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Myanmar conflict update

Melee in Myawaddy: Resistance battles junta in key border town

Resistance forces almost dislodged the regime from a key trading town on the Thai-Myanmar border. But a third party altered the course of battle.

By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published April 2024

Since December, an anti-junta coalition of fighters have fought to seize control of the Asian Highway 1, the most important link between Myanmar and Thailand. In early March, the coalition assaulted the last regime positions guarding Myawaddy, the border town through which the highway passes. After a dramatic series of events, including the seeming surrender of several hundred regime soldiers, on 11 April a coalition member claimed it had captured the town.

But the situation proved to be more complex. Rather than coalition forces, another armed group formerly known as the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF) swept in to occupy Myawaddy. Though it had recently declared itself neutral after 12 years of alliance with the Myanmar military, the BGF’s behaviour continued to favour the regime. Moreover, a regime unit initially thought to be defeated had survived on the edge of town. Unable to fully dislodge its opponent, the coalition was forced to withdraw and enter negotiations. A tenuous security arrangement has emerged in Myawaddy even as fighting continues elsewhere.

Beginning in late October, the Brotherhood Alliance expelled the regime from swathes of territory in northern Shan State, in what came to be known as Operation 1027.

Recognising the regime’s precarious and weak position, other opposition forces stepped up efforts to win back territory in their respective areas.

Between November and March, the Arakan Army (AA) dislodged the regime from most of its positions across eight townships in Rakhine State, as well as one in southern Chin State.
Although fighting slowed in April, the two sides remain locked in a struggle for control over the area near the Bangladesh border. On 12 April, the AA captured the No.7 Border Guard Police battalion headquarters in Maungdaw Township. The regime’s 15th Military Operations Command (MOC) remains standing in Buthidaung Township.

The AA also launched attacks in Ann Township, home to the regime’s Western Regional Military Command. The township is key for controlling the main road between Rakhine State and central Myanmar.

On 7 March, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) launched an offensive outside its nominal headquarters at Laiza, located on the border with China’s Yunnan Province. The operation succeeded in dislodging multiple regime fire-support bases threatening the city.

The KIA wound down the offensive after capturing the border town of Lweje, denying the regime control of yet another vital trade gate with China.

The group also established a firm foothold along the trade route from Lweje to Momauk. The wider area is key for controlling access between Kachin and northern Shan State.

Following Operation 1027, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and People's Defence Force (PDF) units began an assault on Kawkareik. The strategic town lies at the junction of the Asian Highway 1 and an older road that runs parallel through the mountains. It is also home to the regime’s 12th MOC headquarters.
Contest over Kawkareik and the surrounding area has been intense, with the regime conducting heavy air and artillery strikes against coalition forces. Most of the population has fled, and portions of the town lie in ruins.
After struggling for three months to expel the regime from Kawkareik, coalition forces launched coordinated assaults against several Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) headquarters on the other side of the Dawna Mountains on 7 March.
By 20 March, regime forces had withdrawn from their two positions at the eastern base of the Dawna Mountains. On 4 April, the BGF then helped evacuate nearly 500 regime defenders guarding a tactical-command post near the 357th LIB headquarters. The soldiers were taken to the BGF’s area of control in Shwe Kokko.
One junta position remained – the 275th Infantry Battalion (IB) headquarters – located directly on the highway at the edge of Myawaddy Town. Under pressure, the defenders conducted a fighting withdrawal and took up defensive positions under the 2nd Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge.

Speaking to media on 11 April, a KNLA spokesperson claimed that the group was in control of Myawaddy. But no evidence of KNLA or PDF presence emerged in the days that followed.

In reality, the BGF had moved in to occupy the town while allowing the regime’s administration to remain. BGF fighters also reportedly provided food and supplies to stranded regime soldiers under the bridge.

To recapture Myawaddy, the junta assembled a strike force at Hpa-An with elements from the 55th Light Infantry Division, armoured vehicles, and multiple-launch rocket systems.

The convoy reached Kawkareik on 12 April, where it encountered numerous coalition ambushes and uninhabited-aerial-vehicle (UAV) strikes.

Thanks to its superior firepower, however, the regime had by 22 April re-secured Kawkareik and forced the withdrawal of coalition forces from the town’s immediate vicinity.

Potentially fearing a regime breakthrough across the mountains, on 19 April KNLA forces launched UAV attacks against the 275th IB sheltering beneath the border bridge before carrying out a ground assault.

The regime responded with heavy airstrikes, forcing the KNLA and PDFs to retreat from the area. On 23 April the surviving soldiers from the 275th returned to their base.

Border battle

Ultimately, the regime’s strike force at Kawkareik was not able to relieve the 275th by the time opposition forces launched their assault at the 2nd Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge on 19 April. The regime’s advance was slowed by the multiple UAV attacks and ambushes staged by coalition forces along the western foot of the mountains. But videos uploaded to the Telegram social-media app also showed a multitude of direct UAV strikes on coalition columns. Following Operation 1027, which involved highly effective UAV swarm attacks against regime positions, the regime appears to have rapidly accelerated efforts to acquire and deploy modified commercial UAVs carrying purpose-built munitions produced by its Directorate of Defense Industries.

