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Battle for Kayah is key for Myanmar junta and its opponents

The battle for Kayah State, which is strategically located between resistance strongholds in the Dry Zone and the southeast, is now the longest episode of sustained, relatively high-intensity combat since Myanmar’s post-coup war began.

By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published June 2023

Kayah State is home to a variety of ethnic subgroups known collectively as the Karenni. One of Myanmar’s oldest armed movements, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), agreed to ceasefires with the Myanmar military government in 2012, ushering in a decade of relative stability.

The military’s coup in February 2021, however, shattered the promise of peace and reignited the revolutionary spirit among the Karenni. Amidst a surge of anti-junta sentiment, the KNPP provided arms and training to People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) formed by Karenni youths. These PDFs later combined into the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), one of the strongest armed movements to emerge since the coup.

After a massacre, renewed fighting

In January 2022, Karenni resistance fighters responded to the Christmas Eve massacre of at least 31 civilians with a major offensive against Loikaw, the state capital of Kayah, and Demoso, the second-largest town. Though the junta repelled the attack after weeks of urban combat, a subsequent clearance operation failed to uproot Karenni units from their foothold in the surrounding countryside. Since then, the junta has struggled to cut off resistance supply lines or prevent fighters from continually threatening the state’s key strategic sites.

To break the deadlock, in March 2023 the junta launched a large-scale offensive to dislodge Karenni fighters from their strongholds. After achieving only mixed results, the junta now appears focused on seizing control of the state’s main roads and strategic junctions. Doing so would allow it to stem the flow of weapons and ammunition, as well as basic commodities on which civilians depend, such as rice and medicine. An effective blockade could eventually exhaust resistance groups and their supporters, potentially allowing the junta to impose a ceasefire before turning its attention elsewhere.

For anti-junta forces, resisting the regime’s siege and maintaining a foothold in Kayah is paramount. The state is situated at a highly strategic junction, serving as a link between resistance strongholds to the south and north and offering a potential launching pad for attacks on Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. It also offers vital connections to Thailand – a source of weapons and humanitarian supplies – as well as Shan State, where the country’s most powerful armed groups operate.

The junta surges troops into the area

In February 2023, the junta began gathering a large strike force by pulling individual battalions from its Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) and Military Operations Commands (MOCs) deployed elsewhere in Rakhine and Shan states. These units joined about 2,000 soldiers already in place, bringing the total attacking force to upwards of 5,000 troops. The military is also receiving significant assistance from an ethnic militia, the Pa-O National Army (PNA), which since the coup has worked actively to call up reserves and recruit new fighters, bringing its own strength to approximately 5,000.

Regime forces and their proxies are up against an estimated 3,000 armed KNPP fighters. While the KNDF boasts some 8,800 members, only a quarter are armed with automatic rifles. Hundreds of fighters from local PDFs are also active in the theatre.

Regime forces
10,000
Armed forces and militiamen
Flag of Myanmar Army.
Myanmar Army
5000
Flag of PNA.
PNA
5000
Resistance forces
12,100
5500 armed fighters, 6600 unarmed
Flag of KNPP.
KNPP
3000
Flag of KNDF.
KNDF
2200|6600
Flag of PDF.
PDF
300
/
= 100 personnel
* IISS estimates

