The Dry Zone: an existential struggle in central Myanmar
The Dry Zone demonstrates how the coup has mobilised civilians untouched by armed insurgencies in recent decades. The emergence of People’s Defence Force (PDF) units and Pyusawhti militia are fundamentally reshaping social dynamics in Myanmar’s historic heartland.
Graphics by Brody Smith
Most pre-colonial Burmese kingdoms ruled from Myanmar’s central plains. Here, the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers course through a semi-arid landscape, populated mostly by farmers. With its predominantly Buddhist-Bamar population, the Dry Zone is often described as Myanmar’s historic heartland. Before the 2021 coup, the Dry Zone was spared the armed violence that has afflicted most of Myanmar since its independence in 1948. Ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) did not maintain a regular presence here, and in response, the Myanmar military overlooked the area. Unlike in Myanmar’s embattled borderlands, the Tatmadaw lacked the experience, bases and intelligence necessary for offensive operations in the Dry Zone. But the Dry Zone was not an idyllic backwater. Locals’ frustrations simmered over land grabs, failed agricultural policies and rapacious resource extraction, often to the benefit of military-linked companies and Chinese firms. Bringing these tensions to the surface, the coup triggered widespread violence in the Dry Zone.
Conflict is hardly without precedent in Myanmar’s modern history: since the 1950s, tens of thousands of people in Myanmar’s ethnic areas have been killed in the Tatmadaw’s counter-insurgency campaigns. But what is striking about the Dry Zone is a precipitous uptick in violence since the coup, which abruptly dissolved the lines between civilian and combatant. Armed conflict on this scale has not occurred in the Dry Zone, nor among Myanmar’s Buddhist-Bamar population, since the country’s independence. Its effects reverberate throughout households and communities, making any possibility of a return to the terse quietude of the status quo ante increasingly remote.
Civilians become combatants
In the absence of EAOs, the aims of conflict actors in the Dry Zone are relatively straightforward: to sustain the coup or overturn it. Besides the Tatmadaw, two armed actors are significant here – Pyusawhti and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs). Both comprise previously unarmed civilians who banded together for self-protection. The State Administration Council (SAC) military government then armed Pyusawhti, and the opposing National Unity Government (NUG) armed some – but not all – PDFs. Both sides are locked into a war with existential stakes that has resulted in widespread damage to civilian lives, built infrastructure and long-established social ties.
The Tatmadaw seeks to mitigate its lack of combat experience in the Dry Zone with Pyusawhti, which are irregular forces composed of pro-regime civilians. Named after an ancient Burmese warrior king, the SAC offers Pyusawhti daily wages, shelter, basic weaponry and brief stints of military training. Leaked SAC documents indicate that there are at least 77 pro-SAC militias in the Dry Zone alone. Unlike previous militias formed to support Tatmadaw operations in ethnic areas, Pyusawhti formed from the ground-up, out of groups of Buddhist nationalists, members of the Tatmadaw-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party and army veterans organised into self-protection networks. And while the Tatmadaw – equipped with heavy weaponry, armoured vehicles and aircraft – is responsible for the brunt of armed violence against PDFs and civilians, the emergence of Pyusawhti has had a profound influence on social organisation by turning civilians against one another. Villages had housed diverse political affiliations before the coup. Now, the Dry Zone is organised into a majority of anti-SAC villages, with a small number of villages supporting the regime. Neutrality is not possible in this landscape.
PDFs are essentially local guerrilla forces, also formed from the ground-up. They first emerged in the Dry Zone in April 2021, when crackdowns against protesters were at their zenith. So far, PDFs have used three main tactics to wear down the SAC: bombings with improvised explosive devices, targeted assassinations and ambushes on military convoys. Their targets are not just soldiers, but assets or people affiliated with the junta, including SAC-appointed village administrators, suspected informants and Pyusawhti members. Up to 31 May 2022, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) data recorded PDFs in the Dry Zone – comprising nearly half of all PDFs active in Myanmar – each with distinct names. Their varied names reflect the organic emergence of individual cells. Some pay heed to aspirations for federal democracy (‘Federal Liberation Army’; ‘United Democratic Force’), places of origin (‘Monywa Heroes Group’; ‘People’s Defence Force – South Monywa’), or something else altogether (e.g., ‘Big Beautiful Hearted Hoodlums’; ‘Dragon Warrior’). Moreover, some PDFs are involved in only one event – often IED attacks on SAC-linked assets – while others have consistently attacked SAC targets over months. Sometimes, PDFs work alone; others work only in concert with five or more other PDFs.
Regardless, more than a year into the conflict, the IISS Myanmar Conflict Map shows that the SAC has failed to hold ground in the Dry Zone. Rather than acquiesce, PDFs have adapted successfully: whereas early engagements lasted a few minutes, hours-long battles are becoming increasingly common. The PDFs’ campaign against the SAC could go in two different directions.
On one hand, if PDFs improve their battlefield tactics and coordination with one another, they could become a more persistent and possibly fatal thorn in the SAC’s side. Some PDFs are already forming lasting coalitions with one another. The NUG and EAOs also have key roles to play in this process. The NUG formed the Central Command and Coordination Committee (C3C) in October 2021, to work towards a centralised command structure for PDFs and allied EAOs. The Wilson Center’s Ye Myo Hein assesses that C3C remains a ‘work in progress’, although its establishment has allowed for better cooperation between various anti-junta forces. He also claims that 75% of PDFs have been linked to the NUG as of May 2022 – up from 40% in November 2021 – although these links do not imply a centralised chain of command.
