Myanmar conflict update
Operation 1027 reshapes Myanmar’s post-coup war
A powerful ethnic alliance with close ties to China has inflicted on the Myanmar regime its worst battlefield setback in decades and inspired a wave of attacks by other opponents across the country. But unless the military suffers a total collapse of cohesion and morale, the regime is likely to fight on.
By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published November 2023
On 27 October, three ethnic armed groups, together known as the Brotherhood Alliance, launched a large-scale, coordinated offensive against military, police and militia targets across northern Shan State, marking their overt entry into the post-coup conflict. Within just two weeks, the alliance, which includes the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA), captured over 100 regime positions and gained control of several towns, including key border crossings with China. Inspired by the rapid collapse of regime forces in northern Shan, other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) launched synchronised attacks across the country. The simultaneous offensives have presented the Myanmar armed forces with their most serious battlefield challenge in at least 30 years. Overstretched, the regime now faces the near-term prospect of further territorial losses in the country’s peripheries.
The Brotherhood’s blitz
The primary objective of Operation 1027, named after the date when it was launched, is probably the recapture of Laukkaing city, the MNDAA’s former stronghold. The offensive was therefore led by the MNDAA, with the TNLA and small numbers of AA fighters playing a supporting role. The MNDAA quickly captured Chinshwehaw, a border town central to trade between Myanmar and China, granting it control of the main approach to Laukkaing, situated 25 kilometres to the north. Further to the west, TNLA fighters launched attacks around the major towns of Lashio, Hseni and Nawnghkio to divert the regime’s attention and sever its lines of communication. Alliance forces successfully cut Highway 3 and Highway 34, the two key routes along which most trade with China flows, including by destroying multiple bridges.
Confronted with a large-scale assault involving upwards of 10,000 alliance fighters, the regime ordered its forces to withdraw from dozens of positions and camps and to regroup at larger bases and battalion headquarters. This led to a rapid advance by the alliance in the first week of the offensive, with numerous hilltop positions captured without a fight. Videos and photos released by the MNDAA and TNLA showed significant quantities of seized munitions and heavy weapons, but only a limited number of dead regime soldiers, prisoners of war and rifles.
As regime forces retreated, the alliance became more ambitious, widening the scope of its offensive to include the seizure of other areas. This included the capture of three more towns, including Mongko, an important border crossing and long-sought-after prize for the MNDAA. The TNLA was also able to capitalise on the momentum by sending its fighters to directly contest Namkham, control of which would provide the group with its own border crossing. Several outposts belonging to regime-aligned militias in the adjacent hills also fell to the TNLA, opening the prospect of a direct land link between the TNLA’s stronghold and China. By 20 November the alliance claimed to have captured 161 positions across a 260 km front.
1027 inspires synchronised offensives across Myanmar
Although the Myanmar armed forces faced similar offensives by the Communist Party of Burma in the 1970s and 1980s, until Operation 1027 the army had never lost so much territory so quickly. Witnessing the collapse of the armed forces’ position in northern Shan, other opposition actors seized the opportunity to escalate attacks on the now-overstretched regime, culminating in the onset of several simultaneous offensives across the country.
In neighbouring Kachin State, for example, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) forces attacked and overran Gangdau Yang on 31 October. The outpost lies along Highway 31, a route that passes near the KIA’s headquarters in Laiza City and where the regime had in July 2023 initiated an offensive. The regime responded to the loss of Gangdau Yang with attacks on KIA positions around Laiza, as well as against the city itself.
This marked the first time that the Myanmar armed forces directly attacked Laiza proper. The regime’s unprecedented escalation and the impact on civilians appeared to force the KIA to pause its operations along Highway 31, at least temporarily. Unsubstantiated rumours that the KIA would soon launch an assault on Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, were spreading online by early November.
Operation 1027 also inspired a fresh offensive in Sagaing, where People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) affiliated with the National Unity Government (NUG) are operating. On 3 November, hundreds of fighters from the KIA and AA led a PDF unit to capture Kawlin, the first town in central Myanmar to fall to opposition forces since the coup. Four days later, KIA commanders led a PDF unit to capture Khampat, a small town on Myanmar’s border with India. The NUG claims that it has since established its administration in the towns, though it remains unclear how many displaced residents have returned. KIA, AA and PDF fighters also attempted to capture the town of Tigyaing, home to a strategic bridge on a primary road connecting central Myanmar to Kachin State. The attackers were eventually repelled by the small garrison of regime police and soldiers.
As a member of the Brotherhood Alliance, the AA sent some fighters to participate in Operation 1027 in northern Shan but did not immediately launch an offensive in Rakhine, its primary area of operations. Having mostly maintained a ceasefire with the regime since November 2020, the AA was probably hesitant about renewing armed confrontations in Rakhine given the precarious humanitarian situation there, exacerbated by regime-imposed restrictions on aid. The AA probably also feared that the regime would respond not only by tightening the blockade but also by launching indiscriminate attacks in which civilians would be killed, as it did in previous rounds of fighting.
