Where: Myanmar, Laukkaing, Shan State
Who’s involved: Myanmar Junta, Three Brotherhood Alliance, People’s Republic of China
On 27/09/2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, an alliance between the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Army, launched coordinated attacks on military outposts and installations in the northern Shan state in Myanmar. The name of the mission, “Operation 1027” is intended to expel the military from the area and regain control of the state for opposition forces. According to reports from a newspaper based in Thailand, the Irrawaddy, the Three Brotherhood Alliance has taken 90 military outposts, 4 towns, as well as two key trade routes to China. There is currently a standoff over the city of Laukkaing, a hive for unregulated gambling, human trafficking and illicit goods.
The military junta has been unable to push back against the armed groups. The military has instead launched airstrikes and artillery bombardments of towns and villages thought to hold insurgent groups, with many hundreds of civilians fleeing. Former General Myint Swe spoke at an emergency meeting with the military junta suggesting that this is the most serious contest of the military’s power after the coup in February 2021.
On 10/11/2023, the Chinese foreign ministry said that it will ensure stability on the border. China has traditionally acted as a power-broker in the Shan state, a region in eastern Myanmar on the border with China, with its ability to exert influence over different groups because of ethnic and trade ties. However, the city of Laukkaing has become a center for criminal gangs, scam centers, and money laundering. It has been reported that thousands of Chinese nationals and other foreigners from around the region have been forced to work there. China is seeking to clampdown on transnational criminal groups with the military unable to control cross-border criminal activity.
The escalation of violence under Operation 1027 has led to civilian casualties and the displacement of 200,000 people nationwide. This has led to over 2 million civilians fleeing the fighting since February 2021, according to the United Nations. There are increasing calls for humanitarian aid to enter the country and both sides to respect international humanitarian law.
The Myanmar civil war since February 2021 has killed over 4,000 civilians and displaced 1.8 million refugees, and there are no signs of stopping. Research published by the Security Force Monitor has documented several human rights abuses committed by the Myanmar military junta.
The new offensive represents the biggest battlefield challenge to the military junta’s rule since the coup in February 2021. Capturing Laukkaing will bring some gains for the opposition parties for the Three Brotherhoods Alliance to expel the military from the Shan state and bring it into their control. While this is not a lethal blow, this would cut off a significant source of income for the military junta and create challenges for leadership of the military.
Sensing Myanmar's military weakness, other armed groups in the country have also stepped up attacks. This could overstretch the junta’s military capacity as a result. The armed groups have also seized a large amount of weaponry from retreating military units, including tanks, a howitzer and ammunition. The junta may have to accept ceding control of the country to the groups in order to launch counter attacks. In any case, the military’s failures are obvious for armed groups resisting the regime and may lead to groups launching attacks to seize on the weakness.
China’s seeming unwillingness to intervene in the Shan state to support the military could indicate a decline in support for the regime. China’s economic interests in Myanmar include investments in rare earths, and the construction of multiple oil and gas pipelines flowing into the Bay of Bengal. China cultivated a close relationship with the military junta for protection of its economic assets. However, the growing transnational crime from Myanmar and the inability of the military junta to contain it could push China to see other players to maintain stability on its border.
How lethal this attack proves to be for the Myanmar military, depends on the response of the Myanmar military, and whether it is able to fight a multifront counter insurgency. It is still well-armed, with Russian places and artillery and has fought counter-insurgencies in Myanmar since the 1960s. The military junta leadership is internally quite resilient to outside challenges however. Given its ordinance and expertise, it will likely step up bombing campaigns and mount heavy counter offensives against all rebel groups in the north and in the east. The fighting is therefore likely to intensify in the coming months as both sides try to seize the initiative.
The escalation of the conflict in Myanmar is leading to more violence in the country, with more refugees fleeing the country. The appearance of success of the armed groups offensive has given the Three Brotherhood Alliance more ammunition and achievements against the regime, which could lead to other groups seizing on the junta’s vulnerabilities. China’s influence in the country remains important, but its capacity to limit further escalation remains limited given the military junta’s capacity for military self-reliance. The escalating violence is likely to lead to more civilian deaths and refugees fleeing violence, in a conflict that has killed over 4,000 civilians and displaced 1.8 million.