This long-exposure image taken Oct. 28 shows a missile fired from a Myanmar military base in Lashio, a town in the northern state of Shan. (AFP/Getty Images)
SINGAPORE — Rebel groups in Myanmar say they have scored a series of battlefield victories against the ruling junta, mounting what security analysts believe is the biggest threat to the military’s grip over the country since ousting a civilian government and seizing control in a 2021 coup.
The surprise offensive, which started in the north, has displaced tens of thousands of people along Myanmar’s border with China, according to the United Nations. The campaign has disrupted businesses along the border, irking Beijing and straining the military’s relationship with one of its few remaining allies.
Myanmar’s military has been embroiled in a multi-front civil war for nearly three years, sustaining attacks from ethnic armed groups in its borderlands as well as from newer, pro-democracy insurgents in the middle of the country who picked up arms after the coup. The military has tried to quash the resistance with brutal tactics that human rights groups say are probably war crimes.
On Oct. 27, an alliance of three ethnic armed organizations that had largely stayed out of the conflict launched the sudden, coordinated offensive in the strategic northern state of Shan, which borders China, Laos and Thailand.
In the span of 10 days, the Three Brotherhood Alliance said it had captured more than 100 military outposts and seized control over several major highways and border crossings, which is expected to hurt the junta financially. Photos and videos posted on social media show rebel soldiers marching triumphantly through townships and posing in front of weapons reportedly taken from military battalions.
Speaking to a state broadcaster last week, a spokesman for the junta, Gen. Zaw Min Tun, made the rare admission that the military had ceded control of three towns in Shan.
“It took us a long time to plan this operation,” Tar Aik Kyaw, a spokesman for the Ta’Ang National Liberation Army, one of the groups in the alliance, said in an interview. “We had to prepare every single thing methodically … to minimize casualties on our side.”
The Ta’Ang National Liberation Army, along with its two allied organizations, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army, “welcomes every other group fighting against the military,” he added.
A spokesman for Myanmar Witness, a watchdog group that has been verifying information about the civil war, said investigators have begun to collect a substantial amount of visual evidence of the offensive. “From an area of the country where we normally only see conflict incidents sporadically on open source channels, this represents a significant change,” spokesman Matt Freear said.
Days after the offensive in the north, rebels in the south and insurgents in the middle of the country initiated their own assaults. In the region of Sagaing, near the city of Mandalay, pro-democracy groups Tuesday said they had for the first time retaken two townships that were under the control the military.
Many of the country’s armed groups are individually too small to overturn the military, but in the past week, they have shown an unprecedented level of cooperation, said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who studies Southeast Asian security issues. “They’re taking note of one another and moving in concert. That’s the interesting piece here.”
The groups in the Three Brotherhood Alliance have close ties to China and are among the most powerful armed actors in the territory along Myanmar’s border. Unlike some other rebel groups, the alliance did not immediately join the resistance after the coup, assuming, at least publicly, a neutral position between the pro-democracy movement and the military.
But this year, as the junta ramped up airstrikes nationwide, units within the alliance began clashing with military forces in Shan. Tensions also grew over the spread of illicit activities in military-controlled areas. Leaders of the alliance said one aim of the assault was to eliminate cyberscam operations, which have thrived in the lawless area of Kokang.
The fighting has disrupted travel and trade between northern Shan and China, potentially blocking a major source of funding for the military. In response the offensive, China on Monday said Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong visited Myanmar over the weekend and called on officials “to maintain stability” along the border. It is not immediately clear whether Beijing was aware of the alliance’s plan for a surprise attack.
Leaders and supporters of the pro-democracy movement have celebrated the offensive as a turning point in the war. But analysts say that the rebel groups are operating on their own interests and that their ties to the pro-democracy movement are tenuous at best. The military’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has also vowed in recent days to respond with counteroffensives.
Not far from Shan, another rebel group, the Kachin Independence Army, has faced a barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire after it seized control of two military encampments in October. At the group’s command center in the town of Laiza, people have been in hiding for more than a week, said the group’s spokesperson, Col. Naw Bu.
Cape Diamond in Yangon, Myanmar, and Yan Naing in Bangkok contributed to this report.