Small Wars Journal

Sequencing Burma’s Resistance:  A Three-Phase Approach to Defeating the Junta

Fri, 11/17/2023 - 10:39am

Sequencing Burma’s Resistance:  A Three-Phase Approach to Defeating the Junta

By Dr. Lumpy Lumbaca



This paper proposes that a three-phase approach is necessary for Burma’s resistance movement to be victorious.  Phase One requires all ethnic minority groups to put differences aside and mass kinetic and non-kinetic efforts to defeat the junta.  Phase Two demands both substantial international support for the resistance we well as increased global pressure on the junta.  Phase Three involves minority groups agreeing to a common strategic vision for post-junta Myanmar.  It is critical that Phase One takes priority and reaches a certain level of success before any subsequent phases can effectively occur.  Phases Two and Three may take place simultaneously. 

February 2024 will mark three years since the Burmese military launched a coup under the leadership of army chief Min Aung Hlaing to overthrow the civilian government of the country. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) officials were arrested on questionable charges of election fraud just hours before the newly elected parliament was to convene. Almost immediately after the coup, riots and protests began on the streets. Since then, the situation in Myanmar has continued to deteriorate with open conflict happening throughout the country. It's difficult to estimate the number of casualties but it can safely be placed in the thousands, with millions displaced inside the country and into bordering states. Violence, humanitarian struggle, food insecurity, internet blackouts, and failing economic conditions are commonplace. In April of 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar was formed, representing the exiled shadow government in Washington, DC. It was created by a group of elected lawmakers and members of parliament ousted in the coup and includes representatives of NLD, various ethnic minority groups, and other minor parties. Its stated goal is to restore democracy in Myanmar and defeat the junta. It has also called for the international community to impose sanctions on the junta and to provide support to the resistance.

Resistance efforts in Burma have yet to achieve a tipping point for several reasons.  First, the rise of groups willing to fight the military on the battlefield is considerable but there is no united front nor coherent strategy amongst the groups themselves, nor between the groups and the NUG. The groups share countless historical grievances and divisions on top of differing political and ideological agendas. Second, the junta is a brutal and well-equipped military regime. The military has a long history of suppressing dissent and is one of the largest militaries in Southeast Asia, although its size is smaller than originally thought. Defections from the military were common early on, then went through a period of decline as commanders tightened their grip on conscripts and others to support the junta, but are now seeing an uptick once again.  Overall, the Myanmar military retains a significant advantage in terms of firepower and training compared to the ethnic groups, although its reported size is now in question and likely shrinking.  Third, while tactical successes inflicted on the military are now an everyday occurrence, the resistance has been unable to translate small kinetic accomplishments into strategic victory.  Fourth, there is a lack of substantial international support for the movement.  From the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC, which is commonly referred to as one of the earliest successful resistance movements that attracted international support, to Ukraine in 2022, internal success in resistance has time and again attracted greater external support. While the United Nations and other international organizations have condemned the junta's atrocities, they have simultaneously stopped short of providing direct support to the resistance for fear of further destabilizing the region.  Dr. Zach Abuza from the National War College wrote that despite the military’s incompetence which has led to defections, a shortage of economic resources, and territorial losses, the resistance will likely only defeat the junta if the global community gets more involved.  While Abuza is correct that international support is almost assuredly needed to push the resistance over the tipping point, this paper proposes that the sequencing will first require the ethnic groups to put aside differences, mass efforts, and make gains before the international community considers providing increased levels of assistance.  Unfortunately for any resistance, as time passes and new global events overtake headlines, international interest wanes.  Even today, for example, President Zelensky of Ukraine has expressed worries that the recent eruption of violence between Israel and Hamas may draw attention and support away from Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion. This phenomenon is even more significant for Burma since nearly three years have passed, and the international community has largely forgotten about the struggle. And while global interest in the resistance has lessened, China, Russia, and possibly up to 60 other foreign governments and international organizations, continue to prop up the junta.

