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31 May 2023

Lower Myanmar: urban guerrillas and new patterns of resistance

Once-peaceful areas in lower Myanmar are home to a new cast of conflict actors waging urban guerrilla warfare against the junta and its allies. Given the strategic importance of Yangon and Naypyidaw, the course of the conflict in lower Myanmar will be critical for the resistance. Yet it is unclear if anti-SAC forces can move beyond creating confusion and disorder in urban areas to shape a decisive outcome for the resistance.

By Nicola Williams
Graphics by Allan Pooley
Edited by Aaron Connelly and Morgan Michaels
Protesters attempt to resist an assault by security forces in Thaketa Township, Yangon, 28 March 2021
Protesters attempt to resist an assault by security forces in Thaketa Township, Yangon, 28 March 2021 (Photo: Mar Naw)

An armed resistance

Unlike in previous eras of military rule, when the Bamar heartland remained unaffected by insurgencies plaguing Myanmar’s frontier areas, today the country’s interior is a conflict zone. The expanded battlefield features new irregular forces waging a frontless conflict against the junta and its supporters in urban areas of lower Myanmar.

While Yangon was the site of coups in 1962 and 1988 and uprisings in 1988 and 2007, the region and surrounding areas have remained relatively peaceful in recent decades. Armed groups such as the Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Union have not been present in areas surrounding the Bago Yoma since the 1970s.

The February 2021 coup catalysed waves of peaceful protests throughout the streets of Yangon, Naypyidaw, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions. Initially, the response from the military and the police consisted of internet and social-media blackouts, curfews and restrictions on peaceful assembly, and the use of water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters. One week after the protests began, a young female participant was shot in the back by security forces in Naypyidaw, becoming the first protester to die.

The use of lethal force subsequently increased, with the security forces deploying live ammunition and grenades, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators. Force has been used against protesters in lower Myanmar in more than 250 separate instances since the coup, with the greatest number in Yangon. One of the bloodiest days for protesters – particularly in Yangon and Bago – was 27 March 2021, Armed Forces Day in Myanmar, when over 160 people were killed. These events led many peaceful protesters and young people to turn to armed violence as a new form of resistance.

New conflict dynamics across Yangon and surrounding areas feature urban guerrilla warfare. Anti-junta groups are operating in the shadows, carrying out hit-and-run attacks, targeted assassinations, ambushes, remote bombings and a small number of rocket attacks. More than 2,770 reports of violence have been recorded in over 100 townships across Yangon, Naypyidaw, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions since the February 2021 coup. More than 1,100 of these incidents involved IEDs, while another 1,072 were armed clashes – including those involving the Myanmar military and the police against People's Defence Forces (PDFs) and independent local forces.

While the lower-Myanmar warscape accounts for only about 13% of the total reports of violence nationwide, it has registered the highest number of arrests and detentions of the junta's opponents, and the most frequent passing of death sentences as an attempted deterrent, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). By comparison, the Dry Zone accounts for about 30% and the southeast about 20% of reports of violence. The intensity of conflict is much higher in the Dry Zone and the southeast, with more frequent airstrikes by the military and the use of mortars, rockets and large artillery pieces.

Violent events by warscape since the coup
1 Feb 2021 to 30 Apr 2023
Violent events by warscape since the coupDry ZoneSoutheastNortheastNorthwestLowerRakhine020004000600066844340382434752871462
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Timeline

Jul ’20
Feb ’21
(coup)
2022
2023
Jan ’24
Legend
Attack/armed clash
Remote explosives/IEDs
Air/drone strike
Crackdowns
Infrastructure destruction

Young members of a neighbourhood 'defence team' in Thaketa Township
Young members of a neighbourhood 'defence team' in Thaketa Township, Yangon, 28 March 2021. Formed by protesters during the crackdown by security forces after the coup, the defence teams later evolved into the People's Defence Forces. (Photo: Mar Naw).

