Myanmar conflict update
Junta tactics shift in Myanmar’s war-torn Dry Zone
To counter the rise of new armed groups, the junta and its proxies have razed an estimated 53,000 civilian homes across Myanmar’s Dry Zone, the epicentre of the resistance movement. Beginning in 2023, however, junta forces appeared to shift tactics, launching a more-direct assault on resistance groups.
By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published July 2023
In response to the Myanmar military’s violent repression of anti-coup protests in February and March 2021, thousands of people organised themselves into units that later came to be known as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs). The epicentre of the PDF movement is Myanmar’s central Dry Zone, where a myriad of local resistance outfits, armed primarily with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and homemade rifles, are fighting the junta and its proxies.
To confront these new threats, the junta waged a campaign between mid-2021 and early 2023 based primarily on indiscriminate violence and scorched-earth tactics. In recent months, however, the junta has become increasingly selective in identifying targets while escalating the level of violence during its raids and other attacks.
A failure to contain
In the first two years of the armed uprising, the junta did not insert any sizeable assault force into the Dry Zone to confront the growing PDF movement. Spread thinly, a small number of units already in place focused on guarding wide areas, reacting to PDF attacks with raids on nearby villages. Burdened by a lack of intelligence and the constant threat of roadside ambush, junta forces struggled to identify, seek out and destroy new resistance outfits. With very few resources available to them, PDFs nevertheless were unable to take advantage of the junta’s missteps, leading to a bloody impasse.
Rather than wage war directly on the PDFs, the junta concentrated much of its attention on the civilian population, which was seen as supporting the armed movement. At the core of the junta effort has been a campaign of mass arson. Junta forces and their proxies razed 52,998 homes across the Dry Zone between May 2021 and May 2023, according to monitoring group Data for Myanmar.
Yet the junta’s arson campaign has not neatly overlapped with those townships which have seen the greatest incidence of armed conflict. Why would the junta direct the brunt of its burning campaign against areas where engagements with PDFs are less common? It is not clear from the data whether the arson campaign has been an attempt to punish villages seen as collaborating with PDFs, or to deny PDFs the ability to gain support in villages where they are not yet established—by destroying and depopulating them.
The junta has also attempted to compensate for its weak force posture in the Dry Zone by using local village militias, referred to as Pyu Saw Htee, to occupy areas where PDFs do not operate or have been pushed out. Though the Pyu Saw Htee’s true size and strength remain unknown, Myanmar Conflict Map data shows that pro-junta militia forces were involved, either as an actor or a target, in at least 582 out of 3,540 (16.4%) armed clashes recorded in the Dry Zone since the coup. The Pyu Saw Htee is therefore an important actor in the conflict, helping to fill gaps by providing intelligence and knowledge of the local terrain, and by waging assaults alongside junta soldiers.
The simultaneous rise of the Pyu Saw Htee and PDFs has also led to intense rivalry and polarisation among villages supporting one side or the other. This has included cycles of retributive attacks on the family members of opposing combatants, including children. Both sides have taken part in village burning, though the junta and Pyu Saw Htee account for a far greater share of the destruction.
Shifting patterns of violence
After nearly two years of sporadic attacks and indiscriminate village burning, the junta appeared to launch a more direct assault on the Dry Zone PDFs beginning in early 2023. In February, the junta declared martial law in 40 townships across the country, including nine out of 54 in the Dry Zone. These townships are identified by the military as in need of concerted clearance operations to bring them under control. The junta began to consolidate its thinly spread forces into special task units assigned to conduct comprehensive sweeps across more-limited areas. It also inserted new forces into the Dry Zone. A unit dubbed the ‘Ogre Column’, after being airlifted into the theatre, went on a weeks-long rampage and left a trail of massacred civilians and mutilated resistance fighters in its wake.
These dynamics signify a partial shift toward more selective forms of violence. According to Data for Myanmar, the number of razed homes in the Dry Zone fell from a monthly peak of 9,035 in December 2022 to 3,025 in May 2023, a 66.5% decrease. This decline in burning, however, has accompanied a noticeable rise in atrocities. In some instances, raiding soldiers have entered villages with lists containing the names of known PDF fighters, promising not to burn the village if residents identify them. Captured fighters or uncooperative civilians are then subjected to rape, beheading and dismemberment. Mutilated bodies are commonly put on display as a warning to the community.
