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BANGKOK (AP) – About two weeks into a major offensive against Myanmar’s military-run government by an alliance of three well-armed militias of ethnic minorities, an army captain, fighting in a jungle area near the northeastern border with China, lamented that he had never seen such intense action.
His commander in Myanmar’s 99th Light Infantry Division had been killed in fighting in Shan state the week before and the 35-year-old career soldier said army outposts were in disarray and being hit from all sides.
“I have never faced these kinds of battles before,” the combat veteran told The Associated Press by phone. “This fighting in Shan is unprecedented.” Eight days later the captain was dead himself, killed defending an outpost and hastily buried near where he fell, according to his family.
The coordinated offensive in the northeast has inspired resistance forces around the country to attack, and Myanmar’s military is falling back on almost every front. The army says it is regrouping and will regain the initiative, but hope is rising among opponents that this could be a turning point in the struggle to oust the army leaders who toppled democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi almost three years ago.
“The current operation is a great opportunity to change the political situation in Myanmar, “said Li Kyar Win, spokesperson for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or MNDAA, one of the three militias known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance that launched the offensive on October 27.
“The goal and purpose of the alliance groups and other resistance forces are the same,” he told the AP. “We are trying to eliminate the military dictatorship.”
Caught by surprise by the attack dubbed Operation 1027, the military has lost more than 200 outposts and strongpoints, including four major bases and four economically important border crossings with China.
Both sides claim they have inflicted heavy tolls on the other, though accurate casualty figures are not available. Nearly 335,000 civilians have been displaced during the current fighting, bringing the total to more than 2 million displaced nationwide, according to the United Nations.
In the latest assault, a coalition of militia forces attacked a town in southeastern Kayin state on Friday, blocking the main road to a key border town with Thailand. Residents said the military responded with artillery and airstrikes.
“This is the biggest battlefield challenge that the Myanmar military has faced for decades,” Richard Horsey, the International Crisis Group’s Myanmar expert, said of the offensive.
“And for the regime, this is by far the most difficult moment it’s faced since the early days of the coup.”
Complicating matters for the military is China’s apparent tacit support for the Three Brotherhood Alliance, stemming, at least partially, from Beijing’s growing irritation at the burgeoning drug trade along its border and the proliferation of centers in Myanmar from which cyberscams are run, frequently by Chinese organized crime cartels with workers trafficked from China or elsewhere in the region.
As Operation 1027 has gained ground, thousands of Chinese nationals involved in such operations have been repatriated into police custody in China, giving Beijing little reason to exert pressure on the Brotherhood to stop fighting.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, remains far bigger and better trained than the resistance forces, and has armor, airpower and even naval assets to fight the lightly armed militias organized by various ethnic minority groups.
But with its unexpectedly quick and widespread losses and overstretched forces, morale is sagging with more troops surrendering and defecting, giving rise to a wary optimism among its diverse opponents.
The current gains are just part of what has been a long struggle, said Nay Phone Latt, a spokesperson for the National Unity Government, the leading opposition organization.
“I would say the revolution has reached the next level, rather than to say it has reached a turning point,” he said.
“What we have now is the results of our preparation, organization and building over nearly the past three years,” he said.
The February 1, 2021, seizure of power by army commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing brought thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators to the streets of Myanmar’s cities.
Military leaders responded with brutal crackdowns and have arrested more than 25,000 people and killed more than 4,200 as of December 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and UN independent investigators earlier this year accused the regime of being responsible for multiple war crimes.
Its violent tactics gave rise to People’s Defense Forces, or PDFs—armed resistance forces that support the National Unity Government, many of which were trained by the ethnic armed organizations the military has fought in the country’s border regions for years.
But resistance was fragmented until Operation 1027, when three of the country’s most powerful armed ethnic groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in northeastern Shan state, and the Arakan Army in western Rakhine state, assembled a force of some 10,000 fighters, according to expert estimates, and rapidly overran military positions.
Sensing weakness and inspired by the early successes of those attacks, the Kachin Independence Army followed by launching new attacks in northern Kachin state, then joined the Arakan Army to help lead a PDF group to take a town in central Sagaing, the heartland of traditional ethnic Bamar support for the Tatmadaw.
In the eastern state of Kayah, also known as Karenni, an alliance of ethnic armed organizations launched their own attacks, beginning a direct assault on November 11 on the state capital of Loikaw, where the Tatmadaw has a regional command base.
In the fierce ongoing fighting for Loikaw, the military is using artillery and airstrikes to pound militia positions.
But Khun Bedu, head of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, one of the biggest militias involved in the attack, said it was critical to take the Tatmadaw base.
“We have time, and it is a good opportunity,” he told AP.
Completing the encirclement of Tatmadaw forces, the Arakan Army attacked outposts in its home state of Rakhine in the country’s west on November 13. Their success has been slow, with the Tatmadaw making use of naval power off the west coast to bombard positions, along with concentrated artillery and air strikes, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Morgan Michaels, who authored the report and runs the IISS Myanmar Conflict Map project, cautioned that the Tatmadaw has been able to concentrate its forces in strong points by abandoning positions and withdrawing, and remains a formidable force.
