A new front has opened for the military regime’s stretched forces, as the resistance starts to challenge the navy in the southern waters off Tanintharyi Region.
Three months ago, Myanmar’s post-coup conflict reached the shores of the Andaman Sea. Early on March 9, members of the resistance arrived at Ban Da Ne, a coastal village in southern Tanintharyi Region’s Kyunsu Township, to recruit new fighters. But the junta’s navy was not far behind them.
“We had nowhere to escape with our small boats. They were coming to kill us,” recounted Ko Shark, a fighter with the Kyunsu Township People’s Defence Force, explaining that the community of 50 households had invited them to recruit there.
“We told all the women and children to run and hide, while the men decided to stay and fight back,” he told Frontier. Residents of the nearby villages of Kan Thar, Kyun Thar and Mying Thar also fled.
In what may have been its first taste of combat in Tanintharyi since the 2021 military coup, the navy had dispatched a fast patrol boat from the naval base in Kyunsu along with two other vessels full of soldiers.
“My tears were falling, I was so terrified,” said Ma Mee Nge*, a Ban Da Ne resident. “Men stayed in the village to help the PDF fighters, showing them good hiding places and escape routes.”
According to Ko Shark, resistance informants near the naval base had forewarned the PDF and that gave them time to prepare an ambush, opening fire with rifles and mortars as the boats approached the shore. Fighting was intense and the naval force had to withdraw after 45 minutes, leaving four of their men dead on the beach. No resistance fighters were killed, Ko Shark claimed.
“We were able to defeat them because the villagers supported us in that critical moment,” Ko Shark said.
But everyone knew that the military would be back. The expected retribution came on May 27, from the same fast patrol boat, this time flanked by six smaller boats loaded with troops.
The naval force had learned its lesson and opened fire with heavy guns from a distance, before about 100 soldiers landed and advanced on Ban Da Ne. The PDF fighters retreated and the villagers abandoned their homes, Ko Shark told Frontier on June 12. Junta forces torched five of the houses and were still occupying the otherwise empty village, he said.
Ko Shark described Ban Da Ne as “small but strategic” because it provides access to the north of the Myeik (or “Mergui”) Archipelago, a string of more than 800 islands stretching from the port city of Myeik to Kawthaung at the southernmost tip of Myanmar. Although on the mainland, a lack of roads means that Ban Da Ne and nearby villages are mainly accessible by sea.
“We try to control this area but the navy has other ideas,” he said.
Meanwhile, the villagers joined the ranks of about 30,000 people displaced by the conflict in Tanintharyi, according to Dawna Tenasserim, a civil society organisation helping internally displaced persons.
A new front
Kyunsu is one of Myanmar’s most unusual townships. Besides a narrow strip of mainland, it comprises over 200 islands, many of which have no permanent villages.
With an abundance of fish and seafood, and renowned for its pearl farms along with an incipient tourism industry, it is one of the country’s wealthiest townships – although there are huge disparities between rich and poor, with most of the villages lacking a regular supply of electricity.
Ko Htwe Shwe, a local activist, said small communities are exploited by wealthy fishing bosses and the pearl farms, for which the area has been famous since the 19th century. Dozens of the villages are dependent on a small number of tycoons and lend their support to the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party. Some of them formed pro-regime Pyusawthi militia groups after the coup.
That partly explains why Kyunsu was the last of Tanintharyi’s 10 townships where resistance forces were able to establish a foothold, not forming a cell there until September last year.
“Recruiting and funding was really hard at first. Because our township is mostly islands, we couldn’t easily gather as a group. We only have small boats right now so there is no way we can get away if we encounter a regime vessel,” Ko Shark said.
Their PDF was set up by young students in the township who raised money from local donations, he added.
The group came under the command of the National Unity Government, the parallel administration formed by lawmakers ousted in the coup, and soon started operations with allied groups.
“Ours is a coastal region so we have to be able to control the sea as well as the land,” Ko Joker, a spokesperson for the NUG’s Tanintharyi regional command, told Frontier.
