On April 11, the Burmese air force struck a National Unity Government (NUG) ceremony at a village in country’s northern Sagaing Region (myanmar-now.org, April 11). The NUG proclaims itself as the legitimate government of Myanmar, in contrast to the military, which came to power through a coup in 2021—after which the NUG was subsequently labeled a “terrorist organization” (myanmar-now.org, May 5). The air strike in Sagaing allegedly killed 80 ceremony attendees and represented not only an escalation in the conflict, but also demonstrated the imbalance in weaponry between the Tatmadaw (the military of Myanmar) and NUG or, more specifically, its militant wing, called the People’s Defence Force (PDF).
The PDF lacks any air power, but operates in multiple regions of Myanmar and specializes in ambush attacks, including one that allowed it to capture a key bridge in Bago, northeast of Yangon, in early June (Twitter/@war_noir, June 6). The Tatmadaw acknowledged the attack in Bago and noted that the “terrorists” also killed two soldiers and occupied the town surrounding the bridge (npnewsmm, June 7). The PDF’s threat to the Tatmadaw comes from its attempt to unite not only pro-democracy activists but also ethnic rebel groups that have long fought for greater autonomy (rfa.org, May 5, 2021). The PDF and other anti-regime forces had conducted a series of attacks in Sagaing specifically in the weeks before the government’s April 11 air strike (irrawaddy.com, May 24).
As the insurgency against it ramps up, the Tatmadaw appears to be attempting to increase pressure against the PDF and other rebel groups. The deadliness of the air strike in Sagaing, for example, was attributed to the government’s use of “enhanced” weaponry—specifically thermobaric weapons (hrw.org, May 9). While the provenance of the munitions used is not known, Russia and China have been Myanmar’s primary arms suppliers since the West halted arms sales as a result of the 2021 coup. Specifically, it is probable that Russia, which has used thermobaric weapons in Ukraine, provided the munition to Myanmar (aljazeera.com, May 18).
The Sagaing attack was in line with the Tatmadaw’s focused anti-insurgent air campaign, which has intensified since October 2022. As the PDF lacks sufficient anti-aircraft weaponry, the Tatmadaw has been able to “rule the skies” (rfa.org, October 28, 2022). The recent air strikes have provoked condemnations from the U.S. and other Western governments, as well as calls from human rights organizations to halt the supply of aviation fuel to the Myanmar military (amnesty.org, April 11).
Nevertheless, with much of the international community’s attention away from Southeast Asia, let alone Myanmar, it does not appear that there will be sufficient political or diplomatic pressure on the Tatmadaw to force the government to change course. At the same time, the limited resources of the PDF may be sufficient to continue the insurgent campaign for years to come. However, the group is unlikely to defeat the Tatmadaw anytime soon.