Who’s more likely to win Myanmar’s raging civil war?

As consequential as was 1948, the year of Myanmar’s independence from colonial tutelage, 2021 and its popular revolt against military rule has marked a second critical watershed in the nation’s modern history

But at the end of a tumultuous year, the future of a struggle that has plunged the country into bloodshed pitting popular democratic forces against an unblinking military regime hangs in a precarious balance.

In recent months, journalistic shorthand has typically described the current conflict as a “stalemate.” The reality is more fluid nut given the wide geography of the Myanmar heartland and a stark lack of independent reporting, it is still impossible to define the trajectory of the war’s material and psychological forces with confidence.

The key strengths and weaknesses of the central protagonists – both dominated by Myanmar’s majority ethnic Bamar – have though emerged clearly enough. And the year ahead will almost certainly bring clarity to the overarching question of which side is likely to prevail in a struggle viewed by both as existential and which outside mediation is highly unlikely to mitigate let alone resolve.

On one side of the divide is a plethora of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), which in April emerged from the harsh suppression of mainly peaceful anti-coup protests. In the months that followed, they proliferated on a wave of popular anger over the military’s harsh and often lethal clampdown and attempt to reassert its stranglehold on national politics.

There were at one point at least 150-200 separate PDFs claiming to operate across virtually all major townships of central Myanmar as well as in some ethnic minority regions. Reorganization and attrition since mid-year have since reduced that number to perhaps 50 apparently reasonably well-established groups.

Their resistance campaign has brought the country to its knees. Daily targeted killings of military-appointed officials and suspected collaborators by PDF gunmen that have escalated to drive-by attacks on military bases and police stations have crippled local government in many parts of the country.

The ubiquitous use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that initially targeted government offices and troop convoys has meanwhile broadened to hit infrastructure targets such as railways, bridges, and Tatmadaw-owned mobile phone transmission towers.

The northwestern region of Sagaing has emerged as the epicenter of current hostilities. A rural backwater where longstanding support for the ousted National League of Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi and bitter grassroots opposition to the coup runs deep, Sagaing and neighboring townships of Magway Region have seen violent unrest escalate into an organized PDF insurgency that has clearly alarmed the Tatmadaw command.

Since early November, an ongoing military offensive dubbed “Alaung Min Taya” has involved military sweeps, raids backed by airstrikes and heliborne assault operations, but has failed conspicuously to quell resistance.

Nevertheless, after nine months of conflict that has also swept Chin state on the western border with India and Kayah in the east abutting Thailand while roiling major urban centers across the nation, it is clear that notwithstanding overwhelming popular support the PDFs face two looming challenges.

The first is sufficient access to modern weaponry. Since April, many groups have supplemented traditional hunting rifles with automatic weapons purchased from sympathetic ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) based in Myanmar’s rugged borderlands.

Not least has been the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which in northern Kachin state manufactures its own small arms and has provided assistance to some PDFs in Sagaing. In the east, ethnic Karen and Karenni EAOs have channeled supplies smuggled in from Thailand.

But PDF attacks on the military remain largely hit-and-run affairs with larger operations constrained by an ongoing lack of support weaponry – the machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars needed to overrun army outposts and seize more weaponry and ammunition.

Makeshift rocket launchers and mortars manufactured by some enterprising groups since October highlight rather than solve the problem. Even the use of IEDs, the one weapon that has become a PDF hallmark, appears to be treading water tactically and technically.

With most devices apparently based on low-yield black-powder (potassium nitrate and sulfur-based), there has been a curious failure to develop harder-hitting IEDs, particularly devices composed of easily accessible ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO), which Malay-Muslim insurgents in neighboring Thailand have deployed to considerable effect, not least when configured as car-bombs.

The PDFs’ second critical requirement is coordination and the strategy needed to direct it. Since the middle of the year, numerous township-based groups have forged spontaneous links with their neighbors. But broader operational alliances that could exert a strategic impact within or between regions are still embryonic where they exist at all.

Moving resistance to a higher level will almost certainly hinge on the capacity of the anti-junta resistance’s shadow administration, the National Unity Government (NUG), both to reinforce its relationships with local PDFs and to provide them with strategic direction, funds and, where possible, munitions. Failure to do so risks PDFs being isolated and reduced piecemeal in systematic and targeted Tatmadaw suppression drives. 

Since September when it declared a “people’s defensive war” on the military regime, the NUG has won the allegiance of many PDFs, and in Yangon at least, supported coordinated attacks bringing together key PDF cells under a NUG banner. Whether those efforts can keep pace with waves of intelligence-driven raids and arrests by the security forces in the country’s largest city is not clear.

On the other side of Myanmar’s divide is a Tatmadaw leviathan viewed by many policymakers in regional capitals and beyond as simply too big to fail. Its organization, cohesion, resources and centrality to the modern, post-colonial state appear to dictate that the military will continue by default to dominate an ethnically and politically fractious national stage.

In short, Myanmar without the Tatmadaw ruling caste is inconceivable. There are undeniably solid grounds for such a perspective and major powers, not least India and China, have largely predicated their policy towards the Myanmar crisis on this basis.

