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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar's ethnic rebels isolate junta ahead of Armed Forces Day

Military challenged on new fronts after bloody crackdown on street protests

A Myanmar soldier sits inside a vehicle in front of a Hindu temple in downtown Yangon on Feb. 2.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- When Myanmar soldiers first arrived in a village outside Dawei, they first shot the dogs -- both domesticated pets and strays -- to silence the barking. Then they targeted parked cars and motorbikes, demolishing them with their guns as they moved through the village, weapons drawn.

This was the scene described by a woman from the village only 20-minutes by motorbike from Dawei, an anti-coup flashpoint in the south when troops arrived in February to crush dissent. The woman's elderly father was beaten and had to be hospitalized, she said through a Thailand-based acquaintance.

The violence was so severe and swift, she added, that all the young men in her village fled into nearby forests out of fear.

"They are still hiding there; everybody above the age of 18 went into hiding and is still there."

The assault in and around Dawei has become normal in Myanmar, according to witnesses. But as the campaign to stamp out the pro-democracy movement becomes bloodier, the military has come under pressure on new fronts -- including armed ethnic groups, who operate across large swathes of land along the border, and with China, Myanmar's giant northern neighbor.

The Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, has deployed similar tactics in remote, rural corners and in heavily populated urban centers to suppress the tide of public anger, much of it targeting Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw chief who led the Feb. 1 putsch and seized power.

Last week, soldiers moved through urban centers threatening to kill citizens if they did not cooperate.

"Next time when we come to your street and if it is blocked, we will shoot everyone in the street," a soldier barked through a loudspeaker in a neighborhood in Yangon, the country's commercial capital and largest city. An audio recording of the March 17 incident was shared with Nikkei Asia.

More than 260 people have been killed in the crackdown, according to activist groups, including a 7-year-old girl in Mandalay on Tuesday. The death toll at the hands of security forces is the highest the Southeast Asian country has seen since a pro-democracy uprising against a junta in 1988, when an estimated 3,500 people were killed.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local monitoring group of human rights advocates, civilians also killed included a 15-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a person out shopping in Yangon. Some of the victims, according to local media, were shot in the head by snipers.

Yet tens of thousands of pro-democracy campaigners have continued to brave bullets and fill the streets, day and night, holding banners denouncing the military. Yangon-based observers credit youth in their early 20s and 30s for leading the resistance, dubbed the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). They have denied the top generals from declaring the coup, the country's third, a success.

"The military's use of violence has divided the population, with the Generation X wanting to stay quiet, but the young adults, the Generation Z, are determined to fight back till the end," said Nay Yan Oo, a political analyst in Yangon. "Generation Z is still on fire and they will not give up until the military hands power over to a civilian government."

He credits the CDM for transforming the coup into an incomplete putsch almost two months after Gen. Min Aung Hlaing overthrew the incumbent civilian government of the National League for Democracy, led by the country's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, which was to begin its second term in office after a landslide victory in the November general elections.

"Despite the violence of the Tatmadaw, several protests have continued across the country every day," Nay Yan Oo added. "It has been [nearly two months], but the Tatmadaw is still unable to gain full control of the country."

But the prospects of an incomplete coup are also being shaped in other corners of the country. The military faces resistance from equally significant flanks -- a spreading consensus among the scores of ethnic rebels along the country's border to support the pro-democracy protests. Myanmar's ethnic minorities account for one-third of the country's 53 million people.

The junta was given a warning about this shift last month, when 10 ethnic armed groups who had previously agreed to cease-fire talks in a bid to end decades of hostilities opted to break that deal. These groups are among the ethnic rebels that have an estimated 100,000 armed troops in their ranks. The Tatmadaw is believed to number 350,000, making it Southeast Asia's second-largest armed force.

Since then, these insurgent groups from the Karen, the Shan, and the Kachin have become emboldened in their anti-junta positions. The armed wing of the Karen National Union recently cut the food supply lines to feed soldiers deployed near the Thai-Myanmar border, according to media reports. Elsewhere, according to local sources, the armed wing of the Kachin, active close to the Myanmar-China border, launched fresh strikes against military positions this month. Last Sunday, a battalion of the Kachin Independence Army mounted dawn attacks on three Tatamadaw-held bases.

"The KNU has already condemned the coup, and no longer recognizes the Tatmadaw as a legitimate actor," said Jason Tower, a researcher working on conflict issues in Myanmar for the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank supported by the U.S. Congress. "The Tatmadaw will have to address growing push back from the ethnic armed groups."

He said the military's grip on Myanmar will be loosened as the rebel groups become emboldened by the chaos caused by the coup. "The Tatmadaw will be strategically weakened if it has to face conflict with ethnic armed groups on many fronts," he said. "This can worsen as the rebel armies strategically align themselves with the CDM."

A Tuesday statement by the Arakan Army -- a powerful rebel force that battled the Tatmadaw in 2019 and 2020 in the state of Rakhine -- was the latest warning shot to the junta about the shifting political alliances. It declared that it was closing ranks with the other armed ethnic groups in condemning the coup and subsequent crackdown. The move comes after the militant group had agreed on a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw last year, suggesting that the two adversaries were headed for peace.

But that is not all. The military's resources are also being stretched as China pressures the junta to protect its economic assets after 32 Chinese-owned factories in Yangon were torched this month. The investments were part of China's multibillion-dollar stake in Myanmar, spanning an oil-and-gas pipeline and large infrastructure projects as part of Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

"Threats to Chinese property and lives will be taken very seriously and, as has already been seen, diplomats will want to show an immediate response," said a senior analyst at a Yangon-based think tank, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But [Chinese] officials also know that relations will have to be maintained with all sides in the current impasse, including the military government, NLD and ethnic nationality movements because it is too early to know who will ultimately succeed."

This view flies in the face of the invincibility that the military seeks to project during its annual Armed Forces Day, set for Saturday, which commemorates the army's resistance to the Japanese occupation in 1945.

"The Tatmadaw is not in a strong position now, and is more isolated and has security challenges on multiple fronts," a Southeast Asian diplomat, who recently ended his mission in Yangon, told Nikkei Asia. "The military regime is in a weaker position since the coup than what many think."

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