Around 31% of Ethnic Fighters in Myanmar Actively Supporting Resistance

By Ko Oo 9 January 2023

Myanmar has dozens of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the youngest of which were founded more than a decade ago, while some emerged with Myanmar’s independence in 1948.

They have become a tower of strength for resistance forces from central Myanmar who began to take up arms in 2021.

EAOs can be roughly divided into four groups since the country’s Spring Revolution in 2021. Those in the first group have publicly joined hands with pro-democracy forces from central Myanmar. Among them are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Chin National Front (CNF) and the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF).

Kachin Independence Army troops

They welcomed resistance forces from central Myanmar, providing military training and arming them. They publicly cooperate with the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), and carry out joint military operations against the regime while flatly rejecting the regime’s ceasefire offer. Their combined strength stands at around 45,000 troops.

Karenni Army fighters

The regime has been conducting large-scale military operations in Kachin, Karen, Kayah and Chin states, where those groups are based.

The second group is the tripartite military alliance known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance consisting of the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Ta’ang National Liberation Army troops

They provide military training and weapons to resistance forces of the Spring Revolution, and also engage with the NUG and the PDF. But they don’t publicly cooperate with them, and have not yet conducted joint military operations with them. And they engage in limited fighting with the regime.

At the time the Spring Revolution broke out in Myanmar in 2021, the Rakhine State-based ethnic revolutionary group the AA was observing a truce with the Myanmar military. After engaging in nearly five months of intense fighting with junta troops in 2022. It entered another ceasefire with the regime in November.

The TNLA also avoided fierce clashes with the regime in 2021 and 2022. It mainly fought a rival ethnic armed group, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), in those years. The armed group recently fought a fierce clash with junta troops when the latter entered its controlled area in Namhsan in northern Shan State, but there was not any intense fighting except for that.

There were fierce clashes between the MNDAA and junta troops in 2021, but there have been fewer clashes since last year. There was little fighting between those three EAOs and the regime, partly because the three were consolidating control in their regions, and expanding their armies.

The three groups met the regime around the end of 2021, but there was no agreement. Similarly, the latest truce between the AA and the regime is also fragile. The AA also rejected the junta’s offer of peace talks in 2022.

The regime wants to hold its fire against the three groups temporarily. It has mainly prepared for defense rather than conducting attacks. The regime apparently thinks that fresh fighting could erupt at any time with them. So, it has been forced to fortify its defenses in Rakhine and northern Shan State, where the three groups are based, and dares not deploy its troops from there to other fronts.

So, the three groups effectively deny the regime room for maneuver, though they have not carried out many military operations over the past two years. Their combined strength stands at around 45,000 too.

The third group consists of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP)/Shan State Army-North, and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA, or Mongla Group). The three groups are currently observing ceasefires with the Myanmar military. Their combined strength is also around 45,000.

United Wa State Army troops

The last time the UWSA or the NDAA fought the Myanmar military was three decades ago. They have total control over their territories, and are not under the control of the central government.

The SSPP has fought a few clashes with the Myanmar military since the coup. But its bitter enemy remains the rival Shan armed group the RCSS, which it has continued to fight over the past two years. The UWSA has backed up the SSPP in fighting the RCSS. Alongside the SSPP troops, UWSA troops are deployed in southern Shan State. The SSSP however handles its own administrative functions.

Shan State Progress Party troops

The three groups have attended three rounds of peace talks with Min Aung Hlaing since the junta chief invited EAOs to peace talks in 2022.

While the Myanmar military has been pushing EAOs to join the peace process through the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) framework, the three groups have refused to sign it. The UWSA has demanded official statehood in the form of a Wa State. The NDAA has also demanded a self-administered zone, while the SSPP upholds the Shan Principle, also known as the Taunggyi Principle, which refers to basic principles for the Union adopted at a conference in Shan State’s Taunggyi in 1961.

So, it is unlikely that the three groups and the regime will reach any political agreement. However, they won’t fight because of that, either.

Since April last year, the regime has pressured the SSPP and UWSA to withdraw its troops from mountains in Panglong, Mong Kung and Monghsu townships in southern Shan State. The regime has also put on displays of force to threaten them. However, the regime never names the UWSA when it makes such threats, only targeting the SSPP. The SSPP responds strongly whenever the regime puts pressure on it.

The fourth group consists of seven EAOs: the RCSS, the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC), the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), and the Lahu Democratic Union.

Arakan Army troops

Only the RCSS and the NMSP have relatively large armies; the others have few troops, and some do not have any. So, the main strength of the fourth group is the RCSS and NMSP, and their combined numbers total around 12,000.

All seven groups are NCA signatories, and currently engaged in peace talks with the regime. When the regime invited them to a third round of talks, except the RCSS and the NMSP, the five groups without troops attended the talks after previously deciding to boycott them altogether.

So, those five groups will be available for the regime to play with. It is expected that the RCSS and the NMSP will however not allow themselves to be easily subjugated by the regime. Anyway, the fourth group is unlikely to fight the regime in the near future.

Restoration Council of Shan State troops

There are around 150,000 EAO troops, and some 31 percent of them—the first group consisting of the KIA, the KNU, the KNPP, the CNF and the ABSDF—are fully cooperating with the Spring Revolution.

Another 31 percent, the second group consisting of the AA, the TNLA and the MNDAA, have been only partially involved in the Spring Revolution, but they effectively contain junta troops.

Another 31 percent, the third group consisting of the UWSA, the SSPP and the NDAA, are not currently involved in the Spring Revolution. They are not engaged in active fighting with the regime, and it also appears that they are not helping the resistance forces either.

The fourth group, which accounts for 7 percent of the total troops, are unlikely to join democracy forces in the Spring Revolution for now.

So, only around 31 percent of EAOs are actively fighting the regime in the ongoing Spring Revolution. What the regime wants is to observe separate ceasefires with EAOs and crush democracy forces from central Myanmar.

On the other hand, only 7 percent of EAOs have joined hands with the regime. So, the remaining 62 percent of EAOs, or the two other groups, play important roles.

Both groups lack political trust in the regime. There is a need to persuade those two groups to join the Spring Revolution. For that to happen, there is a need to recognize ethnic identity, and equality, self-determination and self-administration while strongly opposing the unitary system controlled by the central government.

If the 62 percent of EAOs can be persuaded to join the Spring Revolution, the revolution will be 50 percent won.