Half a Year On, Myanmar’s Junta Appears to Have Survived Threat Posed by ‘Operation 1027’

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 8

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing (right), leader of the junta, meeting with former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (left) in May 2023. (Source: Chinese MFA)

Executive Summary:

  • Six months after three of Myanmar’s largest anti-junta militias launched a joint operation against the Tatmadaw, they have succeeded in seizing large swathes of territory—albeit at a high price. These successes have not brought down the ruling regime, however, and Myanmar’s ethnic militias will likely not be ready to launch another large-scale offensive anytime soon, prolonging the conflict further.
  • China is playing both sides of the civil war, supporting anti-junta ethnic militias in order to extract ever-greater economic and political concessions from the very regime that it supports militarily.
  • The ethnic militias and the forces of the Western-supported National Unity Government share a common enemy, but disagree over what a final political settlement should look like, particularly over how confederal the country should be if they succeed.
  • The strategic pause offers the Tatmadaw a chance to recover from its losses as well, and the mood of the country’s civilian population is turning toward peace and the status quo, which will constrain the ethnic militias’ ability to find recruits.

In January, the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA) captured Laukkaing in northern Shan State following the surrender of troops of the Tatmadaw (junta’s) Regional Operation Command. Myanmar’s northern regions have seen major retreats by the junta since October 2023. This area includes the Shan and Karenni (Kayha) states, which share a border with China; Rakhine and Chin states, which share borders with Bangladesh and India, respectively; and the Sagaing region, which is adjacent to India. For example, the Arakan Army (AA) has taken control of crucial military bases in Rakhine State (The Daily Star, December 12, 2023). Meanwhile, Karen forces currently control 80 percent of the country’s eastern region, while Chin forces control over 70 percent of Myanmar’s western state bordering India.

Emerging developments in the initial weeks of 2024 have introduced the possibility of unpredictable scenarios, such as humanitarian crises and a dangerous power vacuum that can enable insurgent factions to escalate fighting against the junta for territorial dominance. These developments will have consequences for neighboring countries and may very well pose challenges for the region and beyond.

Myanmar’s Geopolitical Significance

Myanmar is a key member state of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its alignment and stability are of geopolitical significance for the region. Several major ethnic militias in northern and eastern Myanmar (Kachin State and Shan and Kayah states, respectively) launched a synchronized offensive against the military junta called “Operation 1027” (so named for the month and day of its launch in 2023). This was an unprecedented move to wrest control of critical infrastructure, transportation corridors, and townships from the Tatmadaw (Burma News International, December 11, 2023).

These ethnic militias joined forces to form the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BA), which consists of the AA, MNDAA (also called the Kokang Army), and Ta’ang National Liberation Front (TNLA) (The Daily Star, December 12, 2023). By impeding Highways 3 and 34—the main trade routes with China—they effectively demonstrated their ability to hold their own against the junta’s forces. Beyond that, wresting control over essential transportation routes allowed the 3BA to exert economic pressure on the junta, which was struggling under the weight of the various rebel groups’ strategic military operations. The 3BA’s fighters successfully captured 161 positions from the junta along a 260-kilometer frontline as a result of the offensive (IISS Myanmar Conflict Map, November 2023).

These events also caused a domino effect in western Myanmar (Chin and Rakhine states) and central Myanmar (Mandalay and Sagaing regions). For example, several ethnic militias, including the People’s Defense Force (PDF) of Myanmar launched their own offensives, including most notably “Operation 1111” and “Operation 1107” (The Irrawaddy, November 28, 2023). The PDF can be understood as an ad hoc army of the National Unity Government in exile and is composed primarily of civilians. These combined offensives prompted rumors that the State Administrative Council (SAC), the junta’s official name, would collapse. Following a half-year of continuous hostilities since October 2023, however, it appears that rumors of the junta’s death may have been exaggerated. This can be explained in part by the fact that Myanmar’s many ethnic militias have divergent end goals.

Factions and Forces

Understanding the full scope of the conflict necessitates a review of the military coup that overthrew the civilian government in February 2021 and installed Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as the present chairman of the SAC. Several prominent civilian leaders were apprehended, and a wave of widespread demonstrations ensued, especially in major cities and townships. The junta responded with a brutal crackdown, firing on protestors in the streets and leading to numerous civilian casualties. Consequently, the deposed civilian leaders established the National Unity Government (NUG), which subsequently elevated the PDF as its armed wing (Narinjara News, January 25, 2023).

The SAC’s ease in conducting brutal attacks against ethnic militias and civilians in conflict zones was largely attributable to the ceasefires, armistices, and peace treaties it entered into with ethnic militias throughout all of Myanmar. These measures included the establishment of autonomous regions of governance for certain ethnic militias and their integration into the paramilitary Border Guard Forces (BGF). Consequently, the junta was able to administer and function in central Myanmar with a degree of autonomy, unencumbered by major ethnic tensions in the country’s north, northeast, and west (Radio Free Asia, September 28, 2021). Due to the temporary nature of the armistice, the AA, TNLA, and MNDAA exploited the time to amass their forces and logistics in anticipation of an eventual conflict with the Tatmadaw. They eventually identified a window of opportunity to launch an assault, when the government’s forces were vulnerable in terms of manpower, firepower, and logistics. This occurred because government forces were drawn away from the country’s internal ethnic borderlines in order to focus their efforts on defeating the PDF in central Myanmar.