After witnessing the deterioration of regime forces in northern Shan, however, the AA’s calculus shifted, and on 13 November the group launched a series of assaults on border-guard police and military outposts in Rakhine. As expected, the military responded by immediately shutting down all transport in the state. It also ordered police to withdraw from 40 stations and consolidate into better-defended positions. Regime forces in Rakhine appear to be defending their positions with artillery, airstrikes and naval bombardments, making it difficult for the AA to replicate the success enjoyed by its partners in northern Shan. An estimated 32,500 Rakhine civilians were displaced in just nine days of fighting.
Karenni resistance forces also joined the fray, launching their own ‘Operation 1111’ with fresh attacks on regime positions, including a direct assault on the Kayah State capital of Loikaw. Hundreds of fighters converged on the city, enduring intensive airstrikes by regime forces and suffering significant casualties. On 15 November, Karenni fighters captured Loikaw University, forcing the surrender of 38 regime soldiers. To fully capture the city, Karenni forces will need to assault the Regional Operations Command base, which is guarded by hundreds of soldiers. The loss of a state capital would be a major blow for the regime. Conversely, failure to capture the city could also prove disastrous for the Karenni resistance, given the amount of human and material resources it is expending there.
Beijing backtracks on border policy
As the IISS explained in August, since the coup the regime’s top strategic priority has been to deter offensives by the country’s seven most powerful ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), which operate near the border with China. In late 2022, a regime plan to negotiate with these EAOs, including the Brotherhood groups, was boosted by Chinese officials insisting that all sides maintain a ceasefire along the border. Emboldened by assurances from China, in March 2023 the regime began to transfer some units out of Shan State and redirect them against forces elsewhere in the country. The regime appears to have made a fundamental miscalculation in assuming that China was willing to enforce the ceasefire indefinitely in Shan.
Given the scale of Operation 1027, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood decided to act without tacit approval from Beijing, especially since all three groups rely on China for weapons, ammunition, banking and other forms of support. Otherwise, China could react by denying the EAOs access to these markets (there is no indication this has since happened). From this perspective, China appears to have reversed its policy that all sides should uphold a ceasefire along its border, and to have favoured the EAOs. If so, the reasons are likely to be complex and multidimensional. The most obvious of the possible motives is that Beijing seeks to dismantle the network of cyber-scam centres operating in areas under the control of the regime and its affiliated Border Guard Forces (BGFs), including those in Laukkaing. These scam dens, which have victimised thousands of trafficked Chinese nationals, have become a major concern for governments in the region, including Beijing.
A second possibility is that Beijing may be seeking to extract more favourable concessions from the regime on issues of geostrategic and economic importance inside Myanmar, including projects related to the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor. The corridor stretches from the Chinese border to Rakhine State, where China is aiming to build a deep-sea port that would provide it with access to the Indian Ocean. Sources say China has served as an intermediary to facilitate talks between the regime, the Kokang BGF and Brotherhood Alliance groups, though the details of these negotiations remain unclear. By this reasoning, there is at least a possibility that the Myanmar regime will be forced to accept an unfavourable deal, brokered by China, if it fails to halt the opposition’s momentum on the battlefield.
The dynamics among Myanmar’s myriad opposition groups are a third possible factor driving China’s recalibration. As IISS analysts described in August, Beijing had moved to counteract perceived Western influence over the NUG and its affiliated PDFs. However, as the post-coup conflict has evolved, EAOs – including the KIA and TNLA – have gained control over some PDFs that on paper are meant to be integrated into the NUG’s chain of command. This development has opened an avenue for China to influence those PDFs via the EAOs. For this reason China may have become more willing to accept disruptive EAO action, confident that it would not necessarily benefit the NUG or the wider democratic movement, which it remains wary of. Beijing may also be behind the rise of some new armed groups, such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), an apparent reboot of the former Communist Party of Burma. PLA fighters attached to the MNDAA’s 611th Brigade were actively and visibly involved in Operation 1027. China appears willing to endure increased border instability in the short term to secure its long-term economic and strategic interests.
Few options for the regime
Nearly one month after Operation 1027 began, the regime has only managed to assemble and deploy small units of reinforcements to northern Shan; it seems not to have available the numbers of reserve personnel typically needed to counter EAO offensives. That said, the regime’s early decision to abandon many positions has left the bulk of its force intact. Although alliance units captured dozens of hilltop positions and several tactical forts, they have so far overrun the headquarters of just four battalions. Despite its losses, the regime retains a relatively firm foothold in the theatre, with its forces occupying a well-defended, albeit depleted, network of bases.
