Credit: Karen National Union, 14-4-24 - Photo: 2024

The Fall of Myawaddy Is the Latest Humiliating Defeat for Myanmar’s Military Regime

By Jan Servaes

BANGKOK | 18 April 2024 (IDN) — Operation 1027 has caused a change in Myanmar. Since October 2023, the advance of the anti-junta coalition of the Arakan Army (or AA, a mainly Rakhine group), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (or MNDAA, a predominantly Kokang group, a Han Chinese minority) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA, a mainly Ta’ang group) has taken more and more cities. Major overland trade routes to China were cut off and dozens of military outposts in northern Shan were overrun.

Resistance is also on the rise in other regions. The armed conflict between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, and the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) in northern Rakhine State has continued and intensified. The ULA/AA called on residents to evacuate to safer places. There continue to be a number of civilian casualties every week as a result of both targeted and indiscriminate artillery and air strikes by the Myanmar military. In addition, unexploded ordnance and landmines also pose a risk to the civilian population.

On April 4, the NUG opposition government announced that resistance forces under its command had carried out successful drone attacks on the Myanmar military headquarters, the Alar air base in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, and the SAC junta chairman’s residence there. The southern regional military command in Mon state also came under fire.

While the Tatmadaw continues to mainly use indiscriminate air strikes with fighter planes, the resistance’s use of drones is proving to be increasingly advanced and they are managing to evade the army’s defenses.

The capture of Myawaddy near the Thai border

But the main battle developed in the Karen State on the border with Thailand where the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) captured military bases in Thin Gan Nyi Nyaung Village and Myawaddy Town. The KNU is one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethical armed organizations. These incidents deserve special attention because of their potential significance in terms of the trends in the conflict and the discourse surrounding it.

In the fighting, the KNU/KNLA captured the Tactical Command Post, the largest SAC base in Myawaddy Township, on April 6, and 617 soldiers and family members surrendered. Myawaddy Town, a strategically important city with a population of 200,000, is located about 10 km from Mae Sot, the Thai border town. The border crossing, which was under the control of the junta, is crucial for trade, especially for commercial goods and food entering Myanmar. It is also the location for several billion-dollar online scam factories/casinos that have exploded in Myanmar/Thailand’s lawless border regions in recent years. In many, ‘foreigners’ are forced to work in conditions that resemble modern slavery. The UN estimates that up to 120,000 people are being held in such encampments in Myanmar.

On April 9 (after failed attempts to negotiate a surrender), the KNU/KNLA attacked the remaining Myanmar Army forces in Myawaddy Town. Some army units did not surrender and fled to Thailand.

Although the KNU/KNLA controls most of the city, shooting is still sporadic. The situation is made even more complicated by strategic differences within the opposition. The KNU alone consists of 14 affiliated groups, seven of which are active in northern Myawaddy and the remaining seven active in the south.

On April 6, Thailand agreed to allow the SAC junta to use Thailand’s Mae Sot airport to evacuate people from Myawaddy Town on April 7, 8 and 9. The flight arrived in Mae Sot on April 7, but the SAC canceled the request before any further flights took place. Reports differ as to what, if anything, was returned to Myanmar on April 7. The intention was to repatriate Tatmadaw soldiers who had surrendered, but Thailand subsequently said it had only agreed to the evacuation of civilians and documents. One media outlet reported that soldiers had been evacuated, but others said the people fleeing were civilians. Still others said there were no people on board, only documents and suitcases containing money from banks in Myawaddy Town.

The conflict has had a dramatic impact on the logistics sector, forcing trucks to divert their route from Mae Sot to Myawaddy. This detour adds an estimated seven hours to the travel time. As a result, many traders, seeking to avoid the conflict-ridden border areas now under opposition control, are attempting to ship their goods through Yangon’s port. This port remains under the control of the junta.

Analysts believe the loss of Myawaddy, a vital source of revenue from border trade, will further increase pressure on the junta, which is already struggling with a slumping economy.

Myanmar’s international trade with foreign trading partners crossed the US$30 billion mark in the last fiscal year 2023-2024 (April-March), indicating a significant decline of four billion dollars compared to that of the fiscal year 2022-2023. The total trade balance stood at $3.39 billion in the same period a year ago, according to official statistics quoted in The Global New Light of Myanmar.

The Thai military has stepped up security on its side of the border using army vehicles equipped with roof-mounted machine guns. Thai soldiers check the bags and belongings of those crossing the border.

However, there are also indications that Thailand could use this opportunity to advance peace talks. Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin told Reuters that the junta in Myanmar was “losing strength” and urged opening talks with the regime. He urged that the recent fighting should not spread into his country’s airspace.

Thailand wants to remain officially neutral in the conflict and can accommodate up to 100,000 people displaced by the unrest, said Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukar, Thailand’s foreign minister.

China, Russia, the UN, and ASEAN

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), governments in the region — particularly Thailand, Brunei, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam — continue to take unclear positions on ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar. Since the 2021 coup, this has also been the case for the position of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The military government in Nay Pyi Taw, which took power by force, is struggling with escalating pressure from numerous armed resistance groups. The military has already lost control of areas along Myanmar’s borders with Bangladesh, China and India, while suffering a significant loss of manpower. They consider Russia their best ally, since relations with China have cooled in some places.

