On Oct. 27, the Northern or “Three Brotherhood” Alliance of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army launched “Operation 1027” – named for the date of the offensive. The groups simultaneously struck junta positions in the strategic Shan cities of Kunlong, Hseni, Chin Shwe Haw, Laukkaing, Namhkan, Kutkai, and Lashio, the state’s largest municipality. Since then, reports indicate that the alliance has taken some 150 military camps in battles throughout Shan state and caused alarm in the top military brass. The campaign will “break the country into pieces” if left unchecked, said junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on Nov. 8. To understand the significance of Operation 1027, Radio Free Asia Burmese reporter Ye Kaung Myint Maung interviewed Jason Tower, the country director for the Burma program at United Stated Institute of Peace in Washington. Tower has decades of experience researching cross-border conflicts in Southeast Asia.
Radio Free Asia: The Northern Alliance groups have advanced their campaign 1027, a military operation. And it was reported that they have captured more than 100 military outposts and even some important towns in northern Shan State, and some fighting has reached an area not far from where the military academy is located. What’s your overall take on Operation 1027?
Tower: In my view, this operation potentially could really be a game changer in terms of the broader revolution and conflict in Myanmar. I think a lot of this in terms of the timing has to do with China’s growing dissatisfaction with the junta regime, because over the past five months you’ve seen where the junta not only has proven incapable of working with the Chinese to advance any of China’s economic interests. You’ve also seen it fail miserably in terms of providing support to China around security interests and cracking down on increasingly malign criminal actors who are harming a global population through scams and human trafficking – a lot of which are targeting Chinese nationals. And so you’ve seen … out of frustration, the Chinese side has cracked down in a pretty strong way on the United Wa State Army and on the National Democratic Alliance Army, even detaining high-level Wa leaders like Bao Jin Fang, the number two in the army, and issuing arrest warrants for two other leaders, really showing, I think, very clearly how serious the Chinese side is in terms of wanting the military to try to crack down on this activity.
And despite all of that pressure, the military still failed to act. So I think very clearly you saw they’re going to launch this operation. What’s very significant about it is just how quickly the Brotherhood has been able to take major cities within 24 hours of the announcement of the operation. In my view, this was not something that was done quickly. This was a plan that was coordinated over probably a month or more. This operation is a very serious operation. And in order for the Brotherhood Alliance to do this, it would need to have at least tacit support from the Chinese side. And I believe it did have this in this case. Now, what’s really interesting about it is the way the Brotherhood Alliances framed this around cracking down on the transnational criminal activity and liberating people from these scam centers. And that does seem to be what a lot of the initial targets are that you are seeing, now the Brotherhood Alliance groups and PDFs go in, identify some of these centers and liberate the scam centers. So you are seeing some of that happening. But of course, I think the bigger issue here is that in Koh Kong, all eyes of the Myanmar army, the four eco Kong clan families that represent the COCOM border guard force have refused to do anything to crack down on this because this is the main source of revenue and a major source of revenue also for the military. And so now you’re seeing the Brotherhood really take this into their own hands.
I think the other major factor here is that on one hand, you know, the entire country is watching this operation and they’re seeing how weak the Myanmar army is. You know, Myanmar army troops are going in and they’re defecting immediately, giving all of their arms over to the Brotherhood alliance. … And I think this is emboldening everyone. It’s letting everyone sort of see just how weak the military has become and how illegitimate it has become. Because the ultimate reason why the Chinese greenlighted this operation is because the junta has failed to take any steps to crack down on this awful transnational criminal activity, which is harming the interests of Thailand, harming the interests of China, harming the interests of really every country around the world. So in that respect, I think this really a game changer, because we’re at a point right now where the Chinese side has really reached a kind of a low point in terms of its relationship with the military junta.
Radio Free Asia: We know that China has played a very important role in the armed conflict in northern Myanmar. And also China has strong ties with members of Northern Alliance groups. So in this case in particular, what led you to the conclusion that China has given the green light to start this military operation?
Tower: I think that the reason why China is comfortable with this operation is because the operation is framed around doing exactly what the Chinese side has been telling the Myanmar army to do for the past four months. But what the Myanmar army has refused to do, which is to crack down on the criminal activity, take down these scam syndicates, free the victims of human trafficking and so on. And so that’s, you know, the justification that the Brotherhood is giving for launching this operation. And you do see where it has yielded some successes. You know, there are upwards of around 2,000 people that have now made it out of those scam syndicates in Kokong. You know, rumors are that a lot of the compound owners have fled the area and moved elsewhere. But I think that this also demonstrates just how frustrated that China has become with the military. I mean, if you go back to December or even if you go back to May, the Chinese were giving the military quite a lot in terms of legitimacy and recognition. And I think that that is now being downscaled. I mean, the Chinese side gave Min Aung Hlaing a snub by not inviting him to the Belt and Road Forum. He was rejected from that, I think, largely because of the failures to deal with these issues.
And then also, if you just look at China’s economic interests in and in Myanmar, the military just has no capacity to support any of those interests. So I guess from China’s vantage point, it has to be starting to think about some of these questions. What value does the Myanmar army really present at this point? It’s committing atrocities everywhere. It’s blowing up the Chinese border. It’s unable to crack down on crime. All of this just really shows you just how poor the relationship has become between China and the military, and the Chinese side are now looking for other options. It’s turning to the Brotherhood; it’s turning to the northern (armed ethnic organizations) to try to address some of these problems.
Radio Free Asia: The Myanmar military has used the Belt and Road Initiative projects and other interests in Myanmar as a bargaining chip in dealing with the Chinese government. So do you think they have run out of these bargaining chips at this point?
Tower: I think it’s running low on bargaining chips at this point, frankly, because what is the military going to do? I mean, interestingly, while this crackdown and fighting is going on up in the north, we’re actually hearing reports that a large number of these scam syndicates are now moving into other parts of the country. They’re moving down to Mandalay. They’re moving into Yangon. And even that scam syndicates are moving into Naypyidaw. All of this points to, yeah, there’s a crackdown. The Brotherhood is sort of fighting this up in the China border area. But the military is continuing to either be completely incompetent and ignore this or to enable the activity in other parts of the country because it’s financially benefiting from it. So, you know, I think from the vantage point of external actors who are concerned about these sorts of issues – and it seems that China is increasingly concerned about this – there has to be this question. Why is it that the Myanmar army is not taking action on this issue? And I think the answer is, it doesn’t have the capacity, the ability, and it’s just simply not a responsible government. And so I just don’t really see where the military has much in terms of bargaining power with the Chinese side at this point. I mean, the military doesn’t have the ability to control northern Burma. It doesn’t have the ability to advance China’s projects like the railroad project or the Kyaukphyu project. It doesn’t have the capacity to do anything with hydropower projects. You know, the Chinese kind of probably have to be thinking at this point, ‘what is this military useful for? How could it help in terms of any of China’s main interests?’ Because I think that China is looking at the central Burman government actors ruling in a very transactional way. To what extent can these actors meet some of China’s interests and needs? And at this point, it would seem like the junta’s failures over the past two plus years in terms of governance, in terms of the atrocities and major mistakes it’s made on the battlefield, in terms of the economy, it must really be leading many to draw the conclusion that simply there is nothing that they are able to do, nothing that they can bring to the table.
Reported by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA Burmese. Edited by Paul Eckert.