Myanmar’s military does not do military strategy. What it does is atrocity campaigns against civilians, with the expectation that armed resistance will seek accommodation with it following pressure from a brutalized public. Whether or not this is true in the current context is the crux for what happens in Myanmar. Too many outsiders engaging with the junta – be they neighboring states, businesspeople, and diplomats – expect that the junta’s atrocities will achieve the intended outcome of a ‘stable’ Myanmar [under military rule]. In short, shading much of the international discourse over Myanmar is a dark, unspoken acceptance that junta atrocities are, indeed, an effective ‘military strategy’.
This crass view on the efficacy of mass atrocities is just an assumption. Not only is it morally repugnant; it is also empirically wrong. In the current context of a nationwide uprising against a return to military dictatorship, in countless townships where the junta has committed unrelenting atrocities, the resistance continues to fight on even in the face of the military’s large-scale barbarity. Stripped of morality and ethics, the single biggest strategic blunder of the regime was committing mass atrocities across the country so quickly after the coup, especially in rural areas. This ensured that armed resistance quickly emerged in countless communities, and in none more significant than the vast swathe of the country that is Magwe and Sagaing regions. The military regime has been committing atrocities ever since, but the resistance has also been escalating. Hence, the key question is: are mass atrocities enough for the junta succeed?
Too many analysts obscure the scale of junta atrocities by describing military tactics and then loosely mentioning atrocities; for some this is a deliberate attempt to ‘normalize’ junta actions as a conventional force. However, systematic analysis of the conflict in Sagaing Region shows that the military does overwhelmingly commit atrocities against the public rather than fight People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (ERO). Nevertheless, these atrocities are failing to suppress armed resistance. The junta continues to lose control of territory, as evidenced by it resorting to declaring martial law in dozens of Sagaing townships where it simply cannot regain the initiative. Since the coup I have catalogued nearly 30,000 conflict incidents. A detailed analysis of those which occurred in Sagaing over the latter half of 2022 highlight the above point. Nearly 4,000 conflict incidents occurred in Sagaing during the last six months of 2022. Of these, 49 per cent were attacks by resistance forces, either PDFs or EROs, often working together, on junta forces. 42 per cent were junta-instigated attacks, either atrocity attacks on communities or attacks on EROs and/or PDFs.
Critically, of those junta-instigated attacks, 78 per cent were straight up atrocity attacks against civilian populations – most often mass arson attacks on villages that included murders of civilians. Only 22 per cent of junta actions could be considered ‘military’ operations against opposing armed groups, mostly airborne raids on PDF bases and firefights along highways or outside security force outposts. Of the total conflict incidents, the remaining nine per cent are what I deemed miscellaneous ‘other’ incidents, which included junta atrocities against individuals, such as shooting motorcyclists and extrajudicial killings of detainees, as well as a limited number of atrocities by resistance forces, less than one per cent of the total. From July to December 2022, the junta also conducted at least 211 air attacks in Sagaing, of which 73 per cent were straight up atrocity attacks on villages, mostly by helicopter gunships strafing or rocketing villages. Either by ground or air, the notion that regime attacks on villages are aimed at flushing out resistance actors is nonsense. A systematic review of incidents shows that few junta attacks on villages, less than 10 per cent, result in engagement [shooting and/or detention] of resistance fighters. Junta forces overwhelmingly burn villages and kill civilians because that is their objective.
Conversely, while the junta is committing such rampant atrocities, armed resistance across Sagaing escalated and remains strong. In May 2021, Sagaing Region had 69 conflict incidents compared to 734 in December 2022. Of all conflict incidents in the latter half of 2022, the resistance has consistently been able to maintain roughly 50 per cent of them as attacks on junta forces (over 310 attacks per month on average). The most devastating off these are simple improvised explosive device (IED) attacks along highways. A reasonable estimate can be made that upwards of 80 per cent of deaths of junta forces are from IED attacks, which are incredibly hard to counter across the vast distances of open territory that comprise Sagaing. The junta lacks armored transport vehicles and has not nearly enough helicopters to systematically move troops. Of the region’s 37 townships, 34 have active resistance currently. Only the Naga self-administered area in the far north has been consistently stable for the regime. In sum, armed resistance has become exceptionally saturated across the vast region and is only deepening. It may have started in townships like Kale, Yinmabin, and Katha, but armed resistance is now deeply embedded across the region. This includes in townships that ought to be hard for insurgents to operate in, such as those along the flatlands of the Ayeyarwady River [Myinmu and Shwebo townships], immediately outside Mandalay city [Sagaing and Wetlet townships], and inside Monywa Town itself, the headquarters of the junta’s Northwest Command.
