In Myanmar’s ‘fight to the death’, it’s the junta and its warlords vs everyone else

Asia World
Mae Sot, an apparently unremarkable provincial Thai border city some 450km northwest of Bangkok, has as its main feature a six-lane section of Asian Highway 1 that connects it to Myawaddy, a nondescript town just across the Myanmar frontier. It rarely features in the reviews that steer tourists to Thailand’s more exotic locations, but Mae Sot has long been a rear base for Myanmar’s ethnic Karen separatists, and more recently a haven for young rebels who took up arms after a February 2021 military coup ousted a twice-elected government.

Aye, a 32-year-old former tour guide from central Myanmar, is typical of many who made their way from cities to the jungle training camps of numerous ethnic armies when the Tatmadaw, the country’s military, turned its guns on protesters demanding a return to representative government. The soldiers killed hundreds of mostly peaceful demonstrators, wounding and imprisoning thousands more. “We came from the dark into the light,” Aye said, referring to reforms introduced after an entrenched military government conceded some space to civilian rule in 2011. “The generals would take us back into darkness, so we must fight … to the death if necessary.”

Fighting since October has seen significant rebel successes and Aye is optimistic victory will soon allow her to return to a peaceful life. But her optimism is likely misplaced: this is a brutal conflict marked by deep ethnic animosities, shifting allegiances and criminal activity now generating billions of dollars for the junta and its warlord allies. The revolutionary alliance, meanwhile, remains confronted by a well-armed, ruthless and increasingly desperate adversary in a strategic country at risk of being consumed by flaring rivalry between superpowers, which poses the greatest threat to regional peace in half a century.

A Thai soldier patrols in front of the “Burmese Market” near the Thai border at Mae Sot, where traders sell goods from Myanmar for Thai baht. Photo: Huw Watkin/Handout

‘For my comrades’

Aye scans the goods on offer at a makeshift market pressed hard against coiled ribbons of sharpened steel that mark this part of the border between Myawaddy and Mae Sot, and across which traders sell cheap smokes and alcohol, dried seafood, and items of clothing. It is a surreal scene, with Thai soldiers deployed on their side of the frontier generally ignoring traders who routinely slip through gaps in the razor wire to exchange goods for highly prized Thai currency.

Aye haggles an acceptable price for packets of cheroots: finger-thick, filter-less cigars that are a powerful reminder of home. “For my comrades,” she says en route to a small frontier village nearby, as clouds of dust are barely suppressed by a sprinkling of early wet season rain that would usually signal a lull in the fighting across the border. But ambushes and skirmishes continued last month as the rebels resisted junta attempts to reopen Asia Highway 1, which pushes deeper into Myanmar from Myawaddy through the nearby Dawna Range.

A group of men who are set to return to combat soon sit on the veranda of a ramshackle bungalow savouring Aye’s cheroots in the presence of “Teacher”, a small man with the body of a kickboxer. Teacher has been a soldier with the Karen National Liberation Army (KLNA) for 12 years, fighting the Tatmadaw since he was 20. He has trained this group of “commandos”, all of whom hail from the urban centres of Myanmar’s lowlands.

Thai troops deployed below a bridge on the Thai-Myanmar border at Mae Sot. Photo: Huw Watkin/Handout

Formerly a driver, 34-year-old Myo has been with the KLNA for two years. He gingerly massages his right thigh, where a still-healing 10cm shrapnel wound from a recent battle for Myawaddy is clearly visible. Another fragment smashed the mobile phone in a pouch covering his heart, likely saving his life. Myo’s “brother” Zayer, a 33-year-old former sales executive, has been with the KLNA for 2 1/2 years and has fought in a number of battles, including the assault on Myawaddy in which a close friend was killed. “He was shot in the chest. I carried him for 20 minutes to a safer place, but then he died.”

Zayer’s friend sacrificed his life in vain. The KLNA later surrendered its gains in Myawaddy to another armed group, the Karen Border Guard Force. Renamed the Karen National Army earlier this year, the KBGF/KNA has close links to the Tatmadaw, a well-documented history of human rights abuses, and deep involvement in transnational organised crime.

Teacher says the KLNA withdrew after the Tatmadaw threatened to “bomb Myawaddy flat”. But research group Justice for Myanmar said in a May report that the KBGF/KNA supported besieged junta troops to protect its extensive criminal business interests. Researchers identified the group’s leader as 54-year-old warlord San Myint – also known as Chit Thu – a former member of the Karen National Army and thereafter a leader of a splinter group integrated into the Tatmadaw as the KBGF in 2010.

A casino, online gaming server centre and “fraud factory” behind a high fence on the Myanmar side of the Moei River, north of Myawaddy. Photo: Huw Watkin/Handout
Justice for Myanmar says San Myint’s allegiance to the junta was rewarded with dominion over multiple criminal interests that include part-ownership of Yatai New City – one of several casinos, online gaming and cyber scam centres operating just over the narrow Moei River that separates Myanmar’s Kayin state from Thailand. Supplied with power and communications from Thai territory, Yatai New City also has a shopfront in Mae Sot’s airport that incongruously sells boxes of tea.

