December 13, 2023

Soldiers Surrender, Bases Fall and a Powerful Army No Longer Seems Invincible

By Feliz Solomon Follow and Rachel Liang Follow Dec. 13, 2023 at 8:00 am ET

The acting commander gave his most trusted soldier one final task: Tell the troops to grab anything white they could find. It was time to surrender.

For more than four days, bombs had rained down on the Myanmar military base where the 125th Infantry Battalion was headquartered. Troops and their families had split into small groups and were hiding in shelters.

The soldier ordered women and injured troops to move into the open where enemy drones could see them. Then, he raised a bamboo pole with a scrap of white fabric tied to the end. Some of the men wept.

“It’s the worst thing a soldier can do,” said an army captain at the base in Konkyan, which is perched on the jungle hilltops of northeastern Myanmar near the country’s border with China. “I felt so sad and ashamed.”

The late-November surrender to a rebel group is a window into the biggest challenge Myanmar’s powerful military has faced not just since its coup in 2021 but in decades. The enemies of the junta are making unprecedented gains, leading some experts to wonder whether the rebels might sustain pressure enough to at least bring the generals to the negotiating table.

A trio of rebel groups, called the Three Brotherhood Alliance, says that it has taken over more than 200 military outposts and bases, at least six towns near the border with China and stockpiles of weapons since launching an offensive on Oct. 27.

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The Wall Street Journal spoke with rebel fighters and three people who surrendered on Nov. 28—an army major, a captain and the wife of a soldier. Their accounts portray a brutal war waged largely out of view. The junta has cut off internet and phone access across vast territories since the coup.

Those who had surrendered didn’t want to be named. They said they weren’t being held captive and were making arrangements to relocate. The rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, says those who surrender are free to go and won’t be harmed or punished.

Opponents of the regime say the success of what the rebels call “Operation 1027,” named after the date of the offensive’s launch, shows that the junta is at risk of collapse. Conflict analysts are more circumspect, saying the Myanmar military is weaker than at any point since the coup, but there are few signs it might capitulate.

The junta has acknowledged some territorial losses and damage to infrastructure by the rebels. The Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, an independent think tank based in Yangon, in the country’s south, says it has verified the rebel capture of four towns and at least 168 military outposts and bases, including nine battalion headquarters, in the northern part of Shan State, the epicenter of the offensive, since late October.

Some are small checkpoints manned by a few police or soldiers; others are more significant bases and border gates.

Gains made in the northeast corner of the country will be hard to replicate elsewhere, according to experts. The military remains the larger and better-equipped force and it has a history of responding to challenges with indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
“When the Myanmar military feels under pressure, its normal response is to ramp up the

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A photo distributed by the rebel alliance shows members of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army with the group’s flag in front of the Kunlong bridge in Shan State, Myanmar. PHOTO: THE KOKANG ONLINE MEDIA / ASSOCIATED PRESS

level of violence,” said Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar for the International

level of violence,” said Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar for the International

Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank specializing in conflict prevention.

“It has an explicit, longstanding strategy of targeting civilians as part of its efforts to undermine the strength of its armed opponents,” he said.

A photo distributed by the rebel alliance shows Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army members with weapons said to have been seized from a Myanmar army outpost in Chinshwehaw town. PHOTO: THE KOKANG ONLINE MEDIA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Help Wasn’t Coming

Two weeks before Konkyan fell, troops there learned that the rebels had taken a nearby base on Nov. 12. They also heard about the onslaught that brought their fellow soldiers to their knees: a blitz of explosives released by drones, followed by a rapid ground siege.

Konkyan’s acting commander called for reinforcements.

The Northeastern Command sent a few dozen men, but it wasn’t enough. By then, several Myanmar bases had come under attack. More help wasn’t coming, they realized.

The rebels they faced belonged to the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, one of the country’s many armed groups that have fought its military for decades. The group lost territory to the military in 2009 and has spent years recruiting troops and stockpiling munitions to take it back.