The new cast of conflict actors

Resistance to the military coup is expanding Myanmar’s complex typology of conflict actors. Post-coup conflict actors can broadly be categorised as State Administration Council (SAC) forces and their proxies, ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), and anti-SAC forces. Hundreds of anti-SAC local defence forces are strewn across the country, with by far the highest density of urban groups in Yangon. While some of them emerged as early as April 2021 in Yangon in the wake of the military crackdown, many but not all groups declared alignment with the National Unity Government (NUG) soon after it announced an uprising and the formation of PDFs in September 2021. As of October 2022, the NUG and its allies claimed to have around 300 PDF battalions nationwide, each with 200–500 members. The most well-armed PDFs are in the southeast, working with EAOs. Across the country as a whole however, most members of the resistance forces have not been supplied with a weapon.

New conflict actors resisting the junta’s rule in lower Myanmar are primarily young people engaged in political violence for the first time, having witnessed military and police brutality

New conflict actors resisting the junta’s rule in lower Myanmar are primarily young people engaged in political violence for the first time, having witnessed military and police brutality. Some travelled to ‘liberated’ EAO strongholds for combat training, returning with new skills in using small arms and explosives for carrying out guerrilla attacks. Sources close to resistance groups in Yangon report that because many young people have been captured and imprisoned returning from ethnic areas, guerrillas are increasingly opting to develop skills through online material and tutorials. They are also procuring IEDs through local underground markets.

Burma People's Liberation Army recruits training
Burma People's Liberation Army recruits train in an area controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army's Brigade 5, 21 April 2023 (Photo: Mar Naw)

There are numerous self-styled anti-junta guerrilla groups across lower Myanmar, with names such as the Civil Guerrilla Force–Yangon, the Anti-Coup People’s Liberation Force, From Zero to Hero, and the South Dagon Guerrilla Force. The majority of small independent groups have carried out no more than three separate attacks since the coup, while the most active groups have carried out at least 20. Many attacks against SAC targets, particularly in Yangon, have not been claimed by any guerrilla group.

The relationships between anti-junta PDFs and independent local forces in lower Myanmar are complex, and they compete for popular support. According to sources on the ground, most groups in Yangon and other parts of lower Myanmar claim alignment with the NUG and are likely to have greater success in raising funds from local populations than groups working entirely independently. For many resistance groups, however, the NUG neither offers resources nor provides leadership in developing guerrilla strategies.

The weaponry of most resistance groups in lower Myanmar consists mainly of crude IEDs, low-quality small arms, and bladed weapons

Given the NUG’s sparse resources for armed resistance, urban PDFs operating in military strongholds have often found that their requests for arms and funds cannot be met. The weaponry of most resistance groups in lower Myanmar consists mainly of crude IEDs, low-quality small arms, and bladed weapons. In warscapes where the junta is weaker and the EAO presence is stronger, such as the southeast, PDFs are deploying higher-level technology, including militarised drones.

There have been some efforts by resistance groups to create coalitions rather than compete. One example is the NUG’s urban operation Nan Htike Aung (roughly meaning ‘Triumph for the Throne’), which from April to October 2022 brought together PDFs in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago and Tanintharyi regions, as well as Mon State. The NUG claims the operation involved 220 attacks and killed 227 junta personnel. In May 2022, 14 urban guerrilla groups in Yangon formed an alliance called the Yangon Underground Association, with apparent links to the NUG, to increase their attacks on the military regime. Urban guerrilla groups also often work in partnerships to carry out attacks in more than one location. In Naypyidaw, where around eight guerrilla groups have been operational since the coup, groups aligned with the NUG collaborate in a highly challenging security environment, according to local sources.

Urban guerrilla warfare dynamics

Given the strategic importance of the nation’s economic hub, Yangon, and capital, Naypyidaw, for the revolutionary goals of the NUG and allied groups, how the conflict develops in lower Myanmar is critical for shaping war outcomes.

While many urban groups operate independently, the NUG is trying to bring independent resistance forces under its code of conduct

Unlike in some other countries affected by conflict, Myanmar’s transition to urban guerrilla warfare has not seen insurgents emerge from rural and often mountainous areas into cities to fight strategic battles. Instead, new conflict actors in the cities and towns of lower Myanmar tend to be residents of those same urban areas. Support for these groups from EAOs in more rural areas has been limited, given the saturated security environment. While many urban groups operate independently, the NUG is trying to bring independent resistance forces under its code of conduct.