Whether by design or chance, the regime’s concentration of force at Kawkareik drew coalition forces away from Myawaddy and into heavy fire. Having initially considered a surrender to the coalition, the 275th’s ultimate decision to withdraw from its base and take up position under the bridge proved pivotal. Led by the commander of the 44th Light Infantry Division, the unit held out despite taking dozens of casualties during the coalition attack on 19 and 20 April. Regime aircraft, which likely deployed precision-guided munitions in close proximity to the Thai border, then drove the KNLA and PDF from the area.

The costs of the clashes at both Kawkareik and Myawaddy appeared to be substantial for the coalition in terms of both the expenditure of resources and casualties. During the fighting, some PDFs issued appeals for emergency donations to purchase ammunition, indicating that the coalition was not prepared for a drawn-out battle. The commander of the Albino Tiger Column, for example, said that his unit expended its entire ammunition reserve, and admitted to taking nearly 50 casualties, though the actual figure could be in the hundreds. Speaking to media on 24 April, KNLA spokesperson Saw Taw Nee acknowledged, ‘we had to pay a lot, with the sacrifice of lives’. Saw Taw Nee also alluded to the possibility that coalition forces would have risked encirclement had they remained engaged with the 275th at the bridge and the regime strike force made it over the hills. The comment highlights the probability that the coalition expected the regime to fold rather than deploy reinforcements to retake the fallen bases. While the BGF played a critical role, the regime’s rapid response, overwhelming firepower and the stubborn action of the 275th enabled it to narrowly maintain its foothold in Myawaddy, at least for now.

The BGF pulls the strings

Following the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, initiated an era of negotiation and ceasefire with various ethnic opponents. From 2009 onwards, the Tatmadaw convinced some ceasefire groups to transform into either People’s Militia Forces (PMF) or Border Guard Forces (BGF) under its command. In exchange for their cooperation, these groups were permitted to keep their arms and pursue illicit business opportunities, like narcotics. Throughout their history, some PMFs and BGFs have directly fought alongside the Tatmadaw, while others provided basic security or acted as buffer forces.

Since the 2021 coup, the Karen BGF has played a critical role in helping the regime to maintain its grip over Myawaddy Township but has appeared reluctant to directly fight against other ethnic Karen forces opposed to the junta, especially those with whom it does business. The regime’s weakening in the aftermath of Operation 1027, however, provided the Karen BGF with an opportunity to reposition itself in the conflict landscape. In January, the regime began pressuring the group to shut down illicit online scam centres in Shwe Kokko. Recognising the regime’s inability to enforce any demand, the BGF renamed itself and announced its neutrality.

But the BGF's role in the recent episode at Myawaddy shows that its actual status had remained undecided. The coalition's initial assault on the regime was successful in part because the BGF did not interfere. But after the bases fell, the BGF released the regime commanders and soldiers, some of whom may have rearmed to conduct operations in support of the embattled 275th. It also facilitated the 275th's return to its headquarters after the coalition's withdrawal from the area.

Following the coalition’s retreat from Myawaddy Town’s vicinity by 21 April, the BGF brokered negotiations involving both the regime and KNLA’s 6th Brigade. An agreement was reached to designate Myawaddy Town as a safe zone, with the regime’s administration left in place under the security of the BGF. The deal upset other elements of the coalition, especially the PDFs eager to continue the fight against the junta. The status quo remains delicate and there is continued risk for fighting, but, the BGF has positioned itself as a key power broker in a critical space along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Thai soldiers watch over Myanmar refugees who fled fighting around Myawaddy, 12 April 2024. (Photo: Alamy)
Thai soldiers watch over Myanmar refugees who fled fighting around Myawaddy, 12 April 2024. (Photo: Alamy)

Thais mull rethink as power balance shifts

The battle over Myawaddy has generated significant attention from Thai officials and media concerned with the possibility of spillover and renewed refugee flows. On 9 April, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin convened an emergency meeting of cabinet and national-security officials to discuss the unfolding crisis along the border. While visiting Mae Sot a few days later, Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara urged de-escalation and said that Thailand was willing to serve as a mediator. A spokesperson for the Royal Thai Army revealed discussions with all parties to establish Myawaddy as a safe zone.

To deter the regime in Naypyidaw from using excessive force along the border, Thai Defence Minister Suthin Klangsaeng issued a directorate on 11 April to shoot down any Myanmar military aircraft breaching Thai airspace within five minutes. But this threat and other efforts to mediate the conflict failed to prevent the fighting at the 2nd Friendship Bridge on 19 and 20 March, which underscores Thailand’s limited ability, or willingness, to successfully intervene in ongoing battles.

At present, there appears to be a debate among relevant actors over the future of Thailand’s Myanmar policy. Recognising the regime’s precarious position, some within the Thai security apparatus may prefer the return to a ‘buffer policy’ marked by enhanced engagement with — and possible support for — ascendant opposition groups along the border at the expense of the regime. In contrast, others within the government view the regime in Naypyidaw as necessary to any long-term solution, fearing its collapse would lead to chaos and negatively impact Thailand’s security. How the episode in Myawaddy or the recent cabinet reshuffle could influence this debate remains to be seen.

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