Years of shifting resources away from the Myanmar army and changing requirements for its senior ranks have led to its current weaknesses on the battlefield. Are the junta fielding men of straw?
2023 may be recorded as the worst year experienced by the Myanmar army since the 1960s. The army’s long history of counter-insurgency suffered a blow when several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and their allies in northern Shan State launched the “Operation 1027” offensive on 27 October. This operation has changed the civil war landscape and narrative in Myanmar. Within days, the EAOs claimed control of two key trade routes to China and as many as 147 outposts. The Myanmar army’s losses were reportedly massive: hundreds of troops including a senior commanding officer were killed, while many surrendered, and weapons and ammunition were seized from each army base’s fall.
Operation 1027’s lightning speed and progress, despite the involvement of many players giving rise to coordination challenges, has raised questions about the Myanmar army’s ability and leadership. Since the coup, the army has had to contend with a spiralling civil war across Myanmar, the breakdown of former ceasefire arrangements with several EAOs, low troop morale, and even less public support. The widespread resistance to the coup was more the catalyst than the cause of this dysfunction, however. One contributing factor is years of policy error or neglect by Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence, related to declining competency requirements for career advancement and the lack of investment in equipment and skills for infantrymen.
The Myanmar army, with its high (arguably inflated) historical benchmarks for troop strength, boosted its role over decades by leveraging on counter-insurgency campaigns. However, the State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council (SLORC/SPDC) military regime that seized power in the 1988 coup embarked on a series of bilateral ceasefire arrangements with various EAOs. Reasons for this included the experience of the Myanmar army in defending Myanmar’s then capital Rangoon in the 1950s, which was threatened by several insurgencies, and heavy fighting with various EAOs after the 1988 coup.
In 1989, SLORC forged ceasefire deals with powerful and formerly communist guerrillas such as the Kokang, Wa, and Mongla on the Myanmar-China border and with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the New Mon State Party in 1994-95. These deals freed up the Myanmar army to focus on fighting two major rebel groups in Kayin and Shan States (along the Myanmar-Thai border). The surrender of druglord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army in the mid-1990s and negotiations with the Karen National Union in the early 2000s added to the illusion of these ceasefires’ “peacetime” impact. This is despite the fact that ceasefire deals were broken with the Kokang (2009) and the KIO (2011), especially after the SPDC regime’s proposal that the ceasefire groups transform into Border Guard Forces (BGF) under Myanmar military control, which they roundly rejected.
A former military officer from the 20th intake (graduating in 1978) of Myanmar’s elite Defense Service Academy has commented that until 1989, “the army had continuously engaged in conventional warfare with the CPB (Communist Party of Burma) and army ability was the strongest in Asia after Vietnam”. He stated that “Nowadays, the commanders don’t have long experience in conventional warfare”.
Such observations stem from the shift in the army’s requirements for career advancement. The Myanmar military gradually prioritised the civilian side of the profession after the ceasefires in the 1990s, as many officers sought administrative rather than combat experience when seeking promotions. Though field experience is still necessary to advance to the position of division commander, moving up the rungs now requires a graduate degree from the National Defense College and staff officer experience at the Ministry of Defence. For higher positions (such as major-general and above), added criteria even included the officer’s spouse’s educational status.
Even past battlefield experience is an outdated criterion. For example, SAC chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s biggest and only battle success was a 2009 snap offensive overrunning the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, now of Operation 1027 fame) against former Kokang warlord and communist leader Peng Jiasheng. Other than that, Min Aung Hlaing mostly held operational command duties, as did his deputy Vice-Senior General Soe Win.
The Myanmar army’s credibility has likely been tarnished, in the eyes of its supporters and detractors.
Changes in military expenditure in the post-2011 transition also created an imbalance among the infantry, naval, and air forces. Since 2006, Myanmar’s military equipment expenditures have favoured the navy and air force, though the military’s main challenge is counter-insurgency (that is, handled by the army). The military’s share of the 2011 budget (at 23.6 per cent) – approved by the SPDC before the transfer of power – was US$2 billion. This coincided with plans to expand the air force by purchasing MiG-29s while the navy was buying submarines from Russia, India and China. These big-ticket acquirements came at the expense of the army: soldiers deployed to the frontlines now are reportedly using bamboo baskets as backpacks. What’s more, the army’s reported 522 ground-troop battalions are understaffed.
These past policy decisions are now coming home to roost. The Myanmar army keenly feels the loss of strongholds such as Mongko and Kunlong, which previous cohorts of soldiers had wrested from the CPB in 1967-68 and 1989. Recent Facebook updates by Operation 1027 forces show EAO soldiers marching into a Myanmar army base at Kunlong, where abandoned tanks, truck-mounted rocket launchers, and even Howitzers are visible.
Even if the SAC and Myanmar army recognise the root causes for the current turn of events after Operation 1027, it may be a case of too little, too late. The Myanmar army’s credibility has likely been tarnished, in the eyes of its supporters and detractors.
Wai Moe is a former Burmese political prisoner turned journalist. He was also a Visiting Fellow with the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.