The seizure of large swathes of territory has come at the cost of a catastrophic depletion of the ethnic militia’s manpower and ammunition. As a result, the militias have resorted to using human wave tactics, further amplifying the loss of life in anti-junta operations (Kachin News Group, December 30, 2023). Moreover, the financial resources available to the ethnic militias are dwindling, challenging their ability to maintain the necessary stockpiles of armaments for protracted conflict (Institute of Chinese Studies, June 14, 2021). Myanmar’s harsh and frequently impassible terrain and the location of the various ethnic groups’ homelands severely constrain many of the militias’ room for maneuver. For example, the AA is facing a renewed blockade of Rakhine State by the Tatmadaw, rendering movement in and out of Rakhine practically impossible (Dhaka Tribune, December 12, 2023).

Common Enemies, Conflicting Aims

The objective of the shadow NUG, which is based in Washington D.C., is to establish a centralized government that safeguards a unified democratic Myanmar. The NUG and 3BA disagree over the concept of federal sovereignty and confederation. The NUG and the majority of the country’s larger ethnic groups share a common adversary, but not a common objective. Due to a lack of international funding, however, the NUG is constrained, making it necessary for most of its PDF forces to coordinate their military actions against government forces with the assistance of local ethnic militias.

Since ethnic militias have significant leverage in determining further action against the current regime, it is reasonable to assume that any future behavior on their part will support their own self-interests. Engaging in a full-scale war against the Tatmadaw would necessitate the stretching of the militias’ forces across ever more territory, risking overextension and expending already-scarce supplies of materiel. Until the ethnic militias are able to recover and restore their strength to what it was prior to “Operation 1027,” a significant escalation in violence against government forces is improbable.

Most importantly, numerous ethnic militias, excluding 3BA, have attempted to replicate “Operation 1027” with considerably less success. The fact that both government forces and 3BA have targeted civilians also exacerbates the difficulties of achieving victory (ISP-Myanmar, November 14, 2023). Since civil conflicts frequently result in civilian losses and can cause enormous and intolerable population displacement, Myanmar’s population increasingly appears to prefer peace and the status quo over continued war (The Irrawaddy, January 19). Thus, heightened tensions could lead to a loss of support from the ethnic militias’ own communities, limiting their ability to recruit in the future.

The SAC and External Actors

The SAC’s increased force size and air cover for its ground forces present formidable challenges to the inadequately armed ethnic militias and PDF units (Democratic Voice of Burma, May 18, 2023). The SAC’s air force can obliterate any major rebel advance, notwithstanding the accumulation of troops and numerous high-level defections. Outside actors’ influence is also crucial. Western actors, including the European Union, the United States, and Canada, have recognized the NUG as the legitimate government. The SAC, on the other hand, maintains a dual posture and receives substantial support from China. The port infrastructure of Myanmar, for example, which provides direct access to the Bay of Bengal, has attracted considerable economic and strategic attention from China.

In pursuit of its own interests, China seeks a stable, predictable, and at least unaligned Myanmar (MoeMaKa, January 25). To assure the continued allegiance of ethnic militias in the event of a change in central authority, China discreetly furnishes the major militias like TNLA and MNDAA—as well as the Chinese-speaking militias like the United Wa State Army—with weaponry and logistics (for an in-depth look at the latter, see Militant Leadership Monitor, May 21). Given that the preponderance of the NUG’s support comes from its alignment with Western states and values, China possesses a significant stake in exerting influence over the ethnic militias, which have jurisdiction over many PDF units. Thus, China supports the junta in the long run but utilizes Myanmar’s ethnic militias as leverage to pressure the junta into allowing greater Chinese influence over the country and its future (see China Brief, March 17, 2023).

Using a combination of carrots and sticks, China encourages the SAC to grant Beijing more economic and political concessions, thereby advancing Chinese interests. China continues to provide the Tatmadaw and the SAC with most of its military hardware and (growing) economic support, even while it arms ethnic militias. Similarly, Myanmar has pledged to back China’s economic interests and adhere to the “One China” policy (The Tribune, January 24). Despite this, Beijing is finding it increasingly difficult to promote peace along its border due to the ongoing conflict between the junta and the 3BA. This became especially apparent following the drone attacks on the Jin San Jiao (Kyin San Kyawt) border gate in northern Shan State by the 3BA, which caused over $14 million in damages. In response to the worsening security situation, the Chinese embassy in Myanmar issued an urgent call for its citizens to leave the border region (The Irrawaddy, November 27, 2023).


The struggle to end authoritarian rule in Myanmar is far from resolved and remains rife with challenges, including the risk of escalating regional and international tensions. A sudden breakthrough toward the overthrow of Myanmar’s junta seems exceedingly improbable. The only possibility for this would be a massive and intricate offensive by a larger alliance of militias like 3BA with the NUG-controlled PDF units in such a way as to directly disrupt Myanmar’s capital, severely destabilizing the governing junta.