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Myanmar conflict update

Myanmar’s regime shrinks further towards the centre

The junta has suffered another extraordinary loss in the western state of Rakhine. Its control over the peripheries is slipping, though its grip on the centre appears firm.

By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published March 2024

On 8 February 2024, fighters from the Arakan Army (AA) stormed the junta’s final remaining outpost in Mrauk U, the stupa-studded capital of the last Rakhine kingdom, lost to Burmese conquest in 1785. The historic moment came just five years after the AA began pursuit of its ‘Arakan Dream’, an all-out bid to conquer Rakhine State and establish a headquarters in Mrauk U Town. As their leaders posted jubilant messages on social media, Arakan fighters continued to steamroll across the state, casting regime forces into disarray. By mid-March, the AA had won primary control over nine of the 12 townships contested since fighting resumed in November last year.

With the battle still ongoing, the question has become whether the regime can retain any foothold in the north and central parts of the state. Much remains in play, including control of the Bangladesh border, the state capital at Sittwe, and the port at Kyaukphyu, where the Sino-Myanmar pipeline begins. But no matter the final outcome, the AA’s sweeping gains are already enough to enable self-rule over a large portion of the Rakhine homeland and to reshape the wider balance of power in Myanmar.

The stupas at Mrauk U, February 2017. (Photo: Morgan Michaels)

A turning point

Since seizing civil power in February 2021, Myanmar’s armed forces have been stretched along a multi-front war against opponents both old and new. In the central Dry Zone where the Bamar majority resides, the army faces hundreds of People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), localised militias that sprang up in opposition to the coup. In the borderlands, multiple ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) – well-equipped and experienced fighting forces – continue to wage war, including by assisting the newer PDFs.

Though it struggled to confront these challenges, until late 2023 several dynamics helped the regime maintain a dominant position on the battlefield. Of the approximately 20 existing EAOs, only four initially joined the post-coup armed movement while others offered statements of support or neutrality. Meanwhile, PDFs struggled to acquire arms, develop their command structures, or coordinate across theatres. These limiting factors, coupled with the regime’s overwhelming firepower and attacks on civilians, made it difficult for opposition forces to sustain large-scale offensives or seize new territories.

On 27 October 2023, the Brotherhood Alliance, a powerful bloc of ethnic armies that includes the AA, abandoned an informal ceasefire with the regime by launching Operation 1027. Within three months, the alliance won control over a large portion of northern Shan State, home to the primary trade corridor that links Myanmar with China. Witnessing the regime’s collapse there, other opposition forces stepped up attacks, presenting the junta with renewed offensives across seven different fronts.

The Brotherhood Alliance’s entry into the war represents a turning point, with the regime no longer able to hegemonise Myanmar’s battlespace or retain its foothold in all key border areas. But while it has been weakened, the army appears far from finished. In the country’s centre, the regime has managed to stabilise the situation by halting opposition offensives and, in some cases, regaining lost ground. More violence lies ahead.

As a member of the Brotherhood Alliance, the AA took part in Operation 1027 in northern Shan State but did not launch its own offensive in Rakhine and Chin states until 13 November.

Despite a slow start to the campaign, by mid-January the AA had expelled the regime from all the strategic positions in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State. The township has long served as a staging ground for AA operations in Rakhine and is key for accessing the border with India.

Following their victory at Paletwa, AA fighters stepped up operations in northern Rakhine, capturing Mrauk U Township by 8 February. Two days later, the AA took primary control of Kyauktaw Township after overrunning the 9th Military Operations Command (MOC) headquarters outside the main town.

With their momentum building, AA fighters pushed onwards, winning primary control of Myebon and Pauktaw townships by the end of February.

After 10 days of fierce fighting, the AA overran the 9th Command Central Training Unit, guarded by a sprawling network of fortified positions. The base was likely the junta’s last remaining position in Minbya Township.

The AA’s progress did not end there. By mid-March its fighters were in primary control of three more townships – Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, and Ramree.

Ramree Township comprises the southern half of Ramree Island. Kyaukphyu Township, situated on the northern half of the island, is home to the regime’s Danyawaddy Naval Base. The Sino-Myanmar pipeline begins just 10 kilometres away, on Maday Island.

It is unclear whether the AA intends to capture Kyaukphyu Township and its strategic assets.

The two sides are still vying over Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, which are key for controlling the Bangladesh border. These areas captured global attention as the primary site of the military’s violence against the Rohingya ethnic-minority group in 2016 and 2017.

