1 December 2023

4 min read

Vol 9, 2023 | Myanmar's Rebel Offensive: A watershed moment?

Global Risk Bulletin
Traditional wooden houses at Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

Since launching a coordinated offensive in the Shan State, the Three Brotherhood Alliance has dealt a series of significant blows to Myanmar’s armed forces. Richard Gardiner considers whether the alignment of three distinct rebel groups marks a turning point in the country's civil conflict.


On 27 October, a coalition of ethnic rebel groups known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA) launched Operation 1027, a coordinated offensive against the military in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State. The operation triggered simultaneous offensive movements by other resistance groups countrywide, resulting in significant territorial gains for various well-armed rebel factions in Myanmar. Rebel groups have since secured major towns, highway junctions and over 150 military outposts, causing hundreds of casualties among regime personnel and prompting the evacuation of numerous foreign nationals, including UN staff. The scale and speed at which rebel groups have dislodged the military from strategically important posts represents a substantial blow to the military junta, which has devoted considerable resources to quell resistance movements for almost three years now. These events have signalled the possibility of a turning point in Myanmar's civil conflict.

The resistance gathers momentum

Since the February 2021 military coup, the resistance movement has capitalised on the military’s weakness beyond urban centres to make incremental gains. The People’s Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the shadow civilian National Unity Government (NUG), has become an increasingly organised force of over 65,000 troops and 250 units operating in several parts of the country, across the northeast, northwest and southwest regions. The PDF’s cause has been bolstered in rural and border regions by Myanmar’s ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), many of which had waged insurgencies against previous regimes and have secured territorial swathes in the country’s rural and border areas. Amid these resistance efforts, the military junta has been able to maintain control over most central and urban areas in Myanmar, like Mandalay and Yangon, as the PDF and EAOs have encountered significant obstacles such as resource shortages, funding limitations, and divergent agendas, making coordinated offensives challenging to execute.


Success in effectuating a turning point in Myanmar’s civil conflict will depend on the various resistance and armed ethnic groups maintaining a unified and coordinated front."


The Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA), which consists of the Shan State's most powerful EAOs, has faced similar challenges. Most prominently, since the alliance’s conception in 2019, the three groups – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) – have primarily pursued their own individual objectives, diverging from the broader resistance movement's goal of regime change. However, Operation 1027 has signalled a newfound cohesion and alignment of objectives within the group to overthrow military control in the Shan State. This cohesion has acted as a catalyst for groups in other parts of the country to raise the intensity of their attacks against the military. Notably, following the TBA’s 27 October attack, the Kachin Independence Army, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic rebel groups, has escalated its offensive in the town of Kawlin in the Sagaing Region. Simultaneously, the AA itself executed a successful operation in Rakhine State, capturing dozens of military bases in the Shan State. If rebel groups can sustain momentum around Operation 1027 and foster greater coordination across offensive efforts countrywide, the military’s strongholds and effective control of Myanmar will be challenged.

The junta on the brink?

Recent events have exposed serious deficiencies in the military's response capabilities, evident in a series of humiliating defeats, which have sparked a wider sense of optimism within the resistance movement. The military's struggle to mobilise ground forces to counter the widespread offensive, which now includes the Shan, Rakhine, Chin, and Kayah states, underscores deeper structural issues within the armed forces, including notable personnel shortages and logistical challenges. Attempts to compensate for these shortcomings have involved a barrage of air and artillery strikes on recently captured positions. However, these measures are unlikely to yield long-term success without a corresponding ground offensive aimed at capturing lost territory.

The swift success of the assault and the abandonment of military positions also allowed rebel groups in Shan State to seize substantial reserves of military equipment, including heavy weaponry like anti-aircraft guns, tanks, artillery systems, and armoured personnel carriers. Such losses are poised to have a pronounced impact on the military's battlefield capabilities, making the prospect of the military regaining control of border regions with China in the foreseeable future increasingly unlikely. This scenario bears potential economic implications too, given the crucial role of the border crossings in the area, which facilitates 40 percent of Myanmar's international trade – a vital source of revenue for the junta’s war efforts.

The China conundrum

China, which shares a border with Myanmar, has been affected by ongoing instability and criminal activity in the Shan State. In 2015, tens of thousands of refugees crossed into China following clashes between the MNDAA and security forces in the Kokang area of the state, while illicit activities such as the proliferation of online scam centres have impacted Chinese nationals. Prolonged conflict will impact China’s considerable infrastructure and energy investments in Myanmar through delays or diminished returns. China’s cooperation with the military junta to crack down on the illicit activities in border areas and improve stability has resulted in little success, potentially opening a window of opportunity for rebel groups. In October, the TBA announced its intent to clamp down on online scam centres seemingly to draw the tacit approval and support of China. The military’s efforts to quell the insurgency and end the civil conflict is likely to face further challenges from reduced Chinese support and cooperation.

Looking ahead

Success in effectuating a turning point in Myanmar’s civil conflict will depend on the various resistance and armed ethnic groups maintaining a unified and coordinated front. In the short-term, cohesion between groups is likely to continue; however, the diverging agendas of the different groups based on religion, ethnicity and political leanings have the potential to cause obstacles down the line. These differences will likely become prominent if one group perceives a rival gaining territorial advantage, leading to territorial disputes that may escalate into inter-ethnic conflicts. Such clashes could divert resources from a unified offensive against the military’s central strongholds. Still, if the myriad of anti-junta groups is able to transcend these differences and maintain their cooperation over the next 12 months, the military will be faced with the prospect of defeat.


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