A vision for war without end in Myanmar
Nation's most intense civil conflict is changing shape as Kachin rebels respond to military's onslaught with a shift to guerrilla warfare
As the dust settles on one of the Myanmar military’s broadest counterinsurgency campaigns in decades, it is clear that its war in the country’s rugged north against the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has escalated sharply as military casualties mount and thousands more internally displaced persons (IDPs) are driven from their homes.
The onset of the rains this month will reduce the tempo of the conflict as cloud cover impedes air strikes and troop and equipment movement along minor roads becomes more difficult. However, the manner in which the war is now changing as the KIA regroups and reassesses its shrinking strategic options guarantees all but guarantees sustained bitter fighting in the months ahead.
“It is time we fight back with guerrilla warfare,” wrote KIA chief General N’ Ban La in an open letter released on April 28 to the Kachin people and in particular to those displaced by the hostilities. “KIA comrades must take responsibility not only to make efforts on the battlefield but also to lead those fleeing to escape.”
The general’s letter may have lacked the rhetorical power of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s June 1940 “we shall fight on the beaches” call-to-arms against Nazi Germany. But it was couched in the same defiant vein appealing to Kachins to rally and show fortitude in the face of an unprecedented onslaught.
The letter was also noteworthy for another unintended reason: The announcement from the KIA — part of a wider northern alliance of ethnic armed groups pursuing federal autonomy – that it is turning to guerrilla warfare seven years into a renewed conflict with one of Southeast Asia’s largest standing armies was remarkable and revealing in itself.
The unspoken reality behind the announcement is that the KIA, a lightly armed force of some 9,000 combatants, has spent much of the time since the 2011 collapse of its ceasefire with the military, or Tatmadaw, in a state of strategic indecision, debating whether to go to war, negotiate peace or somehow attempt both at the same time.
The result – it was never a coherent strategy – has been a “defensive war” aimed at holding fixed positions and territory deemed as important while avoiding offending the Tatmadaw with any overly aggressive counter-attacks. Backed by a growing arsenal of artillery, armor and airpower, the 300,000-strong Tatmadaw, meanwhile, has slowly but surely ratcheted up the pressure.
The two most striking examples of the KIA’s attempts to defend fixed positions against overwhelming conventional odds were the late 2012-early 2013 battle for Laiza, the KIA’s headquarters situated on the Chinese border, and what some saw as a heroic defense of the mountaintop Gideon Post in 2016.
The Gideon Post finally fell to sustained aerial, artillery and infantry assaults in December that year. The survival of Laiza, now within the Tatmadaw’s effective artillery range, appears partly due to military concerns that fighting for the town could spill into Chinese territory and irk Beijing. But the way Laiza continues to tie down rebel troops while also providing a postal address for eventual negotiations with a chastened KIA is doubtless also a factor in the army’s calculation.
For its part, the Tatmadaw has been entirely clear about its own objectives: to prod the KIA to join the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as a prelude to its disarmament or integration under national command; or, failing that, to bludgeon the rebel force into defeated submission.
There have been several interlocking reasons for the strategic indecision in Kachin ranks. One has been the siren call of the NCA and the leading role of the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), in what was once known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).
Formed in 2011 as a vehicle for ethnic groups seeking federal democracy, the now defunct UNFC was heavily invested in the Western-supported NCA and the lengthy negotiations involved in its drafting.
Secondly, the KIA has suffered from the corrosive effects of so-called “ceasefire syndrome” on a rebel army. The cessation of hostilities which lasted 17 years from 1994 and 2011 failed to deliver any political gains for the Kachin in terms of substantive negotiations, let alone agreements, over autonomy.
It did, though, provide the movement with the trappings of governance, a capital at Laiza and made many Kachin leaders extremely rich by cooperating with Burman and Chinese businessmen in the massive plunder of the state’s natural resources including timber and jade. The KIA as a military force languished as its senior officers developed plump waist-lines and bank accounts.
Lastly, leadership squabbles within the KIO which continued well beyond the return to war in June 2011 caused further confusion. Those differences might charitably have been interpreted as the push and pull of democracy at work within the Kachin ranks. But democracy under fire is never a recipe for military success and the Tatmadaw has adroitly exploited the divisions.
If the KIA can now succeed in adapting to a new guerrilla strategy, it will be none too soon. The dry season campaign now ended has seen not just one but an unprecedented flurry of Tatmadaw offensives, first in January and then in the March-May period.
In unprecedented fashion, the KIA has been hammered in multiple locations across the entire state: in Mansi township on the border with Shan state; in Tanai and the Hukawng Valley further north; around Hpakant, the center of the jade industry; near Injangyang in the Kachin heartland of the so-called ‘Triangle’ between the Mali and N’Mai Rivers north of Mytikyina; and in the area around Laiza.
KIA spokesmen have described the campaign as the most intense since 2011. They might have added it has actually been the heaviest onslaught since the KIA first took up arms in 1961. At least another 10,000 civilians have been driven from their homes in recent months, adding to the more than 100,000 already in IDP camps.
At the broadest political level, the Tatmadaw’s campaign has aimed to punish the KIA not only for its refusal to sign the NCA, but also for joining the overtly rejectionist camp led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s best-armed ethnic rebel group. There is thus a simple logic in the Tatmadaw’s singling out the Kachin: among the northern alliance, the KIA is the largest but also the most geographically isolated fighting force.
Unlike the UWSA’s allies in northern Shan state – the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA)– the KIA’s main force fights a long way from the UWSA’s stronghold east of the Salween River and the munitions depots from which the Wa are willing to sell arms. Equally, the Christian Kachin do not enjoy the same close political ties that bind the MNDAA, TNLA and AA to the UWSA.