Sittwe, the state capital, remains in regime possession.

The AA’s onslaught has led to its largescale capture of regime weapons and equipment. Both sides have probably suffered casualties into the hundreds or low thousands.

The regime’s losses in Rakhine follow its major defeat during Operation 1027 in northern Shan State. The AA’s partners – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – spearheaded the offensive, which ended in ceasefire on 11 January.

On 1 March, representatives from the junta and Brotherhood Alliance met again in Kunming for talks brokered by China. Sources suggested that the junta agreed to recognise the MNDAA’s administrative authority over Special Region 1.

But two days after talks ended, the junta declared martial law in three townships recently captured by the TNLA, including the two that comprise the Palaung Self-Administered Zone. The declaration indicates that the military will not accept the TNLA’s authority there.

Given its weak position and troop shortage, however, it is unlikely that the junta will be able to launch a major counter-offensive within the year. These areas remain firmly in the hands of the TNLA for now.

Though no other group has won as much territory as the Brotherhood Alliance, several have applied significant pressure along other fronts, achieving notable progress.

On 7 March, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) initiated a limited offensive outside its headquarters at Laiza City. The regime launched its own offensive in the area in July 2023.

The KIA likely aims to expel the regime from a network of hilltop artillery bases overlooking both Laiza and Highway 31, which links Bhamo to Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital.

Control here would also help strengthen the KIA’s lines of communication between Kachin and its operating areas in both Sagaing Region and northern Shan State.

KIA operational areas in 2023

As of 26 March, the KIA claimed it had captured numerous strategic positions, including several infantry battalion headquarters and the important bases of Bumre Bum, Hkaya Bum, and La Jar Yang.

The regime responded to the offensive with both air and artillery attacks on Laiza.

Given the regime’s weak position, further KIA gains can be expected. However, the presence of local Kachin militias fiercely opposed to the KIA could make it difficult for the group to fully control the highway and its surrounding areas.

In the southeast, combined units of PDF and Karen National Union (KNU) fighters have been attempting to seize Kawkareik since December. The town sits at a junction that is key for controlling the flow of goods between Myanmar and Thailand.

On 7 March, coalition forces began an assault on the headquarters of three light-infantry battalions guarding the Asian Highway 1 between Myawaddy and Kawkareik. The attackers captured one base but were seemingly repelled from the other two.

Fighting along the highway has displaced thousands and led to regular disruptions in trade. The situation remains fluid.

On 13 February, the regime recaptured Kawlin, the first town claimed by the National Unity Government (NUG) and PDF following Operation 1027. Large portions of the town, which is now deserted, were destroyed by regime air and artillery strikes.

The regime has also recontested other NUG-claimed towns in Sagaing Region, like Khampat and Shwe Pyi Aye, preventing a return to normalcy for civilians.

On 2 March, up to 30 PDF battalions launched a major assault on the town of Kani, Sagaing. The attackers were forced back by air and artillery strikes. The regime retains control of the heavily damaged town.

On 14 March, a combined column of KIA and PDF fighters launched another attack on Tigyaing, a strategic town guarding several key river and road links between Kachin and northern Sagaing. Opposition forces have been unable to dislodge the regime from the area.

The regime’s counter-offensive in central Myanmar has been waged with significant participation from Pyu Saw Htee, village militias comprised of prisoners, veterans, supporters of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, and followers of Ma Ba Tha.

Since the coup, the regime had remained reluctant to properly arm Pyu Saw Htee, providing mainly carbines or single-shot rifles captured from the PDF. The Pyu Saw Htee primarily operated in a supporting role to regime units.

Recently, however, the regime has begun transferring refurbished MA-11 and BA-63 assault rifles, and allowing these militias to operate with greater autonomy.

According to Myanmar Conflict Map data, Pyu Saw Htee were involved in nearly one out of every five violent events recorded in the Dry Zone throughout 2023, making them a key part of the regime’s counter-insurgency strategy.

Pyu Saw Htee operational areas in 2023
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Destruction in Kawkareik, located along the Asian Highway 1, 23 March 2024. (Photo: News Service Station)
AA fighters pose with weapons seized from the regime in Minbya, 16 February 2024. (Photo: AA Info Desk)

Despite massive gains, end game for AA remains unclear

Though the AA has now won a dominant position over most of central and northern Rakhine, several complicating factors could shape how the battle ends. According to sources familiar with the Kunming talks, Beijing has placed considerable pressure on the AA to reach a ceasefire with the military. Given its strategic and economic interests in Kyaukphyu, China is probably reluctant to witness heavy fighting there, which could result in damage to the pipeline infrastructure. Nor is it clear that Beijing would accept the AA’s control of such assets. While the AA maintains its autonomy, its reliance on China for weapons and other support means that it cannot completely ignore Beijing’s preferences.

