Amid months of co-ordinated attacks against the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), there is growing speculation that these spell the beginning of the end for the junta. But is this well founded?  

  • Ethnic armed groups (EAGs) will continue to exploit the Tatmadaw’s current vulnerability and expand areas under their control, currently totalling more than 50% of Myanmar’s territory. 
  • However, precedent suggests that some EAGs could eventually negotiate for Tatmadaw recognition and guarantee of their authority over claimed territories. 
  • Resistance forces in cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw have yet to match the successes of the insurgents in the country’s periphery. Were they to do so, the junta’s survival would be in doubt. 
  • At present, relative peace and stability remain a distant prospect. The current realities of the battlefield leave none of the participants inclined to talk about lasting peace.  

Rebels rumble 

Myanmar has been in a state of conflict since the country’s independence 75 years ago. However, the latest tactical gains by ethnic insurgent groups have placed the Tatmadaw in a more difficult position than perhaps any time in its history. Spurred by the military’s humiliating defeats in northern Shan in late October, ethnic rebel groups have stepped up their attacks on junta forces across multiple fronts, seizing military camps, border towns and strategic routes along the way. The Tatmadaw is in full retreat on several fronts and is also confronting a rise in defections, including a few instances where entire battalions surrendered to rebel forces. 

Supporters of the shadow opposition National Unity Government (NUG) are finding reasons to cheer this rapid expansion of conflict across Myanmar, buoyed by hopes of a wholesale Tatmadaw defeat. The NUG roadmap involves the formation of a “Federal Army”, comprising anti-junta EAGs and its armed wing called the People’s Defence Forces (PDF). While PDF attacks in the ethnic majority Bamar heartlands has left the army spread very thin, it is the EAGs on Myanmar’s periphery that are mounting the greatest challenge the Tatmadaw has ever faced. Nevertheless, the rising expectation that this foreshadows the imminent downfall of the junta regime is premature and misguided.   

Perspectives from the periphery

The EAGs of Myanmar, each with their own saga of resistance against the Tatmadaw, have for decades oscillated between fierce conflict and strategic negotiations with the army. These groups sometimes intensify their battles to assert their autonomy from the Bamar-dominated central government, while they pivot towards peace deals once they gain the upper hand. Far from seeking secession from Myanmar, these groups aim to carve out quasi-state entities within the country and exploit the economic resources of these territories.  Often, this involves tapping into shadow and illicit economies, with army officials regularly taking a cut from these trades.

Many EAGs regard the Wa Self-Administered Division as the paragon of such a state within a state. This enclave in north-eastern Shan State enjoys almost complete autonomy that is enshrined in the 2008 military-drafted constitution. However, what truly underpins this independence is the military might of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest EAG. Their autonomy is also reflected and funded by the UWSA’s control of 10% of the world’s tin supply. Notably, the Wa economy has remained insulated from the chaos and dysfunction that ensued after the February 2021 coup. For example, Chinese telecommunications giants, which do not operate in the rest of Myanmar, continued to provide uninterrupted services despite the junta’s nationwide directive to disrupt telecommunications services after the coup. The use of China's Yuan and the Thai Baht as their primary currencies has also shielded the Wa state from the economic challenges besetting the rest of the country’s financial system. 

Other EAGs look to the Wa model as they confront the Tatmadaw across multiple battlefronts. As such, while many EAGs have expressed solidarity with the Bamar-led protests, civil disobedience and sabotage against the junta, it is likely they will consolidate their gains short of a full overthrow of the Tatmadaw. Thus, while some EAGs have offered refuge and training to PDF fighters that swear allegiance to the NUG, crucial initiatives like the NUG’s proposal for a Federal Army or the drafting of a new federal constitution have gained minimal traction among them. Against this backdrop of ethnic-based realpolitik that predates the latest coup, the actions of these increasingly assertive EAGs should be interpreted through the lens of their overarching goal, which is to achieve a good enough level of autonomy and prosperity for their people by any means possible.  

Balkanisation of Burma

The Tatmadaw is still far from beaten. It has the largest military manpower in Myanmar, surpassing all other armed groups in terms of personnel strength, as well as air and naval forces that opposition forces lack. The junta state apparatus still controls the most profitable revenue-generating assets in the country, including natural gas, timber and mineral production, which underpin the Tatmadaw’s superior firepower. The NUG, despite its international support network, has struggled to sustain its disruptive tactics against the junta and has no real sway in outcomes important to ethnic minority communities and armed groups. Consequently, while many EAGs leverage their ties to the NUG for credibility and funding, they continue to view the Tatmadaw as the central arbiter of power, with the resources to concede the independence and opportunities Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, which represent about a third of the country’s population, have long strived for. 

In response to the escalating offensives, the Tatmadaw has increased its reliance on airstrikes to slow and contain rebel advances and reposition ground troops defensively, seemingly biding its time before striking back with more precision. With multiple fronts to manage, prioritisation becomes critical, especially in retaining vital regions for its longstanding interests and international credibility. In the medium term, the Tatmadaw may find itself compelled to relinquish control over regions like northern Shan state and other territories to various EAGs, a move that could contribute to the further balkanisation of Myanmar.  

Meanwhile, ensuring stability in cities such as Yangon, Mandalay and the heavily fortified capital Naypyidaw remains a crucial priority for the Tatmadaw, as evidenced by recent redeployment of ground forces to these urban strongholds. Equally vital is minimising the influence of EAGs along the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The stakes are particularly high in southern Rakhine, the site of significant projects like the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port – a linchpin for China’s access to the Indian Ocean – and existing offshore gas infrastructure important for Chinese and Thai energy security. Here, the Arakan Army (AA), led by an enterprising group of young commanders, appears to be vying for dominance. 

Road to perdition

Myanmar faces much more violence to come. As things stand, none of the combatants feel they dominate the battlefield enough – or feel vulnerable enough – to consider meaningful negotiation. However, diminishing, rather than obliterating, the Tatmadaw’s ability to function as a military force appears to be the agenda of most EAGs. That tipping point may soon arrive, but the contours of any potential discussions remain uncertain. They could draw upon the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement or the 2008 constitution, or perhaps chart new territories altogether. That said, envisioning a scenario that restores Myanmar’s duly elected civilian leaders to power remains difficult, despite the current turmoil.

The Tatmadaw’s unprecedented vulnerability could pave the way for further shifts in the coming months, testing the capacity of its best generals to adapt and respond. Potential catalysts – such as a move within the Tatmadaw against its top leader Min Aung Hlaing or widespread protests and civil disobedience in the Bamar heartlands, possibly triggered by a tragic event like the demise of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi – loom on the horizon. Those desiring lasting change, including families from all corners of the conflict in Myanmar and businesses invested in its future, should prepare for continued attrition that reshapes the country’s map based on rules of engagements defined by many decades of strife. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to completely rule out a full rupture with the past. 

This article is based on a research note originally published in Seerist. Find out more about how Seerist’s adaptive artificial intelligence combined with localised geopolitical risk expertise can help you identify, monitor and mitigate risks. 

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