15 Minutes To Read

The Career Prospects of Sadists: Attrition, Collapse, and Myanmar’s Military (Part 2)

15 Minutes To Read
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  • In Part 2 of a 2-part series, Bobby Anderson considers the strengths and weaknesses of Myanmar’s military and its chances of collapse.

    Protesters step on a portrait of Min Aung Hlaing during the demonstration in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok. Burmese workers in Thailand gathered in front of the United Nations building to protest against the Myanmar military government following its orders to all Burmese workers abroad to remit at least 25 percent of their foreign currency income to the country's banking system. (Photo by Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

    The Resistance

    Let’s start with the difference between an Ethnic Armed Organization (EAO) and a People’s Defense Force (PDF). Put simply and broadly, a PDF does not seek autonomy within the State, while autonomy within a federal state (but no longer succession) is a key demand of most EAOs.[1] PDFs were created in response to the 2021 coup, while EAOs uniformly pre-dated it. Some but not all PDFs are connected to the NUG, although the term PDF also includes Local Defense Forces (LDFs), which are autonomous.

    Taking PDFs and EAOs as a whole, Andrew Selth estimates ‘up to 250 loosely organised local defence groups, urban resistance cells and EAOs… there could be about 25,000 active members of the various militias and resistance groups, and a further 30,000-35,000 in the relevant EAOs.’ This and other claims arrive with the caveat that no one has an accurate macro-level tally: local organizations are the only ones likely to have accurate estimates, but those too would be limited and area-specific data, which is constantly shifting. Therefore, any tally is out-of-date soon after it occurs.

    Ethnic Armed Organizations

    Regarding EAOs, in 2018, I wrote about the failure of the deposed civilian government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and that relates to Selth’s key use of the word relevant. His count of 30,000-35,000 EAO troops discounts EAOs not currently at war with the junta, most through ceasefires – a situation that predates the current junta’s seizure of power. Let’s briefly consider EAO numbers as a whole, because those with ceasefires still represent potential combatants. The sit-tat’s aforementioned manner of signing and breaking ceasefires is a deadly game, and EAO’s with current ceasefires know that they are not durable. Estimates of pre- and post-coup EAO numbers (i.e. not PDFs) are represented in the table below:

     EAO[2]# (pre-2021 coup)# (as of Feb 2024)Fighting SACOther:
    01Karen National Union/ KNLA5-7,00020,000[3]YMerged as Kawthoolei Armed Forces[4]
    02Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army5,000Y
    03Democratic Karen Buddhist Army1,500 N 
    04KNU-KNLA Peace Council200**N 
    05New Mon State Party800+ 2,000 reserves**N 
    06All Burma Students Democratic Front400**Y 
    07Chin National Front/ Chin National Army20015,000Y 
    08Arakan Liberation Party60-100**N 
    09Pa-O National Liberation Organization400-7001,300[5]YFighting the sit-tat starting 2024.01
    10Restoration Council of Shan State/ Shan State Army South8,0007,000[6]N 
    11Lahu Democratic UnionUnknown**N 

    12United Wa State Army/ Party30,000 + 30k reserves**NFNPCC- ceasefire
    13Kachin Independence Army/ Organization10-15,00020,000[7]YFNPCC
    14Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang)2-3,00010-12,000[8]YThree Brotherhood. Prev. FNPCC- ceasefire
    15National Democratic Alliance Army (Mongla)3,0004,000[9]NFNPCC- ceasefire
    16Shan State Progress Party/ Shan State Army North8,00010,000[10]YFNPCC- ceasefire
    17Ta’ang National Liberation Army6-10,00010-15,000[11]YThree Brotherhood. Prev. FNPCC- ceasefire
    18Arakan Army3-5,00030,000[12]YThree Brotherhood. Prev. FNPCC- ceasefire
    19Karenni National Progressive Party/ Karenni Army6001,500[13]Y 
    20National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang[14]500**N 
    21Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army200-600**NNo evidence of recent clashes
    22Rohingya Solidarity Organizationunknown**Y 
     Total estimated EAO fighters117,560*164,000*  

    * includes reserves.