Ties between Russia and the military regime have expanded beyond arms trade and military training since the coup. Together with four former Soviet republics (Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan), they form the Eurasian Economic Union. At a recent summit in Nay Pyi Taw, they discussed trade, direct payments, direct flights and cooperation in agriculture, oil, gas and textiles.

At the UN Security Council meeting on April 4, China indicated that it is trying to mediate a ceasefire in Rakhine State. However, local and international analysts argued that China still has limited influence over the ULA/AA and that the ULA/AA is likely to agree to a ceasefire only if significant concessions are made.

China also remains concerned about fighting along the border in Kachin State. China has played a key role in facilitating dialogues between the military and opposition groups along the Myanmar-China border, but the conflict continues. The population of Myanmar as a whole remains wary of Chinese involvement in Myanmar, as evidenced in recent surveys by ISP-Myanmar, The Irrawaddy and the US Institute of Peace.

Also last week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of the new UN Special Envoy for Myanmar: former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The post has been vacant since June last year, when veteran Singaporean UN official Noeleen Heyzer left after 20 fruitless months.

Bishop can be considered a controversial choice. During her tenure from 2013 to 2018, the Australian government implemented a plan to encourage Rohingya imprisoned in the Pacific Gulag of Manus Island to return to Myanmar – in 2017 – as the military continued its brutal ‘clearance operations’ against the Muslim minority group in northern Rakhine State.


In response to the ongoing conflict, the Bangkok Post reported, some Thai authorities have also begun working with armed groups to establish safe zones along major trade routes, aiming to protect the safety of residents and traders.

At the border crossing in Mae Sot, approximately 4,000 people attempt to flee Myanmar every day.

In late October, the Thai army forcibly sent back thousands of refugees who had been hiding in the border areas next to Myanmar’s Karenni state. There was also recently a lot of fuss about 19 unaccompanied Burmese children aged 5 to 17 ‘without papers’ that Thailand initially wanted to repatriate to Myanmar. The previous government had used a similar argument in July 2023 to justify sending back 126 undocumented Myanmar children from a school in Ang Thong province.

Thai parliamentarians, human rights groups and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission sharply criticized the planned return. Subsequently, the Minister of Social Development and Human Security, Varawut Silpa-archa, backed down in a media interview and stated that the 19 children could remain in Thailand.

“Thai authorities showed sympathy and support by allowing 19 children from Myanmar to remain in Thailand,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s next step should be to assure all those fleeing Myanmar that they can find protection in Thailand.” “The deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar could lead to Thailand hosting many more refugees in the near future,” Pearson said. “While the Thai government must reassure refugees that they will not be endangered, concerned governments must be prepared to support Thailand to provide protection.”

Any forced return to Myanmar may violate Thailand’s obligations as a party to the Convention against Torture, the Rights of the Child, and the principle of customary international law that the “forced return of any person to a place where he or she are at real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to their lives.” Thailand should also provide protection and support to all refugees, including by allowing the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to conduct refugee status determinations.

There is no end in sight to the junta regime

As I noted in earlier messages, the end of the junta regime may not happen soon. International, and especially Western, observers have repeatedly been wrong about Myanmar in the past.

For example, an international political analyst decried the lack of faith among both international and regional actors in the defeat and “extermination” of Myanmar’s military, despite the significant successes of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and other resistance forces. The political analyst concluded that the combination of actions and “in-actions” by international actors is contributing to Myanmar’s return to the power of “corrupt political elites.”

Also other analysts are skeptical of claims that the collapse of the junta regime is imminent. They acknowledge that the junta is losing territory, cities and military camps and is suffering heavy casualties, but note that the crucial factors in the survivability of Myanmar’s military are its air force and weapons production. The SAC has retained control of major air bases and its network of weapons-producing sites in central Myanmar. Not to mention that the country can still import jet fuel and military supplies despite international sanctions.

A security analyst focused on the Asia-Pacific region, meanwhile, predicted that fighting in the coming rainy season will increasingly move into central Myanmar, and that such a conflict is unlikely to produce the kind of quick resistance victories that have seen recent offensives in the border areas.

The analyst claimed that there is a clear difference in military preparedness and weapons between the EAOs and the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). He argued that the lack of strategic thinking among some PDFs and their inability to withstand a sustained military response could lead to the conflict becoming less organized and more destructive, with even more serious humanitarian consequences.

To avoid such a situation, the analyst made two suggestions: that EAOs should increase training and logistical support for PDFs, including arming them with some of the heavy weaponry captured from the SAC; and that the resistance should concentrate attacks on transportation and communications routes, to draw SAC forces from their bases and buy time to build better organized and equipped PDF battalions and brigades.

In search of alternative forms of self-government

Various resistance groups in Chin, Mon and Shan States have taken separate steps towards agreeing, developing and/or establishing guidelines, rules and regulations under which the respective areas should be governed. Each state opts for self-government within a federal, democratic framework based on equality and self-determination.

It points out the shift in the paradigm of the NUG and the EAOs, away from mere fear of and (armed) resistance against the Myanmar army, but also paying attention to the creation of alternative forms of governance and administration.

While Myanmar needs a “quick solution” – an end to the current fighting – finding solutions to the underlying and decades-long problems facing the country remains an absolute priority.

It is feared that foreign, and especially Western ‘peacemakers’ will probably not be able to tackle, let alone effectively resolve, the complex conflict situation in Myanmar. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo credit: Karen National Union, 14-4-24

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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