March 29, 2017 4:00 pm JST
Anthony Davis

Military under increasing strain in northern Myanmar

Unprecedented alliance of rebel forces threatens the nationwide peace process

Tatmadaw soldiers march on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw on March 27. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

If the upsurge of hostilities that has shaken northeastern Myanmar in recent weeks were to be summed up in just two words, they would be deja vu. To a remarkable degree, the bitter fighting which has erupted in the Kokang region of northeastern Shan State has been a replay of events in the same region almost exactly two years ago. But there is one salient difference: The crisis confronting Myanmar's embattled military is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The early hours of March 6 saw well-armed insurgents storm into Laukkai, capital of the mainly ethnic Chinese Kokang special region, a rugged slice of territory wedged between the Salween River and the Chinese border. More than 30 were killed in the first hours of clashes as rebels attacked army and police posts and a large hotel in the city center. They also attacked army garrisons further north in a clearly coordinated offensive.

As the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, struggled to reassert control and push back the attackers, Myanmar's media reported "dozens" more troops killed, along with an unconfirmed number of ethnic Chinese rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Meanwhile, to the west of the Salween, allied ethnic Palaung guerrillas cut roads and attacked posts, diverting government forces and interdicting movement on the main highway between Mandalay and China.

On both sides of the river, the insurgents were operating from a manual first tested in early 2015. On Feb. 9 that year the MNDAA and ethnic allies on both banks of the Salween came down from the mountains to storm Laukkai and other towns. It took the military three months to reassert control, first over urban centers and then strategic heights. Hundreds were killed and wounded in some of the most bitter fighting since Myanmar's independence from Britain in 1948, when the country was known as Burma. While the parallels between February 2015 and March 2017 are striking, the military and political environment in which they have unfolded is very different.

Politically the main change has been the slow demise of a peace process centered on a fragile pact known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement -- which to date has been signed by only eight mostly militarily insignificant ethnic armed groups from a total of at least 20 nation-wide.

Adopted by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, funded by Western donors and grudgingly endorsed by a skeptical Tatmadaw, the current process has essentially collapsed amid intensifying conflict. That escalation has been the direct result of what one might call the coming of age of the northern rebel coalition. Comprising the MNDAA, the ethnic Palaung Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the small Arakan Army and elements of the Kachin Independence Army, the alliance has grown in both capability and size, with an estimated 10,000 troops under arms across northern Shan State. Its geographical reach, operational coordination, and a striking readiness to attack urban centers are all unprecedented.

In November 2016 the coalition gave itself a formal name - the Northern Alliance-Burma (NAB) -- and launched its second major offensive. A wave of carefully coordinated attacks targeted a string of towns along the Chinese border west of the Salween -- notably the border trade hub of Muse -- while cutting the national highway from Mandalay and Lashio to the Chinese border.

Far less visible than the dramatic rise of the NAB, however, has been its flip-side -- the slow-burn crisis of strategy and capability facing the Tatmadaw. Having largely lost the battlefield initiative in the north, the army is now confronting a range of challenges it is ill-prepared to meet, let alone overcome.

At the national level, the Tatmadaw's slow war of attrition against its main insurgent challenges has traditionally -- and critically -- relied on a policy of divide-and-rule. In operational terms that has meant concentrating the bulk of resources against one enemy while neutralizing others with de facto or official cease-fires.

Decisive offensives in the 1990s against the once powerful Karen National Union on Myanmar's eastern border with Thailand moved forward once a cease-fire had been secured with the northern Kachin; and, more recently after 2012, vice versa. Other potential threats, such as that posed by the powerful United Wa State Army, were held in abeyance by a cease-fire that encouraged the Wa to focus on "business activities," primarily narcotics production.

Battlefield coalition

Those days may now be over, however. The NAB, Myanmar's first effective battlefield coalition of insurgents, threatens to up-end the strategy of divide-and-rule. For their part, the Wa appear to be far less focused on narcotics trafficking and more on providing political backbone and covert aid to their smaller ethnic allies. Indeed, at a February conference hosted in its autonomous special region, the UWSA emerged as the de facto political leader of an armed ethnic block pushing for a new peace process that would dump the NCA and be mediated by China and the United Nations.

Against the backdrop of these tectonic shifts, Tatmadaw control over northeastern Myanmar is being undermined more immediately by a range of serious strategic challenges. In isolation, none spells defeat; but the cumulative impact is undoubtedly weakening the military's grip over a large swath of the country.

Mobility and logistical demands across an unforgiving theater of operations are perennial challenges for a military still struggling with modernization. Northern Shan state has only one airport -- at Lashio -- and only two major roads, both vulnerable to interdiction by insurgents now operating at platoon and even company level. Moving troops and heavy equipment between multiple, shifting fronts has become increasingly dangerous, and financially costly.

The problem is starkest in Kokang. With no airport at Laukkai, resupply of units in the field hinges critically on one main road and on helicopters operating out of Lashio. But the real dilemma lies at the end of the supply line: a sparsely-populated mountainous region of 10,000 sq. km. Kokang is far too rugged for the Tatmadaw to dominate, let alone control, but too politically and symbolically important to abandon. As a result, thousands of troops are pinned down in an open-ended "meat-grinder" operation with no prospect of either success or withdrawal.

A second daunting challenge hinges on manpower. A sprawling behemoth that has dominated Myanmar politically and economically since 1962, the army has over 300,000 men and women in uniform. However, combat-capable units are perennially stretched thin, with a typical field battalion numbering as few as 200 troops (as against 600 to 800 in most modern armies). The "fighting army" has two primary missions: maintaining a presence in townships across the ethnic minority borderlands -- in effect "colonial policing" on behalf of a state dominated by the majority Burman ethnic group -- and waging war on insurgents, which has come to mean scrambling to respond to repeated offensives.

Casualties have been high, notably in Kokang, and concentrated in elite light infantry divisions, which constitute the Tatmadaw's "fire brigade" -- troops that can be rushed in to hold the line and retake lost ground. The impact on morale has been predictably severe. Operational rotations with little or no leave, extended well beyond the limits of military effectiveness, have done nothing to improve the situation. Levels of training for newly inducted recruits have also suffered.

Mounting strains on mobility and manpower have had two predictable results. First, the army's capacity to mount strategic offensives of its own has been sharply impacted. Second, reliance on heavy artillery and, more importantly, airpower, has grown. Over the past two years, close air support has involved both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, although the use of the air force's obsolescent Chinese A-5 and F-7 fighter aircraft against insurgent concentrations close to the border has been checked by the risk of ordnance falling in Chinese territory, with potentially severe diplomatic and even military repercussions.

A third challenge facing the military -- and far from the least-- centers on a remarkable crisis of intelligence. From early 2015 through to 2017 insurgent offensives involving hundreds of fighters have repeatedly caught the military largely or entirely by surprise. The implications are obvious and stark: the Tatmadaw has little or no intelligence capability in rebel-dominated country, where enemy concentrations marshal and maneuver at will, and are now carrying the war to government-held towns

The advent of the rains in May will likely provide the Tatmadaw with some respite after what has been a painful dry season. The rains may even allow it to attempt to regain some initiative, if only at the tactical level. But the broader reality in northern Myanmar is that the military is under pressure as never before. And when in November the dry season comes around again, that sense of deja vu will almost certainly return.

Anthony Davis is a Thailand-based security analyst and writer for the defense publisher, Jane's.

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