Another challenge for the AA is the ever-worsening impact the conflict is having on civilians. To pressure its opponent, the regime has implemented a blockade on the state, leading to severe shortages in food and medicine. Moreover, the regime controls the entire power supply to northern and central Rakhine, which flows from a small 135-megawatt plant at Kyaukphyu and two transmission lines from Bago and Magway. Should the AA move to conquer the remainder of the theatre, the regime will have little incentive to ease the blockade or allow electricity transmission from outside the state. Rakhine’s power supply would instead depend largely on the policy of Beijing, given that the Kyaukphyu plant is operated by PowerChina, a state-owned company.

In combination, these factors could potentially push the AA to consider a bargain over Kyaukphyu and Sittwe, especially if that remains Beijing’s preference. Given its past behaviours and current momentum on the battlefield, however, the possibility that the AA will try for a more total victory cannot be discounted.

Rohingya caught in the crossfire

The fighting has inflicted a heavy toll on the Rohingya population caught in the middle. In late January, regime artillery targeted AA forces entrenched at Hpon Nyo Leik village. Twelve Rohingya villagers were killed and another 32 injured in the barrage, according to Fortify Rights. On 18 February, more than 20 Rohingya villagers, including at least 10 children, were killed by what was most likely a regime air or artillery strike. Rights groups have accused the AA of operating inside Rohingya villages and say the regime has responded with disproportionate and indiscriminate artillery attacks.

In its statements, the AA continues to refer to the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’, a term which is often used to suggest that the Rohingya are not native to Rakhine State. According to one account, the AA has disappeared nine Muslim teachers since 28 January. Meanwhile, the regime has begun coercing Rohingya villagers to fight on its behalf. On 20 March, the AA released photos of what it claimed were dead Rohingya soldiers in regime uniforms. The AA also said that it clashed with Rohingya armed groups along the border, claiming that they were acting in coordination with the regime. The conflict between the AA and regime appears to be driving a deterioration in Rakhine–Rohingya communal relations.

More war ahead

Badly weakened by the Brotherhood Alliance’s offensives in northern Shan and Rakhine, the regime has lost its position as the dominant military and political actor in Myanmar. A more multipolar landscape is emerging, with implications not only for ethnic self-determination but the country’s foreign relations as well. The seizure of the borderlands by powerful opposition actors, and the establishment of new administrative mechanisms in those areas, will reshape the way international stakeholders are able to engage with the country.

While multiple opposition groups outside the Brotherhood Alliance enjoy the initiative, they face a number of enduring constraints. On the whole, no group or coalition has demonstrated the same fighting capacity, level of coordination or interoperability demonstrated by the Brotherhood Alliance. In the far north, the KIA remains burdened by a tense relationship with China and a number of fierce rivalries with both in- and out-group militias. In the southeast, different KNU brigades continue to mount operations in limited coordination with one another, reducing the overall impact on the regime.

Unless there is an external intervention or mutiny that leads to chaos within the army, the regime will probably retain its control over both the machinery of government and the centre of the country. While its losses in the peripheries will continue, they are unlikely to happen on the scale or timeline witnessed in both Rakhine and northern Shan states. Moreover, the regime will retain its ability to project force into areas it does not directly control thanks to its air, artillery and naval power.

Despite their low morale, regime soldiers have continued to fight hard. In Rakhine, reported surrenders generally appeared to occur only after a unit became surrounded, while multiple tactical commanders chose a fight to the death. Five consecutive months of punishing losses have not precipitated a breakdown in the army’s cohesion nor any meaningful increase in defections to the other side. Though widespread discontent with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing is clear, both the leadership and rank and file appear loyal to the institution and willing to fight on.

Summary of events occurring between 01 January 2024 and 31 January 2024.
Events by type
Attack/armed clash
Air/drone strike
Remote explosives/IEDs
Infrastructure destruction
Events by warscape
Dry Zone
Lower Myanmar
Summary of events occurring between 01 February 2024 and 29 February 2024.
Events by type
Attack/armed clash
Air/drone strike
Infrastructure destruction
Remote explosives/IEDs
Events by warscape
Dry Zone
Lower Myanmar
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