Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 10 April 2024

 Myanmar’s junta loses key base to rebel forces


Myanmar’s rebel forces claimed to have seized a military base near a key town at the Thailand border, in the latest blow to the ruling military regime that has been losing ground to opposition groups for months.

The Karen National Union, Myanmar’s oldest rebel group, said its military wing took control of the army base last weekend in Thin Gan Nyi Naung, a short distance from Myawaddy, a strategic trading town at the Thai border.

The fall of Myawaddy to rebel forces would be a setback for the military regime, which has been in power for three years but is slowly losing control of towns and military outposts since late last year. The most significant losses have been in territories close to the China, India and Bangladesh borders.

KNU, which mounted the assault on the Thin Gan Nyi Naung base with another pro-democracy opposition force, said hundreds of officers surrendered and that it had also seized weapons.

The vulnerability of the regime has prompted some neighbouring countries to call for a rethink on how to deal with Naypyidaw. Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin told Reuters this week that it was a good time to engage with the leadership given its weakened position.

“The current regime is starting to lose some strength, but even if they are losing, they have the power, they have the weapons,” Srettha said.

An alliance of rebel forces in October launched surprise attacks on army outposts and military-controlled towns on multiple fronts, sparking an insurgency by other armed groups as well.

Beijing said it had brokered peace talks between the military and the thousands-strong rebel alliance in January to end fighting in towns close to the Chinese border.

Armed attacks by opposition groups have increased since October, chipping away at the military’s grip on power.

The Myanmar military in 2021 overthrew a democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and jailed the Nobel laureate on corruption charges that critics said were trumped up. The coup triggered protests and civil disobedience against the military, which responded with deadly force.

The army has been losing personnel and has struggled to recruit soldiers. In a sign of the damage to its forces, the junta introduced conscription in February, requiring young people to serve a mandatory term of up to two years.

Myawaddy would be “a significant loss for the military from a strategic point of view”, said Thomas Kean, a senior consultant at International Crisis Group. Losing Myawaddy would affect trade and Myanmar’s relationship with Thailand, with which Myanmar shares a 2,000km border.

While the rebel attacks did not pose a significant threat to the military regime, the growing losses had weakened its position and the economy, he added.

“They have lost thousands of soldiers, either killed, wounded or taken as prisoners, and lost a huge amount of weapons,” Kean said, and weakened military leader Min Aung Hlaing.

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