    ** indicates no known or significant change from pre-coup numbers

    Since the coup, we can only note that EAO numbers have increased. If Ye Myo Hein’s estimates are correct, there is at least a parity between EAO numbers overall and the sit-tat’s human resource capacity. Prior to the October 27 offensive, the disorganization of the resistance was what in part held back faster territorial acquisition and greater sit-tat attrition. The sit-tat, in many ways inept, at least acknowledges the stark fact that it can’t fight the strongest EAOs, and so it continued to play the aforementioned game of musical chair ceasefires. The momentum building against the sit-tat makes this option less attractive for EAOs.

    Back to Selth’s ‘relevant,’ select EAOs falling under the China-backed Federal Political Negotiation and Consultation Committee (FPNCC), deserve particular mention. The FPNCC is a negotiating block created and led by the United Wa State Party (UWSP), which formed out of the remnants of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989. The UWSP for its part has been built by China into the largest, best armed, and most cohesive EAO in the country, and perhaps after the now-defunct Wagner Group and the thoroughly desiccated Islamic State, is now the largest non-state armed group on the Asian continent.

    The Three Brotherhood’s AA, MNDAA, and TNLA are under the FPNCC umbrella, as are the National Democratic Alliance Army (Mongla), and the Shan State Army North (linked to the Shan State Progress Party). Unlike many an EAO alliance, the FPNCC proved more durable, and at present it contains the absolute majority of EAO fighters countrywide.

    The Chin National Front’s (CNF) armed forces are allied with several newly formed Chinland Defense Forces – which are PDF groups based in Chin State. Their exponential post-coup growth is noteworthy and harken back to the CNF’s bloody and unexpected arrival on the resistance scene in the mid-1990s after they were trained and armed by the KIA.

    An outlier in the EAO continuum is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Other Rohingya groups, such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, and other EAOs, regard it as a terrorist organization, with links to other Jihadist groups worldwide, although ARSA denies this. ARSA have also been implicated in massacres in Rakhine. They are mostly involved in intra-Rohingya political struggles in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and are more actively engaged in killing Rohingya alternates to their authority there, and occasional Bangladeshi security officials, than killing sit-tat in Rakhine. Rohingya people, as far as the author is aware, have no representation in PDFs, nor are they part of any resistance not wholly concerned with their own specific ethno-religious-territorial concerns. This is despite some outreach on the part of NUG to build bridges with Rohingya, firstly by actually using the word ‘Rohingya’, in contrast to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, who only referred to them as Bengalis in order to cement the claim that they were recent migrants from Bangladesh. NUG has since acknowledged the violence they were subjected to by the sit-tat, but has hardly acknowledged the structural violence adhered to by the NLD against them. And so NUG’s claims – that it would provide justice, repatriation, and reparation for Rohingya – are yet to be tested.

    People’s Defense Forces

    The most recent PDFs in Myanmar began forming and arming immediately after the 2021 Military coup. However, they have a long and potted history in Myanmar, explained by Jasnea Sarma at the University of Zurich as follows:

    In the past too there used to be such groups. They went by different names like Swan Ar Shin စွမ်းအားရှင်, ပြည်သူ့တဝန် or civilian task force, ရွာတာဝန်ပြည်သူ့စွမ်းအားရှင် or village task force etc) . These groups were driven by self-defence and formed often as a response to circumstance, namely local protection from threats. The post-coup PDFs, often referred to as ပြည်သူ့ကာကွယ်ရေးတပ်မတော် or ပြည်သူ့တပ်မတော်, are a direct response to the coup, all fighting the sit tat, but they do mimic the workings of these older groups. This explains in-part why it’s difficult to clearly understand which PDF is aligned with which group. They are not necessarily always linked to previously elected representatives, although many are. Not all PDFs are tied to NUG. Many are now allied with EAOs, some are standalone, with occasional alliances of convenience. There are many composed mainly of armed university students assisted by EAOs. Some also have church affiliations. What’s important is that they have arms and can maintain a defensive posture and have been extremely important and effective after the 2021 coup. History tells us that if anything, they will keep forming in (and around) Burma, adapting to the needs.
    Jasnea Sarma

