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Myanmar conflict update

Myanmar regime brings significant escalation to the doorstep of key opponent

A regime offensive aims to break the military alliance between the Kachin Independence Army and resistance forces fighting in central Myanmar.

By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published October 2023

Since the military launched a coup d’état in February 2021, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has expanded its operations into central Myanmar, where it has trained, supplied and fought alongside newly formed local resistance groups generally referred to as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs). In July 2023, regime units launched a major offensive along a 100-kilometre stretch of road close to the KIA’s headquarters in an apparent bid to sever lines of communication between the KIA and its PDF allies. The regime operation has been met with stiff resistance from the KIA, but the junta has yet to back down. An attack on 9 October against a KIA-controlled village killed scores of civilians, further escalating the confrontation.

Cycles of conflict and ceasefire in the Kachin heartland

Founded in 1961, the KIA is one of Myanmar’s strongest ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). Its stated aims are to end military dictatorship and achieve ethnic self-determination via the formation of a federal democratic union. The KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), administers areas under the group’s control and provides a full range of government services to its supporters. The KIA and KIO sustain operations through the export of natural resources to China, the collection of taxes, and involvement in other businesses, including those operating in regime-controlled areas. The KIA assembles automatic rifles and other weapons in areas under its control and commands a force of seasoned fighters, estimated at upwards of 10,000 before the 2021 coup.

The KIA signed an official ceasefire with a previous junta in 1994, but the truce broke down in 2011. Over the next seven years, a series of punishing offensives by the military proceeded to strip the KIA of territory. A final offensive between November 2017 and June 2018 targeted the KIA’s income streams, especially in Hpakant and Tanai townships, where jade and amber are mined, respectively. After capturing multiple KIA positions in these townships, the military halted its offensive and began to actively pursue a formal bilateral ceasefire with the KIA. An unspoken truce then prevailed throughout Kachin State until the 2021 coup.

After the coup, a war renewed

The military’s coup and subsequent crackdown on peaceful protesters in February and March 2021 led the Kachin public to petition the KIA for a response. Riding a wave of renewed revolutionary fervour, the KIA launched a bid to seize back territory lost between 2011 and 2018, with initial attacks targeting regime positions in Hpakant, as well as along a segment of Highway 31 between the regime-controlled cities of Bhamo and Myitkyina, the state capital. The offensive won the KIA a strengthened foothold near mines in Hpakant and forced the military to withdraw from some positions overlooking Highway 31, reducing pressure on the KIA’s official headquarters at

As armed resistance to the 2021 coup spread to Bamar-majority areas in central Myanmar, the KIA began equipping and training emergent PDF units formed by Bamar fighters, which it then integrated under its command. Seizing the initiative, the KIA and its new PDF allies pushed southwards, opening a new front along the border between Kachin State and Sagaing Region. As early as July 2021, KIA operatives were seen assisting PDF units in Kawlin, nearly 100 km south of the Kachin border. By the end of 2022, the KIA had firmly established a foothold on the eastern edge of central Sagaing, enabling it to coordinate with PDFs as far away as Magway Region, some 300 km from Kachin.

New dimensions to the conflict

While the military has come to tolerate a certain degree of armed opposition in the country’s borderlands following decades of resistance, it views forays by EAOs into lowland areas inhabited by the Bamar majority as violating a key unwritten rule of the conflict. Likewise, the military is deeply hostile to EAO cooperation with the National Unity Government (NUG) and PDFs. The regime has thus responded to the KIA’s expansion into Sagaing Region with escalatory measures that it did not resort to in the previous decade.

In 2022, the military initiated an air campaign designed to break emergent alliances between EAOs, including the KIA, and PDFs. In addition to supporting its ground operations, the military used its aircraft in the absence of clashes to target sensitive EAO assets, such as brigade headquarters, liaison offices and critical sources of revenue including mines. Two examples of this revised strategy stand out. On 23 October 2022, regime aircraft, possibly Yak-130s, bombed a concert at the headquarters of the KIA’s 9th Brigade. The attack killed at least 60 people, including the brigade commander and numerous civilians. On 10 and 11 January 2023, the military carried out airstrikes against Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the Chin National Front. Also purportedly carried out by Yak-130s, these airstrikes marked the apparent end of a long-standing policy not to attack EAO headquarters and were probably meant as a warning to the KIA and other powerful EAOs providing support to the NUG and

A new offensive on the KIA’s doorstep

In response to the military's punitive air campaign, the KIA slowed offensive actions in Kachin from November 2022 onwards, but it did not end its support for the PDFs in Sagaing. A six-month lull in fighting across most of Kachin followed as the military, aided by China, attempted to negotiate with the KIA. Despite these efforts, the regime was ultimately unable to lure the group to the table or dissuade it from supporting the PDFs militarily. It therefore moved to pressure the KIA's supply lines between Kachin and Sagaing with a limited offensive at Shwegu in March 2023. Then, in July, the regime repositioned its forces and initiated a new offensive along Highway 31 near the KIA's headquarters at Laiza.

The locus of the offensive appears to be Nam San Yang, a village and gold-mining site strategically located at the beginning of a 20-km road to Laiza. The initial assault was carried out by about 1,000 soldiers, with principal participation from the 88th and 99th Light Infantry Divisions and 3rd Military Operations Command. Supplies and subsequent reinforcements travelled via the Irrawaddy River, facing PDF ambushes along the way. In June, the military stepped up efforts to open a second supply line into Kachin by securing and repairing the Mandalay--Myitkyina railway, which had fallen into disuse after resistance forces sabotaged it.