The good news for the resistance movement is that there is already more than mere interest in overthrowing the junta. The people of Myanmar have already taken up arms and demonstrated a willingness to lay down their lives to free their country from oppression. And while resistance in Burma dates back decades, one journalist observed that the current movement is quite different since it involves a “tech-savvy middle-class youth who have tasted democracy and will not rest till it is restored.”  The demand now is to collectively advance the effort with strategic intent. What does that look like?  First and foremost, the various groups must decide to rally around a common goal: defeat of the junta. It must be the sole purpose of all kinetic and non-kinetic actions in Burma. “Defeat” is defined here as the military's withdrawal from government positions.  While there are many ways to define defeat, this definition is the most pragmatic since it is clear and measurable.  Unfortunately, today’s various resistance groups are preoccupied instead with promoting differing political and ideological agendas, as well as with what the new government of Myanmar should look like after the junta is displaced.  

For the time being, agreeing on a common vision of post-junta Burma must be put to the side. This is not to say that the matter of post-junta governance of the country should not be a concern and should not be carefully planned. The point is that post-junta governance should not be the top priority simply because it is unlikely that it will be realized if the junta is not defeated first.  Moreover, the junta has been able to exploit divisions within the resistance movement.  For example, the junta meets or recognizes some groups like the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), or the Karen National Union (KNU), but not others.  They have has also offered amnesty to political prisoners to win the support of the people. By focusing on the primary goal of defeating the junta, resistance groups can collaboratively overcome these obstacles.

The matter of whether armed ethnic groups should defeat the junta first or instead try to overcome differences and agree on a vision of post-junta Burma is a complex issue with no easy answer.  On the one hand, defeating the junta is a necessary first step to realizing change.  On the other, it is important for armed ethnic groups to agree on a strategic vision for what the country will look like after that defeat.  If resistance groups are unable to eventually agree on a shared vision for the future, it is likely that Burma will descend into civil war after the junta is defeated.  While the ultimate decision of whether to prioritize collectively defeating the junta or agreeing on a post-junta vision is up to the resistance groups themselves, the two different goals may not be mutually exclusive. Armed ethnic groups can work to achieve both objectives, but the author suggests they must be sequenced.  Groups must first give priority to collectively fighting the junta while building and expanding the opposition coalition. This will require tactical to strategic communication for success and be executed in coordination with the NUG and the international community, when possible. 

United under the umbrella of collectively defeating Min Aung Hlaing and his forces and proxies, resistance groups must cooperate on the battlefield and seek out opportunities to build trust between themselves.  Cooperating requires joint and combined unity of military effort.  Traditional military hierarchy typically requires a leader on top.  While everyone may have a voice, someone must be the final decision-maker.  In the case of the resistance movement in Myanmar, such a command structure has proven nonviable.  According to the author’s interview with Dr. Miemie Byrd, a native of Burma and retired US Army officer, accepting a single person or group as the lead for the resistance has been a challenge since the outset.  If a standing, unified chain of command with one leader of ethnic groups is not possible, which seems to be the case, the author suggests that a rotational chain of command be adopted.  Regardless of the size or any perceived prestige of a particular group, rotating commanders and deputy commanders on an established timeline will allow for equal representation.  Unity of effort in combined military operations can enable minority groups to synergize tactical successes and create opportunities and space for operational and strategic victories.

October 27, 2023, witnessed a small but significant demonstration of what cooperating ethnic forces could achieve against the military.  Now known as “Operation 1023,” the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BTA) comprised of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA), launched a coordinated attack to combat the junta’s armed forces and allied militias in northern Shan State, close to the Myanmar-China border.  3BTA stated that the operation was driven by a collective desire to safeguard the lives of civilians, assert the group’s right of self-defense, maintain control of its territory, and respond resolutely to ongoing artillery attacks and airstrikes from the Myanmar military. It further declared that it was “dedicated to eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship, a shared aspiration of the entire Myanmar populace.”  In the aftermath of the combined attack, all 41 members of Light Infantry Battalion 143, including a deputy commander and two company commanders, agreed to lay down their arms.  It is precisely this type of operation, albeit on a national level, that this author suggests should be the objective of Phase One.  It is also worth highlighting that, as mentioned earlier, the Myanmar military may be smaller than previously believed.  The fact that an entire battalion only consisted of 41 members is telling. Just for comparison, an American army battalion can contain between four and seven companies with a total battalion strength between 300 and 1,200 soldiers.  Subsequently, an early November 2023 operation launched by at least three local resistance groups including the Kawlin People’s Defense Force seized a district capital in northern Myanmar after taking state offices and a police station in a four-day offensive. Kawlin in Sagaing region was the first administrative capital seized by resistance forces.  It is operations such as these that can cause a tipping point for the resistance, but they must be coordinated and executed near simultaneously across the entire country with unity of effort.

