Myanmar General Myint Swe, who was appointed president following a coup in 2021, told an emergency meeting of the ruling military council that coordinated attacks by anti-military rebels that had resulted in significant losses to the armed forces.
Three ethnic insurgent armies in Shan State have stormed dozens of military checkpoints and captured border crossings and routes carrying the majority of overland trade with China, with the backing of other armed organisations opposed to the government.
It is the junta’s most major setback since seizing office in February 2021. After two and a half years of fighting the armed insurrection it sparked with its failed coup, the military appears to be frail and perhaps defeatable.
Airstrikes and artillery bombardments by the government have forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes. However, it has been unable to bring in reinforcements or regain lost ground.
Among the hundreds of troops slain is Brigadier General Aung Kyaw Lwin, the leader of government forces in northern Shan State and the most senior officer killed in combat since the coup.
This strike is noteworthy because it is the first time that the well-armed insurgents operating in Shan State have officially connected themselves and their military activities with the larger movement to destabilise the junta and restore democratic governance.
Other variables, however, are at work. These three insurgent organisations have long desired to expand their territory.
And, most importantly, China, which generally acts as a check on all groups along its border with Myanmar, has not blocked this operation from taking place. This is most likely due to its dissatisfaction with the military government’s inaction on the scam centres that have flourished in Shan State.
Myanmar a haven for Scam Operations
Thousands of Chinese citizens and other foreigners have been coerced into working in these scam operations. One of the insurgents’ stated goals is to shut them down.
When peaceful anti-coup protests were mercilessly suppressed by the military and police in 2021, opposition groups concluded they had no alternative but to call for a widespread armed rebellion against the junta.
Many fled to areas held by ethnic militants along Myanmar’s borders with Thailand, China, and India, hoping to obtain the training and weapons that the majority lacked.
Some well-established ethnic armies, like as the Karen, Kachin, Karenni, and Chin, decided to join the National Unity Government (NUG), which was founded by the elected administration toppled by the coup. Others, most notably numerous tribes in Shan State, a vast, lawless region bordering Thailand and China, did not.
Shan State is perhaps best known as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of illicit narcotics, but it has also recently began to host a thriving sector in casinos and fraud centres.
Wa Army Backed by China
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, it has been ravaged by warfare and poverty, split into fiefdoms of various warlords, drug lords, or ethnic insurgents fighting one other and the army. Two rival insurgent movements claim to represent the Shan, the largest ethnic group, while four minor ethnic groups have established very significant armies in recent years.
The Wa are the most powerful of them, with sophisticated modern weapons and roughly 20,000 men backed by China.
Then there are the Kokang, an ethnically Chinese community with a long history of rebellion; the Palaung, or Ta’ang, people of remote mountaintop villages whose army has risen dramatically since its inception in 2009; and the Rakhine, who are actually from Rakhine State on Myanmar’s other side. However, they have a big migrant population in the east of the country, which helped develop the Arakan Army, which is today one of Myanmar’s best-equipped troops.
The Wa and the Myanmar military agreed to a truce in 1989 and have mainly avoided armed conflicts. They claim to be unbiased in the fight between the junta and the opposition. They are, however, suspected of being the source of many of the weapons destined for anti-military opposition groups around the country.
The other three ethnic armies, the Kokang MNDAA, the Ta’ang TNLA, and the Arakan Army, have banded together to form the Brotherhood Alliance. They have all clashed with the military on numerous occasions since the coup, but always over their own territorial interests, not in support of the NUG.
China’s diplomatic backing
These three insurgent groups have secretly provided refuge, military training, and weaponry to dissidents from other parts of Myanmar.
However, because they are located on the Chinese border, they must also address China’s priorities, which are to maintain the border stable and trade moving. China has provided diplomatic backing to the junta while remaining neutral towards the NUG.
Under pressure from China, the Brotherhood Alliance decided to join peace talks with the military in June of this year, but these swiftly fell apart. However, they looked to be staying out of the larger civil war.
Operation 1027, so named since it began on October 27th, has changed that.
They have made significant progress. Whole army divisions have surrendered without a fight. According to the coalition, they have taken over more than 100 military stations as well as four towns, including the border crossing at Chinshwehaw and Hsenwi, which crosses the road to Muse, China’s primary gateway.
They have blown up bridges to prevent military reinforcements from entering, and they have besieged the town of Laukkaing, which is home to many scam centres run by junta-allied families.
Thousands of foreign nationals are believed to be imprisoned in Laukkaing, where people are queuing for the town’s limited food supply. China has advised all of its people to flee to the nearest border crossing.
The Brotherhood Alliance, like the NUG, claims that their ultimate goal is to remove the military government.
The NUG, whose volunteer fighters have been waging a desperately unequal military campaign against the entire strength of the army and air force, has praised the alliance’s success and spoken of a fresh surge in their struggle.
Chinese syndicates in Myanmar
Pro-NUG People’s Defence Forces, which are not as well-armed or experienced as the Shan rebels, have begun their own attacks in areas bordering Shan State, taking advantage of the military’s perceived weakness, and have captured a district capital from government forces for the first time.
The Brotherhood Alliance planned their strike to coincide with an incident in Laukkaing that tested China’s patience with the junta. For the past year, the Chinese government has pressed the military administration to do more to close down the fraud centres, which are primarily controlled by Chinese syndicates.
They have become an embarrassment to Beijing as a result of significant public outrage over the horrific treatment of trafficking victims confined there. Chinese pressure forced various Shan communities, including the United Wa State Army, to hand over anyone suspected of being involved in the frauds to Chinese authorities.
Thousand’s trapped in Laukkaing
Between August and October, almost 4,000 people crossed the border. But the families of Laukkaing were adamant about keeping a business that was bringing in billions of dollars for them. According to local sources, on October 20, there was an attempt to release some of the thousands of people trapped in Laukkaing that failed.
Guards working for the fraud centres are said to have killed a number of those seeking to flee. As a result, the local authority in the neighbouring Chinese province issued a strongly worded complaint letter requesting that those involved be brought to justice.
The Brotherhood Alliance sensed a chance and attacked, pledging to shut down the scam centres in order to appease China.
China has openly called for a truce, but coalition officials claim they have received no formal request to stop fighting from the Chinese government.
However, their longer-term goal is to gain as much ground as possible in anticipation of the military government’s possible collapse. This would put them in the best possible position for the negotiations on a new federal structure for Myanmar, which the NUG has promised if the junta is defeated.
The TNLA has long desired to expand its influence beyond the tiny Ta’ang self-administration zone allocated to them in the constitution.
The MNDAA wishes to reclaim control of Laukkaing and the nearby border, which it lost during a military campaign headed by none other than Myanmar’s military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, in 2009.
And everyone is keeping an eye on the Arakan Army. So far, it has only aided the struggle in Shan State. If it chooses to fight the military in Rakhine State, where it has the majority of its soldiers and already controls numerous towns and villages, the junta will find itself severely overstretched.
According to a TNLA spokesman, his organisation no longer sees the value in engaging with the military government because it lacks legitimacy.
Any agreement they reach would be null and void by a future elected administration. The Ta’ang, Kokang, and Wa all share the goal of achieving constitutional statehood for their people within a new federal government.
By joining the struggle, these organisations may be able to assist abolish military rule in Myanmar. However, their ambitions, which are sure to clash with the interests of other groups in Shan State, foreshadow the many problems that those attempting to chart a democratic future for Myanmar will face.