Burma: What Political and Geopolitical Outlook after the Offensive Launched by Armed Ethnic Groups?

15 décembre 2023
Le point de vue de Éric Mottet

Since late October 2023, clashes have been taking place in Burma, particularly in Shan State, following a coordinated offensive by three ethnic minority groups from Kolang against the military junta in power since the 2021 coup. These joint operations have weakened the junta, which now controls only 40-60% of Burma. How can this military retreat be explained? Have these clashes on the Chinese-Burmese border resonated with Beijing? Should we expect continuity or fragmentation in the conflict? An update from Éric Mottet, Director of Research at IRIS.


With the junta now in control of only 40-60% of Burma’s territory, how do you explain its military retreat? How has the convergence of struggles within Burmese society weakened the junta?

The military coup d’état on February 1st 2021 triggered a revival of ethnic conflicts throughout Burma, with certain ethnic groups (Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Kayin, Arakanese) having been opposing the regular troops of the Burmese military junta for decades. At the end of October 2023 (Operation 1027), the Brotherhood Alliance (MNDAA, TNLA, Arakan Army), a trio of armed ethnic groups, took over territories and military posts in Shan State bordering China that had previously been in the hands of the Tatmadaw (Burmese army). The Armed Ethnic Organisations (AEO) were joined by the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), created by the National Unity Government (NUG), a government in exile dominated by former deputies of the National League for Democracy (dissolved on March 29th 2023), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in power between 2015 and 2020. The aim of the PDF is to defend democracy and protect the population by declaring a defensive war against the army. With more than 60,000 soldiers, the PDF are now well equipped and collaborate with the OED. Added to this is widespread civil disobedience and rotating strikes across the country. By combining their forces, resources, expertise and equipment, the protest movements are now inflicting resounding setbacks on the military junta, forcing the army to retreat on multiple fronts. Faced with this dual confrontation, the Tatmadaw does not seem to have the reserve forces usually required to counter the multiple offensives. It has to be said that the Tatmadaw has lost around 50,000 soldiers (out of 450,000) since the last coup, who have been killed, wounded or have defected (20,000), in particular to join the PDF. In recent days, the Burmese junta has been encouraging soldiers who have deserted or gone AWOL to return to their barracks. It is also recalling veterans, threatening to suspend their pensions if they do not return. In any case, the troops were demoralised and recruitment became increasingly difficult.


Clashes between Kokang ethnic groups and the Burmese army broke out in Shan State at the end of October 2023 on the Chinese-Burmese border. Did these clashes resonate with Beijing? What are China’s strategic interests in Burma?

Beijing is keeping a very close eye on events in Burma, particularly along the shared border (2,000 km). For several years now, China has been encouraging armed organisations to maintain a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw along the border, as well as between rival ethnic organisations. This is because Beijing gives absolute priority to the security of its borders and territorial integrity. By collaborating with armed ethnic organisations, Beijing is also seeking to dismantle the network of online cybercrime centres operating in areas controlled by the regime and the Border Guard Forces (BGF) integrated into the Burmese army. These centres, which have claimed thousands of victims among Chinese nationals (human trafficking, scams), have in recent years become a major concern for the governments of the Chinese border provinces. Burma is also of major geostrategic and economic importance to China and its New Silk Roads (Belt and Road Initiative), particularly through the development of the China-Myanmar economic corridor. This corridor of energy infrastructure (gas and oil pipelines) and transport, which stretches from the Chinese border (Yunnan province) to Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State), should eventually lead to a deep-water port (Kyaukpyu) that would give China access to the Indian Ocean. However, the violent opposition to the Burmese junta is complicating negotiations on infrastructure projects financed by Beijing, while at the same time weakening the Burmese regime, which could be forced to accept agreements unfavourable to the interests of the junta and its generals. For this reason, the Burmese Foreign Minister, Than Swe, has reportedly asked China to use its influence with the armed ethnic organisations. According to the Burmese regime’s media, Than Swe, who met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on Wednesday 6 December, discussed speeding up construction of the Kyaukpyu port and building a railway linking Rakhine State to Yunnan province via Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay.


Should we expect the conflict to continue or fragment? What political prospects are envisaged?

Despite its (limited) territorial and human losses, the Tatmadaw is maintaining a relatively solid foothold in the theatre of operations, occupying a network of well-defended bases and controlling the main traffic routes, the telephone network and the internet. The army owes this situation to its early decision to abandon many positions in order to keep the bulk of its forces intact. Rather than trying to deploy forces scattered across the country, the Tatmadaw seems to have adopted a strategy based on concentrating mobile forces and applying firepower (artillery, fighter planes) against certain priority targets, which its inordinate resources allow it to do (military expenditure of $2.7 billion, i.e. a third of the State budget), particularly in comparison with lightly armed guerrillas (light automatic weapons, civilian drones, etc.). On the other hand, there are a number of divisions between armed opposition players, specifically the lack of pre-established, high-level military coordination. In addition, it will be difficult to reproduce the surprise effect of the attacks of operation 1027. The lack of a common objective and consistent resources between the ADOs, the PDFs and civil society could weigh heavily when the time comes to set up a unified movement. This visible weakening of the junta in peripheral areas of the national territory should not lead us to believe that the generals have definitively lost the upper hand. In the absence of external aid, which the Burmese population does not appreciate, particularly in view of the considerable material support given to the Ukrainian resistance, it is difficult to envisage a higher level of cooperation and military interoperability for the resistance. As for the generals, they remain convinced that the protests and resistance will eventually run out of steam. As for the legislative elections promised by the junta since 2021, they are constantly being postponed and no longer seem topical, especially as the international community is losing interest in Burma’s socio-political trajectory.


Translated by Deepl.
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