In the initial phases of combined ethnic group operations, smaller, “softer” targets are recommended.  These are referred to as confidence targets and carry a high probability of success and low risk to the force.  As combined operations progress and ethnic group interoperability increases, more complex targets can be eliminated, such as critical junta logistics and transportation hubs. Some of the highest-yield junta destruction inflicted upon resistance groups has been caused by airstrikes.  Resistance attacks on airfields should be considered high-risk but high-payoff targets.  April 2023 witnessed such an attack on a small scale when opposition fighters launched rocket-propelled grenades against Mingaladon Air Base in the commercial city of Yangon.  As proof of the fear that the attacks had on the junta, the military forced locals to leave their homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the airfield.  The junta’s public excuses for the population relocations were concerns for fire hazards, land encroachment, and traffic, but the reality was that the attacks shook the military.  Future resistance operations of this nature, especially if well-coordinated amongst ethnic groups against key air bases, may prove decisive.  In Magway Region in Central Burma, for example, lies Magway Air Base. It is a major air base for the Myanmar Air Force and home to a variety of military aircraft. It is simultaneously vulnerable, located in a relatively flat and open area, making it easy an easy target for direct and indirect fires.  In the past this airfield and other junta facilities in the area have been targeted by the Chin National Army (CNA) and the People’s Revolution Alliance (PRA-Magway), a local anti-junta defense team.  Rendering an airbase such as Magway inoperable would serve several strategic purposes.  It would demonstrate combined operations proficiency, bolster recruiting, disrupt junta air and ground logistics, and have psychological impacts for both the attackers and the junta.  As operations such as this succeed, the complexity and geography for follow-on missions should be expected to grow around the country.

Demonstrating acts of good faith between groups can further be accomplished by establishing regular dialogues to discuss concerns, sharing information, coordinating activities, and honoring the agreement to rotate commanders. Dialogues can be done in person, online, or through intermediaries. Groups may also execute joint military operations to attack the junta and seize territory. This will also help pool limited resources and expertise and increase chances of success. With ethnic groups combining forces, the odds of success increase. Finally, as operations develop, groups may provide more complex mutual support to each other.  This may be achieved not just by sharing weapons, ammunition, and supplies, but also through combined combat maneuvers and training assistance to each other's forces.

At some point after achieving battlefield successes and massing effort, ethnic groups and the NUG may engage in dialogue to outline a post-junta vision for Myanmar.  This objective cannot be allowed to hinder the first, which is unfortunately what has happened up to this point.  In an ideal environment the armed ethnic groups and NUG would agree to a common vision of what the country would look like prior to joining forces on the battlefield.  Doctrine and history warn us that engaging in war without a unifying strategic vision of success, often called the “end-state” in military terminology, will be doomed to failure or protracted conflict.  In the specific case of Burma today, this principle remains true, but the author suggests it should be secondary to the defeat of the junta.  Should groups continue to prioritize and argue over what they believe Burma should look like after the junta is defeated, they will likely never cooperate at a level that effects said defeat.  The NUG has stated it wants a Myanmar government free of the military.  The minority ethnic groups, according to Byrd, want a true federal democracy and more autonomy, both of which were promised since the days when the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi were in office.  The noteworthy difference is that the ethnic groups could realize democracy and autonomy under a military government.  While theoretically possible, the reality is that the military has promised ethnic groups greater autonomy since independence in 1948 but to this day has not lived up to their word.  As soon as natural resources we discovered in ethnic areas, or other disagreements arose, the military took or maintained control with force.  The ethnic armed organizations must remember that as they consider dealing with the junta.  The NUG, on the other hand, has made it clear that it will not accept any military involvement in the future government of Myanmar.  This is the unfortunate reality of the situation and one of the main reasons why the NUG and ethnic groups have not been able to fully integrate their efforts.  It is also precisely why the author posits that this issue of future governance must be put aside for the time being if progress is to be made.  All resistance elements must focus solely on defeating the junta first. 

