Myanmar Insurgency Matures as Fighting Against the Tatmadaw Intensifies
The roughly half-year long low-level insurgency against Myanmar’s ruling Tatmadaw, as the armed forces is called, continues to brew, with the COVID-19 Delta variant’s spread throughout Southeast Asia adding a new layer of complexity (Terrorism Monitor, July 2). Myanmar hit record high COVID-19 deaths in July, while other countries in the region began lockdowns that same month (vnexpress.net, July 10). As of this publication, Myanmar was averaging more than 5,000 cases per day, which is nearly five times as high as the country’s previous highest average in November 2020 (Jakarta Post, July 13; Our World in Data, July 22).
On the political front, on July 20, National League of Democracy (NLD) spokesman Nyan Win died of COVID-19 while in the custody of the Tatmadaw. The NLD, which was ousted from power by the regime after winning a democratic election in November 2020, meanwhile, has also borne the brunt of attacks. In the days surrounding Nyan Win’s death, for example, the Tatmadaw burned the homes of NLD supporters who were fleeing a military offensive against the People’s Defense Force (PDF) in the city of Sagaing in northwestern Myanmar after a battle that led to more than ten deaths (Rfa.org, July 21).
Sagaing itself has not only been the site of clashes between the Tatmadaw and civilian militias, but also the site of a COVID-19 outbreak, with well over 5,000 people having died of the disease (scmp.com, July 13). Moreover, Sagaing’s proximity to the Chinese border has drawn Beijing’s attention, especially as China is witnessing a breakout on its side of the border in Yunnan Province, particularly in the town of Ruili. Myanmar’s inability to control the virus outbreak amid conflict on its side of the border will inevitably endanger China. However, whether China will seek to intervene in the conflict in Myanmar beyond its rhetorical support to the Tatmadaw and calls for non-interventionism remains unclear (al-Jazeera, July 20).
Elsewhere in the country, signs are emerging that the civilian militias are maturing. In Mandalay, on July 16, for example, two bombs destroyed an electricity office that had become a source of contention between the Tatmadaw and its opponents. Although the local PDF did not claim the bombings, it had warned the public against paying any bills to Tatmadaw for electricity, arguing that the money would be used to suppress the people. At the time of reporting, no one had claimed responsibility for the bombings. Whether or not the PDF conducted the bombings, which injured two people, or like-minded civilians conducted the attack, it reflected how the opposition to the Tatmadaw recognizes that the battle does not just involve combatting the regime with weapons in clashes, but also winning civilian support and acquiescence, and possibly even through coercion (myanmar-now.org, July 17).
In other parts of Myanmar, the fighting is becoming increasingly brutal. In mid-July, for example, the Tatmadaw’s soldiers clashed with the Karenni People’s Defence Force (KPDF). The battle resulted in ten shells striking villagers and heavy weapons being fired from both sides. Moreover, the fighting occurred after a temporary ceasefire had been reached between the Tatmadaw forces and KPDF, which obviously did not last. Further, civilians reported the regime troops stealing their livestock (Bnionline.net, July 15). This case is but one of dozens across Myanmar that reflects the intensification of the conflict, with COVID-19, China, and numerous other factors preventing any imminent solution.
ISWAP Gains Control of Nigeria’s Strategic Sambisa Forest
In May, Islamic State (IS) declared Abu Musab al-Barnawi to be the new leader of Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) (Telegram, May 18). Al-Barnawi subsequently commanded the offensive that led to the death of rival factional leader Abubakar Shekau in Sambisa Forest, Borno State, Nigeria (HumAngle, May 21). After Shekau’s death, questions arose about whether Shekau’s loyalists in Sambisa would defect to ISWAP and extend the group’s presence to Sambisa for the first time.
Growing evidence suggests Sambisa is now becoming an ISWAP heartland. The first piece of evidence that suggested this was a video released by ISWAP after Shekau’s death. The video featured Shekau’s loyalists in Sambisa acknowledging their new allegiance to ISWAP (Telegram, July 25). This was despite the fact that Shekau’s loyalists in Lake Chad announced in a separate video that they would fight ISWAP until IS designated them as ISWAP’s true leaders (Telegram, June 14). Since these videos’ publication, ISWAP also released an Eid al-Adha video, which included prayers in Sambisa. This again demonstrated that ISWAP had expanded its footprint into Sambisa after Shekau’s demise (Telegram, July 23).
ISWAP photo streams, which it releases on average at least once per week, have also indicated that the group now operates in and around Sambisa, where Shekau’s fighters exclusively operated before his death. Such photo streams were from:
- Pulka, Borno and Mora, Cameroon on July 12, showing captured motorcycles and weapons from the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies;
- Sambisa Forest on July 17, showing prayers and practice shooting of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher; and
- Konduga, Borno, showing captured weapons from the Nigerian army. 
With the releases of these videos and photos, ISWAP has affirmed its control of Sambisa and its environs. Strategically, this means ISWAP will be better able to carry out attacks in Cameroon and northern Adamawa State in Nigeria. Since Shekau’s death, raids on villages in Cameroon have notably decreased, which is likely a result of ISWAP ordering the former Shekau fighters to desist from such attacks. At the same time, ISWAP’s claim on July 14 of raiding a small Adamawa village to kill Christians and burn down a church indicates the group will not desist from those types of attacks (Telegram, July 14).
Thus, although ISWAP is generally less brutal than Shekau was, the group’s levels of violence vary depending on the target. Christians and Nigerian soldiers and vigilantes who support the soldiers, for example, will not be spared by ISWAP. However, ordinary Muslim civilians and aid organizations are likely to face fewer security risks as long as they cooperate with ISWAP and not the Nigerian government or military. ISWAP’s release of abducted aid workers for an undisclosed ransom shortly after Abu Musab al-Barnawi reemerged as the leader of the organization in May exemplifies the group’s, and especially his, general leniency toward aid organizations that provide their resources to ISWAP (Punch, June 14). These resources are then dispersed to populations under ISWAP’s control.
Sambisa Forest was an impenetrable hideout for Shekau ever since he relocated there from Maiduguri around 2013. The Nigerian army and air force were never able to capture or locate Shekau for airstrikes. Now that ISWAP controls the forest, it will be able to stash captured weapons and other supplies there as well as relocate key commanders so that, like Shekau, they can evade security forces. Control of the forest will not only provide entry points for ISWAP into Cameroon and Adamawa State—if not also towards Borno’s capital, Maiduguri—but also provide another hideout for the group.
 The photo streams can be seen at the following link: https://unmaskingbokoharam.com/2019/08/06/iswap-photostreams-2015-onwards/