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Is it time to acknowledge the obvious regarding Myanmar’s military?

Guest contributor

Saw Htee Cher

Diplomats, agency heads, and other foreign analysts of Myanmar’s civil war have been so fixated on the alleged size of the military, that they miss or underestimate other more relevant and determinant aspects of that force, and of the war. This misplaced focus on its size leads the analysts into self-deception about the trajectory of the conflict and its increasingly predictable outcome. 

Bickering over whether the military has 200,000 or 400,000 members isn’t just unproductive, it’s beside the point. What matters is what we see on the frontline now. Also pertinent is the fact that at no point after the 2021 military coup has it won many battles.

It has been on a protracted losing streak since the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) sprang up and began ambushing its convoys. With Operation 1027 since Oct. 27 that losing streak has now accelerated headlong toward the inevitable end. 

Forget about the pre-coup military statistics, which projected an image of invincibility that didn’t pan out on the battlefield. What we see now are captured troops with gray hair and aging faces, speaking during debriefing interviews about how they were called up and sent into combat against their will. 

We see the clearing out of military prisons, with men previously considered unfit for service, and sent to the frontline. We see administrative staff and military family members being pulled from their jobs or classes, given training so brief it amounts to little more than helpful hints, and having guns shoved into their hands.

Then they are sent off to face battle-hardened PDFs and ethnic armies against whom they stand little chance – a fact of which they seem well aware.

We see demoralized troops, even entire battalions, surrendering in order to escape alive from a conflict they consider pointless and futile. And significantly, we see battle outcomes in which camps and barracks are lost along with their arsenals, with dozens to hundreds of troops killed and wounded.

The military is hemorrhaging its ground forces, and there are no more reserves to call up. Already the military is so short of troops that it is pulling out of areas such as southern Karenni State in order to stave off disaster in more strategic points, like the capital Loikaw.

It has been unable to recover ground lost since Oct. 27. Reinforcements sent toward Lashio, Kawlin, and Khampat are attacked and decimated before they can arrive.

The military has air power, that much can be said. As its ground forces lose bases and cities, the jets can still rain 500 and 1000 pound bombs on civilian communities, hospitals, schools, and temples.

There is no fuel for cars and trucks, but there is plenty for war planes. The air terror can keep hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s citizens from living in their homes. What it cannot do is retake or hold territory. Air terror destabilizes; it does not win a war. 

It is time to ignore the grizzled analysts who still consider the military incapable of defeat, despite everything in news reports. Their claims of “stalemate” are anachronistic echoes of earlier ages. The Spring Revolution is not 1988, and this military junta is crippled beyond redemption. 

It is incredible and dismaying to watch the governments of China, India, and Thailand continue to interact with it as if it were a government, when it controls no more than one third of the country. And it never had any legitimacy to begin with.

Equally dismaying is their near failure to engage with the National Unity Government (NUG), even if only to hedge their bets in the civil war.

It is surprising indeed to hear remarks from Western diplomats that seem to take seriously the claims of a coming election. It is nothing short of maddening to hear the hypocritical excuses of U.N. agencies for not engaging with the ethnic homeland governments, claiming certain of the latter have been associated with human rights violations or drug trafficking. 

These agencies prefer to sign MOUs with Naypyidaw, which is far worse on both counts, and allow the distribution of their aid be dictated by the generals for the benefit of the military instead of the people in need. 

We can disagree over how many more months Min Aung Hlaing’s band of putschists continue living in their Naypyidaw palaces. We can speculate about what shape the post-revolution political configuration of Myanmar will look like. 

Barring a Chinese invasion, however, what is no longer in doubt is that the junta’s days are numbered. 

Its army, whatever its size, is too small for the task at hand and diminishing fast in both quality and quantity. It is time for everyone inside and outside the country to make plans for how they will deal with the new order in Myanmar, one that isn’t ruled by kleptocratic and genocidal generals.

Those who hesitate, still hoping to salvage their established relationship with the vanishing junta, will be the losers. 

The international community could learn a particular lesson from Myanmar’s Spring Revolution: Not to accord automatic legitimacy to any gang of armed criminals that happens to seize control of the apparatus of a state. 

The U.N. and various foreign governments and agencies committed this error after the February 2021 military coup, and have persisted in it for nearly three years despite the existence of a democratic alternative administration legitimized through elections.

In doing so these institutions made themselves accomplices to the war crimes being committed even while their representatives were making their pilgrimages to Naypyidaw to pay homage to the usurpers. 

In an ideal world there would be some form of accountability for such complicity. The U.N. agency heads might consider more carefully what they enable, intentionally or otherwise, if they could end up as defendants at the International Court of Justice.


Saw Htee Cher has been an international humanitarian aid worker in Myanmar both before and after the 2021 coup d’état, starting under the Thein Sein administration in 2011. He writes Burma Coup Resistance Notes.

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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