ASSESSING THE EAOs IN 2022: Uncertainty as groups fight the junta, sit on the fence or side with the junta

14 January 2023
ASSESSING THE EAOs IN 2022: Uncertainty as groups fight the junta, sit on the fence or side with the junta
Karen National Union (KNU) guerillas. Photo: EPA

In many ways, the future of the Myanmar military junta may well lie in the decisions made by the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) as 2022 ends and the two-year anniversary of the coup comes into view.

As the Spring Revolution picked up pace in 2022, eyes were focused on the response of the EAOs as they considered their options – to fight the junta, to sit on the fence, or to side with the junta.

So, what should we be aware of when assessing the EAOs behaviour in 2022?

The main EAOs involved in the armed conflict, directly and indirectly are: Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Chin National Front (CNF), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA), Karenni National Progressive Party/Karenni Army (KNPP/KA), Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), Karen National Liberation Army- Peace Council (KNLA-PC), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) or Kokang, National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) or Mongla, New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), Palaung State Liberation Party/ Ta'ang National Liberation Army (PSLP/TNLA), United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), United Wa State Party/Army (UWSAP/UWSA).

Generally four types of EAOs could be categorized: Those who sympathized with the Bamar and democratic opposition groups and also helped train and partly equip them with weapons; those that are indifferent and see it as a National League for Democracy (NLD)-SAC Bamar conflict and won't have anything to do with it; those that take the opportunity to broaden their territories to be in a better bargaining position when the time comes for political settlement or negotiation, with a “make hay while the sun shines” sort of attitude; and those that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015 and cling to it arguing that they signed the truce to be engaged in political dialogue and peaceful settlement and not war and thus refuse to be drawn into the armed conflict.

Arakan (Rakhine) State

Since the February coup 2021 the informal ceasefire reached between the AA and the junta, which was agreed in October 2020 before the general election, was gearing to breakdown.

In the aftermath of the coup until the end of 2021 no armed conflict was registered. But a few minor clashes occurred in February, April and May 2022 between the junta, mainly due to the fact that the junta was not happy with the AA’s administration expansion and saw it as a rivalry to replace its system of military supremacy rule, including the AA's military recruitment and build-up. There were also continuous frictions because AA and junta were arresting each other’s functionaries, backers and sympathizers, in a tit-for-tat manner at the ground level, as the rivalry became intense.

Large-scale war erupted when on 4 July 2022, the junta shelled one of the AA’s outposts with two fighter jets in Karen State on the Salween River in Mutraw (Hpapun) District, an area controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) Brigade 5. Several buildings, including a clinic, were destroyed, the AA said in a statement reported by Myanmar Now the following day. During the bombing spree, six AA members were killed and seven wounded. The AA vowed to take revenge for the unprovoked killings.

On 18 July 2022, the AA attacked the junta's Border Guard Force (BGF) twice in Maungdaw Township killing a number of them and capturing 14 junta personnel.

AA spokesman Khaing Thuka confirmed the attack on the junta-backed BGF was a retaliation for the killing of six AA troops in airstrikes carried out by the junta in Karen State’s Mutraw (Hpapun) District earlier.

From then on, the fighting spread to Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Mrauk-U townships in Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in Chin State.

But the reignited armed conflict from July to the last week of November were short but quite intensive, with nearly 50 armed clashes registered, 25 civilians killed and over a hundred wounded as collateral damage only within the time span of September 20 to November 27, according to AA spokesman Khaing Thuka to the media. But he didn't mention either the SAC or AA casualty figures.

ISP-Myanmar, ISP Data Matters Report Number 37 (b) on 22 November 2022 stated 48 armed clashes in Arakan State within the time span from 1 February 2021 to 15 November 2022.

On 26 November, AA and the SAC reached an informal humanitarian ceasefire agreement mediated by the Nippon Foundation Chairman Mr Sasakawa. However, how long this truce will hold is not clear as there is no time frame attacked to it and the conditions are vague.

Since the ceasefire the junta has opened some waterways and roads and the bombardment of the civilian residence have ceased.

According to Development Media Goup October report, the AA said it already controlled 60% of northern Rakhine and overran or captured 36 military outposts in Rakhine including positions along the Rakhine-Bangladesh border. Reportedly around 30 were in Maungdaw Township and six were in Paletwa Township, Chin State, which borders Rakhine State, according to observers.

AA leader Twan Mrat Naing told Asia Times in January 2022 that his army now fielded some 30,000 well-trained troops, with approximately 5,000 to 6,000 deployed to “allied areas,” representing a formidable force.

Chin State

Since the February military coup on February 2021 Chin resistance forces have been actively resisting the SAC rule, which is headed by the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF), to bolster the protection offered to the state by the more well-established military force that has been present in Chin since 1988, the Chin National Army (CNA), armed wing of the CNF.

