Give Myanmar’s Resistance What It Needs to Shoot Down Junta Helicopters

By Aung Zaw 5 October 2022

Each time Washington or European countries pledge more arms support to Ukraine, Myanmar’s resistance fighters and ethnic armed groups prick up their ears.

The latest news is that Ukraine now enjoys an edge over Russia in rapid-maneuver warfare, aided by a sustained flow of Western high-tech weapons and shorter supply lines. Russia has admitted that Ukrainian forces made a breakthrough in the southern region of Kherson days after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed four Ukrainian regions.

For the resistance forces in Myanmar, which have defied the junta for 20 months, no such salvation has been forthcoming from the West.

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government and its armed resistance forces, known collectively as the People Defense Force (PDF), have begged for arms from Western friends and allies, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Members of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), one of Myanmar’s People’s Defense Force groups, on parade. / KNDF

The truth is, Myanmar does not seem to be a priority. After the coup, many governments in the region and the West probably assumed that all dissent would be swiftly crushed. They simply thought, “How can the opposition form a united front to challenge such a formidable enemy?”

To the delight of the murderous generals, the world has contented itself with round after round of condemnation of the junta since the coup. The US has imposed sanctions but the opposition says this is not enough.

Regime opponents and activists have urged US President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which provides a financial lifeline to the junta. MOGE has fulfilled this role for military regimes going back decades. In financial year 2020-21, according to pre-coup forecasts, Myanmar was set to earn around US$1.5 billion from oil and gas—an estimated 50 percent of its foreign currency income.

In an effort at face saving, last year Brussels and Washington put forward a naïve proposal calling for an international arms embargo on Myanmar, but it has had little effect.

Min Aung Hlaing and his generals are laughing at the West, knowing it will dole out little more than the occasional slap on the wrist. Far from being chastened, since the coup the regime leader has made repeated visits to Russia to buy more arms to add to his stockpile.

For all the damage it has inflicted on Myanmar’s economy, the junta—compared to the resistance, certainly—still has sufficient cash for the time being to buy military hardware and supplies from Russia, China, India, Pakistan and other sources in Eastern Europe, all of whom are happy to continue providing arms to the regime.

Last week, one strong voice, a longtime friend of the oppressed Myanmar people, spoke up.

East Timor President José Ramos-Horta, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, noted in his speech that Western countries started off “on high moral ground in confronting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, but may end up losing the support of the developing world, which accounts for 80 percent of the global population. “They should pause for a moment to reflect on the glaring contrast in their response to the wars elsewhere,” he said.

Then he turned to Myanmar, a familiar subject for the former dissident leader. The Myanmar people, he said, “feel abandoned, betrayed, by the so-called international community”.

Shining a light on the West’s double standard, he went on to contrast the “extremely generous support for Ukraine’s resistance” with the “muted reaction to the war waged against the people of Myanmar”, who are still fighting and dying every day.

Noting that escalation of the Myanmar conflict would impact the security and stability of neighboring countries, he called for dialogue including all parties involved in the conflicts in Ukraine and Myanmar, as well as in other crises around the world.

The world, however, continues to do little more than pay lip service to Myanmar.

Last week, US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet told The Irrawaddy that the US is collaborating with the international community and regional players to ramp up support for Myanmar and the opposition to the regime. This was basically a repeat of the US’ message from last year.

On Sept. 16, two of the regime’s Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters attacked a school where resistance forces were allegedly hiding, killing at least 12 civilians including seven children.

It was a hellish day in Let Yat Kone Village, Sagaing Region, where the country’s armed resistance movement has been fighting the powerful Myanmar military.

A school building in Let Ye Kone that was hit by regime airstrikes.

The UN Secretary General strongly condemned the attack, calling the deaths an example of one of the “six grave violations” against children in times of armed conflict strongly condemned by the UN Security Council. But is anyone listening to António Guterres?

The next day, the regime continued to deploy its Russian-made Mi-24 and Mi-35 helicopters and its warplanes, as it has since the coup, to attack the civilian population and resistance forces. The so-called “international community” has remained largely mute.

In Sagaing and Magwe regions in central Myanmar, helicopter pilots are more daring since they know that the resistance forces on the ground have no missiles or even sufficiently powerful machine guns to intimidate low-flying aircraft. They are free to cut down anyone on the ground in a hail of bullets.

However, in ethnic insurgent-controlled territory, military pilots are more careful. When they enter the airspace above Kachin, Karen, Shan and Rakhine states, for instance, they will fly high and fire from a higher altitude because they know the insurgents fighting for self-determination and autonomy acquire launchers and missiles from neighboring arms markets.

Last year, the Kachin Independence Army said it shot down a military helicopter in a village near the town of Moemauk in Kachin State following days of air raids.

Wa troops belonging to the United Wa State Army in northern Shan State possess MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) and show them off proudly at their annual parades. Informed sources suggest they have also secured a more advanced surface-to-air system from China.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) shows off its military hardware during an event in 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of its founding. / The Irrawaddy

So, it is assumed that the KIA have MANPADS, though they have not announced this. The intriguing question is, who sold it to them? Not the West. They must have come from the Wa and the Chinese market.

They are not the only insurgents who have purchased missiles. In November 2019, the military claimed to have seized weapons including rocket-propelled grenade launchers and shoulder-fired FN-6 anti-aircraft missile launchers from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The military spokesman said at the time that the TNLA illegally acquired the weapons from China.

There is no doubt that the TNLA acquired the Chinese made FN-6 from the Wa arsenal. Security analysts say the Wa, backed by the Chinese, decided to provide the weapon to its allies including the TNLA and Arakan Army.

If PDF leaders insist on purchasing MANPADS, they will likely come from the Wa and the Chinese market, not from the West. Should resistance forces acquire the system, Myanmar military helicopter pilots’ confidence and dominance in the skies over Myanmar’s central plain would be broken.

If resistance forces had the capability to threaten Myanmar military helicopters, it could change the game on the ground. Some regime opponents even argue that increasing the flow of arms to the PDF groups would tip the ongoing conflict in favor of the resistance. Perhaps.

During the Cold War, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan had a benefactor in Charlie Wilson, a US congressman from Texas who led Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever Central Intelligence Agency covert operation, which supplied military equipment to the Afghan fighters during the Soviet-Afghan War. In particular, in a game-changing tactic, US Stinger missiles proved effective in shooting down Russian helicopters.

Where is the Myanmar PDF’s Charlie Wilson?

To bring down the State Administration Council—the junta’s governing organ—and troops loyal to it, opposition forces will need support, especially funds from the diaspora, the West, neighboring countries and anyone else willing to offer support.

It has been suggested that the shadow government should claim the $1 billion in Myanmar assets that the US froze after the coup.

Looking at the overall picture, the regime has an overwhelming advantage in terms of cash and firepower. Sadly, in the long run, time is on the SAC’s side.

Encouraged by the inaction it has seen from the West and neighboring countries, the regime is convinced that its job now is simply to maintain the status quo. In an attempt to convince the outside world that it is in control, the regime will continue to send its helicopters aloft.

The Myanmar resistance needs meaningful support: weapons to shoot the Mi-35s and all of the regime’s other airborne killing machines out of the sky.