This is the second instalment in a four-part series remembering the first year of the cataclysmic military coup in Burma.
The first instalment, “2021, The Golden Age of the Burmese Military”, can be found here.
Part III, “Friends like These?”, is here.
“In danger of being shot to the back and head”
It is hard to exaggerate the terror experienced by those in Burma’s major cities (to say nothing of its rural population) six months into the coup — a period when stresses were exacerbated by a horrendous third wave of COVID-19 during which the military, instead of assisting citizens, blocked and monopolized oxygen imports, denied access to hospitals, and continued to drag medics from their homes and execute them in the street. If social media accounts, personal experiences, and anecdotal evidence is to be valued over the military’s corrupt Ministry of Health and Sport, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people — young and old, rich and poor — died from COVID-19 between June and October.
Hundreds of people, including protestors, doctors, nurses and teachers, random civilians, and undocumented children working in the tea shops of Yangon and Mandalay, were also abducted and disappeared. The general public feared that, as in 1988, many would be soon used by frontline soldiers as porters and sex slaves. Those who had spent their careers working within Burma’s ethnic regions were agag, but unsurprised: the familiar “rapist army” had come home to roost.
Concurrently, reliable accounts of mass torture and sexual violence began to emerge from the military’s holding cells — the junta’s ‘interrogation centers’, where one can now be held indefinitely without charge, tortured, and, in some cases, killed. As in northern Rakhine in the years directly preceding the coup, the military routinely began to cut internet access (whilst whitelisting IP addresses, essentially outlawing every web-based application), banned all independent media groups, rounded-up the country’s journalists, medics, and educationalists, and began abducting those critical of the military on social media.
Further massacres were soon reported as troops scrambled to pacify the northwest, an area which had now become the center of the resistance, with methods honed during the recent campaign of genocide in Rakhine. The proud citizens of Chin State, never before subjected to such violent incursions, were the first to become entangled in a full-scale military offensive. In response, Chin, Sagaing, and Magway Region protestors increasingly educated the general public in the benefits of the traditional “tumi” musket.
This indiscriminate, unremitting violence against civilians finally led the NUG to announce a long threatened ‘D-Day’ on Sep. 7 — a call to arms for all opponents of the military to intensify a “defensive war” against the pillars of the institution. Such an announcement — which in retrospect seems pivotal to the chronology of the armed struggle — came at a time where nascent resistance groups, largely manned by teenagers and young adults, were woefully under-resourced. Analysts feared imminent slaughter, and the military certainly attempted to oblige. On Sep. 18, troops led an invasion of Thantlang, the beginning of its full-scale occupation and destruction at the expense of all 15,000 of the Chin border town’s residents, and a number of significant Christian places of worship. The Burma Army’s LID 66 is said to have so far burned down 800 homes in Thantlang, and nobody has yet returned.
Around this time, a change in the dynamic of the resistance movement became evident. Throughout October and November, PDFs operating in the northwest began claiming the deaths of multiple hundreds of soldiers each week after apparently mastering the art of attacking army convoys traversing the difficult highways of the region. The development all but stopped the army’s pledged ‘Operation Anawrahta’ — a scorched earth campaign which has thus far led to thousands of documented incidences of human rights abuses — before it managed to pick up steam.
In October, military officials reportedly told Chinese border forces — increasingly concerned by both the junta’s failure to secure China’s infrastructure projects and energy assets, and by the increasing number of coronavirus carrying IDPs rushing for the border — that the defeat of the PDF was imminent and would be achieved within three months. It is now February, and, aside from military casualties running to an estimated 9,000, Min Aung Hlaing’s ‘invincible’ military has very little to show for its troubles — if anything, the army has never had less of a foothold in the northwest.
Far from being wiped out, PDF groups have swelled in both size and numbers. Most now claim enough man (and woman) power to not only deter troops from occupying towns and villages, but to also effectively run proto-bureaucracies with the help of striking civil servants and local civilians (who — despite experiencing daily military raids, the full-scale destructions of villages, and airstrikes led to root out resistance groups — have typically shown few signs of wavering in their support of those fighting junta terror).
