Myanmar’s generals face defeat

A new armed offensive poses a major challenge to Myanmar’s military dictatorship after years of resistance, writes Vivian Honan

It has been three years since Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup in February 2021. Since then, the regime has brutally repressed any resistance, indiscriminately bombing villages and killing at least 4468 civilians, while 20,000 are still held as political prisoners.

In dramatic developments since October, however, armed ethnic groups have led an offensive against the regime, successfully re-claiming several regions.

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Arakan Army (AA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), collectively known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance, launched the offensive, Operation 1027, in the northern Shan state. They have overrun up to 200 military posts, capturing border crossings and roads carrying most of the overland trade with China.

Significantly, in a rare level of unity against the regime, the offensive has been joined by the People’s Defence Force (PDF, the rag tag army of the National Unity Government, NUG), and the Communist Party of Burma’s People’s Liberation Army.

In November, PDF forces humiliated the regime when soldiers raised white flags surrendering Kawlin, a district capital in central Myanmar.

Overall, thousands of Myanmar soldiers have surrendered or fled, including 400 who fled into India in January as the AA seized Paletwa, a key border town in Chin State.

The AA now controls all roads and water transport to the Indian border and has extended their offensive into the Rakhine state, from which hundreds of thousands of Rohingyans have been ethnically cleansed since 2016.

Following the coup in 2021, strikes and mass protests across the country challenged the junta’s rule. But the resistance was brutally repressed; unarmed protesters were shot in the streets of Yangon and Mandalay.

Thousands of young people left the cities and took up arms. The generals responded violently, razing villages, bombing camps and cracking down on dissidents, protesters, politicians, artists and journalists.

Now, however, the resistance controls much of Myanmar, although their zone accounts for a relatively small proportion of Myanmar’s GDP. The junta is still in control of most of Myanmar’s airports, banks and big cities, including the capital, Naypyidaw.

Nonetheless, the dictatorship has suffered a major setback and is still suffering military defeats.

Military rule

Myanmar has a long history of military rule as well as movements against it.

Myanmar was established as a British colony in the 19th century. After a brief Japanese occupation and re-occupation by the British, Myanmar declared independence in 1948. Colonisation left it ethnically divided and with little infrastructure or industry.

The first elected government was unstable and faced opposition from ethnic minorities and communist insurgents. In 1962, military commander Ni Win seized power and established one-party rule.

By the 1980s the attempt at state-led development had failed and the economy was deeply in debt, dependent on foreign loans and aid. In 1987 the regime demonetised most of the currency, destroying people’s savings overnight.

Subsequent demonstrations and strikes turned into the 8888 uprising in August 1988.

Buddhist and Muslim communities marched together, united in opposition to the regime. Despite being gunned down, huge numbers kept coming out.

Strike committees were set up, as were citizens’ committees, organising the strikes and protests as well as distribution of food and other supplies.

The general strike committee, however, did not realise their own power and instead called for the regime to form an interim government. The generals brutally suppressed the movement, killing thousands.

Having re-established control, the regime ditched state-led development and turned to the global market, with the Tatmadaw establishing and owning the major corporations.

The regime tried to contain opposition by signing ceasefires with the ethnic rebels.

Following the suppression of the 1988 movement, the regime promised elections. The National League for Democracy (NLD) had just been formed.

Despite the arrest of many of its leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of the so-called “Father of the Nation”), the NLD still won the majority of seats in the 1990 election. It was a huge victory against the army-backed National Unity Party.

But the Tatmadaw refused to concede power. They continued to rule but were once again challenged by mass protests in 2007. Led by monks, the movement was dubbed the Saffron Revolution after the colour of the monks’ robes.

The people were struggling with the rising cost of basic commodities while the generals were becoming immensely wealthy. The military once again forcibly suppressed the resistance.

The underlying crisis remained and people continued to find ways to resist, including a strike wave in the garment factories in 2009-2010.

The pressure from below as well as the desire to attract foreign investment led the regime to make some changes. In 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from prison. New labour laws permitted unions and strikes (at least on paper).