Compared to the joint political and operational activity by anti-SAC groups – including EAOs and PDFs – in the southeast to the northwest, the anti-SAC forces in lower Myanmar are more fragmented. They also possess fewer resources. Whether PDFs and independent groups can eventually create a cellular system to carry out larger-scale and more closely coordinated campaigns will be critical to their success. Small independent groups that separately carry out only a handful of attacks may reduce the junta’s ability to govern but they will not gain territorial control of key sites and cities. Partnerships between conflict actors in lower Myanmar and strong PDFs and EAOs in neighbouring warscapes are also vital for improving access to resources and weapons supply chains, and potentially for hemming in the SAC.

The tactics most frequently used by urban guerrillas in lower Myanmar include IEDs placed near local administration offices, military infrastructure and police stations. Other attempts to unnerve the SAC include blanket death threats issued to affiliates of the junta, and assassinations of representatives of the military’s proxy political party, police officers, employees of military-owned companies, retired senior military officers, and township and ward administrators accused of acting as informants (dalan). In both Yangon and Bago there have been several coordinated attacks on military convoys using remote-controlled explosives, killing or injuring military and police personnel.


Of all the regions in lower Myanmar, Yangon Region has by far the highest number of urban guerrillas and had by far the most reports of violence between the February 2021 coup and March 2023 – more than 1,700. The majority took place in the eastern townships, but with significant activity also in the north and west of the region. The frequency of incidents peaked in late 2021. Since the capture of many operatives and leaders of urban resistance groups by the junta in 2022, there has been a decrease in attacks in the region.

Bago Region was a hotbed of protests after the coup and it is also home to several resistance groups, with some PDFs receiving training and equipment from the Karen National Union (KNU), which operates in the rural eastern areas of Bago. There have been more than 570 reports of violence in the region in the last two years, including several airstrikes against the KNU in Taungoo district south of Naypyidaw.

According to Frontier Myanmar, resistance activity has been increasing in Bago since January 2023, with PDFs working to seize a strategic corridor that could link resistance strongholds in northern Myanmar to the Karen Hills and KNU strongholds in the east. How anti-SAC groups fare against the military in the likely battle for control over this territory has tactical and strategic implications.

The military's stronghold and Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, has experienced a smaller number of attacks since the armed uprising began but is not impervious to urban guerrillas. Around 75 reports of violence have been recorded there since the coup – including crackdowns against protesters, and PDF or guerrilla groups attacking military targets. According to a local source, following the death of a resistance member in 2022, some operations moved into neighbouring Kayah State. To contain the threat of anti-junta forces near the capital, the military is also active in Kayah State, where the Karenni Army, the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), is training and equipping PDFs.

Ayeyarwady Region, which is further away from the reach of EAOs, has less resistance activity than Bago but more than Naypyidaw, with over 400 reported incidents of violence since the coup. Many of these reports concerned the military and police acting against civilians and protesters, or attacks or remote bombings by anti-SAC groups – including PDFs and local defence forces – operating in the area. Most anti-junta activity occurred soon after the coup; since then, the region has been relatively quiet.

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Violent events in Lower Myanmar since the coup
1 Feb 2021 to 30 Apr 2023
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  • Attack/armed clash
  • Remote explosives/IEDs
  • Air/drone strike
  • Crackdowns
  • Infrastructure destruction

Across lower Myanmar, PDFs and local guerrilla groups have proved they can generate disorder and confusion for the junta’s forces. In 2021, new resistance groups were joining the conflict more quickly than the junta could capture and imprison armed actors.

However, anti-junta groups operating in this challenging security environment have faced significant setbacks, with infiltration campaigns by the junta’s 1st Military Intelligence Corps leading to the capture of many urban operatives, particularly in Yangon. The junta’s ability to penetrate resistance forces highlights the need for groups to improve counter-intelligence and selective information sharing, potentially through a firewalled cellular system that is compartmentalised to buttress organisational and individual security, if they want to advance their goals in this challenging security environment.

At present, fragmented resistance forces in lower Myanmar are able to reduce the ability of the military and the police to operate offensively, and can make it more difficult for the SAC regime to rule on its own terms

This type of cellular system could also be used for more coordinated and integrated campaigns by PDFs and independent forces. At present, fragmented resistance forces in lower Myanmar are able to reduce the ability of the military and the police to operate offensively, and can make it more difficult for the SAC regime to rule on its own terms. However, larger-scale and more coordinated operations will be needed for the resistance to achieve more strategically important outcomes.

