Morale plunges amid setbacks as Myanmar’s junta looks for scapegoats

Big battlefield losses and drone attacks at Naypyitaw headquarters are having a psychological effect on the junta’s generals.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2024.04.13
Morale plunges amid setbacks as Myanmar’s junta looks for scapegoats Myanmar junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing
Illustration by Amanda Weisbrod/RFA

The State Administrative Council, as the junta is formally known, was shaken by the incursion of some 29 drones flown into Naypyitaw on April 4 that targeted the military headquarters, the Aye Lar airbase and leader Min Aung Hlaing’s palatial residence.

None did significant damage and the military claims to have brought down 13 drones. Anti-junta rebel forces claimed to have caused five casualties. 

While there was little physical damage, the psychological impact is more important. Naypyitaw is the impregnable fortress of the State Administrative Council, or SAC. That’s why and how it was built. It’s the physical manifestation of the mental bubble that the generals live in.

As Kyaw Zaw, the presidential spokesman for the shadow National Unity Government, said, “With this attack on their nerve center, Naypyitaw, we want to highlight that they don’t have a safe place.” 

Immediately, the SAC announced that it was redeploying troops to Naypyitaw.

But more importantly, the drone attacks are sapping the military’s already depleted morale. More officers will be scapegoated for allowing the incursion. The remainder will be spending more of their time trying to get their ill gotten gains out of the country.

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The anti-junta drone squad Kloud Team prepares drones for the attack on junta locations in Myanmar on April 4, 2024. (Kloud Team via Facebook)

And morale has been ebbing quickly. Around the country, the military is spread thin and continues to suffer significant setbacks.

The military has been unable to retake any territory that it lost in northern Shan state since the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched its Operation 1027 offensive in October. 

The Border Guards Forces in Kayin state, which are formally aligned with the junta, have begun to distance themselves from the military. 

The Kachin Independence Army’s offensive continues in the northeast, with the capture of over 60 camps, and it now controls the key border crossings and the main highways. 

In the country’s west, the Arakan Army now controls eight of 16 townships and has driven the military out of much of northern Rakhine state. 

And while the fractious Chin groups don’t have as much effective control, the mountainous terrain and long and windy roads have made any military counter-offensive costly.

Special evacuation flights

The SAC couldn’t muster a dry-season offensive, exactly when conventional forces should be at their strongest, and they are now entering a rainy season that will favor guerrilla forces.

The exception to this has been in the Sagaing and Magway regions, the ethnic Bamar heartland, which has been the military’s priority. There they have fought with desperation and barbarity, arsoning homes, intentionally targeting civilians with air and artillery strikes, and committing egregious human rights abuses, including torture, the killing of POWs and beheadings.

This week, opposition forces took control of Myawaddy, the primary border crossing with Thailand. Some 617 soldiers, civil servants and family members apparently surrendered.

Even more humiliating, the SAC requested landing rights for three charter planes to evacuate its officers, bureaucrats and their families from Thailand’s Mae Sot. One flight allegedly ferried the cash reserves of the banks from the thriving border town.

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A Myanmar soldier rests on the Myanmar side of a bridge across the Moei River to Thailand’s Mae Sot district, April 11, 2024. (Nava Natthong/AP)

Apparently, the humiliation of the flights, which was leaked to the media, led to the SAC scrapping the other two flights that Thailand had agreed to on humanitarian grounds.

Attempts to retake Myawaddy have failed, and the regime has taken to bombings and helicopters strafing civilians. Some 200 soldiers crossed into Thailand, where they were disarmed.

Unit level defections continue. Sixty soldiers fled into China from Kachin state, while attacks from a  People’s Defense Force militia led to the capture of 120 in Sagaing.

Junta troops that have defected in recent months acknowledge having received no food, water, medicine and ammunition. It’s difficult to maintain discipline and morale when logistics have broken down. 

The loss of 12 aircraft since the February 2021 coup, including at least three heavy-lift helicopters, has severely impacted the military’s ability to resupply and reinforce units. 

Urban guerrilla forces have launched a series of bombings and attacks against military targets in Yangon in the past few months, including an attack on a military office in Mingaladon township.

As one would expect, the SAC has been rotating generals in their search for scapegoats.

A Yangon-based think tank, the Institute of Strategy and Policy, recently reported that there have been 56 personnel changes to the SAC since it was established just after the coup. 

The SAC has been re-organized four separate times and only 11 of 51 individuals beneath the level of prime minister and deputy prime minister have served the full term. At present, the SAC has only 18 members, as Min Aung Hlaing surrounds himself with his most loyal sycophants.

Since March, the SAC has replaced four regional military commanders. In early April, the SAC fired its deputy minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Aung Lin Tun – at China’s urging – for his alleged profiteering from transnational crime scam centers.

With few friends, the junta has no choice but to give in to Chinese demands. Yet, now the SAC is taking away the personal revenue streams of its corrupted officer corps.

Depleted ranks

The arrest of senior officers has also included those in the field. Officers who negotiated the surrender of their over-run troops, on SAC orders, in northern Shan state were tried and sentenced to death for treason.

The deployment of senior-level officials to engage with tactical level operations is usually a sign of a failed plan, a lack of confidence in the military leadership and desperation.

The 79th annual Army Day parade was significantly scaled down. With so many troops deployed across the country, the ceremony was held under the cover of darkness to hide the depleted ranks, as Min Aung Hlaing railed against foreign interference. 

Regional forces were unable to participate, leaving female-staffed units – rarely seen in the machismo Myanmar military – on parade. The Air Force, which normally does flybys for the event, appeared in comical fashion, with lights silhouetting the few airframes that they could muster.

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Myanmar soldiers march during a parade to commemorate Myanmar’s 79th Armed Forces Day, in Naypyidaw, March 27, 2024. (Aung Shine Oo/AP)

At the recent graduation ceremony of the once prestigious Defense Service Academy, well under 200 newly commissioned officers were photographed in state-controlled media; half the pre-coup graduation rate.

To make matters worse, on April 8, NUG forces lobbed five 107mm rockets into the Defense Service Academy grounds. Though they missed the barracks, a symbolic target was struck. Days later, they fired rockets into Naypyitaw’s Aye Lar airbase. 

The military is so short of manpower that it has had to rely on a pre-existing but unimplemented conscription law.

Originally supposed to go into effect in mid-April, the generals began enforcing it a month early, desperate to reach their 5,000 man monthly quota. People have taken to the hills to join the opposition, or have fled abroad. Military units are dragooning men at roadside checkpoints, while other units are frantically searching for those who are avoiding conscription, threatening two- to three-year prison sentences.

In retaliation, the NUG has stepped up their assassination of officials in charge of implementing the conscription law. Already, 37 have been gunned down.

The generals continue to be divorced from reality, but economic collapse, battlefield losses, escalating violence in the cities and drones buzzing the capital are puncturing their cocoon. 

The NUG and their allies are getting into the generals’ headspace, which is good, because panicked people do stupid things. That might be their greatest victory yet.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or Radio Free Asia.

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