“It’s not done fighting, and the air and artillery strikes are increasing and becoming more intense,” he said. “So we have to see how that plays out.”
And despite their talk of ridding the country of the military regime, a lot of the fighting is also about the various groups seizing control of territory, especially the MNDAA, which was pushed out of the Kokang area of Shan state, including the capital Laukkaing, more than a decade ago by the military.
“The military could probably end a lot of this with a deal if it needed to,” Mr. Michaels said. “It would have to give up something considerable, but I think it could stop the bleeding by giving the MNDAA a considerable concession if they absolutely needed to.”
Still, unlike the civil war in Syria where multiple groups have different and often conflicting objectives, in Myanmar the anti-military groups are not fighting among each other, he said.
“It’s important to emphasize that many groups have the shared goal of either overthrowing or dismantling or severely depleting the capacity of the military regime,” Mr. Michaels said.
It was November 15 when the AP first contacted the Tatmadaw captain, reaching him as he was fleeing a position through the jungle near the border town of Monekoe, one of the alliance’s primary targets.
He was able to link up with others, and then led a column back to the Monekoe area to take charge of an outpost on November 22, when he gave the AP a grim assessment of his situation.
“We are surrounded by enemies,” he said, adding that even local army-affiliated militia could not be trusted.
“Here it is difficult to differentiate between who is enemy or friend,” he said.
The captain, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against himself or his family for talking with the media, said there was not even enough time to eat a meal.
“We have to be always ready in an attack position,” he said as the sound of gunfire and an explosion erupted in the background.
“I can’t keep talking,” he said quickly. “They are coming to attack.”
Well aware of Beijing’s irritation over the criminal activity along its border, the Three Brotherhood Alliance underlined as it launched its offensive that it was committed to “combatting the widespread online gambling fraud that has plagued Myanmar.”
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has tried, unsuccessfully, to turn that on its head and say that the offensive is being funded by the drug trade.
As militia forces have advanced toward the city of Laukkaing, where many of the scam centers were located, their operations have been scattering and many high-level suspects have been captured and turned over to China.
Knowing China’s historic ties to the Brotherhood militias and the influence it wields, supporters of Myanmar’s ruling generals have held several demonstrations in major cities, including in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, accusing China of aiding the militia alliance.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin skirted a question about those allegations this week, instead telling reporters that Beijing “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Myanmar” and reiterating calls for peace.
But Beijing’s actions speak louder than its words, Mr. Horsey said.
“If they really wanted the cease-fire, they do have the leverage to enforce one or get pretty far toward enforcing one,” he said. “They haven’t done that, so that’s telling.”
Myanmar’s military government has been freeing soldiers and police who had been jailed for desertion and absence without leave, seeking to get them to return to active duty, a police officer and an army officer said Thursday.
The releases follow an amnesty plan announced earlier this week to get them back into service in order to ease an apparent manpower shortage.
The plan was an apparent consequence of the military facing the greatest battlefield pressures since it seized power.
A police captain in the capital, Naypyitaw, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release information, told The Associated Press that many police who were convicted of offenses including desertion and absence without leave were released Thursday, which marked National Victory Day, the anniversary of the 1920 breakout of organized activities against British colonial rule.
It is traditional to have mass prisoner releases on national holidays.
An army officer in the capital, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the military since last month has been granting amnesty to convicted soldiers and police who were serving prison sentences of up to three years.
The action of the military government came after state-run newspapers on Monday reported that the military would grant amnesty to soldiers who have committed minor crimes who wish to return to active service.
Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the ruling military council, was quoted Tuesday in state media as saying that about 1,000 soldiers who deserted, or went absent without leave or had retired, had gone through the process of requesting the military for their return to service.
“If the soldiers who have been declared absent without leave before Dec. 3 return with the intention of serving in the army again, we will consider it as a case of absence without leave instead of desertion and will carry out the acceptance process in order for them to serve,” he said.
According to Myanmar’s Defense Services Act, deserting the army is punishable by a minimum sentence of seven years imprisonment up to the death penalty.
According to a November 30 report by the underground group People’s Goal, which encourages and supports defections from the security forces, nearly 450 members of the military surrendered, defected or deserted after the coordinated offensive was launched on October 27.
In September, the defense ministry of the National Unity Government, a major opposition group that acts as a shadow government, said that more than 14,000 troops have defected from the military since the 2021 seizure of power.
The Associated Press was unable to verify these claims.
The Captain’s Death
The AP last made contact with the captain fighting in Shan state on November 23. The call was short.
“I have something to prepare for our outpost,” he said hurriedly. “I will call you back.”
The next call was from a relative on November 25, who said they had been informed he was killed in a night raid on his outpost and buried on site.
It was not clear exactly where the outpost was located, but only one battle was reported in the region that night.
The Brotherhood’s Ta’ang National Liberation Army said its forces attacked a large military outpost in Lashio township on November 23 and took it early the next day.
In its matter-of-fact report, Ta’ang forces said they seized a howitzer, 78 smaller weapons and ammunition, and found the burial site of “more than 50 enemy.”