Operation 1027 moves Myanmar civil war closer to a tipping point

The Three Brotherhood Alliance has rendered the military junta incapable of achieving its goals.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2024.02.27
Operation 1027 moves Myanmar civil war closer to a tipping point Arakan Army troops stand on a sunken landing craft belonging to Myanmar junta forces in Minbya township, Rakhine state, Feb. 13, 2024.
(AA Info Desk)

Feb. 27 marks four months since the launch of Operation 1027, a game-changing offensive against the Myanmar military regime by the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies in the north of the country. 

The alliance of three ethnic resistance organizations – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) – had been broadly supportive of the National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow opposition. 

But it was not formally allied with the nationwide opposition network, and until late-2023, the three rebel armies fought the Myanmar military only in self-defense. 

However, four months of Three Brotherhood attacks across the north and west of the country have rendered the military junta incapable of achieving its goals as it enters the fourth year after its February 2021 coup in a very weak situation. 

People stand in line to get visas at the Thai embassy in Yangon on Feb. 16, 2024 after Myanmar's military government said it would implement military conscription. (AFP)
People stand in line to get visas at the Thai embassy in Yangon on Feb. 16, 2024 after Myanmar's military government said it would implement military conscription. (AFP)

The State Administrative Council (SAC), as the junta is formally known, controls significantly less territory than it did prior to Oct. 27, 2023. Militarily, the junta has relied on air assaults and long-range artillery strikes, which is sufficient to terrorize unarmed civilian populations, but insufficient to hold territory. 

Junta troops continue to sow fear through acts of utter barbarity, including burning POWs alive. But the military government is unable to deliver basic social services, and healthcare and education have withered even in the regions that are still under military control. 

The junta is scrambling to reverse its losses. But manpower is an issue for the military that is spread thin across at least seven distinct battle scapes. An estimated 21,000 troops have been lost and unit-level defections are increasing.

In a sign of just how dire their manpower shortage is, on Feb. 10, the junta invoked the Conscription Law, passed in 2010 but never implemented. 

Draft sparks exodus

The SAC has announced its intention to conscript some 5,000 people a month in a policy that will affect as many as 14 million people, including all males between 18 and 35 and women between the ages of 18 and 27.

The draft for an unpopular civil war has already sparked an exodus to Thailand. In the first week, 7,000 people applied for visas and, in one instance, a stampede in front of the Thai consulate in Mandalay left two women dead.

Likewise, people are fleeing to territory controlled by the opposition NUG and ethnic resistance armies. Fleeing also entails the risk of the military dragooning people at checkpoints.

While conscription is a sign of weakness, it should also be seen as a sign of just how far the military junta will go to cling to power. 

An unexploded projectile juts from the roof of a house following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State, Feb. 4, 2024. (AFP)
An unexploded projectile juts from the roof of a house following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State, Feb. 4, 2024. (AFP)

The battlefield situation is more complex, with advances and setbacks.

Violence has declined significantly in northern Shan State, where Three Brotherhood members the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army continue to abide by a Chinese-brokered ceasefire. Both are focused on restoring social services and governance in the 16 towns they captured during Operation 1027.

The junta continues to hold the frontier trading town of Muse, but the highway to the Chinese border is now controlled by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which has allowed trade to resume, while taxing it. 

This added tax, along with skirmishes on the highway to Mandalay, has led to a significant decline in border trade. Myanmar Now reported a 20% decrease in exports to China through Muse between April 2023 and February, to $1.8 billion. In mid-February, the governor of Yunnan province traveled to Naypyidaw to discuss border issues with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Opposition tensions

Skirmishes have erupted between the junta army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group that is not bound by the ceasefire. 

But more concerning for the opposition are tensions between the KIA and TNLA. Ostensibly the ethnic armies are allies, and the TNLA was originally established with the support of the KIA. But despite formal relations, there is friction on the ground with the KIA operating in Ta’ang-dominated towns. The NUG must move quickly to resolve this fraternal dispute.

The KIA recently captured three towns in Kachin State, but has focused more on targeting isolated junta army outposts.

In Kayah State, the Karenni People’s Defense Forces and Karenni Army continue to make advances at the regime’s expense. On Feb. 15 they completed their takeover of Shadaw, leaving little left in Kayah under junta control.