Manoeuvres

 
On 9 March 2023, regime forces and their PNA proxies launched a multi-pronged offensive across Kayah State and in two townships in southern Shan State: Pekon and Pinlaung.
One of the main attacks focused on the area around Daw Ta Ma Gyi in Demoso Township, a KNPP stronghold. Supported by air and artillery power, multiple columns attacked from the north and south, destroying several villages . However, a Karenni counter-attack in late March inflicted heavy losses on the junta columns, which were forced to withdraw temporarily. Follow-up assaults in April and May also failed to drive Karenni fighters from the area.
The fighting forced tens of thousands to flee their homes and seek shelter at camps in southern Shan State. On 7 May, an ASEAN convoy was attacked en route to Hsihseng, where it was to supervise the distribution of aid to civilians displaced by the conflict in Kayah. No one was hurt.
The second primary thrust came from the west of Moe Bye Lake, on the border between Kayah State and southern Shan State, where the PNA operates. On 11 March, soldiers and militiamen massacred at least 22 villagers, including three monks, outside a monastery in Nam Nein village, Pinlaung Township.
Since early May, much of the fighting has been concentrated on the junctions and roads to the west of the lake. Some of the heaviest fighting occurred at a crossroads near the village of Hsa Long, where junta airstrikes led to both civilian and combatant casualties. On 27 May, intense fighting erupted on the outskirts of Moe Bye town, control of which is critical for defending or contesting Loikaw.
The area west of Moe Bye and Inle lakes is critical for accessing the road between Taunggyi and Kalaw, a known corridor for weapons smuggled from markets along the Chinese border to resistance forces in both the Southeast and the Dry Zone. However, operating here is difficult for Karenni forces due to the PNA’s strong presence.
A future foothold between Taunggyi and Kalaw, once an important tourist zone, could also allow Karenni fighters to link up with the Mandalay PDF, which briefly emerged along the border between Shan State and Mandalay Region before a junta offensive forced its withdrawal in May 2023. A grip on these areas would, in theory, enable the resistance to exert pressure on both Naypyidaw and Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.
Given its location, Kayah serves as a vital link along an axis of resistance stretching from the southeast, through the Dry Zone and up to the northwest. Cutting off Kayah could allow the junta to move one step closer to its goal of compartmentalising the nationwide resistance movement.
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An uncertain outlook

The junta’s ongoing offensive has involved direct assaults on fortified resistance bases and stronghold areas. In some cases, Karenni fighters have blocked or repelled advancing junta columns, inflicting high losses. The regime initially responded to these setbacks by committing more resources to the theatre to wage repeated attacks on Karenni positions and camps. It also stepped up the use of airstrikes, directing its aircraft against even minor targets.

The regime’s ground and air attacks have inflicted high costs on Karenni forces and their civilian supporters. In May, the KNDF admitted to numerous casualties, including the death of a battalion commander, and uploaded photos to social media showing funerals and widespread destruction. On 6 June, the KNDF revealed what appeared to be two Type-85 heavy machine guns that it had crowdfunded for the stated purpose of air defence. While they might be effective against low-flying helicopters, these weapons are unlikely to pose much risk to the military’s fixed-wing aircraft. Nor are they sufficient to cover the vast expanse of the battlefield.

Though under immense pressure, Karenni units have remained motivated, fighting for the defence of their families and homes. Local fighters benefit from their superior knowledge of the terrain, making it easier for them to launch surprise ambushes and escape junta attacks. Several of the main battle sites remain contested, demonstrating that Karenni fighters have managed to stay in the fight and retain their presence in key areas.

Yet the ultimate outcome of the battle may not hinge entirely on the tactical prowess of either side. Most of Kayah State’s population is already displaced and in urgent need of assistance, with reports from the ground indicating a severe shortage of food and medicine. Whether the Karenni resistance can sustain the fight will depend, in large part, on its ability to see the population through a worsening humanitarian crisis.


Summary of events occurring between 01 May 2023 and 31 May 2023.
Events
619
Townships
129
Actors
316
Events by type
Attack/armed clash
398
Remote explosives/IEDs
89
Air/drone strike
71
Infrastructure destruction
61
Crackdowns
0
Events by warscape
Southeast
193
Dry Zone
172
Northwest
100
Northeast
92
Lower Myanmar
61
Rakhine
1
All violent events occuring in Myanmar between 01 May 2023 and 31 May 2023.
Attack/armed clash
Remote explosives/IEDs
Air/drone strike
Crackdowns
Infrastructure destruction
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All violent events occuring in Myanmar between 01 May 2023 and 31 May 2023. Data source: ACLED.
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