But as the military ratchets up its war effort, it also confronts critical vulnerabilities that at best will severely tax its capabilities, and at worst could push it towards fragmentation and conceivably even collapse.

The first is a manpower crisis. A volunteer rather than conscript force, the Tatmadaw has never publicized its strength, but in media reporting, it is usually – and uncritically – described as a force of between 350,000 and 400,000 personnel. Calculated on the basis of an army force structure at full strength and including the air force and navy, such estimates are dangerously misleading.

Since a headlong expansion of the army’s order-of-battle in the 1990s, under-manning has been endemic with a typical infantry battalion numbering fewer than 200 troops and often as few as 100 – as against the 600-700 in a typical modern military. Problems of forced recruitment and recruitment of teenage “child soldiers” have been pervasive and widely recognized.

As a veritable state within a state, the Tatmadaw has also grown a long and bloated tail of administrative, technical, medical, educational, judicial, commercial, industrial and agricultural units that add little or nothing to its counterinsurgency capabilities.

Critical analysis of its structure suggests that as a boots-on-the-ground fighting force the army today fields significantly fewer than 100,000 troops divided roughly between regional commands and a centrally commanded praetorian intervention force of ten Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs), the tip of the Tatmadaw spear. A largely para-military police force of questionable utility in offensive combat operations adds perhaps a further 80,000 men.

Even before the coup, this force was already severely overstretched confronting a patchwork of ethnic rebel pocket-armies – Rakhine, Kachin, Karen, Shan and Wa – scattered around the borderlands. This year, turmoil escalating into insurgency across the national heartland has dramatically compounded the pressure.

As a result, Naypyidaw’s command has drafted engineering units and air force personnel into static urban security duties; has recalled retired servicemen; and has raised a new and mostly untrained and undisciplined plain-clothes civilian militia force. In an early December move that strikingly illustrated the extent of the crisis, the military mandated small-arms training for the teen-aged children and wives of serving personnel.  

The Tatmadaw’s second major liability turns on morale. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at the end of 2021 army morale might best be described as “uncertain” – somewhere between “brittle” at the negative of the spectrum and “robust” at the positive end. In the field, it is generally sustained by superior numbers and firepower in clashes with a guerrilla enemy still relying on hit-and-run attacks.

But daily IED blasts and shootings targeting troop movements and guard posts appear to have induced a corrosive sense of siege. Among less experienced units facing ambushes in Sagaing that mood has been reflected in increasing calls for close air support – which is seldom available.

Equally, recent reports of officers in rear-echelon staff posts paying significant bribes in US currency to avoid transfer to field units hardly suggest combat confidence.

Exacerbating strains on morale is the military’s third liability – legitimacy as a national institution that has essentially evaporated since the coup. Aside from the impact of popular hatred and disdain on the Tatmadaw’s collective psyche, the collapse of its political legitimacy raises a major question mark over the ruling State Administration Council’s plans for elections in August 2023.

Reiterated by commander-in-chief and lead coup-maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as recently as December, this roadmap conditional on domestic stability appears increasingly disconnected from the chaotic polarization that is Myanmar’s current reality.

In the short term through the coming dry season, Tatmadaw liabilities will likely prove manageable. In the longer term – the second half of 2022 and beyond – they risk becoming serious, even critical, vulnerabilities in one or both of two scenarios, neither of which is a certainty.

The first would require the PDF resistance to succeed in gradually accessing improved weaponry and using it in pursuit of strategic objectives aimed at further extending and bleeding already overstretched security forces.

The second would involve an escalation or renewed eruption of conflict with ethnic armed organizations, compounding the operational and psychological pressures on the military.

Escalating hostilities with ethnic rebels pose a real threat in at least three regions. One is northeastern Kokang, a remote enclave on the Chinese border in northern Shan state where since early November local insurgents have already tied down elements of at least two Tatmadaw LIDs in blistering battles that have reportedly involved heavy casualties and required repeated close air support.

The second is along the eastern border with Thailand where in recent days Tatmadaw efforts to target PDF sanctuaries and training bases have triggered extended clashes with the army’s oldest foe, the Karen National Union (KNU), driving a new wave of refugees into Thailand.

Finally, and potentially most critically, a year-long ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the powerful ethno-nationalist Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine state on the strategic western seaboard began to fray in November and December amid threats and tensions.

Any renewal of major hostilities with the AA would confront the military with a stark choice between diverting at least two LIDs from other fronts or risk losing what little effective control it retains over the state.

Against this dangerously fluid backdrop, Myanmar’s beleaguered coup regime has every interest in rapidly exploiting those advantages it still enjoys. Over the dry season months through May 2022, army commanders can be expected to throw the full weight of their forces against PDFs with a focus on Sagaing where the armed revolt is most advanced. 

Failure to contain it risks exacerbating vulnerabilities that later in 2022 could yet tip a precarious strategic balance sharply against the Tatmadaw with consequences that are difficult to predict.