Inside the Burmese military front
men thick ballad, in southern Myanmar, two soldiers cover a freshly dug pit with tree trunks. The floor of the emerging air raid shelter, which will fit twelve people, is already covered with rattan mats. Such moving defenses are hidden about this hideout of Myanmar’s Government of National Unity (NUG), whose forces are fighting the ruling junta. The headquarters camp is the nugs Southern Command, one of three command posts established as part of a broad effort to reorganize the Burmese resistance. The Economist he spent several days inside NUG– control of Myanmar assessing its progress.
The country has a long history of terrorism. Ethnically based militias have been fighting their government, controlled by the majority Bamar group, for decades. But the opposition that came from an army takeover in 2021 is on a different level. Armed dissident groups have sprung up across the country, including for the first time in the Bamar heartland. It is estimated that over 300 of these People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), with more than 65,000 fighters. Most are connected to the NUG which was launched by members of parliament elected in 2020, and which also includes ethnic and civil society leaders.
It is estimated that more than 30,000 people have been killed and 2m displaced in two years of fighting between the army and these militias. The opposition is believed to control up to half of Myanmar’s territory, although most towns are in the hands of the junta. Some believe that the conflict could increase, because of the nugattempt to convert them PDFs and its ethnic allies to a more coherent force.
Organizing the PDFs taken longer than expected, admits Ko Bate, the NUG an officer in the jungle camp. The PDFs poorly coordinated and equipped; only 30% of their forces are thought to have guns. But, says Mr Bate, a former senior civil servant, who is in charge of finance, logistics and supply for the southern sector, about 80% are now organized into battalions, with names like Lion, Cobra and Unicorn.
Despite sending a delegation to Europe and America, the NUG failed to win foreign recognition or support. To feed and equip his troops, he relies on crowdfunding. Last year they ran a digital lottery and set up a digital wallet app, NUGto pay, to ask for donations. It also “sells” the rights to property belonging to the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, and shares in future developments on military-controlled land.
The nugweapons are also mounted. Saw Min is part of “Federal Wings”, a unit repositioning drones to drop homing rockets. A former civil engineer and resident of Singapore, he says he has given his life savings to the cause: “All that matters is to get the military out of politics. ” On his phone he has a video of a drone blowing up an army truck. On the next frame is a picture of a small child, his firstborn, whom he has yet to meet.
Despite their lack of firepower, the PDFs and their ethnic allies have killed 15,000 soldiers, estimates Anthony Davis, a security analyst who studies the conflict. (NUG estimates are much higher.) That is not enough to threaten an army of 170,000. But he directs the junta to arm ex-soldiers and criminals. Even the wives and children of the army personnel are receiving basic training.
Since large convoys cannot move without being ambushed, the army attacks from the air. “After communicating with our soldiers they drop bombs indiscriminately,” says U. Yarma, the NUG chief of intelligence. Nearly 200 people were killed on April 11 in an air attack on villagers in Sagaing, in central Myanmar. They had gathered for the opening of the NUG administrative office. The UN saying such airstrikes could constitute war crimes. NUG officials say the junta has killed 13,000 people, including PDF combatants and civilians.
Although the NUG and allied forces are currently limited to guerrilla tactics, their leaders suggest a more sustained attack is coming. “In the near future the whole country will be ablaze with war,” he predicts NUG leader It seems a little unlikely. The NUG he seems not ready to launch a normal attack. For now, the junta is too unpopular to control the country, but it is too powerful to effect the towns. And so a pitiful, widespread but low-level conflict persists in the country. ■