According to a May report by the United States Institute of Peace, the construction of Yatai New City was initiated by She Zhijiang, a Chinese businessman and now Cambodian citizen whose Yatai International Holdings is registered in Hong Kong. The institute says Yatai New City is linked through China-based transnational gangs to similar operations in Laos and Cambodia, additional criminal activities throughout Southeast Asia and a growing presence in the Pacific region.

Jason Tower, the institute’s Myanmar country director, describes their “fraud factories” as heavily guarded prisons holding thousands of people from some 60 countries deceived by promises of good pay and conditions and coerced into online seduce-and-betray “pig butchering” scams. Survivors say the uncooperative and those who attempt to escape are beaten, tortured and murdered.

The institute estimates that pig butchering scams conducted from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos netted close to US$40 billion last year, US$15 billion of which was generated in Myanmar. “These criminal activities are now a significant threat to international peace and security,” Tower said. “Infiltration by these gangs of corrupt local elites is rapidly creating the most powerful criminal network of the modern era.”

The Moei River beneath a bridge at the Thai-Myanmar border. The river marks the official border between the two countries. Photo: Huw Watkin/Handout

World’s most violent conflict

Online scams and the large-scale manufacture of methamphetamine, ketamine and heroin are now perpetuating the chaos in Myanmar, which the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project conservatively estimates has claimed 50,000 lives since the 2021 coup. It describes Myanmar’s civil war as the world’s most “fragmented and violent” conflict. The United Nations calculates it has made 3 million people homeless.

Tower says recent military setbacks have created extreme tensions within the Tatmadaw. “I hear about fistfights at the colonel level over who is going to deliver the bad news about losses to more senior commanders. That happened [recently] in Rakhine state … two senior officers literally punched themselves into hospital.”

All police, border guards and soldiers in eight regional commands have reportedly been assigned to full-time combat roles to replace battle casualties and desertions. Lwin, a 34-year-old former army officer who late last year fled to Mae Sot says more than 15,000 junta soldiers have defected. “Many are motivated to fight only when they are high on methamphetamine.”

Members of the Karen National Liberation Army and People’s Defence Force examine two Myanmar soldiers after they captured an army outpost in Myawaddy township, Kayin state. Photo: AP

The regime has reportedly sentenced three generals to death and three more to lengthy jail terms after military defeats in Myanmar’s northeast. Another is said to have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to crush Operation 1027. The offensive, launched across the country’s north in October, kicked off a series of subsequent military victories for the rebels.

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, an international advisory group, says rebel forces now control swathes of territory along Myanmar’s land borders. Eyewitnesses report government installations in the country’s economic hub being protected by sandbag bunkers and assassinations of security personnel and local officials have become routine.

Deeply divided Asean

Many countries including fellow Asean members Laos, Cambodia and Thailand continue to treat the junta as Myanmar’s legitimate government. Michael Vatikiotis, author of Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, says those governments have undermined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ initiatives to end the conflict. “Asean is deeply divided over Myanmar: its mainland states value the integrity and security of the state over political reform, while the more democratic maritime member states … regard military rule as unacceptable.”

Vatikiotis says the junta – formally known as the State Administration Council (SAC) – has shown no commitment to the Asean’s “Five Point Consensus” towards resolving the conflict at a time when the bloc is increasingly divided by the escalating rivalry between China and the West.

A Thai soldier looks on as a boy climbs across a barrier that marks the Thai-Myanmar frontier between Mae Sot and the town of Myawaddy in Myanmar’s Kayin state. Photo: Luke Hunt/Handout

Sharing a 2,000km border with Myanmar, China is focused on its neighbour’s natural resources and ensuring access to the Indian Ocean, thus bypassing Southeast Asia’s maritime chokepoints. Observers suggest Beijing will remain pragmatic in its relations with Myanmar’s warring parties, seeking stability on its border and in regions where it has economic and strategic interests but manipulating conflict in others that provide leverage over the SAC and frustrate any intensifying Western interests in Myanmar.

In a recently published report by Australia’s Lowy Institute, Morten Pedersen, a former Myanmar analyst with the International Crisis Group, outlined several possible courses the conflict might take, including the rebel alliance seizing SAC strongholds in Myanmar’s lowlands. But he observed that this would require intense combat in populated areas surrounded by open terrain where the Tatmadaw could deploy its superior weapons and disrupt rebel supply lines. Casualties would likely be catastrophic.

Pedersen also suggested the conflict could simmer along amid ceasefires and shifting alliances, or that the junta might even collapse through a “coup-within-a-coup”. But Tower says optimism the conflict will end soon with minimal further bloodshed is likely wishful thinking.

“At this stage the generals have everything to lose. Right now I think this is going to be a fight to the death.”