Myanmar’s civil war is at a “tipping point” after a series of defeats for the military junta, the head of the Southeast Asian country’s democratic parallel government said this week.
National Unity Government (NUG) acting-president Duwa Lashi La spoke with The Globe and Mail in an exclusive interview from an undisclosed location in Myanmar, where he has been leading the resistance to the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta that seized power in a coup in February, 2021, plunging the country into civil war.
“We are winning,” Mr. Lashi La said. “We firmly believe we will be able to remove the SAC sooner rather than later.”
The junta has been on the back foot for a month now, after an alliance of northern ethnic militias that had previously sat out the war launched a surprise attack on Oct. 27, seizing control of a large part of Shan State, on the border with China. The success of the 10.27 Offensive, as it has become known, has emboldened other anti-junta forces across the country, leading to a wave of assaults and dramatically changing the dynamic of the previously stalemated conflict.
“This is not just happening in the north, but in central Myanmar and the south,” Mr. Lashi La said. “We are all working together to achieve our goal.”
Thet Swe, a spokesman for the SAC, described rebel forces as “terrorists who earn income from drug trafficking.” He said the military had been “caught unawares” by the October offensive but would soon “annihilate the terrorists in co-operation with our neighbouring countries.”
“We have full abilities to fight against the terrorists,” Mr. Thet Swe said. “We believe we will hear good news soon.”
Within Myanmar, state-controlled media have downplayed or ignored the fighting, except to deny some claims made by anti-junta forces, such as the fact that thousands of soldiers have been deployed on the streets of the capital. As the rebel offensive continued this week, Tuesday’s front page of the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar showed junta leader Min Aung Hlaing attending a hot air balloon display.
The NUG was formed by members of the deposed Myanmarese government, many leaders of which – including State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi – remain in junta custody. The NUG has allied itself with a host of ethnic militias that have been fighting the military for decades, promising to build a truly representative federal union after a much-vaunted transition to democracy in the 2010s left the military in ultimate control and set the stage for the 2021 coup.
Mr. Lashi La, an ethnic Kachin, said that since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1947, it has been dominated by the Burmese majority, with a series of constitutions that were “in theory federal but in practice unitary.”
“That’s why the country has been in chaos and civil war” for much of its modern history, he said, adding that the NUG will throw out a 2008 constitution put in place by the military. “We have already completed what is necessary for a transitional constitution. Now it just needs to be approved by the people.”
For that to happen, however, the NUG and its allies will have to do more than push the military back from long-contested border regions. Even since the October offensive was launched, fighting has not reached major cities such as Yangon, Mandalay or the military capital, Naypyidaw. Junta forces have largely retreated, setting the stage for a potential counterattack.
The regime is clearly shaken, however, with Myint Swe, a former general who is now Myanmar’s military-appointed president, warning the country could break apart if the offensives cannot be stopped.
There have been numerous reports – which The Globe cannot independently verify – of junta soldiers surrendering to rebel forces, and some experts doubt the military has the manpower to reinforce across multiple fronts. Once the second-largest army in Southeast Asia, with some 400,000 men, behind only Vietnam, the Myanmar military is now estimated to be around a quarter of that size, though this number does not include some 80,000 paramilitary police officers.
In a recent statement, the NUG and five ethnic resistance groups urged junta forces to switch sides, saying more than 14,000 soldiers and police officers had done so since the 2021 coup. Speaking to CNN this week, Bo Nagar, commander of the Burma National Revolutionary Army, which is fighting the military in Myanmar’s strategically important central regions, said the world was seeing the “beginning of the end” for the junta.
While the military appears to lack the capability to mount a major land operation, it has still been able to target rebel-held regions with devastating air strikes, including against civilian targets. Two ethnic armies in northern Shan State have also said they were targeted with chemical weapons, which the junta has always denied using.
“The use of chemical weapons is banned globally and is a war crime,” the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, a rebel group, said in a statement this month.
The NUG and its allies have long called for international support, including weapons, in their fight against the junta. While multiple Western countries have sanctioned the military and provided humanitarian assistance, so far no materiel has been sent to the NUG or other rebel groups. Meanwhile, the junta has been able to import some US$1-billion worth of arms and raw materials to manufacture weapons since the coup, according to the United Nations.
“As the Myanmar military is losing now, they are using a lot of dirty tricks,” Mr. Lashi La said. “I have been asking the international community to provide us military support – for example, air defence such as MANPADS.”
Man-Portable Air Defence Systems are lightweight anti-aircraft weapons that have proved effective in Ukraine, helping undercut Russia’s air superiority. If military support is impossible for the international community, Mr. Lashi La said, then the “least they can do” is provide technical assistance and early warning response systems to help protect NUG forces and civilian areas from aerial bombardment.
That was something NUG representatives lobbied Canada for during a recent series of high-level meetings in Ottawa, according to presidential spokesman U Kyaw Zaw, who took part in the trip. He praised Canada for its leading role in imposing sanctions against the Myanmar military and engaging with the NUG directly.
Beyond international support for themselves, the NUG hopes recent offensives may further isolate the junta. Rebel groups have seized border crossings with China and India, cutting off significant trade links and sources of funding for the regime and harming ties with its two most important neighbours.
China has called for a ceasefire and this week conducted military drills along its border with Myanmar. Beijing has previously backed the junta, something Mr. Lashi La said was based on an assessment that rebel forces could not defeat the powerful military.
“In the past, we had back channels with China. The signal has always been ‘You will not be able to win,’ ” he said. “Now, they are seeing the country in a different way.”
He said he had less hope of Russia cutting the regime off, given that Myanmar has been an important source of foreign currency for Moscow as it faces its own sanctions for the war in Ukraine. He was also wary of ASEAN, the organization of Southeast Asian states that has been criticized by the NUG and some of its own members for not taking a firmer stand against the junta.
“We request the international community to not totally entrust the affairs of Myanmar to ASEAN,” Mr. Lashi La said. “We want Canada and other Western countries to be involved, to help us enforce the will of the people. This is the right time to end the impunity the Myanmar military has been enjoying and resolve the future of the country as soon as possible.”