A turning point in Myanmar as army suffers big losses

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  • By Jonathan Head and Lulu Luo
  • BBC News, Bangkok

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Two years after it seized power, Myanmar’s military looks weak – and defeatable

Within days, Myanmar’s military government has lost control of much of its border with China.

A coordinated attack by three armies of ethnic rebels in Shan State, backed by other armed groups opposing the government, has overrun dozens of military posts and captured border crossings and roads that control most of the land trade with China feed.

It is the most serious setback the junta has suffered since seizing power in February 2021. After two and a half years of fighting the armed uprising he provoked with his disastrous coup, the army looks weak and possibly defeatable.

The government has responded with airstrikes and artillery bombardments, forcing thousands of people from their homes. But it has failed to bring in reinforcements or regain lost territory. The hundreds of troops killed are believed to include the commander of government forces in northern Shan state, Brigadier General Aung Kyaw Lwin, the highest-ranking officer killed in battle since the coup.

What makes this attack even more significant is that it marks the first time that the well-armed insurgents operating in Shan State have explicitly aligned themselves and their military operations with the broader campaign to overthrow the junta and restore democratic rule.

However, there are other factors at play. These three insurgent groups have long-held ambitions to expand the territory they control. And crucially, China, which normally has a restrictive influence on all groups along the border with Myanmar, did not prevent this operation from going ahead.

This is likely due to the military government’s frustration over its inaction over the scam centers that have spread in Shan State. Thousands of Chinese citizens and other foreigners have been forced to work in these scam centers. The insurgents say one of their objectives is to close them down.

Image source, Getty Images

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A rocket is fired during heavy fighting in Shan State on October 28

In 2021, as peaceful protests against the coup were violently suppressed by the military and police, opposition activists decided they had no choice but to call for a nationwide armed uprising against the junta.

Many fled to ethnic insurgent-controlled areas along Myanmar’s borders with Thailand, China and India, where they hoped to gain access to the training and weapons most of them lacked.

Some established ethnic armies, such as the Karen, Kachin, Karenni and Chin, decided to ally with the Government of National Unity (NUG), which was established by the elected government that was deposed by the coup.

Others did not, most notably the various groups in Shan State, a vast, lawless region bordering Thailand and China.

Perhaps best known as one of the world’s largest producers of illegal narcotics, Shan State has also recently begun hosting a booming business in casinos and scam centers.

The country has been ravaged by conflict and poverty since independence from Myanmar in 1948 and has been divided into fiefdoms of various warlords, drug bosses and ethnic rebels who have fought each other and the army.

Two rival insurgents claim to represent the Shan, the largest ethnic group, but in recent years four smaller ethnic groups have built powerful armies.

The strongest of all are the Wa, with advanced modern weapons and about 20,000 troops, backed by China.

Then there are the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese group with a long tradition of rebellion; the Palaung, or Ta’ang, people from remote hilltop villages whose military has grown rapidly since its founding in 2009; and the Rakhine, who actually come from Rakhine State on the other side of Myanmar. But they have a large migrant population in the east of the country, which helped create the Arakan Army, now one of the best-equipped armed forces in Myanmar.

The Wa agreed to a ceasefire with Myanmar’s military in 1989 and have generally avoided armed clashes. They say they are neutral in the conflict between the junta and the opposition. But they are believed to be the source of many of the weapons headed to anti-military resistance groups in the rest of the country.

The other three ethnic armies – the Kokang MNDAA, the Ta’ang TNLA and the Arakan Army – have formed what they call the Brotherhood Alliance. They have all clashed with the military repeatedly since the coup, but always over their own territorial interests, and not in support of the NGG.

These three insurgent groups have discreetly provided shelter, military training and some weapons to dissidents from other parts of Myanmar.

But being on the Chinese border, they have also had to take into account China’s concerns of keeping the border stable and trade flowing. China has provided diplomatic support to the junta and kept its distance from the NGG.