Many of these groups continue to receive the unwavering support of partner EAOs. PDF members from Sagaing told DVB in November that the KIA had backed operations across an arc reaching from the east to the west of Burma, loosely coordinating large resistance forces operating from Chin through Magway, Sagaing, and Mandalay, and back up to Kachin. Aside from upholding the shared goals of all parties to the revolution, PDF groups are proving a useful foil to EAOs, allowing them to better deflect and control the movement of Burma Army troops in their own territories. The next phase of the revolutionary war will likely see an increasingly tighter coordination of resistance groups operating within the NUCC/NUG framework, further testing the morale and manpower of the military.
The reach of the PDFs is in no way limited to Burma’s northwest. The NUG’s Yangon Region Military Command (rather more before mass arrests — including that of much loved NLD representative, Phyo Zeya Thaw — rocked the grouping in November) claims factions under its command led scores of highly visible and lethal attacks in Burma’s largest city: something entirely without precedent. PDF groups also report having led attacks on targets in the ‘impregnable’ capital of Naypyidaw, a city built specifically to fortify the Burmese military against all potential attackers.
Although nowhere near comparable in terms of firepower, the ability of Burma’s PDF groups to lead increasingly devastating raids against military targets is remarkable. In under six months, young recruits — typically trained in warfare during under-supplied, whirlwind two-week courses — have moved from protesting in sandals and vests to attacking military positions with IEDs and rockets, using 3-D printed handguns, scuppering military jade vessels with aquatic mines, and dropping explosives on army bases from drones. Remarkably, most of these weapons systems are homebrews, made deep in the field; a few groups appear to benefit financially and logistically from their links to the NUG or EAOs, yet most of these advancements flow solely from the ingenuity of the PDFs themselves, backed by the generous support of local communities and donors within Burma. This creativity is driven by one decisive fact: the PDFs remain woefully under supplied with weapons, something mentioned in every communication with representatives of the various groups. Until this equation is altered, an uneasy stalemate typified by an endless cycle of guerrilla attacks and civilian massacres will likely pertain.
Administratively, the military now has far less room for maneuver than it would have done before Feb. 2021 (This fact is the argument plus ultra against the growing band of international “experts” now non-reflectively claiming that the junta controls the country). By replacing Burma’s unelected but popular local administrators with its own sympathisers, the military triggered resistance groups to begin a campaign of assassinations which has led to the wholesale murder of hundreds of town and village heads, accused of being ‘dalan’, or informants.
In a pattern seen in northern Rakhine, and other ethnic regions since Burma’s founding, troops are increasingly ceeding administrative powers to popular local rulers after realising that the wholesale slaughter of towns and villages does nothing to lower the costs of administering a territory wherein the entire population despises you. Swathes of northern Magway, a number of townships of Sagaing, Kayah, and Kayin, and even parts of Yangon Region are now reporting the total absence of military bureaucracy (a fact alleged to have recently been admitted to by a Burma Army commander in Magway).
This is due to the very fact that the military is most active in its persecution of these regions, and not the other way around. Many would argue that the Burma Army brass — unrefined mafiosos with an interest only in extraction, tax, and blood — were never administrators to begin with. If a village is not helpful in turning a profit, or if it costs more to subjugate than can be squeezed from it, history shows that it will eventually be left to its own devices. The only difference here is that vast expanses of the Bamar lands are making themselves more expensive to pacify — and are doing so with the help of the “ethnic rebels”, thereby threatening the geographical control that has long supported the military’s rape of Burma’s people and resources.