    PDFs have been able to mount effective resistance across Bamar areas and have been able to recruit a significant number of fighters, including former soldiers and police officers; as mentioned, many Bamar youth in Sagaing and Magwe who might have joined the sit-tat are in PDFs instead. They have also received weapons from abroad, although most of their firearms originate from actions against the sit-tat or from select EAOs. Local manufacture of firearms also occurs, but the artisanal nature of these operations not only limits their impact, but poses danger to both manufacturer and shooter. Civilian drone conversion is another factor. Regarding numbers, NUG claims 50-100,000 fighters in 259 trained PDF battalions and 401 LDFs. The formal size of a PDF battalion is 200 personnel, but some are up to 500. Hein estimates that PDF personnel numbered 40,000 as of February 2022, with no less than 30,000 LDF personnel. These PDFs are concentrated in the Anyar theatre of Sagaing, Magwe, and Mandalay, where there are at least 15,000 PDF and 20,000 LDF combatants.

    As of November 2022, independent observers speaking with Ye Myo Hein estimated that 30 percent of PDFs/LDFs fell under the command of NUG, 40 percent had some links to NUG, while 30 percent were wholly independent. At the local level, it’s likely that all PDFs have more authority than local NUG representation. They’re armed, after all. However, some PDFs are under the control of NUG (which raised $44 million for its defense ministry alone in its first 14 months), with a clearer integration between the two, rather than the diffuse and grassroots nature of many other PDFs which resemble the franchise nature of many an insurgency.

    However, the PDFs face deep challenges, including a lack of coordinated leadership, limited support from the international community, and even the populations of some areas they control, due to the predatory behavior of select groups. Limited resources are worth highlighting: Min Zaw Oo from the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security estimated to Deutsche Welle that at the beginning of 2022, only 10 percent of PDFs had automatic weapons, although they are now generally better armed. Despite this, we have evidence of local support, of retention in numbers, of the capacity of fighters, all found in the sit-tat body count the PDFs are responsible for.

    Overall, the balance of personnel favors the armed resistance.

    Credibility Issues

    The support EAOs might give to PDFs in particular and the NUG in general is constrained by the lack of credibility the deposed civilian government had with some EAOs. AA chief General Twan Mrat Naing summarized it well: “the NLD government after 1988 promised federalism and they pledged this to the ethnic people, but after they came to power, they didn’t keep the promise. So we have learned the lesson and we are not naive anymore.” The past relationships of many EAOs with the deposed civilian government surely shapes EAO relations with the NUG and PDFs and this issue will come to the forefront in any NUG-EAO victory. Promises of federalism will not be taken at face value.

    International Support for the Sit-tat

    Since the coup, elements of the “international community” have imposed sanctions on the sit-tat and affiliated individuals. The countries and institutions most in support of NUG are peripheral in comparison to the countries which maintain pragmatic relations with the sit-tat. Who cares about Switzerland when you’ve got China? While, as mentioned, sanctions may bite because of the predominance of the US dollar, this is not an insurmountable issue for either the junta or allies who seek alternates to said dollar.

    China and Russia protect the sit-tat from United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) resolutions, and both can offer the veil of legitimacy to any staged elections. India and other Myanmar neighbors must keep their options open with a state they must trade with and absorb refugees from.


    In 2004 the sit-tat began reaching out to “the west”, which was seen as a hedge against China’s hegemony in the region. The situation is now an inverse of the one which led to the removal of Khin Nyunt and his China clique two decades ago. China’s support is crucial to the sit-tat’s survival. However, China’s nuanced approach to the Three Brotherhood Alliance reflects both a loss of patience and a hedging of bets.

    Since the February 2021 coup, China has justified engagement with the sit-tat to both support stability and ensure bilateral relations, although a recent USIP report showed how, with regard to stability, the opposite is occurring, with negative implications for China. China also cites principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Implicitly, Myanmar is firmly within China’s sphere of influence. The notion of a ‘sphere of influence’ was once imagined to be terminally ill by liberal internationalists, but it is both healthy and real, and extends to China’s drug control policy as well as its vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, which binds Myanmar and her eastern neighbors to China, economically and infrastructurally. The bond already exists culturally, in Yunnan in particular.