There is admittedly a risk in this strategy of moving forward together without a vision of the future.  Should the resistance succeed, and the junta is defeated without an established agreement between ethnic groups and the NUG that outlines what post-junta Burma looks like, the country may sink into civil war given the power vacuum.  The author suggests that this outcome is still better than what Myanmar faces now.  Minority groups do not have the capacity nor the will to inflict concentrated, centralized terror across the entire population of 54 million the way that the junta does today.  The author therefore proposes that even if the result of subverting the junta is displaced conflict between minority groups, it would be a tragedy but nevertheless an improvement over the current state of mass killings.  This may be a controversial position but nevertheless one that that Dr. Byrd, a Burma security expert, agreed with in an interview with the author. 

Up to this point, this paper has focused primarily on the defeat of the junta in terms of tactical and operational successes of armed ethnic groups fighting the military in combat. In addition, there have been non-violent forms of resistance, such as civil disobedience and boycotts. These forms of resistance by women’s groups, teachers, doctors, and others have been effective in putting pressure on the junta and making it more difficult for it to rule. Reactions from the military to such civil obedience, however, have been brutal with death squads, extrajudicial killings, and bombing of civilian populations a common occurrence.  Unfortunately, international sanctions and a crumbling economy have had little effect in curbing junta atrocities exacted on the population. As a result, the author suggests that defeating the junta may be the only viable path to restoring self-determination for the Burmese and ethnic minority people.

Combined and effective resistance to erode whatever popular support and influence the junta has among the people will help speed the outcome of the conflict. Backing from the population is the heart of any resistance and without it, victory is unachievable. The junta has been able to maintain its influence by suppressing the media and cracking down on communications, so even small resistance victories become critical to demonstrate to the people of Myanmar that the movement is legitimate and can succeed.  Overall defeat of the junta may take months or years.  Resistance movements that are fast are typically ones that involve the state quickly crushing the resistance. 

If Ukraine serves as an example for what to expect, the international community may play an increasing role as resistance successes mount in Myanmar. There are countless differences between Ukraine and Burma, the most obvious being that Burma has not been occupied by a foreign invader. Regardless, the NUG has already received varying levels of external support, and this may grow as the international community gains confidence in the possibility of a junta defeat. While it has not been officially recognized by the United Nations or most countries, The NUG has already received support from several governments, including the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. It has also been recognized by the European Parliament as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Accepting that international involvement may never involve direct ground or lethal support, nations supportive of the NUG and ethnic groups may nevertheless provide diplomatic support, financial assistance, increased sanctions on the junta, military fuel bans, weapons bans, and create an environment for groups to engage in dialogue and continue building trust.

Resistance in Burma can succeed but it will require ethnic groups to overcome political, historical, cultural, ideological, and numerous other divisions to embrace the common objective of defeating the junta. This is a tall order but a necessary one.  Contrary to what some commentators have observed, the resistance is not caught in a stalemate and considerable progress has been made in 2023.  The late October and early November resistance attacks in the north are noteworthy but require country-wide exploitation. A resistance coalition now focus entirely on Phase One – unanimously or near-unanimously - to defeat the junta.  After a level of success is realized in Phase One, increased international support to the resistance and pressure on the junta – labeled here as Phase Two - can realistically be expected.  Without gains in Phase One, however, it is unlikely for the resistance to see any substantial global support.  Finally, Phase Three will involve minority group consultations to devise a strategic, diplomatic vision for what post-junta Burma will look like.  Phases Two and Three may occur at the same time.  The sequencing of the resistance movement is critical but if followed, Myanmar has a genuine chance of defeating Min Aung Hlaing and freeing the oppressed.    


The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

About the Author(s)

Jeremiah “Lumpy” Lumbaca, PhD, is a retired US Army Green Beret officer and current Department of Defense professor of irregular warfare, counterterrorism, and special operations at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS). He can be found on X/Twitter @LumpyAsia.