Image source, Getty Images

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The 2021 coup led to mass protests that were brutally suppressed by security forces

In June this year, under pressure from China, the Brotherhood Alliance agreed to participate in peace talks with the military, although these quickly collapsed. But they still seemed to be left out of the broader civil war.

The operation they launched on October 27 has changed that.

They have made dramatic progress. Entire army units surrendered without a fight. The alliance says it has captured more than 100 military posts and four towns, including the Chinshwehaw border crossing, and Hsenwi, which straddles the road to Muse, the main gateway to China.

They have blown up bridges to prevent the arrival of military reinforcements and surrounded the city of Laukkaing, where many scam centers are run by families linked to the junta.

Thousands of foreigners are believed to be stuck in Laukkaing, where chaos is growing as people queue for the limited food left in the city. China has warned all its citizens to evacuate through the nearest border crossing.

The Brotherhood Alliance says their ultimate goal now, like that of the NUG, is to overthrow the military government.

The NUG, whose volunteer fighters have waged a desperately unequal armed struggle against the full might of the army and air force, has hailed the alliance’s success and spoken of new momentum in their fight.

The pro-NUG People’s Defense Forces, who are not as well armed or experienced as the Shan insurgents, have launched their own attacks in areas near Shan State to take advantage of the military’s apparent weakness, and for the first time conquered a district capital. of government forces.

Image source, The Kokang media

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The MNDAA has released images of the flag being raised in the municipality of Laukkaing

The Brotherhood Alliance carefully timed their attack, coming on the heels of an incident in Laukkaing that broke China’s patience with the junta.

Over the past year, the Chinese government has put pressure on the military government to do more to shut down the scam centers, which are largely run by Chinese syndicates. They have become an embarrassment to Beijing following widespread publicity over the brutal treatment of human trafficking victims trapped within them.

Chinese pressure convinced many of the Shan groups, such as the Wa, to hand over people suspected of involvement in the scam to police in China. More than 4,000 people were sent across the border between August and October. But Laukkaing families refused to shut down a business that had earned them billions of dollars a year.

Area sources told the BBC that an attempt was made to free some of the thousands of people held in Laukkaing on October 20, but failed.

Guards working for the scam centers are said to have killed a number of people who tried to escape. This resulted in a strongly worded letter of protest from the municipal government in the neighboring Chinese province, demanding that those responsible be brought to justice.

The Brotherhood Alliance saw their opportunity and attacked, promising to shut down the scam centers to appease China. China has publicly called for a ceasefire, but alliance spokespeople say they have not received a direct request from the Chinese government to stop the fighting.

But their longer-term goal is also to gain as much ground as possible in anticipation of a possible collapse of the military government. This would put them in the strongest possible position for negotiations promised by the NGG if the junta is overthrown, on a new federal structure for Myanmar.

Image source, The Kokang media

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Suspects involved in the scam centers were sent across the border to China

The TNLA has long wanted to expand the area it controls beyond the small Ta’ang Self-Governed Zone allocated to them in the constitution.

The MNDAA wants to regain control of Laukkaing and the adjacent border, which it lost in a 2009 military operation led by none other than Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

And everyone is looking at the Arakan Army. So far it has only supported the fighting in Shan State. If the junta chooses to attack the army in Rakhine state, where it has the most troops and already controls many towns and villages, the junta would become dangerously overstretched.

As a TNLA spokesperson told the BBC, his group no longer sees any value in negotiating with the military government because it has no legitimacy.

Any deal they make would be voided by a future elected government. The Ta’ang, the Kokang and the Wa share the goal of obtaining constitutional recognition of the state for their people within a new federal system.

By joining the fight, these groups can help end military rule in Myanmar. But their aspirations, which will undoubtedly conflict with the interests of other groups in Shan State, foreshadow the many challenges that will face those trying to carve out a democratic future for Myanmar.

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