    China is Myanmar’s predominant economic partner, much to India’s consternation (see below), and has invested heavily in Myanmar’s energy sector, infrastructure development, and natural resource extraction, providing a much-needed source of economic support for the country, both under the civilian government and the latest junta. Myanmar, however, has a considerable amount of authority in the relationship. Key Chinese investments include the Kyaukphyu deep sea port, power plant, and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which will connect Kyaukphyu and Yunnan via pipeline and reduce China’s reliance on fuel shipments through the Straits of Malacca; the Mee Lin Gyaing natural gas power plant in Ayeyarwady; and numerous others. This is imperial thinking of a scale not comprehensible to many a government, especially ones who only see foreign relations through the prism of their own domestic elections, and still others who automatically discount the effectiveness of state-controlled enterprises in favor of the sacraments of a ‘free market’.

    This relationship has not always been so smooth. Myanmar and China cooperated in the subjugation of Chinese Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) forces which had fled Yunnan and established themselves in Shan in the late 1940s, with a delusion that they would one day re-invade with the support of the CIA. Those wash-outs were a theoretical threat to the China’s ruling communists, entirely overblown. The dregs of the GMD in Shan, unlike the sit-tat, was an institution entirely hollowed out by corruption, and was generally only interested in making money. China-Myanmar cooperation was, at the time, an aberration. During the Cold War, Myanmar considered China both rival and threat. After the dictator Ne Win’s expulsion of large numbers of ethnic Chinese in the late 1960s, China increased support to Communist Party of Buma (CPB) forces in Bago Yoma, just north of Yangon, while Red Guard ‘volunteers’ supporting the CPB invaded Northern Shan in 1968. Reconciliation began after the death of Mao and Deng Xiaoping’s emergence as China’s paramount leader in the late 1970s. The CPB’s vocal support for the ’Gang of Four’, a faction of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials whom Deng had purged, led Deng’s support to the CPB to decline. The removal of the sit-tat’s ‘China clique’ in 2004 did not end Chinese overtures and investments, although the derailing of the Myitsone dam project in 2011 was a further hiccup in the relationship. Since the coup, China has not only blocked efforts to impose sanctions on Myanmar but has increased its own investments.

    Even before the recent offensive, China hedged its bets vis a vis the sit-tat, and the civilian government they deposed, with EAOs, though the FPNCC; a coalition of EAOs that were by and large excluded from peace process before the coup. China’s facilitation with these EAOs led to ceasefires which allowed the overextended sit-tat to reallocate overextended forces elsewhere. China also froze out the western powers that sought to engage FPNCC, leaving those westerners – “conflict” and “peacebuilding” experts and the like – to content themselves with NCA signatories, the KNU and NMSP especially. China’s relations with FPNCC members continued after the latest offensive; indeed, it is likely that the Three Brotherhood Alliance alerted China of its intentions in advance. China’s continued subtle approach toward both the sit-tat and the alliance reflects their stated policy of non-interference, but it also likely reflects a loss of patience in the sit-tat’s sheltering of the operations of ethnic Chinese criminal gangs in Shan and elsewhere. The October 27 Offensive has resulted in the capture and extradition of numerous of these criminals to China, and China has also mediated temporary ceasefires between the warring parties which will likely peter out soon due to the sit-tat’s incorrigible belief in its own battlefield genius, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    China also extends the occasional fig leaf to NUG, while explicitly stating their displeasure at the NUG’s continued relations with Western powers. This seems mostly for show. NUG, for its part, has issued a policy paper on China which includes support for the ‘One China’ policy. If NUG were to emerge victorious in the struggle against the sit-tat, China would find itself temporarily sidelined, because despite its insistence on non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, its dealings with the current sit-tat is implicitly a bet on its success. However, this sidelining would be temporary. China simply has too much authority—economic, political, and otherwise.


