On June 22, soldiers backed by armored vehicles clashed with fighters of the recently-formed People’s Defense Force (PDF) in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city. This was the first time that the PDF has engaged the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, in a major city (Myanmar Now, June 22). Following the February 1 military coup, opposition to the junta took the form of non-violent street protests initially, and Mandalay was among the main centers of such demonstrations (Myanmar Speaks, April 28; The Irrawaddy, February 5). With the Tatmadaw employing extreme violence to quell these protests, Myanmar’s citizens have increasingly turned to armed struggle and joined civilian militias that have sprung up across the country (The Irrawaddy, April 2).
Until June 22, clashes between the Tatmadaw and these militias occurred only in rural and small towns in Myanmar. That has changed with the Mandalay shootout. While the steadily expanding geographic spread of militia activity will put the Tatmadaw under additional pressure, how effective will PDF fighters be in fighting the military?
Myanmar’s Array of Armed Outfits
Myanmar is not new to protests, armed resistance, or even civil war. The National League for Democracy (NLD) has been at the forefront of non-violent protests against military rule for decades. Besides NLD, activists of various alienated ethnic groups like the Kachin, Shan, and Karen have protested against the military and also civilian governments over various infrastructure projects that have excluded local communities or harmed their environment (Myanmar Times, February 8, 2019). Dozens of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have also battled the Tatmadaw for decades in pursuit of greater autonomy or independence. Indeed, Myanmar has been in the grip of severe armed conflict for much of its post-independence era.
An array of armed groups are resisting the junta’s rule currently. Dozens of militias have emerged following the coup to fight the junta. While many of these militias are in Bamar (Burmese)-dominated regions of Myanmar, several have arisen in the ethnic minority states too (Asia Times, May 23). Besides this, Myanmar’s government-in-exile, the National Unity Government (NUG), announced the formation of the PDF as its military wing on May 5 (The Irrawaddy, May 5). Several of the new anti-junta militias, including those in the ethnic minority states, have joined with the PDF in the months since then. However, Myanmar’s long-established ethnic minority organizations have reacted cautiously. Thus far, only the Chin National Front has agreed to join the PDF (The Irrawaddy, May 31).
Whether on their own or as part of the PDF, new militias have met with some success in their clashes with the Tatmadaw. Shortly after its formation, on April 4, the Chinland Defense Force became the Chin local component of the PDF and took control of Mindat, a small town in the western Chin state. The junta’s security forces were able to wrest back control over the town in mid-May, however (The Irrawaddy, May 16). Other local units of the PDF have also ambushed several Tatmadaw convoys and targeted military posts and personnel, local government offices, and junta-appointed government functionaries (The Hindu, May 7 and The Irrawaddy, May 31).
PDF’s Many Shortcomings
While local units of the PDF have scored victories against the Tatmadaw, serious doubts about their capacity to engage the Tatmadaw in face-to-face encounters or survive over the long run exist because its fighters are poorly armed. The Chinland Defense Force, for instance, reportedly battled the Tatmadaw with slingshots and flintlock ‘Tumee’ rifles (Radio Free Asia, May 23). Mindat only remained in its hands so long because its fighters were able to keep out Tatmadaw reinforcements from reaching the town. Once the Tatmadaw began ferrying troops and weapons into Mindat via helicopter, the Chin fighters were forced to flee.
Many PDF fighters are also urban youth, and unused to the hardships of living in jungles or even villages. Their forerunners, the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), which emerged in the wake of the military’s 1988 coup, could not cope with the tough life of a guerrilla. Many lacked military skills and were homesick or succumbed to diseases they contracted in the jungles. Will today’s generation of fighters survive the rigors of guerrilla life? Importantly, the PDF lacks military leadership to guide them in such an endeavor (Asia Times, June 8).
Pitted against the local units of PDF is the Tatmadaw, Southeast Asia’s second largest armed force with around 350,000 soldiers in its ranks. It has enormous experience in fighting its own people (The Pioneer, April 5). It is also well-armed and, importantly, is not averse to using its arsenal against its citizens. When fighters of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force ambushed and killed scores of soldiers on May 31, the Tatmadaw response was ferocious. It deployed helicopters, heavy artillery, and fighter jets to attack Karen villages (The Irrawaddy, June 1).
EAO Support is Essential
To emerge as a credible force against the Tatmadaw, the PDF will have to become a truly national force and raise more local units across Myanmar, including in the borderland areas. It will further need to secure the support of the better-equipped and battle-hardened EAOs. Some amount of co-operation is happening already. Many of the youth who fled to the borderland areas are receiving refuge, weapons and combat training from the EAOs (The Irrawaddy, March 23). Recent attacks in Myanmar’s predominantly Bamar regions reveal operational cooperation between Bamar-dominated anti-junta militias and EAOs. In late April, air force bases at Magway and Meiktila in Bamar-dominated central Myanmar came under rocket attack. While the EAOs like the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army may have provided the missiles, the attack could not have been carried out without a measure of support from local Bamars. This indicates that some amount of cooperation is occurring between Bamar militias and the PDFs on one hand and the EAOs on the other (Asia Times, May 23).
However, such cooperation is at the ground level and fluid. And while rare solidarity, driven by opposition to the junta, has been visible among Myanmar’s ethnic groups since the coup, EAOs remain wary of overtures by the Bamar-dominated NLD. In power, the NLD displayed little sympathy toward ethnic minority concerns and grievances (Frontier Myanmar, October 10, 2019). Many NLD leaders were openly hostile toward the minority ethnic groups, and the NLD government neither consulted nor was willing to share power with them (Myanmar Times, March 29, 2016). Further, the NLD did little to move forward its professed commitment to federalism, a key demand of the ethnic minorities (Burma News International, May 29, 2020). Consequently, only a few EAOs believe that cooperation with the NLD now will yield a benefit to them should it return to power.
Western powers, meanwhile, have criticized the coup, condemned the generals’ actions, and imposed economic and other sanctions on them (The Irrawaddy, May 18). While they have extended support to the ousted NLD government, such support is largely verbal and limited to diplomatic support in the United Nations (The Wire, March 7; Frontier Myanmar, May 15). The United States is reportedly averse to military involvement in Myanmar at this point, given its negative experience in civil wars in Syria and Afghanistan, among others (The Irrawaddy, June 4). Myanmar’s neighbors are also not keen to fuel a civil war in Myanmar. India, for instance, is apprehensive of the potential blowback that instability would have for its own restive regions bordering Myanmar (Hindustan Times, March 1). China is apprehensive over the future of projects in Myanmar linked to its Belt and Road Initiative. While the PDFs and the EAOs could purchase weapons from black markets in China and Thailand as they have in the past, these purchases would require the approval of governments in Beijing and Bangkok, which may not be forthcoming now (Asia Times, May 23). The little they can purchase from the black market may not be enough to tilt the balance in their favor.
The recent shootout in Mandalay signals not only an escalation of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, but also that the armed conflict is entering Myanmar’s main cities. The proliferation of armed anti-junta militias across the country and the geographic expansion of fighting will force the Tatmadaw to spread itself thin. However, so long as the EAOs and the PDF do not unite, their attacks will at most hurt the Tatmadaw but not topple it from power.