The Kyunsu PDF developed quietly, moving between and recruiting from the islands, growing strong enough to repel the junta’s forces approaching Ban Da Ne on March 9, even if they were overpowered the second time.
The resistance developing in far-southern Myanmar has opened up a new front for the military, which is already overstretched and cannot travel safely in certain areas.
“It’s very difficult for the military’s vehicles and infantry to move on the [Tanintharyi] roads now,” said Ko Win Oo*, a former navy sergeant who defected after the coup. “They cannot foresee ambushes or IEDs. So, they often use the navy base near Dawei to transport light infantry forces around the region [by boat]. They also train militias at the navy base,” he told Frontier, referring to the Mawrawati base in Yebyu Township, north of the regional capital Dawei.
The navy has largely been absent from a post-coup conflict defined by ground and air assaults. This follows a history of it playing third fiddle to the army and air force. In the decades following Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948, it was the most neglected wing of the Tatmadaw, which was busy fighting insurgencies on land and had little reason to fear an invasion from the sea. It wasn’t until the previous military junta was in power, between 1988 and 2011, that the capabilities of the navy were increased, as part of its overall drive to upgrade, expand and modernise the military.
Personnel numbers are difficult to come by, but the current military regime has continued reinforcing its maritime capabilities. In late 2021, the junta formed a new coastguard, which was originally approved by parliament under the deposed National League for Democracy government. Although not formally part of the navy, the new force is supposed to cooperate with it and is overseen by the defence ministry.
Later, on December 25 last year, the junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing pledged to continue developing the navy, including the commissioning of several new vessels to be made domestically to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Now, if the clashes in Ban Da Ne are not isolated incidents, the navy could play a more important role in the civil war that has engulfed Myanmar since the coup.
A resistance navy?
Tanintharyi has seen decades of conflict since Myanmar’s independence. This has principally involved the Karen National Union, which signed a ceasefire with the central government in 2012, but smaller groups like the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front have also historically been active in the region.
However, in more recent decades, insurgent groups have been largely confined to the Tenasserim mountain range in the east, bordering Thailand. Starting in 2011, the upgrading of the highway that runs from Ye, in southern Mon State, down the length of Tanintharyi to Kawthaung deepened the military’s hold on the coastal land in the west.
Since the coup, however, resistance has spread across coastal communities, and sections of the main highway have seen regular conflict. Ko Joker claimed that ambushes and mines laid by revolutionary forces have made the road virtually impassable for the junta’s forces since the middle of last year.
The Tanintharyi Times reported there were at least 50 clashes in the region only in May, with 60 junta soldiers killed. Dawei and Palaw townships have seen the most frequent fighting, although none of the 10 townships in the region has been untouched by war.
The NUG’s Tanintharyi command has five fully armed battalions – two each in Myeik and Dawei districts and one in Kawthaung District. In addition, there are PDFs in all townships that fight alongside the battalions, Ko Joker explained.
But if resistance groups hope to command the islands and the waters off the mainland, they need to boost their maritime capabilities. Ko Joker said the NUG’s defence ministry intends to establish a naval force.
“There are more battles being fought inland but Kyunsu is a highly strategic coastal area, so that is why we’re developing our assets to be able to fight at sea,” he added.
Yet Ko Shark of the Kyunsu PDF said there’s a long way to go. Their current boats are small, and they need faster ones with long-range weapons to take on the junta’s naval forces. He said they are not yet able to seize naval vessels, but he believed they eventually could.
“We’re more clever in the sea than the junta’s forces, and we have men who’d be able to control their ships if we could seize them. Though the junta’s navy is equipped with modern weapons, they don’t have enough people to control the whole coast,” he said.
But Win Oo, the navy defector, is less bullish.
“Some people say the navy is getting weak because there aren’t enough men in the force. But I believe the navy is still strong enough to conquer the sea. They have the weapons for that,” he said.
*indicates a pseudonym for security reasons