    The sit-tat hedges its China bets with Russia. During the Cold War, Myanmar was closely aligned with the Soviet Union—the USSR even built the Inya Lake Hotel following Nikita Khrushchev’s 1958 visit—and Russia retains much of that goodwill. This remains, however, a relationship of convenience: the sit-tat needs arms, and Russia needs cash. Russia is currently the sit-tat’s largest arms supplier, and this includes artillery and fighter jets. This cooperation extends to tourism, trade, and nuclear energy. Russia also blocks UNSC attempts to sanction the sit-tat. Russia’s support to development of nuclear energy in Myanmar is of particular note: the sit-tat claims that such development is peaceful. However, surely Min Aung Hlaing is following the example of Kim Jong Un and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), just as Kim learned from what happened to Moammar Qaddafi in Libya. Weapons of mass destruction are protective amulets westerners also believe in.


    India’s position toward the sit-tat and the February 2021 coup has been aptly described as ‘fractured between words and deeds’ –  sweet diplomatic words about upkeeping democracy, and deeds reflecting an extremely short-sighted military, political, and economic support for the junta, as well as a reluctance to understand the important role of other resistance actors. India tries to maintain a positive relationship with whoever happens to be running Myanmar, and the reason is a) China, and b) security in Northeastern India, including counterinsurgency along the long and porous border with Myanmar. This border security also involves China, which regards Northeastern India’s Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet. India’s current policy dates back to at least 1988. Like China, India justifies this engagement with the principle of non-interference and the need for stability. During the brief democratic transition, it maintained a balance in its relations with the sit-tat and the civilian government, with the aim of promoting its strategic interests in the region, including security, energy, and connectivity. India has reverted to its pre-democratic stance, maintaining positive relations with the current junta to the extent that the Modi government has downplayed junta bombs erroneously falling into Indian territory and return soldiers safely back to Myanmar who escape to safe Indian army/paramilitary controlled areas. Myanmar is an important partner for India’s ‘Act East’ policy, which aims to deepen India’s ties with Southeast Asia and strengthen its position as a regional power. It is seen as key to India’s energy security, with several major projects underway, including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project which connects Sittwe and NE India, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway; India’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The sit-tat’s attitude toward India is more transactional. They look the other way while Indian Naga, Meitei, Mizo and other insurgents to use Myanmar as a base. The sit-tat likely see the presence of these foreign insurgents as useful bargaining chips in any negotations with Indian authorities. The insurgents pay for the privilege in the form of protection fees, and they purchase weapons and supplies from local sit-tat as well.[15]

    Other neighbors are less, but still, important: Thailand has maintained a pragmatic relationship with the powers that be in Myanmar since the departure of the Raj. Bangladesh, despite the burden of the expelled Rohingya, and delays to their repatriation, does likewise. Near neighbors have had to be more serious than the utopian foreign policies of distant states.

    Short-term predictions

    Who’d have known? That three years on this fight would continue. That the Bamars would lead it. That some EAOs would finally, meaningfully, join forces, not only with one another, but with PDFs. That the sit-tat would shrink in the face of it.

    What we’ve learned firstly is that the sit-tat is an ineffective and inefficient war-making enterprise. They draw from the same limited toolbox across juntas and acronyms; they don’t seem to have any new ideas, other than conscription. And so, while they won’t likely collapse anytime soon, they will continue to weaken and bleed. We will see more defections, more forced conscription, and ever less enthusiasm for the fight. We may even see foreign support for the sit-tat in the form of foreign fighters, namely Russian military, although the parameters of this limit the extent of it: firstly, sit-tat ego needs to be overcome; second, China needs to approve. Such foreigners would be labelled ‘advisors’, and the resistance would have no small fun in killing them.

