Myanmar conflict update
Is Myanmar’s regime at risk of collapse?
Three powerful ethnic armies have delivered a severe blow to the regime in Myanmar’s northern Shan State. But elsewhere in the country the outlook is mixed.
By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published December 2023
The Brotherhood Alliance’s surprise offensive, dubbed Operation 1027, has reshaped Myanmar’s conflict by delivering the worst battlefield setback to the Myanmar armed forces in decades. Nearly two months into the campaign, the army has failed to launch a meaningful counter-attack or retake control of the bases, roads and border towns that it lost across northern Shan State. Despite having known about the impending offensive, Chinese officials did not inform their counterparts in Naypyidaw, underscoring the limits of Beijing’s support for the regime. Operation 1027 has also halted overland trade with China, adding to the regime’s fiscal woes caused by sanctions and a severely devalued currency.
Yet, Myanmar’s regime and armed forces may still be far from collapse. In northern Shan State, China has intervened diplomatically to compel a preliminary deal between the regime and the Brotherhood Alliance, leading to a partial de-escalation. Outside of Shan State, the regime’s forces have performed better, preventing opposition groups from replicating the sweeping success of Operation 1027. Though Myanmar’s anti-junta forces have made notable progress, they have captured only a fraction of their enemy’s territory at a cost that is probably unsustainable in the long term. A more violent and volatile situation has now emerged across the country — the outcome of which is far from certain.
Civilians pay a heavy price as conflict escalates
As of 15 December, more than 660,000 people have been displaced across the country since Operation 1027 began. The regime has responded to opposition gains by employing heavy firepower and acts of collective punishment against the population. The opposition’s turn towards direct assaults on urban areas has also caused collateral damage, a pattern made worse by the regime’s indiscriminate behaviour. Moreover, media reports and phone interviews with residents in northern Shan State have revealed extreme hardships imposed on civilians by all sides. This includes restricted movement, increased commodity prices, property loss and seizures, displacement, and forced recruitment by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Frustration with the Brotherhood Alliance is evident online amongst ethnic Shan who neither approve of the offensive nor feel represented by the Brotherhood Alliance groups (which are not Shan).
Despite gains, major obstacles remain for Myanmar’s opposition forces
The battlefield successes enjoyed by the MNDAA and the TNLA are largely attributable to two key elements. Firstly, both groups prepared well for the offensive, spending nearly three years recruiting, arming and planning under the cover of an informal ceasefire with the regime. While such strategic patience is borne out of experience, it was also possible because the MNDAA and the TNLA conscript their armies and sustain their activities through the lucrative conflict economies of Myanmar’s borderlands. In contrast, newer resistance outfits rely primarily on donations and volunteer fighters and have promised total victory within a short time frame. Groups like the NUG cannot easily exercise the same degree of patience as the MNDAA and TNLA because maintaining popular support and participation in the revolution requires constant demonstrations of progress.
Secondly, the MNDAA and the TNLA enjoy support from China in the form of access to weapons, ammunition, commercial uninhabited aerial vehicles and liaison offices in the country. None of the other groups in Myanmar that are actively fighting the regime can match the firepower possessed by the MNDAA or the TNLA, almost all of which is traceable to China. Despite being a member of the Brotherhood Alliance, the AA faces serious supply issues because it fights on the other side of the country under a military blockade. Recent opposition gains in places like Rakhine and Kayah states have instead been won through the sacrifice of hundreds of fighters sent to wage frontal assaults in concentrated formations that are highly vulnerable to air and artillery attack. Even with their comparatively superior firepower, the MNDAA and the TNLA have also employed human-wave tactics, and it is likely that the alliance suffered more than 1,000 casualties during Operation 1027. These are difficult losses for any non-state armed group to sustain.
Moreover, the Brotherhood Alliance’s reliance on China makes it particularly susceptible to the influence of Beijing, which has begun to push for a de-escalation via a negotiated truce. Though fighting has continued, a deal could potentially include a regime handover of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone and other key areas of northern Shan State to the alliance. While they claim to be fighting to overthrow the regime, both history and the current pattern of fighting suggest that the Brotherhood Alliance groups are primarily focused on winning control of their own areas, a scenario that now appears likely. Even if the alliance intends to go further, it could require years of preparation to launch a fresh offensive on a scale comparable to Operation 1027. China has begun to restrict cross-border access as a way to pressure the Brotherhood Alliance into negotiating, and it will likely act to prevent a total regime collapse.
No matter the trajectory in northern Shan State, events there alone cannot decide the outcome of the wider war. In the immediate aftermath of the Brotherhood Alliance’s gains, opposition forces elsewhere appeared to assume that the regime had lost its will to fight and would soon collapse. But this assumption has so far proven false. Outside of northern Shan State, the regime has demonstrated a willingness to keep fighting at any cost. While opposition forces now enjoy the initiative and may continue to win incremental gains, the current trajectory does not point towards a near-term regime collapse on the battlefield, absent unforeseen developments. Myanmar is instead headed towards a new phase of the conflict, marked by a weakened but still dangerous regime, more intense violence and greater uncertainty.