by Theo Guzman
The Burmese junta’s decision to extend the state of emergency for another six months on 1 February, two years after the coup, is an indirect admission that it cannot hold elections in a country that is largely beyond the junta’s control. The military junta controls the major cities, but has serious difficulties in the countryside. In September 2022, the civilian shadow government (National Unity Government-NUG) declared that its People’s Defence Forces (POF) and allied ethnic revolutionary organisations (Ethnic Armed Organisation-EAO – or Ethnic Revolutionary Organisation-ERO as the NUG prefers to call them) have effective control over more than half of the country. The junta itself has admitted that it has stable control over 72 of the country’s 330 townships, a super-quarter of Burma’s territory. According to Lnd sources, it has also lost 90 military bases.
The Burmese war is not a low-intensity conflict and the numbers circulating do not give an idea of a reality that deceives even those who travel in the country – that is, in the few areas where movement is permitted. Entry and exit are only allowed by land and stay is restricted to the best-known tourist areas (and often not even all of them). Yangon is an apparently quiet city because it is surrounded by ultra-protected barracks and is difficult to conquer because it is vertical and encircling it is impossible. But if life seems normal in the centre, European diplomatic sources in the capital have confirmed that, in reality, attacks are daily, at least in the suburbs. In the countryside, fighting is a daily occurrence.
According to the ACLED research centre (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), in the period January-June 2022 alone, the war has claimed over 11 thousand victims and more than 6 thousand episodes of violence or protest. Since the beginning of the coup, the death toll, aggregating all data collected by ACLED, would be over 30 thousand. A far cry from the figure provided by the most cited source: the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners ( AAPP), according to which, as of 9 February 2023, the death toll stood at 2,981 ascertained civilian victims. The difference lies in the fact that these are ‘certified’ civilian killings (name, place, date). But it is a number that is certainly by default, since it does not take into account men in uniform, missing persons and non-certifiable killings in a war that, according to the UN, has already produced more than one and a half million displaced persons and 17.6 million people in a state of humanitarian need (almost a third of the population).
The ‘official’ army can count on a number of personnel and fighters on which we have different estimates. Starting from an initial estimate of around 500,000 soldiers in the early 2000s, according to Professor Andrew Selth (Griffith University, Brisbane), author of Burma’s Armed Force and Secrets and Power in Myanmar, at the beginning of 2021 the Burmese army consisted of an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 personnel, which would now be down to just 200-250,000. The operational, combat soldier would be about 100,000, a number also confirmed by other sources, to which must be added about 80,000 members of the national police force, which has about 30 paramilitary security battalions, many of them composed of former soldiers. According to the Lnd, Tatmadaw also has to reckon with more than 12,000 desertions. The numbers are difficult to determine (to the operatives must be added reserve, logistics, administrative, etc.) not only because they are not officially provided, but also because – although Tatmadaw has broadened the criteria for admission into its ranks – the number of those who try to avoid military service is considerable, as we have seen in the testimonies collected in Yangon. As for resistance, in the different states of the Union, practically every region has its own army, whether small or large. An ancient history for which the EaO, the so-called ethnic armies that have always been in conflict with the central government, are much more than mere paramilitary militias although their strength is not comparable, taken individually (there are about twenty of them), to that of the Tatmadaw. Pdf and Eao together would reach between 50 and 60 thousand fighting units.
However, the Tatmadaw can count on an arsenal that has been nourished by a modernisation programme that began in the late 1990s and has since been able to count on many suppliers: China, Russia, India, Israel, Belarus, Ukraine, Singapore, EU countries and South Korea. Of course, many weapon system acquisitions predate the coup, but many customers have remained: China, but above all Russia and its allies (such as Serbia for example). Moscow’s help is indispensable for the management, modernisation and maintenance of the air fleet, something the junta is banking on in an attempt to change the course of the war. Aiming at more air raids – which are constantly increasing – with less manpower on the ground.
This article relies on data by ACLED, ISPI and the author’s own reportage.
Cover image: Shwedagon pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (Unsplash)