    The sit-tat’s brutality will increase within an ever-shrinking space. We can anticipate a further revamping of the sit-tat’s ‘Four Cuts’ (လေးဖြတ် ဗျူဟာမှာ/ ဖြတ်လေးဖြတ်) counterinsurgency strategy, first used in the 1960s in the Bago Yoma – an area that remains depopulated to the present day. Four Cuts aims to deny food, funds, intelligence and recruits to enemies of the state, and involves large-scale detentions, population transfers, and the inevitable killings. This is already happening, especially in order to secure transport routes, and we can anticipate more systematic actions in the Bamar heartlands of Sagaing and Magwe in particular, where the sit-tat will attempt to depopulate inconvenient areas whose populations they cannot adequately control.

    Given attrition rates and growing emphasis on less reliable militias, in addition to growing financial shortfalls, we can anticipate the sit-tat’s further loss of territory, with the junta essentially surrendering remaining tracts of Chin, Kayah, Northern Shan, and Rakhine in particular. The same will happen in Bamar areas in which Four Cuts cannot be effectively implemented; they will fall back to flatlands distinguished by all-weather roads, and EAO and to a lesser extent PDF territories will expand in response. Personnel attrition will lead to a further reliance on air power, which in turn leads to more reliance on Russia for planes, parts, and training. Areas of the country controlled by the Three Brotherhood Alliance and other members of the FPNCC which have ceasefires with the junta will continue to expand and assert sovereignty. So will independent-minded BGFs and criminal gangs. The oft-claimed fiction that Myanmar is a state will become ever more untenable.

    Ultimately, we will witness a desiccated sit-tat ruling a desiccated Bamar space, surrounded by enemies. This will also prove untenable: the international community has no stomach for any new states, and this includes China and Russia. The future Myanmar will be federal by fiat.

    It’s worth returning to the dream of impending collapse: a remote possibility that still cannot be discounted. The degrading of such an institution as the sit-tat occurs at what looks to be a slow pace which suddenly accelerates. If enough officers believe it is going to happen, their own individual decisions will combine to make it happen. What happened to Romania in December of 1989 illustrates such a process. Political wits once said of Romanians that they were like corn mush in that they could be boil forever yet never explode, but they had the strength to boo the dictator in Timisoara, on live television. The regime, at that moment, ended, because it ended in the minds of its enforcers, who shot Ceausescu and his wife and then turned on one another in a brief killing frenzy while re-labelling themselves a democratic opposition. The sit-tat’s implosion would be far bloodier, and that sour-faced major general I ran into in Paletwa in 2019 will be either in front of the firing squad or behind the rifle stock.

    The one thing we can bank on is that the people of Myanmar will continue to suffer.

    Bobby Anderson was an advisor to the Union of Myanmar’s Department of Rural Development prior to the 2021 coup. From 2016 to 2020 he worked and travelled widely in Chin, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, and other areas. He is currently a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy, where he studies the long-term impact of opium eradication and alternative development projects on hill tribe communities.

    (Social media: X and Instagram)

    [1] The exception to this is the All-Burma Student’s Democratic Front which was always counted as an EAO because it was a Burmese anomaly in an otherwise non-Bamar category of revolt. In retrospect it was a PDF.
    [2] Pre-coup fighter estimates courtesy of the now-defunct Myanmar Peace Centre.
    [3] This estimate includes all Karen EAOs. Estimate from Hein, Ye Myo. 2022. One Year On: The Momentum Of Myanmar’s Armed Rebellion. Wilson Center/Tagaung Institute of Political Studies.
    [4] This is not the same group as the Kawthoolei Army.
    [5] This estimate was provided by a local analyst in Southern Shan who wishes to remain nameless.
    [6] This number is likely too high. TNLA/UWSA offensives against the RCSS have whittled down the ranks through deaths and desertions.
    [7] Hein 2022. This estimate includes PDFs under command of the KIA.
    [8] Estimate from David Mathieson, September 2023.
    [9] Ibid.
    [10] Ibid.
    [11] Estimate from https://thediplomat.com/2023/09/the-post-coup-rise-of-myanmars-taang-national-liberation-army/
    [12] Hein 2022.
    [13] Estimate from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/anniversary-08172021184416.html
    [14] This only refers to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang organization present in Myanmar- not the larger corpus of Naga Insurgents on the other side of the Indian border.
    [15] Local officials in Northern Chin and Sagaing described this to the author.

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