Rather than attempt to deploy forces thinly across these territories, the regime appears to have adopted a strategy based on the concentration of mobile forces and the application of firepower against certain prioritised targets. Using this approach, the regime has begun to re-open portions of Highway 3. On 10 November, regime forces broke through to Nawnghkio after filling in a large trench dug by the TNLA; by 22 November they had reached as far as Hsipaw. At present the regime appears committed to re-opening the highways and launching counter-attacks from the positions it still holds.
Beyond territorial losses, the regime also faces an information-warfare challenge, with the potential for this to affect not only domestic and international political narratives but also military cohesion. Brotherhood groups active in Operation 1027 have set up multiple social-media channels to broadcast their gains and other propaganda. This has included several unsubstantiated claims of mass surrender by regime forces in northern Shan, all of which were immediately amplified by domestic media and several international observers. Videos and photos of soldiers surrendering in limited numbers elsewhere in the country have also gone viral, though no confirmed cases of an entire battalion surrendering or deserting in northern Shan have emerged. At the same time, Brotherhood groups have admitted to facing fierce resistance from regime soldiers, making it difficult to assess any claim that military cohesion is under threat. If morale, cohesion and capable leadership are maintained, the regime’s superior firepower could allow it to defend many, though not all, remaining positions and perhaps contest some of those recently lost.
Towards coordination or fragmentation?
Beyond its immediate success in northern Shan, Operation 1027 has boosted the morale of the segment of the population searching for signs of progress after almost three years of political, social, economic and armed struggle. More tangibly, it has reinvigorated armed resistance to the regime across the country and generated a narrative that various armed opposition actors have achieved new levels of coordination in the post-coup conflict.
However, Operation 1027 also highlights a number of cleavages and obstacles facing Myanmar’s disparate opposition actors, including the NUG. The primary driving forces behind this sudden shift in Myanmar’s conflict landscape are the three Brotherhood groups, rather than the NUG, PDFs or other EAOs that have struggled to overcome the military’s dominant position since the coup. According to multiple conflict actors whom IISS analysts spoke to, the Brotherhood Alliance did not consult the NUG prior to the offensive. Although the NUG has welcomed the offensive and encouraged other groups to join in, Operation 1027 did not involve pre-planned, high-level military coordination between the Brotherhood Alliance and any other opposition actor.
While other actors may now seek to join in the fight, it may prove challenging to quickly replicate, elsewhere in Myanmar, the gains achieved by Operation 1027 in Shan State. The Brotherhood’s success is largely attributable to the three years it spent recruiting, arming and planning under the cover of ceasefire, and to the element of surprise it enjoyed on the first day of the offensive. But for maximum impact on the regime, other groups would have needed to undertake similar preparation and planning, in coordination with the Brotherhood, and launch their campaigns at the same time. If this degree of inter-group coordination were to emerge in the future, it would pose an even greater threat to the regime.
The rapid expansion of the MNDAA and TNLA in Shan State has caused concern among other actors there, including the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and local civil-society organisations. On 7 November the SSPP and TNLA clashed in Muse township after the arrest of Sao Mao On, a Shan activist with possible ties to the SSPP. The clash reportedly resulted in the death of three SSPP fighters, though Sao Mao On was eventually released. Four days later, 26 Shan civil-society groups expressed serious concern over the escalation of violence in the state and the burden placed on the Shan population by the actions of all sides. Portions of the population that have lived in relative security since the coup may be less willing to support the onset of armed struggle in their areas, irrespective of political leanings.
Though the Brotherhood Alliance has stated that Operation 1027 aims to remove the military dictatorship, Myanmar’s various actors continue to exhibit differing political objectives. For example, the AA has suggested that it sees a future Rakhine enclave as part of a confederation, rather than the democratic federation sought by the NUG. While the MNDAA may crack down on cyber-scam dens should it manage to recapture Laukkaing, the group has not signalled any intent to dismantle the economy of the Kokang region, which is otherwise based primarily on narcotics, an unregulated sex industry and casinos – activities that are not aligned with the NUG’s policies. Finally, while northern EAOs have significant agency and autonomy, their military strength derives from their relations with and proximity to China. Beijing therefore wields tremendous influence over key opposition actors in Myanmar, and could choose to continue complicating the efforts to achieve a more unified front against the regime.
Nonetheless, Operation 1027 and the offensives it has catalysed across the country are a clear indication of what might happen should the Myanmar regime begin to face a more unified and coordinated armed movement. Though it may be a distant prospect, the emergence of a clearer political pact between key EAOs and the NUG could incentivise a move beyond synchronised offensives and usher in higher levels of military cooperation and interoperability.