In 30 September 2021, Chinland Joint Defence Committee (CJDC) was formed which included 18 group members. On 5 December 2021, it was officially agreed that Chinland Defence Force (CDF) will be changed to CJDC.

According to The Guardian report of 24 January 2022, “The aim of the CJDC is not only to quell the Tatmadaw’s recent onslaught but to help put an end to the regime’s decades of violence across the whole of Myanmar, and to replace it with a federal democracy in which Chin, along with the country’s other territories, would enjoy the freedoms of self-governance similar to that practised in the 50 states of the US.”

Fighting which started out shortly after the military coup in February 2021 continued all throughout the nine townships of Chin State. The Chin resistance groups were able to deny the control of their state to the junta and as a result has only been able to hold up its presence in urban areas, but still being constantly breached and harassed by the resistance forces.

In a report by Burma News International on 22 November, spokesman for CNF Salai Htet Ni said: “When it comes to territorial control, we’ve to talk about the popular support at the same time. First of all, we can say that we’ve the full support of the people. More people in Chin State live in rural areas than in urban areas. In such a situation, the public is on our side. The forces of the CNA and CDF operate mainly in the rural areas of all nine townships up to the Sagaing Region. We’re mainly active in the nine townships of Chin State. We’ve brought more than 70 percent of the land under our control. The proof of this is the fact that we’re already operating our own health and education facilities in the rural areas.”

He said more than 70 percent of Chin State’s territory is under their control, with the SAC’s administrative system almost completely paralysed.

Regarding the armed conflict situation, he said: “Compared to last year, the number of clashes in Chin State has decreased. This is true for the southern part of the state compared to the northern part. In previous years, the regime’s troops came from different directions in large numbers from both the south and the north to the strategic areas of Matupi and Hakha. But this year they’ve made no such advance. Right now, they’re mainly focused on the north. In general, their fighting intensity has slowed down.”

Kachin State

The KIA and SAC clashes that started in 2009 continue after the military coup in February 2021 until today, which the former cooperating with anti-junta forces by providing sanctuary to the pro-democracy activists and ousted parliamentary members. It even goes so far to train and arm the opposition anti-junta forces from all over the country, especially from Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay regions.

Ever since then, the KIO has operated in northern part of Sagaing Region by cooperating with the local PDFs which it has helped trained and largely equip, primarily in order to cut the supply lines of the SAC troops. Additionally, it has full command control of the no less than 5,000 Kachin People’s Defence Forces (KPDF), which it helped create. The KIA is said to field about 20,000 troops, which includes militias.

Thus the KIA is involved in the civil war and continue to do so in clashes in Katha, Indaw, Homlin, Pinlebu, Kawlin, Wuntho and Tigyaing of the upper Sagaing Region, including attacking the SAC's riverine vessels, carrying troops and weapons up the Ayeyarwaddy River, together with the PDF forces in northern Sagaing, according to analyst Ye Myo Hein.

Another area outside Kachin State which the KIA operates is the northern Shan State of Namkham-Muse and Kutkai areas, of which the latter was where the Kachin revolution or KIA first come into existence in 1961.

The KIA presence in northern Shan State is in the southern part of the Lashio-Muse Road with the 4th Brigade; in the northern part of the Kukai-Muse Road with the 6th Brigade; and perches along

the Hseni-Kunlong road with the 10th Brigade.

The 1st Brigade of the KIA is based in Putao, Sumprabum, the 7th Brigade in Chipwi, Hpunre, the 2nd Brigade in Tanai, Shingbwiyang, the 9th Brigade in Hpakant, the 8th Brigade in Mohnyin, Namsi Awng, the 3rd Brigade in Bhamo and the 5th Brigade in Sadon. It also maintains a Light Infantry Brigade and Central Guard Brigade, and the total number of battalions under the twelve brigades is 52, according to Ye Myo Hein.

According to the ISP-Myanmar statistics for the time span 1 February 2021 to 15 November 2022, the total armed clashes within the Kachin State was 213 and ranked 8th in countrywide armed engagement count. However, no casualty figures were released from either KIA or the SAC as is always the case.

After the A Nan Pa airstrikes killed some 70 civilians and KIA combatants during a concert in October, the KIA is more determined to fight and recently on 15 December General Gun Maw, vice-chairman of the KIO in an interview with RFA said that the Kachin people are with the NUG, cooperating with its Ministry of Defence and the Central Command and Coordination Committee (C3C) militarily in trying to uproot the military dictatorship and establish a federal democratic union.

Shan State

The Shan war theatre is perhaps the most sophisticated and complicated compared to the other conflict areas.

