Fierce fighting in Myanmar sees Shan State armies make significant gains against junta

China has called for stability and reconciliation, but reports indicate it has grown frustrated with Myanmar's approach to cross-border crime.

Tan Min-Wei | November 14, 2023, 04:53 PM

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Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, is possibly facing its biggest threat since the coup that brought it to power in Feb. 2021.

Several ethnic armies and resistance groups have launched a coordinated military offensive in Shan State, the easternmost region of Myanmar, bordering China, Laos, and Thailand.

The operation appeared to be relatively successful, and appears to be gaining momentum.

Three Brotherhood Alliance

The offensive, codenamed Operation 1027, named for its Oct. 27 start date, was launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BTA).

The 3BTA consists of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA), according to The Diplomat.

The 3BTA has existed for nearly a decade, according to a statement released by the Arakan army, but is now operating with at least four other armed groups in order to conduct Operation 1027.

The statement, released in Burmese, English, and notably Mandarin, says that the primary objectives for launching the operation were the safeguarding of civilian lives, asserting the right to self-defence, and maintaining control over their territory.

It was also dedicated to “eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship”, but also to combating the widespread online gambling fraud that has plagued Myanmar, particularly along the China-Myanmar border.

Additionally, the 3BTA aims to crack down on online gambling companies and the State Administration Council (SAC), the official title of the Myanmar junta (military government).

The 3BTA also accused the SAC of being involved in the operation of such gambling companies.

How it started

Myanmar has been under the control of its Tatmadaw since a February 2021 coup ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s government had won a landslide victory during elections held in December 2020, securing a second term for the National League for Democracy, since Myanmar had begun its gradual transition to democracy since at least 2015.

However, the Tatmadaw was able to quickly exert its authority over the entire country, arresting and imprisoning most senior NLD political leaders, including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

But protesters took to the streets to try to counter the coup, remaining there for several weeks until the military forced them into hiding.

Many of the younger protesters fled major cities such as Yangon, heading into Myanmar's countryside and linking up with the decades-old ethnic armies that had been the Tatmadaw’s traditional adversaries during the first stint of junta rule that began in 1962.

These ethnic armies had an uneasy relationship with the democratic government, but with the return of the Tatmadaw to power, both were able to set aside differences and began an armed resistance.

Until recently, that armed resistance took the form of ambushes and raids, and had managed to restrict the Tatmadaw to major towns and villages.

In order to counter the resistance, the military has resorted to airstrikes, such as one in April 2023, which killed over 130 people.

These air strikes have provoked international outrage, prompting organisations such as Asean to issue statements of condemnation.

International condemnation, but still some support

The Tatmadaw has also been unable to establish themselves on the international stage, with almost universal condemnation from the West, as well as the imposition of sanctions.

Even in the United Nations, as Myanmar's military government is not recognised, Myanmar’s representative remains the pre-coup official.

Asean, who usually stridently refuse to involve itself in domestic politics, took the unusual step of condemning Myanmar.

It also barred Myanmar's political leadership from attending Asean summits, although non-political representatives, such as senior civil servants, have been invited to attend.

Until recently that invitation has been ignored, but that position appears to be shifting, with Myanmar’s ambassador recently being present at the Asean - Gulf Cooperation Council Summit.

The only significant international relationships that Myanmar currently has is with Russia, and most significantly, China.

China was thought to have a good relationship with the NLD government, but it has not prevented them from engaging diplomatically with the Tatmadaw government, including a visit by then foreign minister Qing Gang in May 2023.

How it's going

However in much of the country, the military's control has been said to be brittle, and the recent operation appears to have confirmed this.

The Diplomat reported on Oct. 30, three days after the operation started, that the operation appeared to have made rapid progress, taking control of a major town, as well as several military camps.

Additionally, while Myanmar’s ethnic armies have usually held uneasy relationships with each other, the operation has received backing outside of Shan State, such as by Karen political and military groups.

By Nov. 3, it was reported that the alliance had seized four towns and 92 bases.

As of Nov. 9th, the BBC reported that the Myanmar army was suffering “big losses”, with the Tatmadaw holding an emergency meeting of the ruling military council in response.

The Tatmadaw has been retaliating with airstrikes, but seems to have been unable to contain the operation.

China concerned about crime and reconciliation

Whether the 3BTA will be able to gather enough support to unseat the military government in its entirety, remains to be seen.

However, what is clear is that both sides consider China's support to be central to their operations.

The 3BTA’s statement explicitly names online gambling and telephone scams, part of a broader problem that has been plaguing military controlled Myanmar in recent years.

The BBC reported that China has become increasingly frustrated with the military government's inaction over such scams and criminal activity, many of which are located in Tatmadaw controlled towns and territories.

In addition, thousands of Chinese citizens and other foreigners have been forced to work in these scam centres.

The 3BTA has said that one of its aims is to close these scam centres down, likely an appeal to China for, if not direct support, at least non-interference.

The China factor

According to the BBC, The Diplomat, and Al Jazeera, China has traditionally been a restraining factor on the military activities of the ethnic armies located around its border.

All speculated that the 3BTA would not have been able to launch the operation if China had actively sought to prevent it.

China, for its part, has complained about the fighting going on near its borders, with The Diplomat reporting that some houses on China’s side of the border had been damaged.

The Tatmadaw has sought to reassure China during a recent visit by China's Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Nong Rong in the past week .

Xinhua reported that Nong met with Foreign Minister Than Swe and his deputy, speaking about development opportunities with the Belt and Road Initiative, but also calling for all parties in Myanmar to achieve reconciliation through dialogue.

Nong said that Myanmar should cooperate with China to maintain stability along their mutual border, and “take effective measures to strengthen security protection of Chinese personnel, institutions, and projects in Myanmar”.

“China is ready to work with Myanmar to continuously crack down on cross-border crimes such as online gambling and Telecom fraud”.

Xinhua’s report gave some indication of what China's concerns in the region were, with half of it dedicated to China’s concerns about cross-border crime.

90,000 displaced

The fighting has also displaced tens of thousands of people, with estimates currently suggesting that up to 90,000 have been forced from their homes to avoid the fighting.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that it needs US$1 million (S$1.36 million) to address urgent needs in the affected regions.

While the alliance's gains in Shan State are significant, it is not clear whether it will be able to extend beyond regional borders, let alone overthrow the Tatmadaw as a whole.

The BBC's report indicated that the main challenge to long-term success was as much about the alliance's ability to maintain stability between the various factions present within Shan state, as much as military victory over the Tatmadaw.

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