It is using a strategy of picking off small outposts such as police checkpoints and remote battalion headquarters as they close in on the area’s capital city, which the group wants to reclaim.

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When she heard the first explosion around 5 a.m. on Nov. 24, the wife of a soldier at the base

said she tried to calm her youngest child. But the sounds didn’t stop. For more than four days,

said she tried to calm her youngest child. But the sounds didn’t stop. For more than four days,

drones buzzed back and forth, dropping bombs until the only buildings left intact were a Buddhist prayer hall and two captains’ houses.

People ran for cover during airstrikes in Kayah State, Myanmar, in November. PHOTO: STRINGER/REUTERS

After the first wave of attacks, her husband helped her and a few other women dig a shelter out of the dirt. They crawled inside and hid with their children, rationing dried fish and rice. Across the base, other families had dug their own bunkers and waited, unable to communicate with each other and too afraid to go out.

Each day was worse than the one before. On Nov. 27, “so many bombs were dropping that we were afraid to raise our heads,” the woman said.

The drones have given the rebels a marked advantage. Horsey, of the International Crisis Group, said it is likely that the rebel group has a large number of drones, some “hobbyist- type” for reconnaissance, as well as larger “offensive” drones known as hexacopters, which are capable of carrying heavier payloads, such as multiple explosive shells.

A spokesman for the rebel group confirmed that it has “large, multi-rotor drones,” but declined to comment on their models, where they came from or whether they were used on Konkyan. In a speech summarized in state-controlled media in late November,
Myanmar’s junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, accused the rebels of colluding with foreign drone experts to attack the military.

‘If We Fought Back, Women Would Die’

The soldier’s wife said the base at Konkyan had been her home for 20 years. She raised three children there, now aged 8, 19 and 22. She said she liked her life there until the war

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intensified.

The Myanmar army paid her husband a modest salary and provided them with monthly rations of food and cooking oil, she said. She supplemented their income by raising pigs and chickens and spent her spare time reading Buddhist scriptures with the other wives.

Infantry battalion headquarters such as this one are tempting targets for rebel drones. They tend to be fixed positions where troops are based for long periods. The army major said the troops wouldn’t have surrendered were it not for the danger facing their families.

“If we fought back, women would die,” he said, adding that one of the women on the base was pregnant. “So we gave up.”

A total of 371 people surrendered on Nov. 28, the rebel group said. A few people died in the attacks, though exactly how many couldn’t be determined.

The two officers and the woman expressed loyalty to Myanmar’s army. One of the officers planned to return to his regional command, which has been his only livelihood for the past nine years since he enlisted. The other planned to go to an undisclosed location elsewhere.

Members of the People’s Defense Force, an armed group that formed after the 2021 coup in Myanmar, training at a hidden camp. PHOTO: DAVID MMR/ZUMA PRESS

The rebels’ success has galvanized resistance forces nationwide. Existing ethnic armed groups and the newer People’s Defense Force, which has formed since the coup, have escalated attacks on junta troops in the country’s west, central plains and southeast.

Many of them, however, haven’t had years of preparation and other advantages the
rebel group had in Konkyan. Even that group succeeded in capturing only half of 18 battalion headquarters it attacked in Shan State, according to the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.

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Elsewhere in the country, the military has responded with airstrikes and artillery shelling.

The United Nations has said that more than half a million people have been displaced

The United Nations has said that more than half a million people have been displaced

nationwide since the conflict intensified in late October, adding to the 2 million who fled their homes earlier.

“On paper, [the military regime] shouldn’t fall, they still have quite a few troops and a lot of firepower,” said Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2016 to 2020. “But things can change quickly. I wouldn’t necessarily predict it but I think it is a greater possibility than it was a few months ago.”

Write to Feliz Solomon at feliz.solomon@wsj.com and Rachel Liang at rachel.liang@wsj.com Appeared in the December 14, 2023, print edition as ‘Rebels Make New Gains Against Myanmar’s Army’.

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