In this administrative vacuum, security services, civil administrations, and social services such as schools and hospitals are increasingly being run entirely by and for the people — Burma’s citizens are long attuned to relying on civil relief organizations above the institutions of extraction and control imposed by the military. ‘People’s Administrations’ from Chin to Kayah State have led programmes bringing thousands of local children back to the classroom outside of the junta’s auspices. Over the year, DVB published multiple reports on how PDF members had — due to the Burmese police force’s transition into just another sub branch of the junta’s mafia — begun fulfilling crime fighting functions. Groups now patrol townships, looking to block entries to soldiers and to stem the flow of contraband goods such as teak, drugs, and military products. In one case, a PDF fighter relayed how his group had begun the construction of a 500-bed hospital run by CDM medics to provide aid to local people and IDPs living in a liberated area. In Kayah, the Karenni State Police force formed after 320 officers in the region refused to work under the military. People’s judiciaries are making arrests and allegedly trying suspects to codes laid down by the NUG in line with international standards.
The United League of Arakan / Arakan Army’s success in bolstering its sphere of influence in post-coup Rakhine is arguably the best example of the bifurcation of Burma’s administrative and judicial structures. By avoiding direct conflict, and maintaining the impression that Rakhine represents a peaceful, non-revolutionary western front (intelligence sources suggest that the AA’s role in the current conflict is far more hot than is currently credited), Maj, Gen. Twan Mrat Naing has carved out even larger areas of control — the EAO claims that over 60 percent of northern Rakhine and, novelly, some towns and villages in the South, now fall under its firm martial and administrative control. The military knows that an attack on the AA, which consistently outfoxed it during battles between 2018 and 2020, would quite possibly be apocalyptic with respect to its more pressing need to now continually pacify every other region of Burma. To its credit, the AA itself continues to play both sides. By continuing to observe its 2020 ceasefire with the junta, the EAO’s leadership receives vaccines, avoids strikes and protests, and has thrived as the military imprisons Rakhine’s former NLD leaders. At the same time, AA troops may still be observed close to battlefields ranging from its organizational place of birth in Kachin, through Shan, and down to Hpa-an and the borders of Kayin State. Recent well-crafted comments from the EAO continue to play on the fears of the junta.
Whilst incurring thousands of casualties, the Burmese military has so far shown itself to be lacking in ideas regarding the containment of the guerrilla resistance. Towards the end of the year, it introduced its latest strategy, the airstrike, and since December, the junta has bombarded towns and villages across Burma in an attempt to root out popular PDF groups. Over Christmas, the Lay Kay Kaw Myothit ‘peace village’ — established with Japanese aid money as a sanctuary for Kayin refugees and a symbol of progress made under the old Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) — was ruthlessly invaded and occupied by the junta, displacing tens of thousands of people and forcing yet more to cross the Thai border. Next, junta troops turned their attention to Loikaw, the charming, developed capital city of Kayah State, leading a ground offensive and multiple air raids over a period of almost two weeks, forcing over half of the city’s population to flee. Kayah aid groups report that two-thirds of the entire state have now been displaced by the military.
The UN OCHA this month said it believed that in excess of 320,900 people across Burma have become internal refugees since the coup. Most are suffering from hunger and exposure to the winter elements as they continue to flee marauding troops.
Airstrikes — entirely inaccurate and expensive — have only served to intensify the slaughter of non-combatant civilians. They also pour further negative PR on an institution now suffering from what is likely to be a terminally tarnished public image. Defection numbers from regiments in Sagaing, Chin, Kayah, and Kayin — regions where the junta’s atrocities are most evident — are the highest in the country, and few people in 2022 appear to be falling for the junta’s abject and sociopathic attempts at propaganda which claims otherwise.
Although currently far too infrequent to suggest any imminent implosion, the NUG claims that some 2,000 soldiers and 6,000 police officers have fled their posts since the start of the coup. To be sure, a tectonic movement involving entire battalions would be necessary for the military to crumble. The failure of this to materialise does not in itself suggest that all is well with the military’s institutional morale: officer sources report having families called to permanently reside under surveillance — and within an internet black hole — on military bases, whilst statistics from the NUG’s ‘People’s Embrace’ campaign — wherein those who wish to defect are handed a QR code guaranteeing them a reward, safe passage, and the retention of their rank when a time to flee the feudal clutches of the military avails itself — shows that thousands more are ready to jump ship when the time is right. Tellingly, the military has proven that it no longer considers a court martial adequate punishment for those caught going AWOL.