To understand the ground situation, it is necessary to consider the conflict histories of townships. The general trend is that despite heavy atrocities, junta forces have not been able to suppress armed resistance and in fact it has steadily increased since May 2021 when PDFs were formalized and ERO engagement escalated. For instance, townships such as Kale, Mingin, Kani and Pale suffered extensive atrocities since mid-2021, but are now some of the townships where the resistance has the most control and junta forces are largely confined to garrisons in the townships’ namesake towns. Indeed, the regime has been unable to reinforce its units effectively in Chin State and northern Magwe Region since the rainy season precisely because it cannot move large forces across these gateway townships like it did in late 2021.
Similarly, the junta has committed extreme atrocities in townships along the border with Kachin State, such as in Katha, Tigyaing and especially Kantbalu. In none of these has the junta pacified resistance. Most problematic for the regime is that it is losing control of south-central Sagaing, the core Bamar heartland if there is one. From Salingyi and Monywa to Chaung-U, Ayadaw, and Budalin, armed resistance has only escalated. Atrocities have been particularly bad in townships on either side of the Mu River like Taze and Depayin. Despite extensive burning of not just a villages but entire swathes of villages, resistance persists and indeed escalates. Moreover, armed resistance has only intensified in northern Magwe and increased along bordering townships in western and northern Mandalay Region.
Overall, the regime faces a raging uprising across the vast center of the country. January and February of 2023 have been as active as the latter half of 2022 for the resistance. Given what has been described above, the key strategic variable to assess isn’t whether the military has a military strategy to win. It doesn’t; it only has atrocities. The key variable to assess is the ability of local communities to persevere in the face of junta atrocities and to support the armed resistance which sprung from them in self-defense. This is why it is so perturbing to see United Nations (UN) agencies only looking to distribute aid through engagement with the junta. The regime knows precisely that it can and needs to choke out the population and will weaponize aid provision by prohibiting access to areas of resistance.
There is no international aid of any scale reaching Sagaing. The military’s goal is always to reach a tipping point, or a ‘pain threshold’, on civilian populations whereby they can then force adversary military forces to seek ceasefires. They’ve been doing this for decades. They don’t win wide-ranging battles; they commit atrocity campaigns until this threshold is crossed. Global inaction just emboldens the junta to commit more atrocities. Moreover, engagement with the junta – such as by UN agencies, several misguided Western embassies, and Japanese ‘peace makers’ – has achieved little to no humanitarian access. Arguably, such engagement encourages atrocities over the longer-term, as it affirms the habituated cycle of atrocities leading to junta ‘concessions’ through ‘negotiations’ allowing marginal, manipulated humanitarian access.
However, in the face of a national uprising, the regime’s atrocity campaigns are currently not effective at suppressing armed resistance. Thantlang Township in Chin State, which saw its eponymous town burned down by the junta, will likely be the first township where the junta is entirely pushed out. Kayah State has seen a large proportion of its population completely displaced, but armed resistance there has only grown stronger along with territorial control. The same is true across Karen, Kachin and Mon states and Bago and Tanintharyi regions. None of this is to say that ultimately, unrelenting systematic atrocities won’t succeed in finally breaking the population. However, all due credit is owed to the Myanmar public for their stoic determination to finally rid themselves of a toxic military with little to no support from the international community. With their admirable fortitude, they are in fact winning their revolution. Moreover, even if junta atrocities are not effective militarily now, it does not negate the significance or scale of the incredible suffering being inflicted upon tens of millions of Myanmar people by a military proclaiming to be their guardian. The Myanmar people are suffering catastrophically because of regime chief Min Aung Hlaing and his thugs.
The same international community that witnessed the Rohingya genocide, and did nothing about it, is again just watching the same entity once again commit large-scale, systematic violence against civilian populations. It is truly a disgrace for the world how little has been done for the Myanmar people, especially in Sagaing where the UN has secured no routine, large-scale access from the junta despite its endless supplication. Worse are those states that actively engage and support the junta through naivety or self-serving iniquitousness, such as Japan, China, Thailand, and India. How many genocides and massacres does this ‘military’ have to commit before they stop pushing for perpetual accommodation of such an evil institution?
However, for those with the dark, unspoken expectation that the junta is succeeding through atrocities, think again. Myanmar’s people are waging a revolution and they intend to win it. The junta simply cannot maintain so many battlefronts because of the constant bleeding of so many small, dispersed units that are increasingly isolated and dying through attrition. But the junta will inflict murderous humanitarian disaster on the population. It will burn the country to the ground and rule over the ashes if it is given the chance. Hence, for those countries that want to be on the right side of history – peace, democracy, stability for regional infrastructure, and economic growth – the strategic imperative is supporting ‘humanitarian resistance’, namely of bolstering the population at large to persevere while the junta bleeds out, because it is. The junta’s atrocities first started the conflagration of armed resistance across Sagaing. Just committing more of them isn’t going to put it out.
Matthew B. Arnold is an independent policy analyst. He has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012.