Myanmar’s junta finds itself in a conundrum. Two-and-a-half years after its coup, armed resistance to its rule has not diminished and is stronger than ever. What to do about this, from the junta’s perspective, is unclear. Its advantage in military hardware has not been decisive, its atrocity campaigns have not pacified, its diplomatic maneuverings have yielded little benefit, its ranks keep shrinking, and its financial viability gets thinner and thinner. Much of the foreign commentary about Myanmar focuses on the democratic resistance, with a good deal aimed at its weaknesses. But a big question is generally left unanswered: What is the military’s strategy to escape the hole it has dug for itself? On August 1, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing declared another state of emergency and mumbled about a future census and an election, this time in 2025. Why anybody would believe these pronouncements is baffling; they have been said over and over. Considering that, it’s worth assessing what the junta’s military status is and whether it has a viable strategy to regain the initiative, particularly on the battlefield.
It is worth stating some of the stark military realities facing the junta this year. Repeated large-scale offensives in Karenni State have been thwarted. Resistance has expanded across larger parts of Bago, Tanintharyi and Magwe regions while resistance everywhere is deeper, more experienced, better armed, increasingly coordinated, and unwavering in its intent to destroy the junta. No ethnic armed organizations have signed new ceasefires with the junta and none of the NUG’s partners has disowned it. The junta’s meetings with the remnants of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement don’t even carry ceremonial benefit anymore. The Arakan Army doesn’t need to fight to secure more and more control over Rakhine. All it must do is strengthen its administration and legal systems, support cyclone relief, train new cadres of soldiers within the state, and let the junta kill itself elsewhere. So desperate is the junta, it sends scarce reserves from Rakhine to bolster weakening units elsewhere.
Presently, the junta cannot use highways to send supplies to large parts of the northern half of the country so it must resort to archaic flotillas easily targeted on the open spaces of rivers. It hasn’t sent significant convoys to Chin in over a year, and has stopped trying, so bad were its casualties. It has effectively lost its main arms supplier, Russia, and has not been able to bring any significant new weapons systems to the battlefield. Its new proxy militias, the Pyu Saw Hti, have never grown into significant combat forces while its old proxies, the Border Guard Forces (BGFs), only engage in hostilities to protect their commercial interests on their home turf. The junta’s troops are not massacred, but day after day they bleed casualties across the country through the steady onslaught of ambushes, roadside bombs, and drone attacks.
Worryingly for the junta, it cannot recruit new troops on any meaningful scale while its officer cadet schools scrape the barrel, desperate for admissions. It cannot maintain steady operations at key border crossings in Muse and Myawaddy, while reaching India with commercial traffic is impossible. There are increasing attacks on major highways – generals are hit with roadside bombs just outside of Naypyitaw while resistance checkpoints are increasingly the norm in Bago, Mon and Karen states. Bridges are now systematically blown up by the resistance, such as across eastern Bago and northern Mon. The coordination and strategy demonstrated in these systematic sabotage campaigns by the Karen National Union and its PDF partners will only spread.
And yes, internal cohesion is ever more problematic for the junta. It has doubts over its senior commanders, repeatedly arresting those from the northern and northwestern commands as well as the southern one in Tanintharyi. Lower-ranking field commanders have been repeatedly arrested in Karenni and Karen states for refusing orders to partake in offensive operations because they are pointless deathtraps. Overall, the junta’s units are more demoralized. Being surrounded by a population that wants you dead eventually takes a toll. Arguably the biggest military threats to the junta are consistent attrition and the subsequent erosion of the chain of command. Defections and desertions are not nearly as likely or devastating to a military as the loss of chain of command. The junta has too many small, disparate units. They won’t desert or defect en masse because that carries too many risks; they’ll just stop responding to orders and hunker down; wait for the storm to blow over until they can safely surrender. From a junta grunt’s perspective, they are now too dispersed as fighting forces, too atomized, and face too much resistance. No armored troop transport, limited and unreliable air support, little to non-existent medivac, no new weapons systems of note, limited to no communications with family, no rotations out, few if any reinforcements coming in… where does it all end for them?
Min Aung Hlaing can neither claim nor offer greater stability: no normalization, no change in public support. He knows it. Extending the state of emergency is all the junta can do, which merely reinforces the overall veracity of the preceding descriptions. The challenge for the junta is what to do about it. It never countenanced the possibility of wide-scale, sustained rebellion across massive swaths of the Bamar heartland, much less that resistance in these places would have consistent support and direct collaboration from major ethnic armed groups, enabling mass armed revolt across most of the country. Myanmar’s sprawling geography and its own decreasing manpower are crippling challenges for the junta.
Predictably, the junta’s forces will persist in what they do best, killing unarmed civilians and provoking massive population displacement through atrocity campaigns. The junta’s military strategy, if one wants to call it that, is to brutalize the population with endless atrocities hoping to break its defiance. At a much lower pace, it will conduct operations against armed resistance groups. Why this strategy would change the overall situation now is dubious given the junta’s challenges, but it will persist because that is all it knows. One shouldn’t downplay the humanitarian costs of atrocities and they do affect the armed resistance’s operations, but they are not decisive at a strategic level. Large parts of the country – think Karenni and Sagaing – have experienced systematic arson attacks and significant population displacement, but the resistance in all of them is stable if not increasing. The humanitarian crisis afflicting the Myanmar people is horrendous but their determination to win through stoic perseverance is unwavering so far.