On the other hand, the PDFs’ survival depends on their access to weapons, supplies, and recruits. Ye Myo Hein estimates that small arms procured by the NUG and EAOs for PDFs represent only 20–25% of the weapons they need. Some PDFs have expressed frustration towards the NUG with the slow pace of the armament effort. To fill the gap, PDFs sometimes manufacture their own weapons, most of which are rudimentary, although PDFs are innovating, having thus far developed 3D-printed guns and rigged civilian drones to carry bombs. Despite supply issues, Dry Zone PDFs have maintained a high tempo of operations.
The conflict is now existential
The Tatmadaw’s tactics have evolved since the coup, reflecting its inability to stamp out resistance forces …
According to data from ACLED, in May 2021, when PDFs were first gaining traction in the Dry Zone, the Tatmadaw primarily deployed live fire.
The Tatmadaw’s scorched-earth campaigns mark a new phase of conflict in the Dry Zone; one in which the boundaries between civilian and combatant are not just blurred but dismantled. Previously, individuals picked up arms to join Pyusawhti and the PDFs, who then attacked other individuals suspected of links to the opposing side. But in torching homes, the Tatmadaw targets entire communities for abetting the resistance. This tactic mirrors the Tatmadaw’s ‘four cuts’ counter-insurgency campaigns against EAOs in the 1980s and 1990s, through which it sought to sever links between EAOs and their sources of recruits, intelligence, funding and food. ‘For the Tatmadaw’, the historian Martin Smith wrote in 1999, ‘there is no such thing as an innocent or neutral villager. Every community must fight, flee, or join the Tatmadaw’. Today, villagers in the Dry Zone have organised themselves along pro-SAC and anti-SAC lines and the Tatmadaw has driven an irrevocable wedge between these camps.
The SAC’s use of communications blackouts in the Dry Zone is unusual and revealing. To date, the Tatmadaw has instituted communications blackouts against only one EAO: the Arakan Army (AA), its formidable opponent in Rakhine between 2018 and 2020. At the time, amidst two years of intense fighting, the Tatmadaw deemed the AA not an EAO – a term that accords armed groups a limited degree of legitimacy – but as a terrorist organisation, with which it refused to negotiate. In June 2019, the Tatmadaw ordered internet cuts in eight townships claimed by the AA. This blackout persisted until the AA–Tatmadaw informal ceasefire in late 2020. Likewise, the SAC now deems PDFs ‘terrorists’; beyond the pale of dialogue and negotiation. PDFs were thus excluded from the SAC’s invitations to peace talks in May 2022; the same month in which the Tatmadaw reportedly torched 1,000 homes in the first week alone. With ‘terrorists’, the SAC does not deal in words, but in counter-insurgency tactics which seek to stamp out resistance forces and the social networks in which they are embedded.
The existential stakes of the current conflict are clear in the Dry Zone. The SAC vowed to ‘annihilate’ PDFs and their supporters ‘to the end’, according to the official translation of one of Min Aung Hlaing’s speeches. While it is unclear if Tatmadaw soldiers and Pyusawhti members adopt this rhetoric, research by the International Crisis Group indicates that Pyusawhti members banded together because they feared for their safety, in a context where resistance forces targeted whomever is suspected of links with the junta. The Crisis Group also reports that morale is low among foot soldiers in the Dry Zone, who are fighting in their native regions for the first time.
Much depends on whether the NUG and allied EAOs can offer deserting SAC forces and their families a viable alternative to the ideological allure and ontological security which the regime promises. The NUG stepped up its rewards for defectors in April 2022. It is not clear yet if this move will grow a small but steady stream of defections. For their part, PDF members quoted in the media cite an opposing drive to ‘fight against this military dictatorship to the end’ – in the words of a farmer interviewed by Reuters. Myanmar’s heartland is in turmoil, and all signs – torched homes, a polarised population and the existential stakes of the ongoing war – point towards the impossibility of it returning to a pre-coup past.
Calls for restraint go unanswered
From this vantage point, the international community’s responses to the coup seem out of touch with ground realities, and may even inflame the resistance’s sense that they are misunderstood. In November 2021, the United Nations Security Council called for an ‘immediate cessation of violence’ and ‘to ensure the safety of civilians.’ ‘Restraint’ is another persistent ask, urged by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China and Japan. However, at present, neither SAC nor anti-SAC forces are open to calls for restraint, given that they are committed to the elimination of their adversaries. Furthermore, the idea that restraint will protect civilians misunderstands the grounds on which civilians participate in the conflict. Those who join Pyusawhti or PDFs see violence as a means to protect themselves, in an environment where their fears and grievances have no other outlet. PDF fighters in particular – often former protesters – are responding to frustrations suppressed for decades. For them, the February 2021 coup and subsequent crackdowns illustrated the ultimate futility of all other forms of opposition.
Before the coup, the political theorist Matthew Walton argued that the Tatmadaw legitimised its role in politics by asserting ‘unity through hegemony.’ According to Walton, by drawing on conceptions of morality within Theravada Buddhism, the Tatmadaw articulated unity in a manner that stifled dissent and positioned itself as the only institution capable of protecting the country against fractious elements. This vision of unity has positioned the Tatmadaw as guardians of the Myanmar nation against EAOs, who represent populations that were often neither Bamar nor Buddhist.
Now, however, the SAC’s actions in the Dry Zone have run contrary to the Tatmadaw’s claims to protect the nation. More than ever before, the SAC is acting as a class which stands apart from the rest of the Myanmar population – including its Bamar Buddhist majority – and is willing to preserve its grip on power at the expense of lives, livelihoods and social ties in the country’s core.