A new threat environment for the junta

To exert control over the population of lower Myanmar, the SAC is deploying the established strategies of Myanmar’s earlier juntas – coercion through governmental functions and violence. Yet the proliferation of urban guerrillas and attacks in areas that have long been Tatmadaw strongholds is reordering the security environment for the military, while constraining the SAC’s capacity to run its administration.

The military has also imposed lengthy periods of martial law in many townships in lower Myanmar, either when facing specific threats or to protect strategic sites

Given the strategic importance of cities in lower Myanmar, the junta has increased surveillance and intelligence activity, launching operations to infiltrate resistance movements and mobilising pro-junta pyusawhti militias. The pyusawhti provide armed support on the ground, intelligence, and local knowledge. Efforts to infiltrate resistance groups – according to a leaked classified document – include strategies to create fake PDFs and local defence forces, leading to significant intelligence victories and the capture of operatives. The military has also imposed lengthy periods of martial law in many townships in lower Myanmar, either when facing specific threats or to protect strategic sites.

The junta’s siege mentality is visible in the militarisation of cities, including Yangon and Naypyidaw. During periods of heightened security, sources on the ground have said that police and soldiers in armoured vehicles regularly carry out patrols. At night, curfews are imposed and homes are frequently raided. Cordons and search operations block key roads where attacks have previously taken place against traffic police and other security personnel. In Naypyidaw, where the junta is strongest, new checkpoints and bunkers next to police stations have been built since late 2021. As motorists enter the capital, police and soldiers guard numerous checkpoints and major intersections, checking identification documents and sometimes searching vehicles.

Civil servants under the SAC continue to experience insecurity and threats from resistance groups. In Yangon, SAC government offices are often barricaded with cement walls and sandbags, and watched over by police. According to local sources, some officials now work discreetly at premises without government signs. This security environment – along with boycotts by resistance groups – is constraining the SAC’s ability to provide basic administration, collect taxes and recruit civil-service personnel.

To suppress support for the resistance in lower Myanmar, the junta is gradually increasing its coercive activity and use of violence against the population. Its actions include internet blackouts aimed at preventing anti-junta mobilisation online, and in urban areas random searches of young people’s mobile phones, looking for pictures, texts, Facebook likes or any other sign of support for the NUG. By confiscating property from landlords found to be renting to urban guerrillas, the junta is also making it more difficult for urban operatives to create safe houses. These strategies aim to deny resistance forces access to a population potentially sympathetic to their cause.

Since the coup, some 150 people have been sentenced to death, with the largest number in Yangon

As of March 2023, Yangon was home to almost a quarter of the 20,942 people who had been forcibly detained since the coup. These include teachers and healthcare workers who joined the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement and refused to go back to work and now face lengthy prison sentences. The SAC is also using the death penalty for the first time in decades against political opponents. Since the coup, some 150 people have been sentenced to death, with the largest number in Yangon. Scores of other political opponents and activists captured by the junta have died in custody after being tortured during interrogations.

Such violence will probably pacify some of the population but also push more young people to join the resistance, feeling they have no other way of achieving political change. Urban guerrilla groups will likely need these new recruits if they are to rebuild and advance their revolutionary goals in key areas such as Yangon and Naypyidaw.

How the conflict develops in the lower Myanmar warscape will determine if anti-SAC forces can achieve their aim of bringing down the junta. The resistance groups in these regions face the constant challenge of a frontless battleground, with the junta’s intelligence operations stronger there than anywhere else in the country. The fact that these groups are highly fragmented also remains a challenge for the NUG, which has struggled to equip and coordinate its supporters in lower Myanmar. It is unclear if anti-junta PDFs and independent forces can move beyond creating disorder to come together and shape a decisive outcome.


Nicola Williams is a PhD Scholar at the Australian National University (ANU)’s Crawford School of Public Policy and an ANU Myanmar Research Centre board member. She has 14 years of experience in international development specialising in conflict, peacebuilding, and governance, mainly in South and Southeast Asia.