Debris lies scattered around a damaged statue of Buddha following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State, Feb. 4, 2024. (AFP)
Debris lies scattered around a damaged statue of Buddha following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State, Feb. 4, 2024. (AFP)

Sensing military weakness, some ethnic armies are bandwagoning with the NUG in areas that have not experienced much violence. In Mon state, there was a rift within the junta-affiliated Mon State Army, with younger members aligning themselves with the NUG. 

Amid a ceasefire in northern Shan state, fighting has spread to southern Shan state, where small pro-junta ethnic armies are increasingly vulnerable without military support.

The Arakan Army’s offensive in Rakhine has been the most consequential. It now controls five of 17 townships – Pauktaw, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, and Myebon – in addition to the river transport hub of Paletwa in neighboring Chin state, leaving the juntA in control of only three Rakhine towns.

Nine townships around the port of Kyaukphyu – in particular, Rathedaung, Ramree, and Maungdaw – are being contested and have seen intensified air assaults. The military restricted boat traffic and blocked air travel as people sought to flee the Rakhine state capital Sittwe. 

Humiliating junta setbacks

The AA sunk or captured four naval vessels. While not warships, these landing craft are essential for military troop movements, especially as the AA consolidates power along Rakhine’s roadways.

Since Operation 1027 began, the military has only recaptured one of the nearly 30 towns it lost. 

The junta experienced a humiliating setback in Kawlin, Sagaing, the first of the 330 townships that opposition People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) captured. 

In a blow that carries heavy symbolism because it happened in the ethnic majority Bamar heartland, the NUG took control of five banks in Kawlin, appropriating 44 billion kyat (US$20.9 million) for the revolution.

The military amassed 1,000 troops and militiamen and used air assets and artillery to bomb defensive positions. After two weeks of fighting, the army retook the city. For days, satellite photographs showed large swaths of the town being burned in retribution. 

Protesters step on images of Myanmar junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on Feb. 1, 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)
Protesters step on images of Myanmar junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on Feb. 1, 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

The military views losses in Shan, Rakhine or Chin States as temporary setbacks that can be dealt with at a later time. Restoring control over the Bamar heartland remains their priority.

Despite the loss of Kawlin, the NUG continues to control three smaller towns in Sagaing, and is trying to implement a “people’s administrative system” based on recruiting former staff who have joined the civil disobedience movement. 

Surprisingly, the junta has hung together despite the setbacks. A series of dismissals and arrests of senior officers that began in late 2023 as the leadership hunted for scapegoats for military failure has not resulted in revolt or generals searching for an exit.

 

Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Soe Win still have their jobs. In part, their purges have kept others off guard. But it could be that no one else wants the job: If the SAC is going down in flames, better that Min Aung Hlaing be the pilot.

Tipping point lies ahead

The opposition still has a lot of work to do. Resources remain tight for the NUG. Funds long promised by western governments, including the U.S., have not materialized. And they now have more territory to administer.

The NUG has taken advantage of the military’s reversals, and stepped up their diplomatic and lobbying efforts, including high profile meetings around the Munich Security Conference. 

But the international community continues to withhold recognition of the NUG or has not given them adequate support, while still engaging the military regime.

Bangladesh authorities escort Myanmar nationals and Border Guard Police personnel, who fled into Bangladesh to seek shelter, back to their country by boat at Cox's Bazar on Feb. 15, 2024. (AFP)
Bangladesh authorities escort Myanmar nationals and Border Guard Police personnel, who fled into Bangladesh to seek shelter, back to their country by boat at Cox's Bazar on Feb. 15, 2024. (AFP)

Bangladesh returned some 370 soldiers, policemen, and other civilians who had fled across the border in an utterly humiliating ceremony. Although Dhaka continues to work with Naypyidaw, they’re still bitter about the 2017 pogroms against the Rohingya, which drove one million refugees into Bangladesh, where a crisis festers. They enjoy rubbing salt in the junta’s wounds.

Thailand announced the opening of an ASEAN humanitarian corridor to the border, but this should be viewed with significant skepticism. At the very least it should not be seen as a shift in Thai policy. Prime Minister Srettha Thavsin continues to engage the junta and has pushed ASEAN to do so as well.

ASEAN still sees the military regime as having a seat at the table in any negotiated settlement. However, neither the NUG nor their ethnic army partners do. And with their continued success on the battlefield, they are looking for the unconditional surrender of the military.

They’re not at a tipping point yet, but Operation 1027 has given the opposition forces the upper hand, and the campaign has put victory well out of the hands of the military.

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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