Within Kachin state, the Tamadaw’s campaign has pursued two strategic objectives aimed at crippling the KIA militarily. The first has been to cut KIA sources of taxation revenues around the gold and amber mines in Tanai and the jade mines in Hpakant. The second has been less noted but no less important: to sever lines of logistics and communications between Laiza headquarters and various rebel brigades deployed across other parts of the state, while at the same time disrupting connectivity between the various brigades themselves.
The intensity of recent offensives has been underpinned by a reinforcement of forces under the Northern Regional Command with battalions from other regions and elements of three of the ten Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) that make up the army’s crack mobile reserve: the 33rd, 88th and 101st. After weeks of rest and training, the 33rd LID was back in action after the now notorious “clearance operations” associated with “ethnic cleansing” of ethnic Rohingya in northern Rakhine state.
But while bolstering manpower is typical enough for major Tatmadaw campaigns, the extent of its use of artillery and airpower support appears to be unprecedented.
For the first time, Serbian-produced self-propelled 155mm artillery systems have been rolled out against KIA fixed positions and logistic lines, notably in Mansi where Kachin state borders Namhkan township in northern Shan state. And air power — a steadily growing factor over the battlefields of northern Myanmar in recent years — has this year played a larger role than ever before.
Operating out of Nampong Air Base near Myitkyina and often supported by Chinese-made reconnaissance drones, Russian helicopter gunships and fixed-wing jets have flown ground attack missions against targets state-wide. One media report — which remains unconfirmed — has suggested that new JF-17 multi-role fighters purchased from Pakistan may have conducted their first combat operations this year in Kachin state.
Unlike in northern Shan state where fighting frequently occurs close to the Chinese border, air strikes in Kachin areas are only rarely constrained by fears of overflights into Chinese airspace and collateral damage across the border. In this regard, Laiza, situated immediately on the border and the China-Kachin-Shan tri-border zone are the only real areas of concern.
Under this sort of bombardment and pressure, the KIA’s long-delayed shift to a guerrilla strategy will not be easy. In any circumstances, the Kachin insurgency faces one overarching challenge: lack of a secure sanctuary across an international border and the logistical support cross-border access provides to most successful guerrilla campaigns. While the KIA has been able to purchase munitions from the UWSA, it has not been confident of a significant or regular supply.
That constraint places an urgent premium on operations aimed at capturing munitions from the enemy. The rainy season’s cloud cover will impede close air support for embattled Tatmadaw positions and provide ample opportunities for such insurgent strikes. Even before the onset of the rains, an April 6 assault in Hpakant township in which a Kachin force overran a Tatmadaw base, seized quantities of munitions and withdrew, was a clear pointer to the KIA’s future operations and tactics.
The Kachin’s long struggle for autonomy, to be sure, is not without strengths.
Not least is a vast hinterland that serves as a rear base. Despite the destructive inroads of Chinese logging companies, much of the state retains significant forest cover, particularly in the “Triangle” region. It appears the KIA has already moved key facilities such as training camps and munitions production facilities out of the Laiza – Maijayang region and into more secure hinterland areas.
The KIA’s war also relies on widespread popular support in what is increasingly being viewed as a war of ethnic survival against a Burman-dominated army notorious for its excesses. Kachins who might once have viewed de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected National League for Democracy government as a moderating influence on the military have mostly abandoned that hope.
Against this backdrop, the KIA has already begun to restructure its forces. Larger brigades with headquarters in fixed positions have been broken up into smaller ones better suited to the tactical flexibility and local initiative critical to a guerrilla campaign.
The KIA now fields seven brigades in Kachin state where there used to be only four; and three in northern Shan state where there used to be only one and the KIA recruits from a significant Kachin minority. It also fields two mobile brigades which may serve as models for the shift to guerrilla tactics. Whether the smaller battalions under the new brigade structure can produce the motivated junior officers needed to lead aggressive, small-unit operations remains to be seen.
Using smaller, more mobile units to constantly harass the Tatmadaw’s extended lines of communications — a few main roads and the perennially vulnerable railway linking Myitkyina to Mandalay– will obviously be tactical priorities in the months ahead. Twin mine blasts on the rail track south of Myitkyina on May 15 were likely a harbinger of things to come.
The KIA has apparently not been able to acquire man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) from the UWSA, which even in very limited numbers would significantly impact the strategic balance in the north. How far it will be able to harass airbases either with stand-off artillery attacks or sabotage using commando squads again remains to be seen.
The rebels reportedly have access to a few World War II-vintage 75mm pack howitzers and more recently have acquired (almost certainly through the UWSA) some Chinese-produced 107mm rockets. With a range of some eight kilometers, the highly inaccurate rockets are suitable for stand-off attacks on bases and airfields. In late January and early February, they were used against army camps near Mogaung and Myitkyina, according to state media reports.
Finally, the KIA has an option which it has chosen not to use in Kachin state since 2011: raids and assaults on urban centers. Capturing headlines and underscoring Tatmadaw vulnerabilities, this tactic has been used repeatedly in northern Shan state.
Since 2015, MNDAA and TNLA guerrillas, sometimes supported by local KIA forces, have attacked police stations and army posts in Shan state towns such as Laokkai, Muse and Mong Ko. It would not be surprising to see similar operations migrating to Kachin state.
In northern Myanmar, there will be no Dien Bien Phu turning points — decisive battles that break the political will of an occupying army to fight on. If, however, the Kachin can adopt a guerrilla strategy that effectively takes the fight to their enemy, the military, economic and diplomatic burden on a government already in crisis will unquestionably mount as ordinary Burmans begin to question the assumptions behind the Tatmadaw’s vision for war-without-end.
In the meantime, General N Ban La, like Churchill in 1940, may have little to offer beyond “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”