests and anyone involved, many of them ventured out into ethnic armed group-controlled areas on the border to seek military training to take up arms against the junta because they felt like they had a responsibility to provide local protection, she explained.

“These PDFs can be considered as … fulfilling the mission of responsibility to protect their people and their community,” said Dr. Byrd.

She also noted that the PDFs were coming of age as a fighting force while the regime’s army was no longer a professional military, committing brutal killings and bombing villages, far from adhering to its code of conduct.

She pointed out that when the PDFs, and some ethnic armed groups working with them, captured soldiers on the battlefield, they treated them like humans. She cited the example of the humane treatment shown by the PDFs and Karen National Liberation Army to eight soldiers captured during fighting near the Thai border in mid-December. When pictures emerged of the detainees wolfing down meals at a table, it sparked some debate online over whether those who brutally killed protesters deserved such decent treatment.

“They are living by a code of conduct. That is exactly what you are supposed to do, because they don’t want to become just like their enemy.”

Editor’s Note: The opinion presented in this article is Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd’s own assessment as an expert on the subject matter. Her opinions do not represent the positions and policies of the U.S. government or any other agencies.

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