Intense fighting in northern Myanmar has forced 50,000 people to flee, with military leaders conceding that the country is in danger of breaking apart unless it can contain the clashes.
A fortnight ago, an alliance of armed ethnic forces and newer anti-coup groups – formed when the junta seized power in February 2021 – launched a major, surprise offensive in Shan state. In a significant blow to the junta, the alliance has since seized dozens of military outposts and blocked critical, billion-dollar trade routes to China.
Analysts told the Telegraph the loss of territory is a turning point in the complicated conflict, and represents the “most significant challenge that the military regime has faced since the coup, at least in terms of armed conflict”.
In response to the clashes, former general Myint Swe – who was appointed as acting president by the military following the coup – has warned the country could end up “split into various parts” if the junta does not “manage” the fighting, according to state media.
While the military has regularly used the potential “disintegration” of Myanmar as a justification for their role in national politics, the context of this week’s warning is significant, said Tom Kean, a senior consultant on Myanmar at Crisis Group.
“His comments reflect the threat to the military regime. They understand that they could lose control over a significant amount of territory, including major towns, and not have the capacity to recapture it from these groups,” he told the Telegraph.
‘Reinvigorated the resistance’
The Shan state offensive – called Operation 1027, and launched by three groups collectively known as the Brotherhood Alliance – is also a “turning point in the way the war is being fought”, added Mr Kean.
Previously, anti-military forces mainly controlled rural areas; now they’ve captured several strategic towns – including Chinshwehaw, which borders China. More than a quarter of Myanmar’s $1.8 billion border trade with the superpower – which has not yet intervened in the clashes – passed through the town between April and September this year.
Operation 1027 also appears to be injecting renewed vigour into resistance movements elsewhere in Myanmar – in Sagaing, for instance, armed groups say they have already captured two towns, while central Myanmar has also seen attacks.
“One of the most striking elements is that the military has not yet been able to hit back [in Shan state]… because it’s fighting on so many fronts,” said Mr Kean. “[Operation 1027] has certainly reinvigorated the fight against the military.”
But the continued conflict is coming at a heavy cost for many. On Friday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the clashes have so far displaced almost 50,000 people, but disrupted internet and phone signals have hindered humanitarian aid.
“The fighting in Shan State may be considered a turning point but civilians are once again bearing the brunt and caught up in the fighting,” Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Telegraph.
“The junta should allow unhindered humanitarian assistance so that the more than 50,000 people who are now displaced in northern Shan do not suffer further.”
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security