Myanmar’s military has shown itself to be a brutal force, meting out violence against the civilians it is meant to protect amid a popular rebellion against its Feb. 1 coup. The powerful Tatmadaw, as it is called in Burmese, has steadily escalated the violence directed at protesters, bystanders, and ordinary citizens, with indiscriminate shootings, shakedowns, break-ins, beatings and arbitrary arrests.
Some of the rebel armies that have fought Myanmar forces to defend their ethnic groups and territory have denounced the military and its bloody crackdown on protesters. The Three Brotherhood Alliance of rebel groups — the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — issued a statement at the end of March condemning the crackdowns and saying that it would support and cooperate with those who are waging the Spring Revolution, as the civil resistance movement is called locally, if the violence did not stop.
Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst who writes for IHS-Jane’s security and defense publications, spoke with Ye Kaung Myint Maung of RFA’s Myanmar Service about the Myanmar military’s manpower and firepower and the possibility of ethnic armed groups forming a federal army as a solution to the current crisis. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: How do you evaluate the Myanmar military’s strength and level of professionalism?
Anthony Davis: The Myanmar military is definitely one of the most powerful militaries in ASEAN in the Southeast Asian region. The army alone is at least 350,000 men, and then there is also the air force and the navy, which have both gone through a recent process of modernization. The Tatmadaw is a capable, professional, and strong military force. There is no question about that. I mean professional in a purely military sense — not professional in terms of their relationship with the people they are supposed to be defending.
RFA: How does the strength of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups compare to that of the Tatmadaw, especially the four that comprise the Northern Alliance (Kachin Independence Army, AA, TNLA, and MNDAA)?
Anthony Davis: Compared to the military, the four members of the Northern Alliance, and if you include the Shan State Army-North/Shan State Progressive Party, are essentially guerilla organizations. They are not conventional modern military forces, so compared to the Tatmadaw, in terms of numbers they are maybe 15,000 or 20,000-strong. But that is a very small number compared to the numbers and the firepower that the Tatmadaw can bring. The Tatmadaw as a reasonably modern military has significant quantities of artillery, armor, mobility, and air power with fixed-wing [aircraft], jet fighters, ground-attack fighters and helicopters, so this is a David and Goliath contest.
RFA: What kinds of weapons do the Northern Alliance groups possess and have used in their battles against the Myanmar military?
Anthony Davis: The Northern Alliance groups use light weaponry — assault rifles, rocket launchers, and mortars in some cases. That’s about it. These are not groups that can bring to bear significant firepower in terms of artillery. They have no air power. They have some 107-mm surface-to-surface rockets which are useful for firing on large targets like airports or army bases from a distance. But that’s about the heaviest weaponry they have. So, these are guerilla forces that can be very effective if we’re talking about cutting roads, cutting communications, and raiding army bases. With hit-and-run warfare, they can be very effective.
RFA: What do you think an armed confrontation between the Northern Alliance and the Tamadaw would look like?
Anthony Davis: The weaponry that they [the Tatmadaw] they would bring to bear against the Northern Alliance is the same weaponry that we’ve already seen in campaigns against the AA in Rakhine state, against the KIA in Kachin state, and against the TNLA in northern Shan state. We’re looking at the same systems here, so we’re looking at infantry supported particularly by air power — by Russian Mi-35 helicopter gunships, new Russian Yak-130 ground attack aircraft, older Chinese ground attack jets which date from the early 1990s, and modern Chinese JF-17 [fighter] jets. So, the Tatmadaw’s main advantage in any real confrontation with the Northern Alliance would be less infantry and much more air power and artillery in the form of 105-mm and 122-mm cannons and multiple-barrel rocket launchers which can be very effective and very deadly against area targets. You put all these things together and we’re talking very serious fire power, so it’s a classic situation of guerilla forces combating a conventional army. The guerillas know the terrain, they can move more easily, and they can strike suddenly and disappear. But the conventional army has the advantage of firepower and air power.
RFA: Hypothetically speaking, if all armed ethnic groups in Myanmar combined their strengths, manpower, and firepower and formed a federal army, what would their military capability be like? Would it be comparable to the Tatmadaw’s force?
Anthony Davis: My best assessment is that if you look at all the ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar, you’re looking maybe at around 75,000 to 78,000 armed troops. Now, on the Tatmadaw side, the army is in total probably around 350,000, so it’s significantly larger, but this is not a numbers game. We’re not talking about a situation where all the ethnic forces are at war at the same time or the Tatmadaw. So, if they were facing operations in many different parts of Myanmar at the same time, if they had to counter the AA in Rakhine at the same time as the Karen National Liberation Army in Kayin state, the TNLA in Shan state, and the KIA in Kachin state, the Tatmadaw would be very thinly stretched. It would be a serious problem for them particularly given what is happening in the cities of Myanmar in the center of the country. The strategy of the Tatmadaw has always been to divide and rule —to have a cease-fire with one group and attack another group. Then to have a cease-fire with that group, and go back and attack the first group. That is their preferred strategy, and usually the ethnic armed forces fall into that trap. Now under the present circumstances, where there is a people’s rebellion in the center of Myanmar, if the ethnic armed organizations were to combine even loosely, not necessarily coordinating their operations closely but in their own areas conducting operations against the Tatmadaw at the same time, that would be a very, very significant problem for the Tatmadaw despite their firepower and despite their numbers.
Reported by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.