Myanmar military strength likely half of current estimates: USIP scholar

Desertions and defections have weakened the army, suggesting that junta victory is not assumed.
RFA Burmese
Myanmar military strength likely half of current estimates: USIP scholar Soldiers march during a parade to commemorate Myanmar's 78th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2023.
Associated Press

The size of Myanmar’s military has been drastically overestimated by the international community, a U.S.-based think tank said Friday, suggesting that its victory over the country’s armed opposition is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Estimates prior to the Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat put the headcount of Myanmar’s military, an opaque entity also known as the Tatmadaw, at 300,000-400,000. But an analysis published Friday by the U.S. Institute of Peace, or USIP, asserts that the estimates are based on “undependable data” and posits that the current number is “almost certainly no more than half the historical benchmark.”

Ye Myo Hein, a visiting scholar at the USIP in Washington, concludes that the military currently has about 150,000 personnel, including roughly 70,000 who serve as combat soldiers, while at least 21,000 service members have been lost through casualties, desertions and defection since the coup. 

The estimates are based on interviews with deserters and defectors, internal directives, historical records of troop movements and sizes, and casualty counts from primary conflict data and military hospital records.

“At this troop level, the Sit-Tat is barely able to sustain itself as a fighting force, much less a government,” Ye Myo Hein said, using another name for Myanmar’s armed forces.

With only a fraction of the country’s military serving as combat soldiers, Ye Myo Hein said it should no longer be assumed that the junta will overcome the resistance and consolidate its rule.

“Therefore, the international community should stop engaging with the junta as if it is bound to win and the only relevant player in achieving stability,” he said.

Ye Myo Hein said that such engagement only “bolsters the generals’ delusion” that they will wipe out the opposition and “delays the time until the junta comes to the table” to negotiate.

Defections, desertions

Not only is the size of the military smaller than previously thought, the author said, but the post-coup rebellion is “exacerbating the shortfall in combat forces.”

Ye Myo Hein said that lagging recruitment, defections and desertions are devastating the military. He cited sources as estimating that some 10,000 military personnel and police have gone over to the resistance, while the shadow National Unity Government puts the number at more than 12,300. Some 8,000 troops are believed to have defected or deserted since the coup.

Although estimates vary, the NUG believes that around 20,000 junta combat troops have been killed since the coup, while analysts say that those killed or badly wounded over the past two years number between 10,000 and 15,000.

Meanwhile, Ye Myo Hein said, the military is actively working to conceal and falsify data about its numbers “at all levels,” further complicating any efforts at determining the institution’s strength.

Kaung Thu Win, who said he served as a captain in Myanmar's military before defecting in December 2021, shows a photograph of himself wearing an army uniform on his mobile phone, during an interview in northeastern India, Jan. 21, 2022. Credit: Reuters

Friday’s analysis cited a former adjutant officer in the military who acknowledged that his primary duties involved falsifying data on deserters from his battalion, prior to his defection. He said the number of deserters was so high that his battalion commander asked him not to submit the full list, lest he face charges or lose his chance for promotion.

“The frequency of data tampering was so high that even I was confused about the actual military strength of my battalion,” he was quoted as saying.

As a result of the dwindling numbers, Myanmar’s generals have been forced to play a game of military “whack-a-mole” with resources, reassigning support corps and other inexperienced personnel to the front lines, often with disastrous results. The military has also increasingly relied on air operations to make up for growing losses on the ground, leading to widespread destruction and civilian deaths.

Ye Myo Hein said that Myanmar’s military is now “in its weakest and most vulnerable position,” adding that what remains of its “mirage of strength” is rapidly disintegrating in the face of the resistance and “unprecedented public hatred.”

“It is high time for the international community, particularly those in the region of Myanmar, to take a hard look at assumptions about the Sit-Tat’s strength, recognize that the emperor has no clothes, and recalibrate their approach to this conflict,” he said.

Military bases under attack

Friday’s analysis came days after the NUG’s ministry of defense claimed that anti-junta forces had attacked the military’s regional headquarters, bases and camps at least 70 times in the first four months of 2023 alone. Of those attacks, 44 were successful, the ministry said.

NUG Secretary of Defense Naing Htoo Aung told RFA Burmese that such attacks are not intended to take control of bases, but to “destroy them or have a psychological impact on the junta’s troops.”

In one such attack, a combined force of area People’s Defense Force paramilitaries launched a raid on a police outpost in Magway region’s Kan village on March 31, in which the anti-junta fighters seized 75% of the outpost before the military sent reinforcements, forcing them to retreat.

An official with the PDF in Gangaw township, where Kan is located, told RFA that the outpost in the village was the junta’s “strongest base” in the region.

“Since we’ve already raided it, attacking the other two small police outposts in the town will be a piece of cake for us,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing security concerns. “We’re no longer afraid of airstrikes [when we raid them] because if they attack their outposts, their men will be killed too.”

The PDF official claimed that as many as 40 junta troops were killed during the raid, while only two members of the resistance groups were killed and nine injured. RFA was unable to independently verify the claims.

Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment on the raids of military bases went unanswered.

Further raids expected

Political analyst Than Soe Naing said that the NUG hopes to change the balance of the military dynamic in Myanmar this year and suggested that there will be more raids by armed resistance groups on such strategic targets going forward.

“From such raids, the anti-regime armed groups can gain more territory from which to stage further military activities,” he said. “I expect there will be more attacks [on junta bases] because [the resistance] can seize badly needed arms and ammunition during those raids.”

In its second anniversary report on May 3, the NUG claimed that anti-junta forces have killed more than 30,000 junta soldiers and wounded more than 10,000 others since the coup.

According to the report, more than 300 regiments of local defense forces have been formed in more than 250 townships across the country.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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