The reforms enabled the NLD to participate in the 2012 by-elections and the 2015 general election. They again won an absolute majority and this time the regime recognised the outcome.

Myanmar had its first non-military president since the 1962 coup but the military maintained effective control. The 2008 constitution ensured the military were appointed a quarter of the seats in the legislature, effectively giving them veto power over constitutional changes.

Tragically the NLD failed to challenge the military’s political and economic power. Poverty and corruption remained widespread. Worse still, persecution of ethnic minorities continued. In late 2019, Suu Kyi shockingly appeared at the International Court of Justice in the Hague defending the military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

The NLD remained popular though and again secured victory in the 2020 elections.

On 1 February 2021 the military launched another coup, using the pretence of electoral fraud. Calling themselves the State Administration Council (SAC), they seized power from Suu Kyi’s elected government.

In the aftermath of the coup, Suu Kyi was imprisoned and her party, the NLD, dissolved.

The National Unity Government (NUG) was formed in exile by members of the NLD who had been elected in the 2020 general election.

The People’s Defence Force largely supports the NLD, but many also have criticisms of the NLD’s conservatism and willingness to compromise with the army when they were in government, such as Suu Kyi’s support for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyans.

Many of the ethnic organisations have also come out more explicitly against the regime, resulting in greater collaboration and unity among them than in previous periods.

The collaboration between the urban opposition and ethnic armed organisations supporting Operation 1027 marks a significant development in the opposition to the military regime. The Brotherhood Alliance says their ultimate goal now, like that of the NUG, is to overthrow the military government.

The Tatmadaw have been weakened by the offensive. Their numbers have fallen with desertions, casualties and lack of recruitment.

The offensive has given confident to the NUG. Its president told reporters, “If we can all cooperate to strengthen the central region, we can threaten Naypyidaw [the military-built capital of Myanmar]. That is our goal.”


China casts a long shadow over the possibilities for fundamental change in Myanmar. China is a major arms supplier and ally of the military as well as Myanmar’s biggest trading partner. Its infrastructure projects, including a billion-dollar rail line and a natural gas pipeline, and its trade routes to the Indian Ocean are threatened by the fighting.

China has recently attempted to negotiate ceasefires between the military and rebel armies but these have been short lived.

China’s relationship with the military has been strained by tensions over smuggling and online scams based in the border regions that have targeted Chinese citizens. It has been the rebels that have recently cracked down, arresting the scam bosses and handing them to Beijing.

The NUG has also re-assured China that it will not interfere with its projects in Myanmar and that it wants to do business with China in the future.

India is also concerned about the recent rebel gains. The Arakan Army has claimed control of Paletwa, a town close to the Indian border that is part of a multi-million-dollar development project backed by India.

But China and India are only concerned to protect their economic and strategic interests in Myanmar. Neither are friends of the fight for democracy.

Fundamental change will take more than toppling the military dictatorship and getting the military out of politics.

About two million people have been displaced; the economy has shrunk; and there are shortages and increased poverty in the cities.

For fundamental democratic change, including democratic control of the economy to produce for the needs of the people of Myanmar, the struggle will need to spread to the cities.

There has been a huge increase in the urban working population. The effect of the strikes in 1988 and in 2021 showed the significance of its industrial power. The workers’ movement has the power to seize and control production.

A more radical struggle in Myanmar can find millions of potential allies in the working class of neighbouring India and China. But the movement from below will need to recognise the right of minorities to self-determination.

Rohingyans must be allowed to return and the 1982 law that denies citizenship to Rohingyans will have to be scrapped.

There are signs of a wider political understanding emerging in the ranks of the PDF, for more radical change than that on offer from the old leaders of the NLD.

As one PDF fighter put it, “In the past, I neglected to know about the [other] ethnic groups, their suffering and losses, and I acted like it wasn’t my business … I also didn’t notice that I was privileged as a Bamar [the dominant ethnic group that has historically comprised the ruling elite in Myanmar].”

A united struggle by urban and ethnic groups could not only topple the military but pose an alternative to the way capitalism has cruelly exploited the workers and rural poor of Myanmar.


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