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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 31, 2013

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Pyrrhic victory in Myanmar
By Anthony Davis

The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and... there were no others there to make recruits. - Plutarch

The apparently relentless advance of the Myanmar military eastwards towards the town of Laiza, headquarters of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has involved some of the heaviest sustained fighting in the country since independence in 1948.

Predictably, international news coverage has focused on two salient elements of the conflict: the sheer weight of force, including newly acquired air-power, brought to bear by the government; and the yawning gulf between the conciliatory

statements emanating from the office of President Thein Sein and the actions of the military, or Tatmadaw, on the ground .

However, reports of air-strikes and cease-fires-that-never-happened have tended to obscure another less obvious but arguably more important aspect of the war: the striking battlefield failings and losses of the Tatmadaw, which over the past 20 years has benefited from the lion's share of government spending, a dramatic increase in manpower and a transformational modernization of its weaponry.

Pitting a conventional army equipped with artillery, armor and air-power against guerrilla forces attempting to defend a fixed position, the battle for Laiza should have been nasty, brutish and short. In the event, it unfolded as a drawn-out, meat-grinder campaign which at best marks a painfully pyrrhic victory for the government.

At worst, the costly failures of the war in Kachin state - and they are probably not yet over - will have significant political repercussions in addition to the substantial military losses incurred. Both in terms of the future relations between the central government and the armed ethnic minorities, and no less importantly the standing of the military as a national institution, the battle for Laiza and the Kachin war more generally may well mark a watershed in the nation's politics.

Targeted broadly at the KIA's Laiza headquarters on the Chinese border, the Tatmadaw campaign, code-named "Operation Thunderbolt", appears to have been aimed either at bludgeoning the insurgents back to the cease-fire agreement which collapsed in June 2011, or, failing that, decapitating the KIA by neutralizing its command center and logistics hub in a manner that would permit a declaration of victory over its scattered residual forces.

After a year-and-a-half of mounting government losses in Kachin state, the offensive also reflected real impatience in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw over both the intransigence of the KIA - estimated to field a main force of some 7,000 to 10,000 fighters - and the prospect of an open-ended guerrilla war.

The insurgents' political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has made any renewed cease-fire conditional on the promise of politically substantive, national-level negotiations between the government and the ethnic minorities. Such a position almost certainly implies significant changes to the military-scripted, centralist constitution of 2008.

An optimum scenario for the both government and Tatmadaw would have been a KIO decision last year to renew the cease-fire. But it was also clear that contingency planning and preparations for a major offensive in the current dry season (November- April) - which also served to increase psychological pressure on the Kachins - were in train since at least early 2012.

In March, the Tatmadaw staged a major divisional-level exercise near Meiktila in central Myanmar. Attended by commander-in-chief Vice Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the exercise involved all 10 battalions of the Meiktila-based 99th Light Infantry Division, supported by armored and artillery units, while reportedly using a command post sand-table modeled on the Laiza area. Significantly, the usually secretive military ensured the war-games were given wide media coverage, not least on television.

In April, the military began a protracted build-up of forces deployed in the northern regional command area, moving men, armor and artillery north both by rail to the Kachin state capital at Myitkyina, north of the Laiza area of operations, and by boat up the Irrawaddy river to Bhamo, to the south. Aviation assets, notably light strike jets and a range of helicopters including the Air Force's new Mi-35 Hind-E gunships, were forward-based at Myitkyina, a few minutes flying time from Laiza. Almost certainly the largest single operational build-up in the history of the Tatmadaw, these deployments were closely monitored by the KIA, which saw them as a direct threat.

Significantly, the bulk of the manpower reinforcements were from light infantry divisions (LIDs). Well-trained mobile formations, of which the Tatmadaw fields 10, these divisions operate independently of various regional commands and essentially constitute a large strategic reserve force answering direct to the War Office in Naypyidaw.

Battalions from the 33rd, 66th, 88th, 99th and 101st LIDs - none of which are home-based in Kachin State - are now operating under a theater-level Bureau of Strategic Operations in Myitkyina, headed by Lieutenant General Myint Soe. A tactical military operations command (MOC 21) overseeing the Laiza campaign specifically is based at Bhamo and headed by northern region commander Brigadier General Tun Tun Naung.

Despite this build-up, the KIA failed to blink and the Operation Thunderbolt offensive around Laiza began in mid-December. Since then, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the war has been the striking disconnect between the nine-month lead-time for planning and preparations enjoyed by the Tatmadaw command on the one hand, and the tactically disjointed and frequently inept execution of operations on the other.

Particularly in its opening phases, Operation Thunderbolt, touted in advance as an exercise in "shock and awe", might more accurately have been dubbed "Operation Heavy Drizzle".

Tactical confusion
Broadly, the battle for Laiza unfolded as two overlapping phases in different sectors of the area of operations. Opening on December 14, the first phase focused squarely on the area around Laja Yang. Often described as the gateway to Laiza, Laja Yang is a cluster of villages just north of the Tapin river astride the main two-lane highway between Myitkyina and Bhamo. At the northern end of the bridge across the river, a turn-off from the highway leads east along the Tapin valley leads towards the Chinese border and the KIA headquarters some 15 kilometers away.

From December 14, it was immediately apparent that an army with significant conventional capabilities had neither a plan nor the assets to launch a concerted offensive up the most direct axis of advance to Laiza and the Chinese border. Typically this would have involved a combined-arms operation involving armor and mechanised infantry, preceded by artillery bombardments and air-strikes and backed by close air support, breaking through Kachin defences at Laja Yang and pushing as rapidly as possible along the Tapin valley to the border.

Such a thrust would have posed a direct threat to the KIA's nerve-center while at the same time splitting the insurgents' Laiza-based 3rd Brigade from their 5th Brigade based near Maija Yang on the Chinese border to the south.

This would have been the "shock and awe" option. Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact of such a combined-arms advance involving intense fire-power along a relatively narrow corridor of advance, particularly against lightly-armed guerrillas. As this writer witnessed during Soviet offensives in Afghanistan's Panjshir valley in the 1980s, the combination of armor and mechanised infantry backed by air-strikes and low-flying helicopter gunships is both unnerving and generally decisive.

Rather than seizing the initiative in the battle for Laiza, however, the Tatmadaw appeared to back into the fighting in tactical confusion and with a striking lack of preparation. Reports indicate that the fighting on December 14 escalated as government forces attempted to resupply posts in the Laja Yang area and were then ambushed in strength. On that day alone, the KIA claimed the government had lost 50 dead, a figure which, even if exaggerated, suggests significant casualties.

Despite the swift commitment of air-strikes, the fighting at Laja Yang then bogged down in protracted, piece-meal engagements that remarkably lasted until January 24, when government forces eventually secured the area after taking control of the high ground on both sides of the valley. Despite relatively flat terrain, it appears armor was never seriously committed. 

Continued 1 2  

Peace means surrender in Myanmar (Jan 24, '12)

Myanmar reconciliation a distant dream (Nov 30, '12)


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