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Myanmar: Ethnic Armed Organizations, China’s Mediation and Continuing Fighting

  Bibhu Prasad Routray

Recent Developments
On 5 January, Laukkai, the largest base of the Myanmar military in northern Shan state’s Kokang region was overrun by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Nearly 2,100 soldiers in the facility near the Chinese border laid down their arms. This was the largest surrender by the military during Operation 1027, an offensive that began on 27 October 2023 as part of the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA) of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) comprising the MNDAA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army. In the last three months, 15 cities in northern Shan state have fallen into the hands of the TBA which has seized control of more than 200 military camps, prompting the surrender of some 4,000 troops. 

The above developments have led to assumptions that the days of military rule in Myanmar are numbered. The on-ground situation, however, is complex.     

China mediated ceasefire in the Shan state
To halt the TBA’s military advance in the Shan state, a China-mediated Haigeng ceasefire agreement was announced on 12 January. This temporary agreement resulted from China’s third attempt since December 2023 at initiating a process of dialogue between the TBA and the military. A previous ceasefire pact reached in mid-December had collapsed as neither side honoured it. Beijing desperately wishes to keep the trade routes between Myanmar and its Yunnan state open, as well as its territory safe from the spillage of continuing clashes. Additionally, it wants to eliminate the online scam centres which have proliferated in the Shan state. However, the ceasefire is only a localised agreement. It is tenuous at its best. The TBA has continued accusing the military of breaking the terms of the ceasefire since day one, by launching ground offensives as well as air strikes.        

Continuing fighting in Rakhine and Chin states
There is no such pause to fighting in the western Rakhine and Chin states, where the Arakan Army (AA) has stepped up attacks on military targets since 13 November 2023. Townships such as Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Pauktaw, and Rathedaung have witnessed escalated clashes between both sides and nearly 160 military bases have been run over by the AA. On 15 January, the AA claimed to have captured Paletwa town, bordering India and Bangladesh, in the Chin state. This led hundreds of Myanmar soldiers to enter India to seek refuge, some of whom have been sent back. On 21 January, the AA carried out a rocket attack on a naval base in the Kyaukphyu township of Rakhine state, prompting a military artillery strike in response, causing more than 1,000 civilians to flee their homes. A similar attack on the base had been carried out by the AA on 8 January. The base is part of the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port complex and is in a special economic zone that is currently being developed by China.  

The military’s responses
The Myanmar military Junta continues to face the most difficult challenge to its objective of consolidating power and moving ahead with its plan of holding national elections, in an attempt to legitimise its power grab. Public utterances and moves by the military leaders do portray a growing sense of frustration at not being able to control the attacks by the TBA and People Defence Forces (PDF). Previously the Junta had termed the fighting as something that can break the country apart and resolved to crush it. Over time, it has called on the ethnic organisations (EAOs) groups to solve their problems ‘politically’. 

The military is doing everything to avoid operational defeats and loss of key towns and bases. It continues to respond with airstrikes and artillery bombardments, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes. At the same time, however, it has neither been able to bring in reinforcements nor recover the ground it has lost. As Laukkai fell, six brigadier-generals in charge of the base were flown by helicopter to the Northeast Regional Military Command headquarters, and later sent to the capital Naypyidaw. Media reports suggest that they were taken into custody. Later three of them were sentenced to death and three others were jailed for life for abandoning their post. This desperate move by the military leaders can have large repercussions on the troops, affecting their morale and promoting desertion.    

Notwithstanding the sense of overarching optimism among the pro-democracy analysts who dominate the English-language media, the Junta looks weak, but its defeat is not imminent. What is being speculated in the ongoing conversations is that the battlefield heroics of the TBA will unleash a rebellion of sorts within the military, forcing the Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to step down. Divisions between those who want the military to do more to crush the opposition and those who prefer stepping back to initiate a political dialogue may grow further. In mid-January, Ashin Ariawuntha, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk who helped set up pro-junta militias was detained and questioned by authorities. He had asked Min Aung Hlaing to take responsibility for the humiliating defeats and resign. These hopes, however, can only be fanciful and may get dashed. Internal cohesion and support from powerful external forces have kept the military going so far. To break these, more accomplishments would be required from the TBA and the National Unity Government (NUG).    

What next?
Although Myanmar remains in a state of bewildering flux, three truisms are evident from the prevailing state of affairs.

First, the State does not necessarily win conflicts that have overstretched. As conflicts linger, the weak opposition finds ways and means to sustain itself, upscale its attacks, and mount serious challenges to the state authorities. This prods the state to be more ruthless in its response, which has a countervailing effect in terms of contributing to the support base of the opposition. Due to the ceaseless and effective attacks by the TBA, the Junta has found itself in a state of shock, and disbelief, and is hard-pressed to end the conflict. However, three years of continued military effort appears to have drained its soldiers of morale and enthusiasm. An outright military victory over the opposition, therefore, is no longer a probable scenario. 
Second, in a civil war situation, the path towards victory by either party is never linear. Victory for the pro-democracy forces is not imminent. Serious challenges to be able to continue with the current revolution have emerged. Some well-established EAOs, like the Karen, the Kachin, the Karenni and the Chin, have allied themselves with the NUG. But others such as the bigger groups in Shan State have not. There are indications that even the TBA, which appeared to further the cause of democracy in the country, could gradually be settling for a solution that stops short of defeating the military and allows them to establish their suzerainty over the captured territories. That runs counter to the NUG’s goal. The NUG will have to find a way to keep the TBA and other groups aligned with its objective of making the Junta restore democracy and go back to the barracks.       

Third, China is the biggest elephant in the room, with significant leverage to shape the course of the civil war. At the same time, it is not a behemoth which is absolutely in control of the evolving situation. It is not tilted towards the NUG. It merely seeks to convert the recent military gains by the TBA to its advantage. The 5 January capture of Laaukkai, infamous for gambling, prostitution and cybercrime, and the dismantling of these organised crime syndicates by the TBA effectively took care of Chinese concerns of the past several months, which the Junta had been unable to fulfil. Lashio is another town in the northern Shan state that the Chinese are interested in dominating through the TBA, preferably without an all-out clash between the two sides. Ultimately, the Chinese could be working towards a solution in which their projects inside Myanmar are protected by both the military as well as the EAOs. 
Developments in the coming weeks and months will throw more light on the trajectory of conflict in Myanmar. As instability in the country appears uninterruptible, the end state is difficult to foresee at this point. 

About the author

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya, Goa. He was formerly a Deputy Director at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India.

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