The comfortable condition of a Burmese military officer — a concept that took root during the Than Shwe regime, and under which a soldier’s rank better represents his access to plunder than his valor and ability in battle — is itself now being tested. As Bertil Lintner recently observed, the idea that “even captains and lieutenants have more than one car, several sets of golf clubs, and at least two mistresses” risks being consigned to history in light of the coup.
A frontline soldier’s life has always been a precarious, dispensable thing under the Burmese military, a fact which, with the rise of the “Bamar rebel” and the IED, now also increasingly applies to the officer class. Juniors, likely inexperienced in conflict and, by all accounts, chronically complacent, are being roused from the KTVs of Yangon, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Naypyidaw and sent to the frontlines for the first time. Reports from Chin suggest that families are also being taken along for the ride. A fighter from the Chinland Defense Force conveyed to DVB how he had felt great horror upon bombing a convoy entering the Chin hills only to hear the desperate screams of women.
Outside of the regions, it is also fair to say that in no way are Burma’s major cities (save perhaps the very heart of partially tunnelled, heavily garrisoned Naypyidaw) still safe for those with links to the military. Gone are the pre-coup glory days wherein a senior officer, recently awarded a slushy multi-million dollar infrastructure contract, could build a Yangon home showcasing an entire wall constructed primarily from Louis Vuitton handbags, or alternatively, a subterranean garage to hold tens of super cars and vaults of unwashed RMB and US dollars (this correspondent can assure that such things are more than mere speculation).
The arrival of resistance forces has meant that the fear, for decades reserved solely for civilians living under the bullying of those able to “call up a major” whenever a dispute was to be resolved, is finally coming home to roost. A recent recording from Yangon’s central Sanchaung township captured the moment that a woman screaming of her plans to inform on a neighbor was instantly shot dead by a passing resistance fighter. “I know people”, a useful phrase even directly before Feb. 1 2021, is now more dangerous confession than menacing threat.
On top of this, information recieved from defecting soldiers proves that post-coup wages are down, almost across the board.
At its highest level, the military’s system of remuneration — the passing on of some of the super normal profits creamed off the top of the junta’s feudal extractive economy — will, of course, likely intensify. Min Aung Hlaing has so far proven that he is not averse to replacing those with the potential to challenge his weak authority with officers more susceptible to his promises of riches. The case of one of Burma’s richest cronies (turned recent NLD donor), U Zaw Zaw, who was rumored to have been taken in by authorities at the start of the coup and told in no uncertain terms to toe the line, suggests that the generals will also have no qualms over switching out their economic puppets. The underpaid and over aspiring officer class throws up no end of punters waiting in the hope of becoming the next Tay Za.
However, this state of affairs clearly only benefits those already near the top. News from the rank and file suggests that, regardless of former promises of riches, the putsch has meant that nobody any longer wishes to join the Burmese military. This year, DVB received dozens of separate reports suggesting that enrollment numbers and Pyin Oo Lwin officer training cohorts were down almost to the point of non-existence. Similarly, we were flooded with stories of the military and its militias arming the wives, children, and relatives of those currently serving. Retired servicemen, the disabled, and the elderly are all said to have been handed rifles and day wages in the hope of encouraging reenlistment. This situation has led the generals to openly discuss the idea of universal conscription — a law codified in Nov. 2010, but never acted on — to which Burma’s general public have urged the junta to “go ahead and fill the army with watermelons”, reds dressed in green, those intent on destroying the institution from the inside out.
This begs the question: from where will the military continue to find both the recruits and the morale for a war of attrition against its own people?
Part III, “Friends like These?”