The non-Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement-EAOs (non-NCA-EAOs) UWSA, NDAA, MNDAA, TNLA, SSPP, and KIA operate in the Shan State’s north and northeast. From these groups TNLA, MNDAA and KIA battled with the SAC on-and-off, although the SSPP also fought occasionally in the second half of the year with the SAC, due to its demand to withdraw from three of its positions in southern Shan State.

In addition, there were also on-and-off firefights between the two Shan armies RCSS and the SSPP. The former withdrew from the northern Shan State completely at the end of 2021, which it had encroached upon after the signing of NCA in October 2015. However, the SSPP intruded further into the RCSS stomping ground in the south, said to be with the help of UWSA, which the SSPP denied.

Some said that the RCSS asked the SAC to help evict the SSPP from its former operational territories which might have prompted the SAC to ask for the withdrawal of the three military positions in southern Shan State, which the SSPP rejected.

Perhaps in a bid to stem the tide of armed confrontation, the RCSS in 10 October 2022 released a statement proposing calling for dialogue with all concerned parties.

But this initiative that will end on 10 February 2023 so far has received no response from EAOs in Shan State.

Another flash point and fierce conflict zone is the southern tip of Shan State bordering Karenni or Kayah State, which are Pekon and Moebye towns in Pekon Township, Taunggyi District, adjacent to Demoso and Loikaw townships in Karenni State.

Nawnghkio Township, northern Shan State also saw armed clashes between the Mandalay PDF, sometimes in collaboration with TNLA, against the SAC troops.

Almost all EAOs in Shan State are not in league with the NUG unlike the other ethnic states in fighting the SAC but stay aloof and more inclined to advance their political interests and agendas of acquiring more territories and self-rule, although TNLA and MNDAA stated their sympathy of the

NUG and the Spring Revolution in the media.

Karenni (Kayah) State

During the year Karenni State has been experiencing heavy airstrikes and aerial bombardment, coupled with continuous artillery attacks, including a scorched earth campaign by the SAC. But the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) claimed that 90 percent of the junta's administration has ceased to function. The KNPP also confirmed that the junta's troops mostly did not venture out from their barracks, even in big towns that they claim to control.

The main actors prominently featuring in the media are the KA, the armed wing of KNPP and KNDF, although numerous assorted PDFs and LDFs are also participating in the resistance. For instance, on 6 April 2022, the Karenni Revolution Union (KRU) was formed with six revolutionary forces which emerged after the coup, namely the Karenni Generation-Z (KGZ), the Karenni Democratic Front (KDF), the Fight for Justice (JPDF), the GZ-21 (Loikaw), Medic Unit and the Southern Shan People Defence Force (SSPDF), according to the Kantarawaddy Times.

Karenni State Deputy Minister of Defence Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) Secretary-1 Khu Daniel on 5 December told Myanmar Now that 75 to 80 percent that emerged from the Spring Revolution considered KA chief of staff as their own. A few PDFs are under the NUG, but the KNPP cooperates with any organization that is against the SAC.

The Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC) includes the Kayah State Democratic Party (KYSDP), the Kayan National Party (KNP), the National League for Democracy (NLD), five ethnic armed organisations, and the KNDF, an armed group formed after the coup, according to the Myanmar Now report of 30 April.

The KNPP criticised the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) for announcing plans on April 24 to reform its administrative processes without properly consulting local EAOs.

The conflict zones are mainly in Demoso, Hpruso, Loikaw in Karenni and adjacent Pekon, and Mobye in southern Shan State, even though sporadic clashes took place across the whole of Karenni State.

Karen State

Even prior to the February 2021 military coup, part of the KNU, particularly the KNU Brigade 5 area has been a hotbed of armed clashes, due to the Myanmar military's expansion into its area through road-building or upgrading the existing roads. The KNU protested this but the military never considered to scale back, thus armed conflict in this area has never stopped. Even then the KNU leadership led by General Muto Say Poe was trying to stick to the NCA-based peace negotiation process.

However, the military coup changed the situation at first reluctantly by providing sanctuary to those who fled the cities, many of whom are young generation and NLD members, and also providing military training by the KNU to fight back the military junta, primarily in their homesteads.

But in December 2021, the junta attacked Lay Kay Kaw village, which had sheltered pro-democratic dissidents, leading to the escalation of armed conflict and thereby forcing the reluctant KNU to enter the civil war fray and morphed into a full-blown conflict in 2022 that covered almost the whole Karen State, part of Mon State, part of Bago and even the Tanintharyi Region.

According to Ye Myo Hein, “The Sit-Tat (SAC) has deployed over fifty battalions of the 11th Light Infantry Division, the 22nd, the 44th, the 66th, Military Operations Command (MOC) No. 6, 8, 13, 19 and 20, in addition to battalions from South East Regional Command, Coastal Regional

Command, and its controlled Border Guard Forces.”

