Myanmar junta takes heavy hits three years after coup
Troops have surrendered in their thousands, whole units have fled into India and China and the military’s supporters have aired rare public criticism of its top leadership
One morning last October as the dawn light touched the cold hills of northern Myanmar a barrage of rockets and drones streaked through the sky and slammed into dugouts and bases housing military troops.
The fiery spectacle was repeated across a hundred-kilometre (60-mile) stretch of Shan state, heralding the launch of an offensive by an ethnic minority alliance that has left the ruling junta battered and its opponents daring to believe it can be toppled.
The Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) had largely stayed out of the conflict raging between Myanmar’s junta and opponents of the coup it launched three years ago on Thursday.
But with the military stretched thin struggling to crush dozens of pro-democracy armed groups, the so-called “Brotherhood Alliance” saw a chance to renew its decades-old war with the military and seize territory and resources.
Screened by waves of commercial drones modified to hit junta positions with crude “drop bombs” its battle-hardened fighters swiftly overran dozens of military positions and took control of lucrative border crossings to China.
Over the following weeks “Operation 1027” -- named for its starting date -- went from victory to victory, with the normally reclusive rebels broadcasting their hauls of captured weapons, ammunition and prisoners.
The chief of the military promised a counterattack, then a few days later the junta-backed president warned Myanmar was at risk of “breaking up”.
Under the pressure of “Operation 1027”, hairline cracks have appeared in the once-unassailable facade of the military that has ruled Myanmar for much of its 70-plus years of independence.
Troops have surrendered in their thousands, whole units have fled into India and China and the military’s supporters have aired rare public criticism of its top leadership.
The setbacks in Shan have also galvanised pro-democracy groups to renew their own attacks on the military elsewhere in the country.
“The junta has never been weaker,” Htwe Htwe Thein of Curtin University in Australia told AFP.
“It now seems possible that the army... can suffer a series of significant defeats,” she said.
A ceasefire brokered earlier this month by junta ally China has largely halted the fighting in Shan state -- although clashes continue elsewhere -- and left the alliance free to consolidate its gains.
The jewel in the crown is the town of Laukkai, a few kilometres from the China border, home to around 25,000 people and a rich vein of vice, prostitution and drug trafficking.
Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing made a name for himself in Laukkai in 2009 when, as a regional commander, he expelled the MNDAA and installed a pro-military militia to run the town.
Around 2,000 troops surrendered when the MNDAA re-captured the town earlier this month, sparking howls of protest on pro-military social media at one of the gravest defeats the military has suffered in decades.
The six brigadier-generals who led the capitulation are now facing the death penalty.
Fighting has continued in western Rakhine state, where the AA claims it has seized a port town and several positions near the India border.
Last week a transport plane sent to India to bring home dozens of soldiers who had fled there to escape clashes with the AA overshot the runway and crashed, injuring several crew members.
The cascade of setbacks has dented morale among low and mid-level officers, according to several military sources contacted by AFP, all of whom requested anonymity.
Earlier this month that dissatisfaction was given a public airing at a military rally in the former British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, home to the military’s elite officer training academy.
At an open square in the town a monk addressed a crowd of more than 100 people and called for Min Aung Hlaing to step down in a speech widely shared on pro-military social media.
‘Don’t deserve to live’
It is unclear if the “Brotherhood Alliance” will throw its weight behind the larger democracy struggle in Myanmar.
The TNLA did not respond to questions on whether it still had military objectives outside of its claimed territory in Shan state.
A source close to the MNDAA said the group was working to install a new administration in Laukkai, without giving details.
Analysts say it is too early to predict the fall of the junta or a change of top leadership.
But they warn such extensive battlefield losses are uncharted territory for the generals, whose likely response will be to unleash more violence upon a country ravaged by three years of war.
“Terror and extreme violence, rape and torture, domicide, and pillage are long-standing military operational doctrines,” independent Myanmar analyst David Mathieson told AFP.
“The SAC (the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself) believes that consistency in atrocity and heavy firepower will ensure regime survival.”
In the hills of northern Shan state last month, “Sugar,” a fighter with the pro-democracy Mandalay People’s Defence said he was up for the fight.
“I have fought in more than 16 battles and faced countless air strikes,” he told AFP from his trench, a few kilometres from a junta position, asking to use a pseudonym.
“For me, military soldiers are creatures that don’t deserve to live on our Earth.”