September 22, 2023

Fighting rages along Myanmar’s transport routes

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The junta’s opponents are contesting roads, rivers and railways throughout the country, but the regime retains sufficient control over supply lines to sustain its offensives.

By Morgan Michaels
Graphics by Brody Smith
Published September 2023

Opposition forces across the country launched multiple attacks on regime convoys and flotillas carrying supplies and reinforcements, as well as against infrastructure like bridges and railways. To secure its lines of communication, the regime deployed more firepower and sent advance units to raid and depopulate nearby communities. This month’s update looks at recent dynamics in the Dry Zone, Bago East, and Kayah, where fighting along vital transport routes continues to escalate.

Regime makes progress over Dry Zone resistance, although some units grow stronger

Widespread armed violence persisted across the Dry Zone, with regime units continuing their efforts to locate and destroy independent Local Defence Forces (LDFs).

The term LDF is commonly used to describe resistance outfits organised at the village level. LDFs may claim association with the National Unity Government (NUG) but typically operate independently. In general, LDFs are not as well equipped or funded as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) operating in closer coordination with the NUG or ethnic armed organisations (EAOs).

In July, the IISS described an ongoing shift in tactics away from the pervasive use of arson by regime forces. Instead, soldiers are increasingly employing more select forms of violence, drawing on improved intelligence to help them identify and kill resistance fighters and their supporters. Reports of raids, killings, and torture by regime forces continue even as the pace of village arson declines.

The number of successful raids against LDFs coupled with information from multiple sources suggest that the regime may be making progress in reducing the number of localised armed actors operating across the Dry Zone. Most LDFs continue to depend primarily on homemade weapons, restricting their ability to effectively defend against raids, which accelerated after the regime dedicated additional resources to this theatre of operations early this year. Single attacks by regime units commonly result in the destruction of entire resistance cells.

Although independent and poorly equipped LDFs appear to be facing mounting difficulties, some individual People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) operating in coordination with the National Unity Government (NUG) or ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) appear increasingly coordinated and well-equipped. Over the last two months, photo and video evidence uploaded to social media has shown the growing prevalence of what appear to be factory-manufactured rifles, rather than homemade weapons, in the hands of uniformed PDF units operating in the Dry Zone. If these trends continue into 2024, the conflict in central Myanmar may evolve from a grassroots rebellion into a protracted insurgency waged by a smaller number of armed outfits. The geographical extent of fighting between combatants could become more limited even as some individual battles intensify.

The Dry Zone has also witnessed intensified conflict along its rivers, which both sides rely on for transport and supply. In late July, a regime flotilla of six supply ships and three gunboats departed from Mandalay, traveling up the Irrawaddy River on its way to Kachin State. On 31 July, a similarly-sized flotilla embarked from Monywa, moving north along the Chindwin River. In both instances, the regime sent advance columns to secure the riverbank as the flotilla moved upriver by conducting village raids, leading to mass displacement as well as the death and injury of numerous civilians. Multiple resistance outfits equipped with makeshift rockets and small arms made unsuccessful attempts to halt the regime’s waterborne convoys by launching ambushes from dug-in positions along the riverbank. Violence along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers is likely to accelerate, leading to more civilian casualties and displacement.

For more analysis on the Dry Zone, click here.

Resistance contests regime supply lines in Bago East

The last three months saw a marked acceleration of fighting in Bago East, where allied units from the Karen National Union (KNU) and PDFs are exerting increased pressure on one of the country’s most important corridors. Resistances forces may now aim to break out onto the western side of the Sittaung River in order to threaten three important routes linking Yangon to Naypyidaw and Mandalay: the railway, the old highway, and the new highway further to the west. In the last three months, resistance forces have carried out multiple ambushes near to the railway and old highway. The regime’s hold on the new highway, however, remains relatively secure for now.

Some of the more notable fighting has occurred outside the towns of Kyauktaga and Nyaunglebin, where the river nears the old road and railway. Yet resistance forces will need to overcome several significant obstacles if they are to expand operations further west beyond the Sittaung River. The Karen Hills, which are dominated by the KNU, are an important supply base and launching pad for attacks along the eastern side of the valley. To threaten the new highway in the west, coalition forces will need to establish a firmer foothold in the Bago Mountains or risk overstretching their supply lines. Resistance activities in the Bago Mountains appear limited for the time being.

Despite a growing number of ambushes and acts of sabotage, the regime’s strengths in air and artillery will likely prevent resistance forces from consolidating control over any exposed segment of the transport corridor. Since the coup, a similar contest over the Asia Highway 1 in Kayin and Mon states has involved numerous resistance disruptions to commerce and logistics, sometimes for weeks at a time. However, the regime has consistently proven itself able to repel major offensives, repair damaged segments of the road, and resume the flow of troops and traffic. Moreover, attacks on infrastructure are costly for resistance forces and their civilian supporters who also rely on the same roads and bridges used by the regime. A limited contest along transport routes in Bago is likely to continue, especially in the southeastern portion of the Sittaung Valley.

Kayah State resistance maintains operational tempo despite regime onslaught

An ongoing battle that began in March this year continued unabated in Kayah State, where the regime and a coalition of Karenni resistance outfits are vying for control over key lines of communication. In late May, regime forces adopted a blockade strategy by seizing control of the main junctions and roads along the border between Kayah and Shan states. On 13 June, however, a sizeable faction of soldiers from the regime-aligned Karenni border guard forces defected before launching attacks alongside resistance units in the state’s southeast. The mutiny forced the regime to dispatch additional units southward in an ongoing attempt to regain control of Mese town and its surrounding positions.

Karenni fighters have attempted to halt the regime’s reinforcements with frequent ambushes, especially along the road between Demoso and Hpruso, the state’s second- and third-largest towns. In August, regime units seized several key villages along the route in an effort to secure safe passage for a convoy, reportedly comprising between 80 and 120 trucks. Karenni units responded with surprise attacks behind the enemy’s frontlines in early September, inflicting losses on the regime. In a recent interview, Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) chair Khun Bedu admitted that his forces could not stop the regime’s advances due to heavy air and artillery strikes. Though they struggle to consolidate their gains, Karenni fighters remain able to manoeuvre throughout the theatre and continually contest the state’s key sites, preventing the regime from establishing a secure frontline outside urban areas. Both sides have suffered significant casualties in the last two months.

The Karenni resistance is possibly the most formidable of any movement to have emerged after the 2021 coup. Their success is drawn from a number of factors, including effective coordination among various outfits, a good degree of shared political vision, and strong leadership from field commanders. The Karenni coalition is also well-equipped, making it possible for its motivated fighters to maintain a high tempo of attacks against the regime. The ongoing battle involves some of the fiercest combat of the last two decades and is likely to continue indefinitely, with both sides stubbornly committed to the fight despite the mounting costs in lives and materiel. The conflict is driving a major humanitarian crisis, with as much as 75% of the state’s population displaced.

For more analysis on Kayah, click here.

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