The liberation of Myaung, a township in Myanmar’s Sagaing region, shows how a coordinated effort among anti-junta forces can lead to tangible results. The question is whether such efforts can be replicated elsewhere.
On 4 December 2021, Facebook addicts saw the bubbling posts, ‘Congratulations, Myaung!’ The posts were celebrating the liberation of Myaung, a township in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, from control of the State Administration Council (SAC) junta. Seven out of eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar except the Bamar have been leading the armed resistance movement against military dictatorship since 1962 (the country experienced a transition to democracy starting 2011). The Bamar-Buddhist area in the heartland of Central Myanmar — which is composed of Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay — is a latecomer to join the movement as the last resort in the Spring Revolution. While ethnic liberated areas have created enclaves in mountains and forests along the country’s borders, Myaung is emerging as a prototype in a lowland Bamar-Buddhist heartland area.
Myaung Township has a population of 106,441, of which 92.2 per cent are Bamar Buddhists —residents of Upper Myanmar are known as Anyathars. The villages of the township voted to elect National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates in the elections of 2015 and 2020. Following the 1 February military coup, people in Myaung joined the nationwide protests against the SAC’s seizure of power.
They suffered badly for their actions. The excessive use of force by the SAC in Myaung resulted in 10 civilian deaths, 70 civilians arbitrarily arrested, over 40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and sixteen houses destroyed. The violent atrocities were the major factor in the emergence of rural-based grassroots armed resistance in the township, and subsequently led to a vicious action-reaction cycle between the military and anti-junta forces in Myaung.
In April, the Myaung Special People’s Defense Force (MSPDF) and the Civilians’ Defense and Security Organization of Myaung (CDSOM) were secretly established. Their existence sparked a reaction from the military, which conducted clearance operations in Myaung’s villages in the May-August period. But persistent resistance in October saw the deaths of 190 regime soldiers in fighting in the township. Anti-junta forces also carried out ambushes on military convoys, with explosives employed on five occasions. On 4 December, the CDSOM declared that it controlled the checkpoints in Myaung. The factors making resistance elements’ control of territory in the township possible are the alliance of anti-SAC forces, generous donations from the people, clearance operations and the encroaching local administration.
The MSPDF and the CDSOM initially operated independently. On 14 September, they forged a territorial alliance with each other and with People’s Defense Forces (the armed wing of the National Unity Government) operating in neighbouring areas. In September, alliance members participated in counterattacks on the military in Myaung. In October, they intensified ambush operations not only in Myaung but also on the roads leading into the township. They extended their control to disperse military convoys. Those joint operations in October and November played a major role in reducing the military’s ability to conduct raids and weakened its control of transportation and communication arteries. On 30 November, the MSPDF-CDSOM territorial alliance merged into an expanded 70-member Civilians’ Resistance Coalition, in a move that institutionalised an all-inclusive armed resistance to the junta, civilian protection, and accountability. The alliance now contributes to intelligence gathering and greater territorial control on the part of the wider anti-junta resistance.
The recent success of anti-resistance forces in Myaung has given them some traction. The backbone of Myaung’s economy is agriculture, and the township’s socio-economic development is slow. Its residents were able to provide only food and medicine in September to the MSPDF and the CDSOM. Since October, the resistance forces’ ability to inflict more casualties on the military has enabled them to attract more funds. Their public statements show that they accumulated at least 109,568,000 kyats (US$64,415) in October and November to equip themselves better and to accommodate IDPs.
Since the abolition of Myanmar’s Military Intelligence Service in 2004, the Tatmadaw’s intelligence apparatus has seemed to rely on so called dalan — a derogatory term derived from the Hindi dalaal and referring to people who inform and collaborate with the security forces. So-called dalan clearance operations undertaken by resistance forces in two villages of Myaung on 26 May and 28 May resulted in 17 arrests. The forces used home-made flintlock hunting rifles known as tumi in Burmese. On 2 September, Myaung PDFs started recruiting scouts to inform them on the SAC’s troop deployments, potential raids and the positions and activities of dalan. The CDSOM reports having killed 44 dalan in 24 villages in the March-November period. Overall, such operations have weakened the Tatmadaw’s intelligence infrastructure.
The emergence of Bamar liberated area of Myaung presents provides an interesting case study into the SAC’s declining territorial control in central Myanmar.
The upsurge in attacks mounted by the resistance in Myaung would not be sustainable without the dismantling of the local administration and government bureaucracy. Anti-SAC forces initially attempted to persuade police station chiefs and police privates to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). On 25 September, they announced the ‘last chance’ for bureaucrats working for SAC in Myaung to join the CDM. With 241 civil servants having joined the CDM subsequently, and every local administrator resigning from their posts, the SAC regime’s bureaucratic mechanism in Myaung is now paralyzed. In addition, anti-junta forces in Myaung are spending an average of 500,000 kyats (US$294) a day to accommodate and provide three meals for 1,300 IDPs. They have been able to liberate their area, in which a protest to ‘End the Culture of Impunity’ and a ‘Festival of Light’ have been organised with villagers. Those villagers now exercise their right to assembly and enjoy freedom from fear of arbitrary killing and arrest and the destruction of their property.
The emergence of Bamar liberated area of Myaung provides an interesting case study into the SAC’s declining territorial control in central Myanmar. It is different from other townships in central Sagaing, which had to bear the brunt of SAC air strikes. At bottom, the survival of those emerging Bamar liberated areas poses a challenge to the junta’s control of all areas across the country, and its building of a new federal state.
Aung is a Myanmar civil-society practitioner now living in Buffalo, New York.