It is believed that the KNU fields 20,000 troops and the PDF amounts to 10,000 fighters.

On 13 September 2022 KNU General Headquarters released a battle statistics statement for the time span of the 20 months from January 2021 to August 2022 as follows:

The military wing of KNU, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Nyaung Lay Pin District Brigade (3) and Muttaw District Brigade (5), including Karen National Defence Force (KNDO) troops, clashed with junta troops and Border Guard Force (BGF) troops frequently on a daily basis since the military coup.

During this period, the KNLA, KNDO troops and junta plus Border Guard Force (BGF) troops fought and clashed 6,356 times, with 5,125 troops of the junta side killed and 4,174 wounded. 137 of the KNLA and KNDO troopers were killed and 352 were injured. The KNLA and KNDO forces also attacked and destroyed nine major military bases of the junta or SAC.

A total of 4,456 intentional shootings were fired at the people. A total of 117 targeted air raids jet fighters and helicopters were used in attacking the KNLA, KNDO and the villages.

The intentional firing with heavy guns and airstrikes killed 131 innocent people and injured 294. A total of 412 innocent people were arrested without reason by the junta and threatened with interrogation. They were also used as porters and human shields.

As a result of the intentional firing of heavy weapons and airstrikes on the villages and people, 37,1958 people have fled their homes and businesses to safer areas. Most of them were children, students, elderly people and disabled persons.

Mon State

Mon State political and military can be generally categorized into three groups, namely: the junta's political ally; those engaging in NCA-based peace talks; and those politically and militarily resisting the military junta.

The first category of junta allies includes: Mon Unity Party (MUP) that practically works with the junta or SAC; and Mon Peace Defense Force (MPDF) that left NMSP in 2010 and became local pro-junta militias.

The second one which is involved in NCA-based peace talks is the NMSP. It was a bit reluctant after the first peace talks meeting, which was initiated by the junta, due to Mon public pressure to reject it. But nevertheless it opted for the second meeting during the year, which angered many Mon people.

The third category those politically and militarily resisting the military junta includes: Mon State Interim Coordination Committee (MSICC), a member of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which is part of parallel NUG setup; the Mon State Defence Force (MDSF), operating under NUG command. The MDSF (North) is active in Thaton Township while MDSF (South) operates in Ye Township.

Other local resistance groups which are said to number about nine according to the ISP-Myanmar count last year fighting the junta, including Ye Belu and the Mon State Revolutionary Organization.

Most Mon local resistance groups owe their existence to KNU whose territories are adjacent to the Karen State and thus are natural allies.

On 3 October, a resistance coalition has been formed led by KNU’s Brigade 1 based in Thaton District with 24 PDFs. They are PDFs from Paung, Bilin, Thaton and Theinzayat towns in Mon State

operating under the direct command of KNU Brigade 1.

Another new resistance group is said to be in the making with a base in Mudon and Thanphyuzayat with the help of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, consisting of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA, according to the media reports.

In Mon State, Bilin, Kyaikto, Thaton, Kyaikmaraw, Mudon and Ye townships are main conflict areas with clashes also going on in other townships.

Outlook and Perspective

2022 demonstrated that the resistance against the military junta rule is widespread in all states and regions, except for the Shan State and Arakan State. Even then, pockets of areas in the northern and southern Shan State armed clashes were reported on-and-off throughout the year, with the junta's massive offensives conducted against the TNLA in December before the year end. During the end of November and beginning of December the junta also tried to dislodge the MNDAA or Kokang from its positions in northern Shan State close to the Chinese border, without success. The KIA routinely clashed with the junta on-and-off also. The southern part of Shan State, close to the Karenni border in Pekon and Moebye areas are also active conflict war zones between the junta and local PDFs, LDFs and sometimes in collaboration with the Karenni PDFs.

The Chin, Kachin, Karenni and Karen states' EAOs and their respective local PDFs are solidly behind the battle cry of “no negotiation and uprooting the military dictatorship” as a top priority so that federal democratic union can be established. Thus, they are working in collaboration with the NUG and this trend is gaining momentum.

In Mon State, the NMSP, the main EAO within the state, is keen to negotiate peace with the junta and thus is left out of the resistance fray. But numerous local PDFs and KNU Brigade 1 are nevertheless engaged in the fight against the junta on Mon State soil.

As for the seven regions, the epicentre for Bamar ethnic resistance is Anyar or the Dry Zone, which includes Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay. However, Bago and Tanintharyi regions are beefing up their resistance movements, both with the help of KNLA as they are adjacent to its operational areas.

While it can be claimed that most of Myanmar is resisting junta rule, questions remain over the stance of several EAOs who are sat on the fence or siding with the SAC.

Sai Wansai for Mizzima