The military's near-term objective is probably to reassert control over Nam San Yang and the contested segments of Highway 31, one of only two main roads connecting Myitkyina to the rest of the country. A firmer grip on the road would allow the military to restrict the flow of weapons and supplies between KIA-held areas and PDFs operating to the south and southwest. In a more strategic sense, the operation may be designed to draw KIA fighters away from Sagaing and back into Kachin, and to raise the cost of the KIA's resistance by stepping up conflict in the state.

The offensive has faced multiple setbacks, however, with the regime's advance slowed by frequent and potent KIA ambushes. On 20 October 2023, the military's foothold along the road was further diminished after the KIA reportedly overran one of its last remaining outposts near Nam San Yang. The military has responded to its setbacks with airstrikes and reinforcements but has so far failed to retake its lost positions. Heavy fighting along the road — ongoing as of mid-October 2023 — has led to displacement of civilians, increased commodity prices, and travel along the route becoming all but impossible.

Regime attack kills scores of civilians

On the night of 9 October 2023, the military reportedly attacked Munglai Hkyet, a village four kilometres outside Laiza where 100 internally displaced families were sheltering. The attack resulted in the deaths of at least 29 people, including 11 children, in what the KIA described as an assault on a camp for internally displaced persons. A spokesperson for the regime denied responsibility and accused the KIA of storing 105 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at a training camp in the village, suggesting that the stockpile had accidentally detonated. A KIA spokesperson retorted that there was no such stockpile of explosives in the area.

Video footage taken in the aftermath of the attack showed the destruction of buildings, trucks and other equipment, as well as a large crater in the middle of a dirt field. Photos geolocated by Myanmar Witness identified severe damage to buildings as far as 300 meters from the epicentre of the blast. Satellite imagery analysed by the IISS, dated 16 October, revealed a crater 25 metres in diameter situated at the centre of a nearly 450-metre-wide blast zone. The damage is indicative of a single, large explosion.

Efforts to determine the source of the blast have been complicated by numerous competing claims and conflicting evidence. For example, the KIA's spokesperson said the main blast happened in a soccer field, but satellite images show that as recently as February and March 2023 there had been storage facilities and parked vehicles on the area of ground in question. Myanmar Now initially reported that, based on 'the accounts of eyewitnesses and other KIA sources', the attack was not an airstrike, an assessment publicly echoed by the KIA's spokesperson. However, a report from Amnesty International cited a witness who said he heard a jet. Whether combatants were present in the village is also disputed. A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) found 'no evidence of opposition armed groups in the vicinity of the village at the time of the attack', but multiple local-media reports say the Arakan Army, an ally of the KIA, maintains a camp in the village.

Both the Amnesty and HRW reports concluded that the primary blast was the result of an unspecified munition delivered by a regime aircraft, and that subsequent reported explosions in the village were caused by mortar fire from a nearby regime encampment. A credible source told the IISS that the largest bomb in the military's inventory weighs 2,000 pounds, but that the military has not deployed this weapon in battle.

The damage inflicted at Munglai Hkyet appears inconsistent with a 2,000-pound bomb, as both the crater and blast field, measured by satellite, were larger than what would be expected from such a weapon. This is despite the probability that the blast radius was mitigated by a large retaining wall immediately southwest of the crater. Damage to surrounding buildings appears to have resulted from overpressure, indicating a considerable explosion and shockwave. There is also little visible evidence of shrapnel damage to nearby equipment that was in the field at the time of explosion, and no photographic evidence of the bomb's casing has emerged. The extent of the blast field could instead be the result of a secondary explosion of ammonium nitrate or another, unidentified munition following a mortar or drone attack by the regime. Analysis of the explosive residue by a third party could provide a more definitive conclusion.

A prolonged battle looms

The regime's decision to re-escalate conflict in Kachin shows that its continued strategy is to pressure EAOs that support the PDFs, rather than use all available resources to confront and dismantle the PDF movement as soon as possible. Though it has suffered multiple tactical setbacks and casualties, the military's offensive has succeeded in forcing the KIA to take up defensive positions in the heart of the state. The current campaign demonstrates the regime's continued capacity to manoeuvre forces and supplies across wide areas, to fight on multiple fronts, and to dictate, at least to some extent, where and when it confronts its most powerful opponents.

The offensive at Nam San Yang also highlights other strengths of the regime. It has proven its ability to deliver high volumes of firepower onto the battlefield, made possible by a robust domestic manufacturing base, continued access to international markets, and support from Russia and China. The regime's nearly unrestricted use of ordnance in other theatres has allowed it to slowly inch forwards despite stiff resistance and severe casualties. A similar outcome may unfold along Highway 31 if the KIA and PDFs fail to sever the regime's supply lines.

Still, the regime remains encumbered by a number of challenges. Although most clashes involving the KIA are now concentrated in Kachin, the group has so far maintained the tempo of its operations outside the state, underscoring its own ability to withstand military pressure and fight across multiple fronts. The KIA's spirited resistance has also compelled the military to steadily deploy more resources along the highway. These dynamics are indicative of the extended timelines over which important battles in Myanmar unfold. A concerted regime offensive in Kayah, for example, is now in its ninth month.

The incident at Munglai Hkyet may also influence the trajectory of fighting over the next several months by inciting greater public animosity towards the regime and, in turn, galvanising KIA resistance to the military's offensive. Alternatively, the high civilian death toll sustained there could suggest to the Kachin public that although the regime remains politically unacceptable, the cost of waging war against it will continue to increase. A military victory at Nam San Yang or a KIA decision to scale back operations in Sagaing could deprive some PDFs of ammunition, training and other essentials needed to sustain their battlefield operations.

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Violent events involving the KIA 1 February 2021 to 1 February 2021
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