This move toward more-selective violence has been enabled by several changes at the tactical level. Since late 2022, sources say, the junta has positioned additional artillery pieces in the Dry Zone, erecting a network of fire-support bases. Task forces equipped with uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) operate within the vicinity of these bases, allowing them to call in artillery support at first contact with a PDF. To avoid detection and ambush, soldiers move on foot and disguise themselves as ununiformed PDFs, an effective ploy in a battle zone saturated by independent resistance outfits. Junta forces have also stepped up the use of jamming systems to counter IEDs, and they are increasingly conducting raids at night. These tactics allow small, mobile units to quickly surround fighters and civilians and subject them to or force them to witness interrogation, torture and executions.
The recorded incidence of both armed clashes and IED attacks in the Dry Zone began to decline following the junta’s shift in strategy in early 2023. However, these figures do not capture the nature or intensity of the violence carried out in each incident. Qualitative reports suggest that violence has become more intense throughout 2023.
The junta’s recent decision to consolidate its forces makes it harder to guard wider areas. To take advantage of this, resistance forces sometimes opt to avoid confrontation after being alerted to approaching columns. In late June 2023, local fighters operating in Sagaing Township relocated an entire truckload of weapons after a junta unit entered their area. However, junta forces were still able to identify and capture the consignment, which contained munitions with an estimated value of US$215,000. Relocation presents a difficult choice for the PDFs, given the junta’s tendency to destroy their villages. Rather than flee, resistance fighters commonly attempt to block or slow raiding columns, often at great cost.
On 25 June, for example, a column of 50 soldiers moved up the Irrawaddy River in Sagaing Township to raid Kin Taw village, where they killed and mutilated three civilians and 17 PDF fighters, an entire unit. On 28 June, junta forces ambushed a resistance camp near the village of Talaing, killing another 14 fighters. Following the raids, some resistance fighters expressed concern that junta units possess increasingly precise intelligence of their whereabouts. These recent search-and-destroy missions helped drive a sharp rise in armed clashes across the Dry Zone, with at least 154 clashes reported in June versus 91 in May (+69%).
To relieve this growing pressure and draw out the junta’s forces, PDFs also wage attacks on soft targets such as police and Pyu Saw Htee villages, which tend to be lightly guarded. On 5 July 2023, PDFs reportedly launched a mortar attack and raid on Ngwe Dwin, a purported Pyu Saw Htee village in Ayadaw Township. Local media reported accusations that the assault killed 15 civilians, including four children. Multiple competing allegations then emerged, with some saying the villagers were all pro-junta militiamen. One PDF member denied any wrongdoing, insisting that junta soldiers had committed the killings. Ascertaining which actor is responsible for a given attack is a challenging task for local media operating in this complex environment, especially because the junta frequently shuts off the internet.
A violent outlook
On 13 July, the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, announced a plan to intensify efforts to quell armed resistance. Recent media reports suggest a possible uptick in arson attacks, although Data for Myanmar at the time of publication had not released figures showing the number of structures burned in June or July 2023. While the junta has increasingly employed select violence over the last six months, this behaviour and more-indiscriminate patterns of violence are not mutually exclusive.
For example, between 7 and 9 July, soldiers from the 33rd Light Infantry Division reportedly burned down nearly 200 homes, killed three detainees and displaced nearly 20,000 people in Myinmu Township. On 20 July, a junta column killed 14 people during a surprise raid in Yinmabin Township. Some of the victims, which reportedly included minors and resistance fighters, had their eyes removed. Reports also suggest the ongoing targeting of livelihoods in the Dry Zone, with soldiers killing livestock, destroying farming equipment and mining fields so farmers cannot harvest their crops. The coming months could see the junta return to its earlier strategy of widespread arson and indiscriminate violence while continuing more-targeted search-and-destroy missions against the PDFs.