The coordination and cohesion of resistance forces is constantly questioned and maligned by analysts domestic and foreign, but considering the back-story of decades of mistrust and indoctrination, the core block of the resistance – the National Unity Government and the consultative councils, plus the KIA, KNU, CNF and KNPP – is remarkably stable if at times frustratingly opaque. Local PDFs may bicker but that doesn’t detract from their overall achievement – building their capacities to consistently degrade the junta’s combat units. When they emerge, junta forces numbering up to several hundred men are routinely engaged in mortal combat by PDFs. This stands in contrast to a year or two ago when the junta could burn villages by the dozen with 20 men and face little to no pushback. In the remarkably honest calculation of the junta, far too much of the country requires an active military presence, i.e., what a state of emergency recognizes as necessary. In late March of this year, Min Aung Hlaing admitted in a woeful speech that the junta cannot control 130 townships. One should assume this means the junta cannot effectively control a great deal more. If the junta’s units go outside their bases, they must fight. If the junta doesn’t actively defend an area, it will be lost. The junta may “control” towns, but more and more this just means the army barracks, police station, and GAD office, which it increasingly uses to shell villages so that its battered units don’t have to emerge even to burn villages.
Considering this, what can be expected by the junta is greater emphasis on the theater of international diplomacy to obscure a worsening military position within the country. The supposed meeting by the Thai foreign minister with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, junta clemency for some of her convictions, and her movement to house arrest instead of a prison has the diplomatic and media corps abuzz. With Laos soon assuming the ASEAN chair, it can be expected that there will be more diplomatic engagement with the junta, which will attempt to use Aung San Suu Kyi as a prop to foster the false sense that it is moderating its approach. This theater of the absurd will garner endless commentary because it can be seen and written about. But it won’t change the substance of the matter, which is on the ground: a population of tens of millions that all viscerally want rid of this military. The revolution didn’t start because one party, much less one person, dictated it so. It started across the country when thousands of communities chose to take up arms. That is the reality of this time compared with 1962 and 1988, and it is inescapable. Myanmar’s war will be won or lost on the ground.
Regardless, even in the realm of diplomacy, the junta still faces massive challenges. “Support” from regional neighbors is not significant despite the hype. Nobody is going to prop up the junta with hefty amounts of armaments, help it break sanctions at a large scale, or invest in it in any way that will fundamentally change the strategic trajectory of the conflict, which it is losing. International engagement with the junta is largely transactional and the junta has less and less to offer. Allowing junta officials to join ASEAN meetings is morally pathetic but changes nothing. All that Track 1.5 talks produce is to make their participants feel better about themselves. The junta increasingly demonstrates it has little to offer its neighbors. It cannot control BGF crime hubs. It cannot prevent refugee outflows, instead causing ever more of them. The drugs trade is growing exponentially. Its economic management is woeful to even junta supporters. The latest sanctions by the US mean the junta cannot operate effectively with foreign business partners, meaning investment and even ongoing engagement is massively encumbered and never more unattractive. ASEAN has had no breakthroughs. Nobody can even remember what the 5 points of the ASEAN Consensus even were.
What the junta does next is unclear other than to manipulate the diplomatic stage and commit more atrocities. What the resistance does is much clearer – more of what it has been doing. The best thing going for the resistance is the public, which even after 2.5 years of war, still sees the junta as nothing but a loathsome ‘foreign’ occupying force. Public opinion is not shifting in the junta’s favor; too much innocent blood has been spilled. The biggest need is to send more and more humanitarian aid to displaced populations and bolster battered communities’ resilience. Maintaining public morale and support for the revolution and deepening cohesion of the core block of resistance are the other driving imperatives for the pro-democracy movement. Expanding the chain-of-command, bolstering local social services, and growing local administration are clear priorities already unfolding. Methodical relationships with the Myanmar diaspora are critical for financing. Engagement with unofficially supportive ethnic armed groups is important for bleeding the junta further.
It is easy to find faults in the resistance, to nitpick it in a thousand ways and claim these flaws lead only to defeat. Myanmar’s revolution is what it is: a sprawling bottom-up revolt initially driven by the imperatives of local self-defense that grew into a national uprising based on shared aspirations for a better future built upon federal democracy. Yes, more coordination, more messaging, more clarity about its politics, more inclusion, more and better of everything would be wonderful. But the flaws don’t detract from the bigger picture. Look around the world and there is no clearer example of a mass movement fighting for a just cause. Moreover, despite whatever its critics proclaim, the raw fact remains that Myanmar’s pro-democracy resistance is not being defeated militarily and shows no sign of wavering despite all the horrors the junta has thrown at Myanmar’s people.
The junta is losing. If things continue as they are, it will lose. The junta’s incessant brutality has lit a fire it does not know how to extinguish. That will not change. It created this raging inferno of resistance through the arrogance of staging another coup and the mass atrocities it committed afterwards. More atrocities will not shift the war in its favor. The democratic resistance is viable and ascendant because it is, and will remain, a popular national uprising of a people determined to rid themselves of juntas once and for all. If present trends continue, and it stands to reason they will, Myanmar’s current junta will not be defeated in a grand battle for Naypyitaw. By the end Naypyitaw will not even matter. The junta will simply bleed out in different parts of the country until it effectively collapses as a force and a new government is stood up. The post-conflict peace may be messy in places, at least to parts of the international community, but it will not be Syria. There is simply too much social goodwill and solidarity among the Myanmar people, the starting and end point of this revolution.
Matthew B. Arnold is an independent policy analyst. He has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012.